Captain and First Officer: Making The Bigger Decisions

This is turning into Captain and First Officer week. Let the misunderstanding continue!
Reader:  I’m a woman. I have a problem with the decision process as stated by Athol. Why does the captain (man) get to make every decision? I understand that he gets input from the first officer, but ultimately he makes the decision.
In my marriage, the person who knows the most about the particular situation at hand or feels the strongest makes the decision. There are some areas where he’s the expert and others where I am.
If I’m better at choosing investments, for example, why shouldn’t I make the call, with my husband’s input, of course. If he is better at homeowner projects and overseeing our kids’ education, why shouldn’t he make the call? Shared responsibility for the various decisions that make up our life is both efficient and effective for us.
The way I see it, Athol is making decisions (all of them!) that he may or may not be best qualified to make. And Jennifer is put in a role of having to plead her case to Athol, knowing she doesn’t control the outcome.
Jennifer’s superior knowledge and expertise on a particular subject still doesn’t allow her to take the lead. And unlike a work situation, in which she would likely have the chance of a promotion to the decision-making position some day, in her marriage she’ll NEVER have that opportunity.
I understand it works for Athol and Jennifer, and evidently many of this blog’s readers, but it’s not a model I would want to impose on my marriage.
Athol:  Where did you get the idea that I make every single decision in Jennifer’s life from? Trust me, after a long day of monitoring developmentally disabled clients, the last thing I want to do is come home and turn a bright, capable, motivated woman into one of my patients. The kids make plenty of decisions for themselves without my input too. No one needs to raise their hand to go to the bathroom in the Kay family.
So back to the earlier post for a second… let me bold a critical line…
“The conscious agreement to play these roles is of value because of the way it can nearly completely eliminate serious conflict in the marriage over some of the bigger decisions that need to be made. Very frequently marital arguments are not over the decision itself, but simply who gets to make the decision. Once you remove that battle, everyone’s shields come down and you can have more of a calm discussion about the decision itself.”
The First Officer role is a capable one. The metaphor is based on being the second-in-command of a Galaxy Class Federation Starship… which if I can engage my full inner geek for a moment, has a crew compliment of 1,012. So there are a myriad of daily decisions a First Officer would make without even consulting the Captain.
Jennifer makes dozens of decisions without my input or even knowledge. She makes more day to day decisions than I do and it’s extremely helpful that she does that. I’ve got this whole smart-guy-on-the-internet writer thing going on, but that comes with a major dose of absent-minded-professor and I’d be utterly lost without her. She’s way more practical than I am and keeps my life running more smoothly that I would ever manage without her help.
There’s a reasonable amount of incidental direction that I give, asking for a particular thing for dinner for example, and Jennifer happily complies in part because she likes pleasing me, and in part because it was one less decision for her to make.
But for the bigger decisions, we do the full Captain and First Officer experience. Even then you’d be surprised how few truly big decisions there are in a marriage, as usually one major decision will create structural effects that essentially determine the need for many smaller decisions. Some examples: Which city we live in, job changes, housing changes, more children, response to medical conditions, vacations, major purchases and so on. I think we have about two or three of those major decisions a year.
Starting this blog was a major decision of that type. Jennifer and I talked about it in depth before I started it, and I decided we would proceed with it. Just one major decision, but now it’s been two years of structural effects from that decision.
When my father ran up the white flag and announced the cancer wasn’t going to be beaten, I was always going to go home to say goodbye. However New Zealand is a long way and we were faced with three options:
(1) Just I go to NZ. (+) Cheaper, (-) Me emotional and apart from Jennifer is really bad idea
(2) Jennifer and I go to NZ. (+) Athol emotional but supported by Jennifer, (-) kids very upset and missing parents for two weeks.
(3) We all go to NZ. (+) Family all supported and involved, (-) all the book promotion money is gone.
Jennifer and I discussed all those options in depth, and then I chose (3). Now as you can imagine there are dozens of other little decisions involved in throwing an international trip together; Jennifer made some decisions, I made some decisions and just about all of it was on the fly. Just two weeks later we were with Dad and mission accomplished.
It’s not about steamrolling Jennifer out of a say. She talks to me. I listen. I bounce things I’m thinking about off her constantly actively seeking her input. We’re adults.
Most of the time the big decisions aren’t a choice between something that’s clearly a bad idea and clearly a good idea, that’s easy to work out together. The trouble comes when you’re choosing between multiple good options, or multiple difficult ones. That’s the sort of thing that can get thrown back in your face for years, “Well I know that eventually worked out, but I still think we should have chosen the other good option, because it would have worked out better!”   That’s more easily side-stepped when you can both acknowledge there are multiple options, and someone needs to make a decision about them.
Coming back to the reader statement though, this one stands out to me…
“In my marriage, the person who knows the most about the particular situation at hand or feels the strongest makes the decision.”
I’m not saying this is the exact case for this particular reader, but this “feeling the strongest” is exactly how many men find themselves on the persistent losing end of marital discussions, and becoming more and more Betaized. Women are typically better than men at handling and displaying deep emotion, and a common Fitness Test tactic is simply to overwhelm him with an intense emotional state – tears, anger, joy, disappointment – until he folds and gives her what she wants.
As soon as a wife discovers she can control major decisions through simply feeling the strongest about something, the husband will lose every single important discussion. Once she masters this emotional terrorism, and can win discussions and debates at will, she is the Captain…



