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.