Plain talk about husbands and wives.


Robert Farrar Capon’s Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage is a real gem of a book. The fourth chapter, ‘Roles’, can be no less jarring (offensive?) today than when it was originally published in 1965. In it Capon addresses the distinct and different roles of men and women in marriage. He says, for example, that while men and women are equal husbands and wives are not (and, we can presume, neither are fathers and mothers). The difference between husbands and wives, “is not one of worth, ability or intelligence, but of role. It is functional not organic,” (53). In a lengthy passage he compares marriage and the distinction between husband and wife to a dance, rather than a march:

“[The difference] is based on the exigencies of the Dance, not on a judgment as to talent. In the ballet, in any intricate dance, one dancer leads, the other follows. Not because one is better (he may or may not be), but because that is his part. Our mistake, here as elsewhere, is to think that equality and diversity are unreconcilable. The common notion of equality is based on the image of the march. In a parade, really unequal beings are dressed alike, given guns of identical length, trained to hold them at the same angle, and ordered to keep step with a fixed beat. But it is not the parade that is true to life; it is the dance. There you have real equals assigned unequal roles in order that each may achieve his individual perfection in the whole. Nothing is less personal than a parade; nothing more so than a dance. It is the choice image of fulfillment through function, and it comes very close to the heart of the Trinity. Marriage is a hierarchical game played by co-equal persons. Keep that paradox and you move in the freedom of the Dance; alter it, and you grow weary with marching.”

Marriage is a hierarchical game played by co-equal persons. Marriage involves not spouses, but husbands and wives. To tinker with that distinction is to turn the freedom of the Dance into the bore of a march.

This distinction isn’t an end in itself. In the eschaton there will be no marriage, after all. It is, rather, for the purposes of being united in love. Husband and wife, “are set in a dance in order that their separateness might become membership in each other,” (58).

It seems to me that we live in a culture where to press the distinction between male and female too hard is to put you in the uncomfortable position of being looked at as someone who could use a more thorough education. In an age of gender fluidity, where “male” and “female” name nothing other than genitalia (and sometimes not even that) to proclaim the (natural and obvious) truth that men and women are different creatures[1] is something rather radical, I think. (And I mean “radical” literally, as a return to the root). What say you? Does Fr. Capon’s image resonate with you? Disturb you? Make you want to give him a post-mortem high-five?

Fr. Capon has a lot of beautiful things to say about being husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, some of which I’ll try to share over the next few days.


[1] “It was not enough for the Creator to make us human. Absurdly, he went further. Male and Female created he them. The truth of our being is that we are one species, but just barely. Even without counting porpoises, this planet houses two different sorts of rationality, two different kinds of freedom, and two different brands of love: men’s and women’s,” (48).

1 comment
  1. Hm. Nice argument but I’m not convinced. In fact, Capon makes an excellent case for women to stay clear of marriage. The roles of husband and wife are unequal because men and women have been and still are in so many ways and places socially unequal. Full stop.

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