and a fairly nasty one at that.

Of course that immediately leads into the question of why the woman as the Captain is a potentially bad thing in a marriage. I’ll address that in my next post.
Jennifer: Athol is not a dictator.  We discuss big decisions together, and there’s usually a fairly obvious solution or two, and he takes the initiative to make one of them happen.  I’m good with that. 

Comments

  1. David Collard says:

    There are not many major decisions in a marriage. I have had to pull rank with my wife only a handful of times. I was engaged to a different girl once, and it finally dawned on me that I was never getting my way on anything important. I walked.

  2. When a couple marries after both have made major decisions in their lives, I don't see why you expect the female member of the pair to abandon that decision making experience and maybe even like of making decisions for herself and the household.

    Getting married then means giving that up? No longer making decisions she was quite capable of before marrying? Just because she married a man?

    This is where I wonder if your advice is well received (and working well for — I'm all for happily married couples) primarily in couples which are more 'traditional'. The women giving push back are not in traditional marriages and wondering if they can have more alpha from their men while still having power and decision making responsibility within the marriage (equally shared…).

    I sense this series is you leading into saying no to that which would be too bad.

    Mac

    PS feeling strongly != emoting strongly

  3. My folks articulated this to me as your 10%. They would collaborate and come to a consensus, but each had veto power around there 10%–those things about which they felt so strongly that they were unwilling to compromise. 90% of decisions had to be discussed and generally agreed on (though Dad tended to have the final say), but 10% could be driven by who "feels the strongest." Dad was terrified of driving home on New Year's–though Mom found this irrational, it was in his 10%, so she acquiesced.

    There is room for the "I feel the strongest." But this can only work if you pick those battles very carefully, and are flexible and willing to work together on everything else.

  4. Anonymous says:

    "Of course that immediately leads into the question of why the woman as the Captain is a potentially bad thing in a marriage."

    …as opposed to why the man as the Captain is potentially a bad thing.

    FYI — No gender has the angle on screwing things up by pulling rank or making everything about feelings.

    For every reason a man can come up with for why the dude should be in charge a woman can respond with 10 reasons for why he shouldn't be in charge.

  5. Some people intend to be "captain" no matter what the dynamics or capabilities of the parties involved are. The "captain/first mate" analogy is a good one, for people who are amenable to thinking and making the needed changes to their lives to have a cooperative relationship based on success and not on power.

    Some people are not interested in anything but being in charge. No amount of "explaining" is going to make them see the obvious. The obvious does not match their agenda.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Or perhaps what is obvious to them is not obvious to others…

  7. Standup Guy says:

    MAC: My wife is an accomplished professional. Makes as much money as I do. But the funny thing is, once we actually vocalized the capt./f.O thing, my wife just seemed happier. We argued less. We had fewer standoffs.

    You have to understand that I respect my wife a tremendous amount. No actually I admire her in so many ways. She respects my intellect and decision making. So it is easy for her to trust that I will make decisions for the good of the family. Being as talented and pretty as my wife is, I know she has plenty of options other than me. So I don't willfully abuse my role or make decisions that would abuse her.

