This site is full of testimonials to how well Taken In Hand works. Not for everybody, of course, but for many more couples than my upbringing and experience ever led me to suspect. The stories are usually emotionally convincing. But, then, I don’t suppose many people would bother to register with the site just to report how their Taken In Hand relationship backfired. And the testimonials here span seven or eight years. I wonder how many of these relationships are still on, still Taken In Hand, and still satisfying to both parties. People may discover new tools, and new toys, but human nature remains the same protean, unreliable thing as ever.
But let us take the stories at face value. If it works, why does it work? Let's get rid of a couple of pseudo-explanations first.
One is that men are naturally authoritative and women naturally enjoy being under the control of their husband. That’s not only a brainless stereotype, not only contrary to easily-observed fact, but a rhetorical fallacy. It's saying a complex phenomenon behaves as it does because of its “nature”--which boils down to saying it behaves as it does because of how you've labelled it. A man who is firm on many things but doesn't expect to get his way on everything, and who feels no mandate to order his wife about, much less to punish her, is not less masculine than a man who spanks his wife. At least, since I am that type of man, I think not. My father was domineering with my mother, not out of principle but because he didn't know any other way. I knew as a boy that I did not want to copy him, and eventually I came to pity his narrow views and limited emotions. I wanted a woman who was my friend as well as my lover and domestic partner. I got her.
A second wrong notion is that, historically, the Taken In Hand model of marriage once predominated but that the corruptions of modern feminism (and for some, modern secularism) have introduced confusion into people's minds and relationships. This is nonsense. The most ancient stories we have, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Old Testament to the Iliad, make clear that power struggles between men and women are perennial, regardless of laws, religious doctrines and social norms. And not just power struggles in the abstract. In earlier times male coercion was taken for granted. It still is, in many settings. A modern woman may voluntarily give her consent to her husband's authority over her. In most earlier societies such a gesture would have been laughable, because the man was assumed already to possess it. And in the societies of which I speak, which continue to exist today, women often had no choice of the man who would be in authority over them, as a contemporary Taken In Hand wife does. The interest of the Taken In Hand idea lies, not in some romanticization of an imaginary past, but precisely in its modernity, its radical affirmation of a couple's right and ability to structure their relationship in unconventional ways
I would like to explore some reasons that Taken In Hand appeals so strongly to some people (including me, although I'll never experience it). I can think of at least ten characteristics of these asymmetrical relationships, as they are usually described on this site, that would make them emerge as attractive alternatives to the bland, unfocused, commercialized fairy tale that is usually marketed as contemporary secular marriage. (I’ll come back to that “secular” later on.)
Simplicity. Very possibly the single most appealing thing about Taken In Hand. The power struggle that virtually all couples know too well is, at least in theory, just waived. The parties, instead of worrying constantly about what their future negotiating leverage will be if they give in today, adopt a single overarching principle: he decides, and makes her comply. The only thing that makes it work is trust. One of the surprises, to me, about these relationships is the sense of release so often expressed by women: the stress of holding out is gone. I no longer have to fear losing my autonomy; I've crossed that bridge. I no longer have to feel responsible for everything and, therefore, feel that we need to negotiate everything. I know what I need to focus on and what I can ignore. I trust him to make good choices, and that includes bringing me back if I stray. Common sense tells me it can't be as simple as all that, but as I said, the stories are emotionally convincing.
Challenge. Taken In Hand implies definite behavioral standards and defined consequences for failing to live up them. (At least for the wife; I have yet to hear what consequences, other than divorce, might accrue to the husband if he defaults on important responsibilities.) Contemporary popular culture scarcely understands the notion of standards as they relate to everyday behavior. Everything except outright crime, no matter how obnoxious, is tolerated. There is no actual punishment for anything unless the law expressly provides for punishment--and very, very often, not even then. Personal failure is defined out of existence. Yet young people perennially rediscover the satisfaction of being challenged to live up to some standard, with real consequences if they fail. Ask anybody who’s ever played on a good sports team or served in a crack military unit if they’d willingly exchange those billets for lax, sloppy, ineffective ones. Nobody of any spirit would.
