BOSTON — Never mind the backlash, that instrument widely used for whipping women back into their place. Forget about the double shift, the glass ceiling and the mommy track.
We here at the Institute for Happily Ever After Living (HEAL) have finally identified the most reactionary implement currently used to undermine equality in modern marriage. This is the small rectangle known as a television remote control. The clicker.
HEALers have spent long months researching this subject. We have visited many homes filled with egalitarian ideals. We have talked to many couples who share child-raising and toilet-bowl cleaning. We have interviewed New Men who ''just do understand'' and New Fathers who have never once in their lives cried helplessly, ''Honey, I think the baby's diaper is wet.''
We must now report that even among the most liberated subset of spouses, somewhere between 84 percent and 93 percent of the remote controls are found in the hands of men. Indeed, it could be said that the clicker has become the last remaining scepter, the last power-wielding symbol of the former male dominion. The Head of the household has taken his last stand as Head of the Household TV.
The average man switches channels approximately eight times more often per quarter hour than would the average woman. She is thus subject to an endless series of mind-numbing television flashcards. We encountered one man, a champion channel-surfer in an extensive cable area, who watched no one station longer than nine seconds. The clicker was named as a co-respondent in his wife's divorce action and her subsequent mental-health claim.
So in hopes of HEALing, our researchers have tried to get to the root of this. One of our number, an urban anthropologist with a background in singles studies, ties it into courtship behavior. Men are playing the field. Women are looking for a commitment.
Men's relationship to television thus mirrors the famous commitment phobia. A man with a remote control cruises the cable world, romantically searching for what lurks just beyond the Rainbow or the Shopping Channel.
A woman, on the other hand, is more willing to give the program on the screen a chance. It just might grow on her. Besides, there's no guarantee the next one will be any better.
Another in our think tank, a linguist, says that the essence of the problem can be found in the language itself. Some words have a particular appeal to men. Remote. Control. Need we say more?
The biologists on our staff, of course, prefer to tie the male compulsion to the old right-brain, left-brain thing. The man with a clicker has the same anatomy as the boy who once clicked in and out of second-grade math class. The cable system with its hundred opportunities has become a smorgasbord for his short attention span. The remote control is the fork.
Our sociologists, however, prefer to blame nurture over nature. Consider a boy raised on a visual diet of sporting events. There is no narrative in these games, but merely a series of brief plays. Click. A girl raised on soap operas? The action is glacial, lingering, emotional. Stay tuned.
None of this however solves the essential dilemma that we wish to HEAL: the visually dysfunctional couple. What to do when you are intimate with a remote-control freak?
There is the old standby recommended by therapists. This is known as taking turns. He gets one hour or night. She the next. There is the compromise. He would click every nine seconds, she every nine minutes. Together they can click every four minutes, twenty-five and one-half seconds.
There is the separate-but-equal solution: two TVs, not two remotes for one TV. (Two remotes mean civil war.) Then there is the ''ditch the problem'' solution. Hide the clicker.
But in the spirit of true HEALing, we ask couples to consider whether the issue is just male chauvinism or television chasm. If he is surfing and she is suffering, it may be because there is nothing worth watching.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.