The Conscious Captain and First Officer Relationship

One of the most touching moments of our marriage is when we were being filmed for Close Up by TVNZ. In response to a question Jennifer directly referred to me as “the head of household” to the interviewer. I thought that was very brave of her to actually say that to the watching eyes of an entire country. I don’t think a woman can compliment a man much higher than that. Naturally because it was a perfect statement of Captain and First Officer working as intended… it was cut and never made it to the final segment. 
Oh well…
One of the hard parts about writing about this stuff though is that I very much fear that someone is going to misunderstand me, and end up turning into a thug-husband. Add in the encouragement to explore rough sex, and it’s doubly worrying.
So let me restate things a little…
The Captain and First Officer model, does not explicitly require her conscious awareness, some couples just naturally slip into it. For those couples when they are told about C&FO they just go “Oh yeah we do that.” and it’s old hat to them. They probably just think of themselves as “traditional.”
But for almost everyone else, the whole Captain and First Officer model is going to be a little weird at first, and you will make mistakes in trying it out. Usually that’s just going to be the husband doing a momentary reversion back to being too Beta, sometimes though he’s going to push a little too hard on her though and hurt her feelings.
When these mistakes are being made, it is vastly easier to correct things if you are both consciously aware of what is going on. By which I mean you’ve had actual conversations together about doing it, and you’ve both agreed to try it.
Captain and First Officer is a voluntarily lifestyle. You can’t effectively trick her into becoming a First Officer, and you can’t intimidate her into the role either. The only way to do this easily is to be a man she respects enough, to want to submit to your leadership. So yes indeed there is an element of strength and assertiveness that creates a dominant presence, but it’s her own internal wiring to enjoy submitting to a safe but dominant presence, that drives her interest in the First Officer role.
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 decision tree looks like this…
Captain or First Officer – Identifies issue and brings it up with the other
Captain – Listens to First Officer
First Officer – Provides input
Captain – Considers effect of decision on both the Captain and First Officer (and the kids)
First Officer – Provides further input if needed, but otherwise allows Captain space to make decision
Captain – Makes decision
First Officer – Respects decision and abides by it.
If the decision turns out to be wrong…
Captain – Admits error in decision
First Officer – Doesn’t say “I told you so!”
Captain and First Officer – Revisit decision and seek ways of not making the same mistake again.
If the decision turns out to be right…
Captain – Thanks First Officer for input and abiding by decision
First Officer – Gets wet panties
At first glance that looks like the Captain can just run riot and do whatever they want, whenever they want, but the reality is that a good Captain isn’t going to “win” every decision and decide to get exactly what they want every single time. Doing so would eventually wear out his welcome so to speak as the First Officer would start to lose respect for him. Eventually she would quit the role in disgust.
However if she perceives him as being concerned for her well being and on balance making fair decisions, she will grow even more respectful for him. There’s a lot of responsibility on the Captain to get it right more often than not too.
All that being said  – I won’t lie – it’s really kinda cool to have a woman obeying you.
Jennifer:  Being able to trust that Athol is always going to try and make the best decision is very important to me.


  1. David Collard says

    Some women just follow this script instinctively. I do mostly get obeyed, and I like it, but I don't think my wife intellectualises it. She just mostly obeys, asks permission, and so on. One of the nice things about good game is that it makes the woman happier to be compliant.

  2. David Collard says

    It is fun dominating a wife, to even some degree. Not all women intellectualise their situation. My wife just seems to fall naturally into the traditional role. I don't think she would come out and say, "He is the head of the house". But she acts like it. I was pleased to see she emailed some female friends that she would have to check with me before agreeing to "do lunch" with them on a particular day.

  3. Anonymous says

    Total crap.
    "Captain – Listens to First Officer
    First Officer – Provides input

    Captain – Considers effect of decision on both the Captain and First Officer (and the kids)
    First Officer – Provides further input if needed, but otherwise allows Captain space to make decision"

    In a REAL command situation, the captain makes the decision DESPITE the effect it has on anyone around him. If he has to kill the crew to achieve the mission, THAT IS WHAT HE DOES.

  4. Anonymous says

    I'm pretty much with you up to "obey." Most competent, 21st century women are not going to "obey" their husbands. At best they are going to give him room to lead, follow his lead on many decisions, etc. I think that using the word "obey" sets up an unnecessary amount of negative reaction, push back, etc. It's hard enough to overcome the resistance to "submit;" "obey" just doesn't work, and seems unnecessary. Children obey; wives, generally speaking, do not. Plus, it gives people more ammunition to criticize your entire approach.

  5. Chip says

    Anon #1 if you do that in your relationship, let me know how that works for you. To me, that is the definition of a thug-husband.

  6. Anonymous says

    Chip, if you mean me (0326), I'm pointing out that the author of this gets his ideas about how command-driven structures work from fiction, not from reality. A real "captain" has to be prepared to see every man-jack among the crew dead to achieve the mission. To do what is necessary, without discussion or debate. If necessary to feel regret for the losses suffered afterwards, but never to let the risk of those losses deflect from achieving the mission.