Focus: A Taken In Hand relationship is neither a natural phenomenon nor one culturally delivered to one's doorstep. The idea must be discovered, probed, thought about, and the relationship must be searched for, negotiated, dared, practiced, and learned by trial and error. These things are not true of the great majority of human relationships of any kind, which are based mostly on accidents of birth, social and economic needs, and/or transitory emotion. People drift together and drift apart, physically or emotionally, suffering disappointment and sadness but often not realizing that the culprit isn't the other person, or even oneself. It's the mutually shared habit of avoidance and drift. I’m no expert on women’s feelings, but if waiting room magazines have it right, the average woman’s most common complaint is that she feels she is more invested in the relationship than he is. Taken In Hand won’t magically eliminate such a disparity, but it would naturally work against it. By definition, it requires concentration and effort.
Communication. This great mantra of relationship counselors can’t be just a vague slogan in a Taken In Hand marriage. The concept is completely unworkable without regular, detailed communication about the parties' atypical and asymmetrical expectations.
Creativity. As I noted, general culture not only doesn’t present any template for a Taken In Hand relationship, but if the notion comes up at all, it is usually for disparagement. The parties must first discover the idea, then discover each other (even if they are already a couple, one of them must usually convince the other), and then they must work out all the specifics for their own situation. All of this constitutes a major reorientation of thinking and adaptation of lifestyle. This takes intelligence and effort. Unimaginative, overly rigid, or lazy people simply won’t be drawn to the Taken In Hand idea. If you're discussing such a relationship at all, you probably aren't dealing with a dud.
Specialness. This means the feeling of, not necessarily pride, but at least of satisfaction, at having chosen a distinctive and minority identity for some important aspect of one’s life--the "we chosen few" sensation that all people crave. Usually a transitory and conformistic choice, like long hair in the Sixties or tattooing and piercing today, but sometimes constructive and durable. In any event, it is always emotionally reinforcing while it lasts.
Intimacy. Being intimate with another person, and not just physically, always triggers strong emotion. The reverse can be true, too: sharing strong emotion with another person can create a feeling of intimacy. Survivors of a trauma or disaster, even if strangers, often feel temporarily bonded with one another. Even people who hate one another sometimes report the curious sensation that their enemy understands them better than anybody else (cf. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Taken In Hand is a mechanism guaranteed to trigger strong emotions on a regular basis between two people. That has its dangers, of course, but if both parties have agreed to the setting for the express purpose of creating intimacy, it can work.
Intensity. Taken In Hand marriages embrace rather than evade the power, weakness, pain and fear inside us. Power and control are avowed. Pain and fear are given an open if limited role. (So, for that matter, is guilt, since modern men are conditioned strongly against being controlling of women, not to speak of striking them.) It is not a new observation that power, pain and fear can, for many people, feed into the erotic. In my own lovemaking, I could not not notice how much physical aggression entered into my pleasure and hers.
Meaning. Taken In Hand creates a broader context for a couple than the self-satisfaction, mutual pleasure, and/or romance that are the implicit offerings of marriage in popular culture. Only in movies and true romance novels does conjugal lovemaking reset the relationship, because in conventional relationships there usually aren't any definite expectations most of the time. Lovemaking is just what married couples do for mutual pleasure (occasionally for kids). In a Taken In Hand relationship, it seems, not only lovemaking but a great many other things in daily life are specifically intended as reinforcements or resets of the original reason for coming together. The testimonials say this would be especially true of lovemaking after an incident in which the husband takes his wife in hand in some way. I don't know from personal experience and never will. But I don't have to have experienced it to grasp it.
And here I conclude by returning to my earlier references to "secular" marriage. I'm not a believer. I find it amusing to see some posters hunting up scriptural passages to justify doing what turns them on. But, in fact, what Taken In Hand provides for a relationship is psychologically quite similar to what a shared religious faith does. Like faith, Taken In Hand creates a hierarchy, sets out standards, sanctions consequences, employs rituals, requires people to confront the reality of power, pain, fear, temptation, transgression, and guilt, and establishes a context that confers specific meaning on the everyday. Given the appalling void that popular secular culture offers as guidance for a marriage, it is not surprising that people who never dreamed they would do such things are finding the idea attractive.