    A smart captain and good leader is not a dictator. They are someone who helps the people under him achieve their own success. In marriage that means happy wife and successful kids.

    You know how the disney princess movies where the young beauty gets swept off her feet by the big stud on the big horse? He is so strong and handsome that she cannot help but succumb to him. That fairy tale just seems to resonate w/ many women. They want a captain to lead them.

    This is a current example of how captain works for us.
    Her: what should we have for supper?
    Me: Do we have anything in the freezer?
    Her: No.
    Me: Why don't you go down to subway and pick us up something on your way home from work.
    Her: Oh sure, I could do that.
    Me: You're the best. The kids will be happy about that.

    See. Nothing evil here. I am just taking the lead. I am not telling her what to do. I just make the decision.

    If you marry the right man, this works very well.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I'm betting that for every couple where it develops as Picard / Riker or Kirk / Spock, there's one where it pans out as Ahab / Starbuck or Bligh / Cristian…

  9. This model works great for me and my wife. I also think the reader was misunderstanding a lot. An example from my own marriage. My wife is an accountant and runs her own business. I studied philosophy and work with advanced electronics in the Navy. It should be quite obvious that I don't know HALF of what my wife does about money. Yet I still have the final say about how the money is spent. At first this seems like its stupid and unfair, however this is the reality. We discussed finances before we got married and once we did, my first act was to delegate control of all the finances to her. She pays bills, buys groceries, gives me a fun money allowance so I can buy little things without spending too much, handles the bank accounts, retirement savings, etc. I trust her as my First Officer to handle the money correctly and even if she messed something up, I wouldn't get on her about it, because I delegated it to her. Thus anything that goes wrong with the money is ultimately my fault and I honestly couldn't have done better myself. I get a briefing once a week about where we are in our finances, and I say great job honey, and we move on. The last time I used my Captain's power to override her money decisions was when I ordered her to buy a new dress for herself. She is more qualified to handle the money so, as Captain, I delegate that task and responsibility to her. My job means that I get to fix the TV and computers because I'm more qualified to do that.

  10. To those who say, it could be abusive that's why you need to screen the other person BEFORE you marry them. I knew exactly what my wife did and was like in extreme stress and crisis before I married her and vice versa. We also saw each other in positions of power over others, so we knew what that would be like as well. If someone would abuse power, they aren't ready to be in a healthy marriage its that simple. The Captain/First Officer dynamic is also just that, dynamic. Her position as First Officer means that she gets to discipline/reward our kids as needed the same as I do. The point is, while I'm ultimately in charge, I delegate to her tasks she is best at, we share several other tasks, I have tasks she isn't good at, and because of the authority structure we have she makes dozens of decisions without my input every day. Most of them I don't care about because they are things that are minor or trivial, but the things that are more important, such as I put the oldest into timeout, or I washed the dogs today, or I did laundry today and will vacuum tomorrow I get briefed about every day because I might have been thinking about washing the dogs or wanting to surprise her by helping with a chore. Also in our briefings she requests Captain's action such as: "Your son did X, discipline him." or "I need you to do Y this week." I say "Sure Honey." Kiss her and I do it. Both my wife and I switch out who takes care of the minor tasks outside of our major areas of responsibility every day. When we bought our house I told her what I wanted, then she had much more "must haves" then we looked at houses and narrowed options. Sure I had the final, let's get this one, say, but it was out of choices that we discussed as her being ok with all of them.

    Mac, I have some lesbian and gay friends and these same power and relational dynamics work in their relationships as well. Someone has to be the final decision maker, and someone has to be the Primary supporter. You can delegate the decision making to 50-50 but there are times when someone has to make a final decision and both partners care a lot about it, and if it isn't clear who that person is there are major problems. The reason its typically pushed for males to do be the Captain is that I've never seen a woman who was attracted to a subordinate, whereas plenty of men are. If it works different from you, cool, you can be the Captain. Its about what works for you and your partner and makes you both happy.

  11. Anonymous says:

    So,
    SHE knows more about it than you, so you generously delegate it to her, but reserve the right to walk in and screw it all up if you feel like because you're in charge?

    Sorry, I'm still not seeing at what point this starts to make sense to anyone who accepts the idea of equality, meritocracy or plain common or garden logic.

