The Paradox of the Hag

The Paradox of the Hag

We’ve all seen the picture of the beautiful young woman that contains the old hag, or perhaps it’s the other way around.  I guess it depends on what you’re expecting to see. This perceptual sleight of hand is actually a good illustration of a very common marital dynamic called, “opposition”.

It’s common knowledge in psychology that we marry our unfinished business, the hag.  But, if we weren’t attracted to the beauty of our spouse we wouldn’t marry at all.  The beauty draws us in and the hag keeps us fighting for a return to normalcy.  When viewed as a younger woman, the white fabric in the image appears to take the form of a wedding shawl, but when transformed to a hag, this cloth becomes an object of utility, concealing her former beauty. The image is ripe with the subtle underpinnings of strife while expressing this perceptive dichotomy between the beauty and the hag. The hag itself shows age as its symptom, slow and impending, while the young woman’s version of vulnerability is manifested as a much more quick and decisive neck wound. The beauty represents the younger states of a relationship, vibrant and wondrous yet vulnerable to a quick end, while the hag is the enduring fight, which will only be reconciled by the aging trails of time.

The mystery of a marriage is that both the beauty and the hag exist simultaneously, not in opposition. The marital hag is revealed as innocence ultimately gives way to unfinished business. There is no sole winner as the struggle for dominance shifts from one pole to the other. We’re so conditioned to one point of view prevailing that if our spouse is right then we, by default, are wrong.  Arguments are continually fueled by this type of marital opposition where innocence eventually becomes obscured by the shadow of the hag.

A good example of this dynamic comes from Woody Allen’s academy award winning movie, Annie Hall.  In a split screen both Woody and Annie are seen with their therapists complaining about each other.

Annie: A day in Brooklyn is the last time I remember really having a good time

Woody: We never have any laughs any more is the problem

Annie: I’ve been moody and dissatisfied

Woody’s Therapist: How often do you sleep together?

Annie’s therapist: Do you have sex often?

Woody: Hardly ever, maybe three times a week

Annie: Constantly, I would say three times a week.

They are both right, of course, but the hag has clearly shown her face beginning with their contrary complaints, “Hardly ever” and “Constantly”. What are they complaining about?  They’re both having sex but not happy about its frequency. For one it’s not enough and for the other it’s too much, yet the frequency for both is the same. This form of marital opposition can seem ridiculous and comical to the casual observer. But the Paradox of the Hag is that her age and ugliness are nothing more than an awkward attempt at resolution as she moves ever so slowly towards the final integration with her former beauty. When that occurs the opposition of “Hardly ever”, and the equally cranky “Constantly”, are replaced with “Thankfully” and “Happily”. Opposition is now at rest and the former beauty of the hag can be vaguely perceived through the weathering of time.

Concepts In Motion9 comments

  1. dave laveman says:

    Very perceptive piece! Seeing the complementary unity in oppositions are clearly true for marriage – as most of those who have weathered the marital climate change that comes with the passing of time can attest. Your point is also suggestive of the larger cultural oppositions of which we are all so fervently engaged. Bravo for succinctly demonstrating the freedom that is available when we look beyond the obvious.

    • Larry Laveman says:

      Thanks for you comments Dave. I like your notion of “complementary unity” that views opposition as a natural part of a larger whole. I believe our task is to maintain a certain degree of consciousness about our differences so we don’t become embedded in rigid opposition.

  2. Brenda deGerald says:

    Very interesting piece. I’m not sure I don’t understand how they were able to reach that final integration of her beauty to the point of “thankfully”and “happily” except that perhaps it is the resolution they both want more than a change in frequency of sex.

    • Larry Laveman says:

      Thanks for your comment Brenda. The paradox is that sex three times a week is not enough, even when it is enough. As in the Woody Allen example, spouses are often stuck in polarizing positions. Resolution occurs when their perception changes and they begin to see the positive side of their marriage (the Beauty) rather than the polarizing side (the Hag). That’s when they are more likely to be “thankful” and “happy” to have the sexual relationship they do.

      • Brenda deGerald says:

        That makes a lot of sense! I can’t agree more that there must be nothing harder. For one, to reach that perspective yourself, but then to do this in a unified way with your partner… wow!

  3. Wonderful and insightful post, Larry. I love the way you plumb the drawing for symbolism to bring understanding about the marital dynamic.

  4. Larry Laveman says:

    Thanks Peter. I was always taken by the unity of the beauty/hag picture that contained within it the deeper polarity of its construction. It reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode called “The Eye of the Beholder.” Our perception shapes our reality in ways that are both apparent and hidden making it challenging to integrate two different realities into one unified marriage. I can’t think of a harder thing to do!

  5. Bill Tenuto says:

    How long have we known each other, my friend? 30 years? 31 years? Something like that.

    I know you have a great appreciation for paradoxes, and I have a great appreciation for your appreciation.

    You’ve made some good points here, and you did so with some very good writing. In feeling through what you have written here, a part of me feels like, “Been there. Done that.” But not quite so. There’s always more work to do. So maybe it’s, “Been there. Done that. What’s next?” The “Unfinished Business” you refer to.

    At my age of 65, the “Unfinished Business” seems to be getting done. Taking care of each other. Taking care of family. Enjoying the simple stuff. Appreciating the miracle of life.

    An added thought. As young men, our need for sex drives us, and that can get in the way of doing the work — the “Unfinished Business”– you wrote about. The work, to me, is about learning to follow the heart, learning to set aside the ego, learning to be in service to another…to others. Some of us, when we get older, discover this, and there is a simple joy in it.

    • Larry Laveman says:

      Very astute, Bill. Thanks for your comments. The joy of older age is that life becomes more understandable, less complicated and more cherished. I think it’s easier to give to others when we’re filled ourselves. Not full of ourselves, just filled ourselves. That’s the beauty of it, even if we look a little haggish…

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