The Paradox of the Good Marriage

Jonathan Brady, Pool via AP

In my house I’m the boss. My wife is just the decision maker.

-Woody Allen

 The question of power relations in conjugal politics is a particularly thorny one. Power or dominance or authority can never quite be shared equally between two people and especially not between the two halves of a nuptial couple — though the effort to achieve the best possible degree of fairness and division of responsibilities is the seminal secret to a happy and successful marriage. At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that an equation-like symmetry is a plausible or accessible goal. As Robert Browning wrote in “Andrea del Sarto,” “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” We strive for fairness to the extent that it is possible, but it is not entirely graspable this side of the Great Divide, and it is best to acknowledge what is a human truth.


In many marriages I’ve observed, the wives dominate with iron severity or smug assurance, a most disheartening spectacle. I have seen men obsequiously stooped over as they walk beside their unctuous matriarchs. I have watched these beta males grovel for charring a cooking pot. I have heard them apologize for no particular fault in a toadying effort to ingratiate themselves with their master-mistress (“the master-mistress of my passion,” as the Bard puts it in Sonnet 20) and so escape harrowing. A blenny-mouthed pram-pusher is no fitting mate for any sensible woman and a White Knight who has surrendered his manhood to a feminist virago is easily unhorsed. The bond is not connubial but servile.

Similarly, a hectoring bully or overbearing sultan of a husband establishes a mini-dictatorship and provokes the eventual revolt of a too-long abused wife. Browbeating is not authority and an imperious demeanor is not a sign of brave independence. Nor is envy of a wife’s accomplishments a recipe for marital harmony. I knew a painter who could not tolerate his wife’s growing fame as a writer, which eclipsed his own réclame. They stayed together but lived in separate rooms. Such an attitude has always puzzled me. Surely, a man should rejoice in his wife’s talents and triumphs. As the inimitable Woody wisecracked, “For the first year of marriage I had basically a bad attitude. I tended to place my wife underneath a pedestal.


These are obviously occasions of conspicuous power imbalances that almost always eventuate in misery or divorce. Nevertheless, as I’ve argued, I do not believe that absolute equality can ever be attained, nor should it. The sequel would be pure stasis and a violation of nature itself, irrespective of how we may deny the biological fact of hierarchy in all things, from Jordan Peterson’s famous lobsters to the mystical relation between God and the Virgin Mary or Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Indeed, a crustacean psychology also applies to Milton’s war in heaven originating in a question of hierarchy. “Dominance hierarchies are older than trees,” Peterson writes.

The nature of hierarchy in marriage, I suspect, is biologically ordained, as expressed in the ancestral distinction between the spear and the distaff. The Old English word for man is hläford (“lord”) and for lady, hläefdige (bread). The idea was that men rely on their strength and hunt for the larder. Women are concerned with nourishment and cook for the family. The male is, so to speak, the breadwinner; the female is the breadbaker. This is obviously not always the case but it remains a hoary cultural archetype — a distinction that is now being erased and overthrown, to nobody’s benefit. The failure of masculinity, of the spirit of captaincy or guardianship, or, to put it differently, the misalignment of traditional gender roles, is one of the major factors behind the increasingly common scourge of discord in married life.


When the spear/distaff relation is reversed, a rift will open up between partners. One thinks of the host in The Monk’s Prologue in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” whose hot-tempered wife, fuming at her husband, cries:

By corpus bones! Come, let me have your knife,

And you shall take my distaff and go spin!

His reaction bodes ill, for his manhood has been compromised:

This is my life, unless I choose to fight;

And through the door anon I must take flight,

Or else I’m lost…

Leaving the ashen hearth is certainly preferable to the abjection of the hymeneal wimps mentioned above.

So how does one come to terms with the conundrum of marriage and the proper latticing of that most intimate of relationships? Perhaps the model of the American political system, or rather, a simplified version of that model, has something to tell us. There are obviously only two branches in this case, not three. The judicial is implicit, but the relation that counts in context is between the legislative and the executive. 

In a separated system with shared powers, Congress presents a bill to the president, who either signs it into law or exercises his veto. But there’s evidently more to the process. As per the Constitution, the president requires the assent of Congress for all significant legislation regarding finance, official appointments, and international treaties. But the president can also govern by executive action should an urgent need arise—a privilege that should not be taken lightly. In this analogy, the wife is the Congress and the husband is the president. The spousal paradigm is reciprocal, vetted by both parties and grounded in mutual acceptance. The wife cedes a certain authority to the husband, but his authority ceases to exist if it is not granted to him. This is the paradox of the good marriage.


Plainly, the political system and delegation of administrative powers are far more complex than the structure of matrimony. But the Constitutional template appears to work extremely well. Power is shared but it is not exactly equivalent. The president has a slight edge, which is the fruit of a concession. Congress, however, is the source and essence. The principle of advice and consent forms the bedrock of democratic politics as it does the root and premise of consensual marriage.

The American political model, as envisioned by the founding fathers, provides the clue to what constitutes not only a viable nation but a good marriage as well: a presidential husband supported by the power of a Congressional wife.


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