    It's nothing to do with "thug-husbands", it's reality. Ask anyone who has served in any of the armed services in combat

  7. Whitney says

    Anonymous, keep in mind that we are not talking about life-and-death situations here. We're talking about family decisions like "When do we let our daughter start dating?" and "How much are we putting into savings this year?" If those decisions, or "missions," as you call them, are more important to you than your family's welfare, then I would say that's problematic.

    Otherwise, I think the whole ability to be a successful captain is going to require different levels of Alpha. As Athol has mentioned in the past, some women are more naturally submissive than others. But that doesn't mean that a very Alpha woman doesn't still crave the decision-making abilities of a strong male. Quite the opposite; I would say that a strong Alpha female needs to feel heard and understood, especially if she is intelligent and capable. A man worthy of her respect is definitely going to take her input into account, but also still have the strength to make a decision that goes against it if needs be.

  8. Red says

    Perhaps it depends on your definition of success. If you're a military captain and your mission is to capture a hill or ship or whatever, the success of the mission is more important than the individual players. Not so in a marriage.
    The marriage "mission" is to create an atmosphere where she feels heard, acknowledged, and considered which results in a trust to follow his lead and an ever growing respect for him which results in his definition of frequent good sex.
    You don't get there by annihilating your crew.
    Speaking in non-military terms, a good leader serves those he leads. By that I mean that he assess the data he has, listens to input his wife may have, considers the needs of his wife as well as his own desires, and makes a decision most beneficial to furthering the needs of those in the relationship.
    A good leader learns when to put his needs behind hers…and also when to put his first. When he makes a poor decision, and he will, a good leader acknowledges that openly, without laying blame, and looks at ways to not make those mistakes again, possibly with input and suggestions from his wife. A good
    FO will not point fingers and make broad declarations of his selfishness or lack of regard of her thoughts and feelings. I think leadership set up this way is successful more times than not. The consistent success makes the unsuccessful times easier for them both to handle

  9. 446 says

    So what if the model is from fiction?
    If the model works as a teaching tool to better marriage, then it's a good model.

    There are 3 common models of light: ray, wave and particle. All three teach us something about how light behaves. They are good models. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if light IS a ray, wave or particle.

  10. Bob says

    The family mission is to boost the children to escape velocity. It's no good if the children get killed.

    Don't be so literal. It's a metaphor.

  11. Anonymous says

    If all of that is the case, why doesn't everyone simply pick up a good book on staff management LOL?

  12. Anonymous says

    Red, you're missing the point. The marriage isn't the mission. The man getting good sex often is the mission. If the marriage and the other people aren't contributing to this, as captain, he needs to get a crew that does. Anything else is beta-shit.

  13. Chip says

    And…what if the captain does not listen to the first officer when that first officer has a valid point? In real life, it can mean death. Since we live in the DC area, we have been hearing about the 30th anniversary of the Air Florida crash into the Patomic. The aircraft had not been de-iced in an hour, and the FO said that they should not attempt a take off. The captain disagreed and took off. The rest is history, only 5 survivors.

    However, it has been pointed out that this is marriage, not war or aviation and the C/FO analogy is the best that I have heard (and I have read at least 10 books on the subject).

  14. Doug1 says

    Yes, it's essential that men have their mate's best interests as heart as well as his own, and consult with her, if he's going to play the captain role effectively.

  15. Lainey says

    Hmmm, traditional here. I would say we are more Pilot and co-pilot. The Pilot does make most of the decisions, but his co-pilot is there to make them in his absence or when he is busy with another crisis. We have to keep in constant communication, unless we can't and then we know that the other is keeping our passengers and the plane safe.

    I don't want to be dominated just for fun, well unless I specifically ask for it. I also don't like the attitude some men take when being dominant. I've read some of the blogs and it does border on abusive. Being a prig and smacking down your wife at every little thing doesn't make you a big man, but a little insecure one. No thanks.

    Now being a team with a leader means that we are always looking out for each other and wanting the best for each other. That includes sex, but so much more. I do believe in the biology of men and women, but I think to ignore the good qualities and characteristics of each makes the whole process too simplistic and depressing.

    We are our biology, but we are also so much more. Or at least I am, and I know my husband is. I'm not wild about this post as I think it does encourage thug husbands.

  16. Anonymous says

    As a woman and wife I do not understand why other women "cringe" at the thought of "obeying" or "submitting" to their husband. Hell, unless it was an arranged marriage then you chose to be with the person. If you chose wisely you entered into a union that will give you confidence to happily follow your husband. Perhaps those that dislike the taste of those words so badly did not find a very good mate in that sense. Do I know that I can do stuff without him? Yes, he is currently deployed and I am holding down the fort here at home. So, I am not dependent upon him to take care of me but it sure is nice to know that I have married someone that cares enough to bear the burden of family decisions with my support. If we power struggled every decision it would be exhausting and we would get nowhere. I tell him my thoughts and I know and trust he has the best interest for family so I follow his lead.