  12. Mac—

    Getting married then means giving that up? No longer making decisions she was quite capable of before marrying? Just because she married a man?

    Yes, it should. Marriage is a partnership, but someone needs to be the ultimate leader. Of course he should also respect her areas of knowledge and expertise, and also want what’s best for the family and his wife, not just himself. I thoroughly reject radical feminist models of marriage.

    She should let her husband lead; she should be marrying him in part because she does. Ok there are a small percentage of submissive men who want their wives to lead, but there are actually fewer dominant women who I think are really happy including sexually happy with that, especially after awhile. I think they often/usually take a lover they can be excited to sexually submit to.

    This is where I wonder if your advice is well received (and working well for — I'm all for happily married couples) primarily in couples which are more 'traditional'. The women giving push back are not in traditional marriages and wondering if they can have more alpha from their men while still having power and decision making responsibility within the marriage (equally shared…).

    The answer here is basically no. As well I’m quite convinced more traditional sex roles tend to make people happier. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean she permanently give up her career when she has her first kid. Feminism of more than the most basic variety has not been good for the healthiness of American families, the divorce rate, or the happiness of women.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I'm the woman who Athol quoted in this post. I'm not using my name because I'm fairly visible on the web through my business.

    Athol, and evidently many of this blog's readers, feel the man should, whether qualified or not, be the ultimate decision maker.

    As Doug1 said, "She should let her husband lead; she should be marrying him in part because she does." He also said "Getting married then means giving that {decision making power} up? No longer making decisions she was quite capable of before marrying? Just because she married a man? Yes, it should. Marriage is a partnership, but someone needs to be the ultimate leader."

    Sure sounds sexist to me. And as most of the blog's readers are men, it's not surprising they favor men taking the lead role in the marriage.

    I feel it doesn't have to be that way. No one needs to be the ultimate leader.

    My husband and I are equals. He is not the least bit submissive or wimpy. But neither am I. We're both well-educated, fair-minded professionals, and we respect each other's opinions and decision-making abilities. There's no assumption that in the end, he has the final say simply because he's a man. It depends on the decision.

    Athol, you quoted the following line from my previous comments, "In my marriage, the person who knows the most about the particular situation at hand or feels the strongest makes the decision." You wrote, "As soon as a wife discovers she can control major decisions through simply feeling the strongest about something, the husband will lose every single important discussion."

    Why would you skip to the assumption that the woman would use emotions to manipulate future situations? Don't you think it's a leap to think a woman would fake or embellish emotions to win a fight? Are you sure you're talking about a woman and not a child?

    I assure you I'm not manipulative. I don't use tears, yelling or whining to win a fight. Also, there are times when my husband feels strongly on a subject, and I defer to his preference. It works both ways.

    I'm going to continue this below, as I've exceeded the number of characters allowed.)

  14. Anonymous says:

    (Continued from above)

    Two quick examples of major decisions in our marriage in which the person who felt more strongly got their way.

    Example #1: When my son was 1-year-old, I wanted to get him swim lessons. My husband felt he was too young, that it could traumatize him and would also be a waste of money. My husband had grown up in New England where kids learned to swim when they were 5 or older.

    I had grown up in Florida, which is where we were living, and I knew that many toddlers drown here each year because of all the residential pools. I felt strongly that our son should learn to float/swim as soon as he could walk.

    My husband and I discussed it and researched swim classes. Ultimately my husband deferred to me, and we went forward with the lessons. Note, there was never any hysterics or whining.

    Example #2: When my son (now grown) was evaluating colleges, I felt he should be allowed to choose wherever he wanted, whether it was an in-state or out-of-state school. He had a top GPA and SAT score. In my opinion, he had earned the right to go to any school he wanted and could get in. That was the opportunity my parents had given me, and I wanted to do the same for my child.

    My husband disagreed. Even though we could swing an out-of-state school financially, he felt it didn't make sense to go out of state because tuition was twice as much. He didn't want to offer our son that option. He felt the added cost of going out-of-state didn't provide enough added value.

    We calmly researched schools along with our son, discussed the options, and then ultimately, I deferred to my husband. We couldn't justify the added costs of an out-of-state school. As my husband had wanted, we restricted our son to choosing an in-state university, which he now attends.

