Do’s and Don’ts of Husband-Wife Collaboration

Working with one’s spouse on a creative project is a dream come true. What could be more delightful than pursuing an artistic or intellectual goal with the person you love most? My husband and I edit one another’s writing, occasionally co-write articles, and record music together, and we’ve never had so much fun. But precisely because the stakes are high, a spousal collaboration can be an emotional minefield.

Well-known husband-wife pairings that come immediately to mind include the poetic symbiosis between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, or the rich political and historiographic sympathy between Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, or the famously tense and problematic relation between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. There are many others, of course. Among our acquaintances, one aesthetic pair is constantly bickering and living in different parts of the house; another couple underwent a vicious and sanguinary divorce.

The problems are easy to discern. One’s creative side is often different from, even diametrically opposed to, one’s domestic side. Where the ideal domestic partner is cheerful, attentive to the other, generous with praise, humble about achievements, a stranger to self-pity, quick to forgive and forget, and resolutely non-morbid, one’s creative self is often brooding, temperamental, susceptible to gloom, full of self-doubt, resentful of criticism, stubborn, and dedicated, to the point of monomania, to the artistic vision.

To reveal the latter self to one’s spouse, not only in moments but for extended periods, risks domestic discord; alternatively, seeing that self in one’s spouse may be disconcerting.

Of course, the fact that a husband and wife collaborate softens the sharp edges of artistic hubris. But not entirely. There comes the moment when one must say to one’s beloved, “I don’t think that sentence (which you have slaved over for hours) belongs here,” or some such refusal of what the other sees as gold. Similarly, one’s own brilliant inspirations may fall under the slash of the unpitying red pencil. In such cases, the wounds are both artistic and personal, and hard to bear even in—or especially in—the most intimate relationship.

Just recently, a minor tiff over a missing beat in a new song we were rehearsing became a heated disagreement. David thought the metrical irregularity worked well, giving the verse an appropriate pizzazz and energy that a more conventional arrangement would lack. As the songwriter and primary musician, he was insistent. He had yielded in other cases, he reminded me, but in this case knew that his way worked.

I was equally determined. It didn’t work. It was jarring, everyone would notice it, it threw off the beat of an entire measure. It would be disruptive to all who hear music properly. Oh come on, David demurred. Surely listeners can accept *one* unorthodox bar of music? Didn’t it sound better his way? It did not, I countered—it was wrong, amateur, inept.

We’re not going to fight about this, he said, aiming for a lighter mood. But it was too late. We already were fighting about it. I offered to try it his way; he offered to try it my way. But we were both offended by the other’s apparent failure of respect—on David’s part, of respect for my better understanding of musical structure; on my part, for David’s priority as artist. Everything got mixed up in the fight: my concern for our credibility as performers, David’s impatience with arbitrary rules, our mutual need for respect.

I’ve just read this to David, as is our practice. “Can you leaven the story somewhat?” is his advice. “You’ve made it sound like it was a drag-out knuckle-duster. It wasn’t so serious.” He reminds me that “a distressful episode often has a way of becoming an amusing anecdote.”

It’s true. Our tempers flare over artistic disagreements (on one occasions David was on the verge of walking out of our apartment when I would not concede a minor point about an academic article), but the tensions dissipate quickly once the point of difficulty has been resolved, leaving no lasting hurt or bitterness. Most of the time, we can barely remember what we quarreled about.

That’s why the #1 rule of working together is remembering the big picture: the marriage comes first. No matter how strong passions of resentment or artistic ownership may feel in the moment, they are always, after the fact, dwarfed by the keen satisfactions of the collaborative venture. It’s best not to let artistic pride overrule the pleasures that are the keynotes of true partnership.

P.S. David has just reminded me that he is right most of the time. I’ve just reached for the rolling pin.