Stephen Jay Gould, marriage counselor

Kevin and I live happily together, and I put it down to the fact that we agree that a spouse should be trustworthy, considerate, and entertaining, and we both exert ourselves to be that kind of spouse. We do, however, have one deep-seated difference, not so much of opinion, but of temperament: Kevin solves problems once and for all, while I’m makeshift through and through.

Take the leaky refrigerator we had in New York. As soon as we discovered the problem, Kevin began looking into bigger, better refrigerators, while I just put a bowl on the top shelf to catch the drips. The leak got worse, and Kevin suggested that, since we were replacing the refrigerator, perhaps we should remodel the kitchen. I got a bigger bowl.

Likewise, earlier this spring, we were considering building a greenhouse. Kevin started looking at designs with concrete slab foundations and industrial-strength metal frames. I thought we could rig something up with chopsticks and Saran wrap, and maybe some duct tape.

I believe this difference has a strong genetic component.  In part, this is because I believe everything has a strong genetic component, but it is also because my mother, in this regard, is just like me.  Possibly worse. Take, for example, the mailbox incident.

I grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, a town about 80 miles north of New York City, on the Hudson. We lived in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, in a raised ranch with four bedrooms and a two-car garage, on a quarter acre with a lawn, driveway, and mailbox.

We were the official neighborhood weirdos, a designation I thought a little unfair given that the Clarks, right across the street from us, let their grass grow waist-high and kept their ten children locked indoors. But I guess their isolation kept them under the radar, and it was our family that was the target of occasional neighborhood vandalism.

When the top of our mailbox loosened enough so it could be detached from its post, our rather unimaginative neighborhood vandals started to make a habit of detaching it, and depositing it somewhere nearby, where we would eventually find and recover it.

Eventually, the post came loose from its concrete mooring, and you could lift the whole assembly right out of its hole, and the day the entire thing disappeared, my mother decided she’d had enough. After we found the mailbox in a neighbor’s yard and brought it home, she didn’t put it back in its hole. She put it in the garage.

If Kevin had lived with us then, he would undoubtedly have gotten a new mailbox, poured a new concrete anchorage, and installed it in such a way that, come Armageddon, it would be the last mailbox standing. What my mother did was to put the mailbox out every morning and then take it in with the mail.

This wasn’t a terrible system, except for the mornings when we didn’t get the mailbox out in time. On those days, we would hear the mailman approaching, dash down to the garage, and then run out to the end of the driveway carrying the mailbox. There were mornings when we didn’t even have to put the thing in its hole – we just held it out to the mailman, and then brought it back to the garage once he put the mail in.

My affinity for such solutions – let’s call it the mailbox gene – is coming into play as we build our chicken coop. Kevin has plans for a coop for all time, a veritable chicken Parthenon, encased in a covered run furnished with all conceivable chicken luxuries, from fresh pine chips to a double-hulled waterer. I, on the other hand, keep thinking about that refrigerator box in the garage.

When my mailbox gene crosses Kevin’s Parthenon gene, we often finesse the issue by invoking one of the bedrock principles of successful marriage: non-overlapping magisteria.

The term was coined by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, in an essay about reconciling science and religion. In it, he made the case that science and religion didn’t need to be reconciled, because each covers territory outside the domain of the other – i.e. non-overlapping magisteria. (I won’t comment on Gould’s theory here because it is beyond Starving’s purview, but if you meet me at a party, don’t get me started.) “Magisterium” is most often used to mean the teaching authority of the church (from the Latin magister, or teacher), but it can also mean the office of a person in charge of something, and that is the sense in which I use it.

Every marriage has its magisteria, and it’s better for all parties if some of them are non-overlapping. If, for example, one spouse – let’s go out on a limb and say it’s the woman – stays home, keeps house, and raises children while the other goes to work and makes money, you have large, well-defined non-overlapping magisteria. When both parties are amenable to such an arrangement, I think it has significant advantages.