    These two examples are just two of many situations in which we both calmly participated in the decision process, and the final decision was arrived at mutually.

    Every relationship is different and each couple handles decision-making differently. Where I have a problem is in handing over the reins to the husband simply because he is the man, as Athol would have us do. Why should the man always be guaranteed the final say? Why should he have that right automatically by virtue of having a penis?

    Shared decision-making can work. And it doesn't mean the man is submissive or that the woman is a whiney shrew who insists on getting her way.

    It simply means both partners greatly respect and appreciate each other's knowledge and judgment. They work as a team to make the best decisions for the family. I'm proud to say that my marriage of 23 years is happy proof this model of shared leadership and shared decision-making can work.

  15. Athol Kay says:

    Sure sounds sexist to me. And as most of the blog's readers are men, it's not surprising they favor men taking the lead role in the marriage.

    Actually I have more female readers than male readers according to the Alexa tracking data.

    Why should the man always be guaranteed the final say? Why should he have that right automatically by virtue of having a penis?

    He doesn't. It's a choice a couple can make for themselves. There is no requirement that anyone does this.

    I've been very clear on these points, and made them multiple times. You're actively choosing to misunderstand what I'm saying.

    Read the next post please. It's not sexist, it's simply pragmatic.

  16. @Doug1

    I do not doubt you believe traditional sex roles tend to make people happier, but I do not believe that traditional sex roles make most people happier. I reject your rejection of feminist marriages and I've been married 15 years. I wish you much happiness in your marriage. People differ.

    I think Athol's advice has some merit in non-traditional marriages but the C/FO model does not and is not as key to those marriages succeeding (meaning having a lot of sex, as well as other standard measures). I don't think his philosophy is sexist however his tips for men are not going to lead to as successful results in non-traditional couples.

    It's like many of the men here think being captain claims something that is required for a man to feel manly? What is up with men having manliness be so … fragile? My husband is sexy. Whether mowing the lawn, playing with the kids or making dinner. Especially with his shirt off. He does not place his manliness in front of me to judge. We share Big Decisions, and he is still manly. We share housework, and he is still manly. We share childcare responsibility, and he is still manly.

    To @Standup Guy, wow. Here's our typical exchange:

    Me: what's for dinner
    Him: beef curry — I tried [new spice]
    Me: Mmm.

    If there wasn't something in the freezer to throw together or he didn't have a dinner plan I'd be upset. It's his responsibility – he is Captain of the kitchen (oooh, I can see how some of you flinched). Likewise though I'm responsible to keep the kitchen clean so he can cook. That's just one example and every couple varies.

    I tend to think absolute power corrupts absolutely. Athol has been very keen to point out how valued the first officer is, and I think that's awesome. It's the default that it has to be the man that I don't see the support for. Perhaps, per the comment about gay couples, there does need to be someone who in the end will be the one who feels most strongly and tends to make more of the decisions and carry that sway — more leadership tendencies or need. And even then I think they ought to be /conscious/ of this because power is a dangerous thing. The Captain has more raw power no matter how you talk about how the FO also has some power. That's always an 'also but' and always less.

  17. You're biased by yourself. Not everybody works like you and your husband. To several people around, Athol's advice is the way to go. If your marriage is doing fine without it, then please go on. Athol is clear about that. Don't you believe that some people out there may benefit of this strategy?

    Don't say that just because your marriage works, this doesn't. It makes no sense.

  18. "oooh, I can see how some of you flinched"

    That shows how you did not understand the concept. There is no problem in the man being "captain of the kitchen", or taking care of the kids, or cleaning the house, etc. It's a matter of posture, not chores.

    The words and stereotypes you put in your text shows that you are approaching the matter with the "sexist" lenses on (even if you say you're not doing it). Read the blog, from the beginning, including the comments, and you may understand.

  19. Indeed, and I would advise against marrying that woman.

  20. I specifically do not accept the idea of equality. Attraction is not a choice, it works the way it works. If you want to be in charge, be in charge, but I would advise any man against marrying a woman like that. Been there, done that.

  21. I think some of the issues here stem from the illusory value of choice. More choice != more happiness. That's been shown. When we have infinite configurability in choices, we will ultimately regret the final thing we decide on more, because we will feel we somehow missed the optimal choice.

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