Love Like Cosima

My friends are getting a divorce, and I am in the middle of it. Really — the husband is staying on my couch. She was vague when the breakup happened, but she told us that the real reason she’s leaving is because she can’t focus on her career and be married at the same time. Her husband is much more successful, and is a little bit famous, and she’s not, and I think that’s really hard for her. But come on! Isn’t this what the Second Wave was for? I worry she’s making a huge mistake and being really stubborn. Also, he’s lost and crying while watching episodes of The Good Wife, and I would kind of like to get him off of my couch.


OK, I am about to make some thick generalizations about men and women, are you ready? Because obviously all men and all women do not behave in predetermined ways, and the influences in their lives will alter how things play out. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot look at historical patterns and learn something from them.

Generalization number one: Men have an easier time putting work at the center of their lives. They can more easily close themselves off from the outside world to focus on whatever they are trying to accomplish, re-emerging only briefly for a little contact, a little headspace, and then back they go into their chambers. Men have complained to me that their girlfriends suspect them of cheating when, in reality, they’re distant or “busy” or have turned their phones off because they are at work at something. The Other Woman is actually a novel, or a new account, or whatever new goal they need to achieve.

The question is: why do women have a more difficult time achieving that level of focus? Why can’t your friend shut out her wifely responsibilities and do the work she wants to do while still remaining coupled? You could, if you really wanted to, talk about the brain differences between the hunter (male) and the gatherer (female), although frankly that will make you sound a little silly. You could talk about how men are raised to believe in providing and accomplishing, while women are still pushed towards domestic scenes. But here’s a dirty little secret that few people bring up in these debates: putting aside your own talents and ambition for the sake of your partner is easier than pursuing your own passions.

Cosima Wagner has become for me the archetype of the Facilitator of Genius. She may have been a genius herself. She was the daughter of Franz Liszt, so she certainly had the genetic predisposition for genius. As a girl, she was considered a brilliant pianist. But as Oliver Hilmes makes clear in his biography of Cosima, she pushed all of that aside in order to facilitate the genius of Richard Wagner. She was more of a secretary than a wife; she referred to her husband as Herr Meister in letters and asked out of her bed-bound wifely duties. (She calmly turned a blind eye to dalliances, as long as no one fell in love.) She transcribed for him, answered his correspondence, and planned productions of his work. She recorded his every utterance in her diary, with the stated purpose of preserving his day-to-day brilliance for future scholarship. And when he died, she became the Widow Wagner. She ran the Bayreuth festival, handpicked conductors, and made certain that her husband’s work would live on forever.

Now, Cosima is layer after layer of crazy, which is what makes her such a divine archetype for study. She knew early on that this was the role she wanted in her life, and when her first husband proved not to be the genius everyone had hoped he would be, she took up with Wagner. There was a man worthy of her subjugation.

Your friend is probably not Cosima Wagner. Unless she too has tried to set up her daughter on a date with Adolf Hitler or addresses her husband as “Master.” (Hey, whatever floats your boat.) But that impulse, to serve rather than to be served, to prioritize someone else’s talents over your own, springs from the same dark place of doubt and fear. And it’s a remarkably easy trap to fall into when the person with whom you share your bed, your life, your morning coffee, is being heralded as a genius by the outside world. It’s so difficult to put up your little hand and squeak out, “Um, me too, maybe?” It’s much easier to decide instead to make dinner for your household genius, so that he doesn’t have to, and can spend that time making real his potential.

You should give your female friend the space she needs to serve her own talents for a while. And maybe her male counterpart needs to recognize the sacrifices she was willingly but possibly still resentfully making for him on a daily basis. They might come back together under a wholly new dynamic yet. And you can finally get back to watching The Good Wife on your own, without the added sobbing soundtrack.


If you’d like Jessa to ponder your question, write to “Kind Reader” at

Illustration by Thea Brine.