  17. Athol Kay says

    Lainey – Captain = Pilot, First Officer = Co-Pilot

    I said that in my very first C&FO post and it's pg126 in the Primer.

  18. Lainey says

    Ah, maybe that is where I got it. I don't know. I think my interpretation of a traditional marriage is a little different than yours though.

  19. Red says

    Okay, so the mission is the man getting good sex. If he demands good sex from the woman and doesn't take into account anything she feels/needs/says, how much good sex do you think he gets?

    So instead, he trades his crew in for one who will give good sex. Except he doesn't consider anything she feels/needs/wants and repeats the pattern.

    So again, the mission for the man is frequent good sex which is a result of his woman trusting and respecting him which results from his decisions in which he hears, acknowledges, and considers her feelings.

    I truly believe that for most woman, great sex starts everywhere else in the relationship except the bedroom. Meet her needs outside of the bedroom in other ways, without being a wuss or pandering to her whims, and she'll give you great sex often. Sustain an environment where she feels safe and feels like you're really paying attention and you might be surprised at the sexual activities she will readily and enthusiastically participate in.

    It doesn't make one less of a man if he considers the input of his woman. And it doesn't make him less of a leader either.

  20. GC says

    I think that many woman who have found a very good husband still would "cringe" at the use of those terms. I am fortunate to have an excellent husband, but I never think in terms of "obeying" him and really don't even think in terms of "submitting." For me, those words are just too loaded with negative connotations. I think of it more as letting him be a man, which often includes setting the direction or leading on an issue.

  21. 446 says

    If we power struggled every decision it would be exhausting and we would get nowhere.

    If we power struggled every decision it would be exhausting and we would get nowhere.

    If we power struggled every decision it would be exhausting and we would get nowhere.

    Repeat as necessary until you hear truth.

    Exhausted husband.

  22. David Collard says

    Women like to obey sexy men. When a woman "cringes" at the thought, she probably has an unattractive man.

  23. Mike M. says

    I'll toss in three points:

    First, a good Captain practices good Crew Resource Management. Which means that he listens to the First Officer if time permits – which it does, except in an emergency.

    Second, a Captain delegates some decisions to the First Officer. Not the most critical ones, but the routine matters may be delegated.

    Third, neither the Captain nor First Officer publicly undercut each other's authority. Disagreements are settled privately.

  24. Anonymous says

    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.

  25. Athol Kay says

    Anon – I don't make every decision. The post was about "the bigger decisions that need to be made".

    If Jennifer was the sort of person that needed that level of supervision, I would have left her for someone more capable long ago.

    I'll write more tomorrow in a post.

  26. Anonymous says

    Negative connotations…perhaps if you perceived these words in a positive way you would see things differently. They are simply words. Actions and whatever name you give them is the beauty of following your husband.

  27. Anonymous says

    I am so very sorry for you. I can't imagine how exhausted you are. Oh, wait, you aren't my brother-in-law are you?

  28. Anonymous says


    I hear what you're saying in the comment above, that you are the final decision maker on "the bigger decisions that need to be made." But the fact that you're the one who automatically and always has the final say is what offends me.

    You and Jennifer don't take turns. You don't trade off. You don't consider who is best qualified to make that particular decision.

    As the man, you just have that right, comparable to how an adult automatically has that right when making decisions for their children. How could any woman not be offended by that? Sorry, I just don't get it.


  29. Athol Kay says

    It's not a right because I'm a man. You keep putting words in my mouth.

    There's a long story arc here with Jennifer and myself that I don't think you've caught up with. We spent the first ten years of our relationship trying to live exactly as you suggest an inoffensive relationship should be. Life was okay, but not nearly as good as it is for us now.

    I realize this is all very politically incorrect and appears on first glance to be demeaning to women. Stick with it and keep reading.

    There's no requirement that you do any of this yourself. But I think you can get to a point where it's not innately offensive.

  30. elhaf says

    Ok wiseguy, I asked my brother-in-law who is in the Coast Guard, and he sure doesn't lead that way. If in the execution of the mission to save people, he gets his crew killed, he considers it a failure. Go figure. Something about what the actual mission is comes up "in reality".

  31. elhaf says

    In airline-speak, pilot and co-pilot are called captain and first officer. So you have it exactly right. What is often called the "navigator" in popular parlance is actually the flight engineer, the third in command. Maybe that's the kids?

  32. Anon says

    I do disagree with this, but not completely. Yes, women do kind of slip into these relationships, but obeying the man’s command is exaggerating. In those situations, the women is usually frightened into it. The man may or not to be aware of this. In most cases, the women asks the man to help with decisions because she is worried she might make a bad decision. This has nothing to do with ability. The two also discuss this, but mostly the man.


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