Most modern marriages have less clearly defined magisteria. Kevin and I both work, and we work together to keep our household running. Even so, it shakes out so that some jobs are exclusively mine, to do as I see fit, while others are his. I do the laundry. He string-trims the grass. I am Vice President of Cat Puke Stain Removal, while Kevin is Director of Chainsaw Acquisition. Our different temperaments make themselves known in these jobs. Our clothes are indifferently laundered, but we have a kick-ass Husqvarna.

Non-overlapping magisteria do an end-run around potential causes of friction, but they are sometimes hard to maintain because they require one party or the other to butt out.

Butting out is not my long suit. Which brings us back to the chicken coop.

I know that Kevin’s philosophy, born of his Parthenon gene, is the better way to go for our chicken coop. For starters, we have to protect the flock from predators, and the chewing-gum-and-sealing-wax approach isn’t going to stand up to a coyote or a raccoon. Beyond that, though, we’d like to have the option of keeping chickens for many years, and if a coop is going to withstand weather and the wear and tear of eight sharp-taloned, pointy-beaked chickens, it needs to be something substantial. Besides, Kevin has much more experience building things, and it made a great deal of sense to let this be his job.

That is what I was determined to do, knowing that, in the long run, I would be very happy with our chicken Parthenon. But my mailbox gene would not be quelled, and I couldn’t help myself. I trespassed on his magisterium. Maybe it could be six feet tall instead of eight, I suggested. Or maybe we could use fiberglass as the roof of the run. Wouldn’t three nest boxes be plenty?

I’d like to think I did it because I believed that the potential improvement my ideas could bring outweighed the disadvantage of violating the boundary of his domain – after all, there are situations where the thoughtful input of both of us yields better results than either of us could achieve independently. The reality, though, is that I did it because butting out is not my long suit.

Kevin, to his infinite credit, didn’t say, “Butt out of my magisterium,” but instead gave my suggestions due consideration – he even adopted one or two. If this were Kevin’s subtle strategy for getting my buy-in for the Parthenon, he couldn’t have used a better one; there’s nothing like having skin in the game to commit you to a project. But I don’t think that’s what was going on. It’s just that he thinks that, as a spouse, I’m trustworthy, considerate, and entertaining, so he’s willing to give me a lot of leeway in other departments. Like the butting in department.

Now that I’m fully committed to our coop, I find myself designing the façade in my head. I’m thinking the columns should be Corinthian, but if Kevin wants Doric, I’m fine with that.

7 people are having a conversation about “Stephen Jay Gould, marriage counselor

  1. Oh, but “non-overlapping magisteria” (NoM) is so much more than a simple “division of labor” (DoL). DoL is really just an issue of logisitcs, whereas NoM is involves personal philosophies and world views. It’s not just that one spouse/partner does the dishes so much as why and how he/she approaches doing the dishes. I get it completely. I definitely have the Parthenon gene; Linda, the mailbox gene. We come to odds usually when personal finances demand a mailbox solution, but I really, really want to build a Parthenon. In those cases, Linda is compelled to butt in and I am compelled to listen to reason. Most times though, butting out works best.

  2. Aaron — I think DoL is divvying up tasks nobody wants to do, and NoM is divvying up tasks that everyone wants a say in. It’s not a bright line, because sometimes (often, actually) everyone wants a say in tasks nobody wants to do. Kevin doesn’t want to do the laundry, but the price he pays for having me do it is keeping his mouth shut even if he thinks his shirts wouldn’t be so dingy if I used different detergent and hotter water.

    I think Jim said it well (thanks, Jim!). It’s not so much who does what, as who is allowed dominion over what. It’s all about butting out.

  3. Team player says:

    Bottom line is…. if the system you are using works for the people using it, don’t worry about it, if it doesn’t work then fix it. It won’t do your relationship any good in the long run if Kevin is silently pissed off that his undies are dingy. If the simple request would be for you to use a different detergent of hotter water, he should speak up, you’re a TEAM. It’s not that he has to have a say, it’s just that his say might make sense and make no difference to you. Now if he requested that you go to the lakefront and scrub his undies on a rock with a fresh gallon of lemon juice, well that’s a different story.
    I try to look at my relationship as a team, bringing the best of both halves to the table.

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