I recently sat down with Nate and Angilyn Bagley to discuss issues relating to unrighteous dominion in marriages. This phrase comes from the scripture in Doctrine & Covenants 121:9 that reads, “[w]e have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority…they will begin to recognize unrighteous dominion.”
Influence By Fear or By Love
As a therapist who has worked with Mormon clients for over twenty years, I’ve seen unrighteous dominion manifested in a variety of ways: making major decisions (such as financial or employment) or in any other way being controlling and manipulative. Unrighteous dominion can extend to children as well; when a mother or a father using shame or intimidation with their children, this is another example. And any type of abuse certainly falls under the category of unrighteous dominion.
We are certainly meant to influence and lovingly persuade our spouse and children, but the manner in which we do it is key. If you are influencing by love and connection, you are acting in accordance with God’s ways, but if you are using fear to try to control someone, you are exercising unrighteous dominion. And while we typically think of this as a sin that only men commit, women can also be forceful or manipulative in placing their expectations in front of anyone else’s.
What Does It Mean To “Preside”?
The LDS Proclamation on the Family states that “fathers are to preside” while also stating that “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Surely, this can cause some confusion. If men and women are equal, how can it be that fathers preside? Nate did some research beforehand and discovered that “preside” comes from the Latin term praesidere, which literally means “to stand guard,” or to protect. This makes so much sense! While both men and women protect their families, historically, men have provided the protection from violence or physical threats as the first line of defense. It’s a leadership position that doesn’t imply his responsibility is more important than anyone else’s. When we speak about someone presiding, we would do well to remember the original definition of this term.
If You’re Experiencing Unrighteous Dominion
Sometimes this dominance hierarchy is so ingrained that we don’t even realize we’re in an unequal relationship. If you find that your spouse is consistently putting you down, disrespecting you, or leaving you out of major decisions, it’s time to talk about it. I like John Gottman’s suggestion of employing a “soft start,” or not charging someone in the heat of the moment. Try saying something like, “hey, there’s something bothering me, and I’d really like to talk about it.” Then, instead of making grand accusations or unrighteous dominion, express specific instances that hurt you. “I felt really disappointed when you bought a new car without me. This is our family, and we need to make big financial decisions together.”
But what if you’re the one who is in some way exercising unrighteous dominion? I encourage you to consider what your expectations are. We all have expectations, and they are not a bad thing unless they put an undue burden on our relationships. What are your expectations about parenting? Sex? The house? Finances? I am not suggesting that you abandon your own expectations or desires for your marriage, but part of being in a couple is balancing your expectations with that of your spouse. Do you always have to be right? Do you view your partner as a means of giving you what you want or as another unique person? It’s not always easy to take a good look at ourselves, but think about how you can change if you’re part of the problem.
Listen to the full interview here.