Perversity and Playfulness in Couples

PART 1 of 3

There is the story about the man who goes to see his doctor for an exam. After getting a very through checkup the doctor calls the man’s wife into his office without the husband and says to her that her husband is very ill.  The doctor says her husband has a life-threatening condition and things do not look very good.  However, if she is willing to be at the husband’s beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is willing to cater to his every want and desire, making him special breakfasts in the morning, give him wonderful meals in the evening, sending him off to work with wonderfully prepared lunches, making love to him whenever he’s desirous of her, and generally doing everything to make him completely happy, for the next several months, there is a excellent likelihood her husband will pull through it and be okay.

The couple then pair up and as they are driving home the husband turns to his wife and asks, “So what did the doctor tell you?”

To which his wife replied, “He told me you’re going to die.”


Murray Bowen once said, “A good marriage is where you have two worthy opponents.” Although I have only studied Dr. Bowen‘s work in Family Systems Thinking and never met him – or Mrs. Bowen – nor do I have any insight into how they were as a couple, I imagine what he was addressing something akin to the “Pot and Lid” theory of marriage. It states: For every pot there is a lid. Or to put it more crudely, we get what or who we deserve. What this means is we seem to marry someone who is roughly at about the same level of anxiousness as we are. In other words, if you think your partner is the cat’s meow, you got what you deserve. If you think your partner is a horse’s you-know-what, well then…

This isn’t always so obvious. We might marry someone who hides their anxiousness or who expresses it differently, but the level of anxiety is usually right about up there where our own operates. If one is say, overly talkative, the other is often very quiet, or if one is over responsible the other may be under responsible. But these are still anxious responses of equal intensity.

But back to the notion of “worthy opponents” one could build a case regarding the doctor in the story as being in cahoots with the husband. We therapist types like to call this triangulation. But the point is that the wife is not buying it. She is as worthy an opponent as they come. Rarely does a partner respond to such irresponsibility on the part of their partner with this degree of style and grace. She doesn’t balk or cave into the anxious climate, which her husband and his doctor have created.

Undoubtedly a few of you are not buying into seeing the wife as the heroine. After all, you say, this man is sick. He needs compassion. He needs sympathy, understanding not obnoxiousness. My question to you, then, is this: Can the wife’s response be viewed as compassion? Is it possible that she is giving her husband exactly what he requires and is not giving into her own anxiousness and therefore providing an important challenge to her husband?

I contend that she is being playful, and in doing so she provides her partner with the best chance for life – metaphorically speaking and literally, as well.


Love and good will can take a couple just so far. The difficulty with love is that we are extremely vulnerable.  When we are in love we begin to confuse it with anxiety. Caring often turns out to be an anxious response. I become anxious, so I do something. Often what I end up doing is good for me since it relieves my anxiety, but it’s not necessarily good for the one I supposedly take the action for. I take care of you by doing something for you when the better thing may have been to challenge you to take care of yourself. I have a friend who drives himself like there is no tomorrow. Every so often his back gives out and he is laid up for a few days at home in terrible pain. He can’t move and he feels miserable and depressed. People come over and give him lots of sympathy and take care of him. The last time this happened I stopped by and said “Look, you damn fool. You’re stuck at home because you don’t know how to put balance into your life and you never give yourself a rest. I am certainly sorry for the pain you’re presently having, but I will not reinforce this pattern in your life by joining in with all the others and saying, ‘You poor thing.’ So while you lay here I suggest you spend some time figuring out how to make whatever changes you need to make so your back doesn’t have to take such abuse and strain all the time.”

Am I mean? Cruel? Judgmental? All I know is it would be much easier to be sympathetic and supportive and nice rather than to love by challenge. My friend knows I love him and I know him well enough, so I take the risk and address him this way. After seemingly kicking a man when he is down, he smiles and says, “You’re right.”  Eventually we even laugh about all those crazy people who have been trying to make him feel better. If the sledgehammer approach didn’t get him to come around, I was prepared to talk to him about making funeral plans.

End of Part 1 – Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Part 2 and 3 to come