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Pathology of the gilded cage

10 January 2014

NIGELLA LAWSON has emerged from her recent domestic troubles, bloodied but unbowed, confessing that she survived Christmas by an over-indulgence only in chocolate.

Her marriage to Charles Saatchi was a tragedy. When he confessed in court that he still adored her, and was broken-hearted to have lost her, it was difficult not to feel sympathy for this strange, reclus­ive man. And yet his love seems to have expressed itself in the form of complete control.

Like the strange art works he so famously collected, Nigella's value to him seems to have been as a pos­session. She was a bird in a gilded cage; fascinat­ingly other, but ulti­mately, it seems, a prisoner of his will.

Perhaps there is a pathology here that is, sadly, sometimes found in pas­­­sionate relationships, where one part­ner's understanding of love is so im­­poveri­shed that it can be ex­­pressed only in domination. The person who is loved in this way is pampered and adored, but at the same time choked of authentic life. The only escape ultimately is to break free.

As far as I am aware, religion played no part in the Saatchi/Lawson relationship, but the arche­­­­­­­­type of controlling male and su­­­b­­­­­­­­missive wife has, until very recently, been encouraged by most forms of religion. Today it is still upheld by some Evangelical Chris­tians, and it manifests itself widely in Islam.

Yet we are not so far away from it that we can be complacent: 60 years ago, when I was a child, there was a widespread assumption that it was the divinely given vocation of the man to be the head of the house­hold, while the wife was the heart. The task of the man was to exercise "headship", while the woman obeyed as part of her obedi­­­­­ence to Christ. If he was cruel, or even violent, she must put up with it.

All this fitted in well with the longing for "normality" after the Second World War, and much church teaching supported this domestic pattern. Of course, not all marriages in which such teaching was accepted became so peculiarly stifling as the Saatchi/Lawson one seems to have been, and church teaching was (and is) nuanced - the dominant male had to remember that his headship re­­quired him to make sacrifices.

The really staggering thing, how­­­­­ever, is how a dangerously con­trolling pathology could be so easily hidden inside that appar­ently God-given arrange­ment. To­­day, we find it scan­dalous. I, for one, am glad that Nigella has flown her cage. But millions of devout married women of the recent past were not so lucky.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Devel­opment Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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