Albert Einstein Imposes on His First Wife a Cruel List of Marital Demands

Albert Einstein passionately wooed his first wife Mileva Maric, against his family’s wishes, and the two had a turbulent but intellectually rich relationship that they recorded for posterity in their letters. Einstein and Maric’s love letters have inspired the short film above, My Little Witch (in Serbian, I believe, with English subtitles) and several critical re-evaluations of Einstein’s life and Maric’s influence on his early thought. Some historians have even suggested that Maric—who was also trained in physics—made contributions to Einstein’s early work, a claim hotly disputed and, it seems, poorly substantiated.

The letters—written between 1897 and 1903 and only discovered in 1987—reveal a wealth of previously unknown detail about Maric and the marriage. While the controversy over Maric’s influence on Einstein’s theories raged among academics and viewers of PBS’s controversial documentary, Einstein’s Wife, a scandalous personal item in the letters got much better press. As Einstein and Mileva’s relationship deteriorated, and they attempted to scotch tape it together for the sake of their children, the avuncular pacifist wrote a chilling list of “conditions,” in outline form, that his wife must accept upon his return. Lists of Note transcribes them from Walter Isaacson’s biography Einstein: His Life and Universe:


A. You will make sure:

1. that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
2. that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
3. that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.

B. You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, You will forego:

1. my sitting at home with you;
2. my going out or travelling with you.

C. You will obey the following points in your relations with me:

1. you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
2. you will stop talking to me if I request it;
3. you will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.

D. You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behavior.

While it may be unfair to judge anyone’s total character by its most glaring defects, there’s no way to read this without shuddering. Although Einstein tried to preserve the marriage, once they separated for good, he did not lament Mileva’s loss for long. Manjit Kumar tells us in Quantum: Einstein Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality that although “Mileva agreed to his demands and Einstein returned”

[I]t could not last. At the end of July, after just three months in Berlin, Mileva and the boys went back to Zurich. As he stood on the platform waving goodbye, Einstein wept, if not for Mileva and the memories of what had been, then for his two departing sons. But within a matter of weeks he was happily enjoying living alone “in my large apartment in undiminished tranquility.”

Einstein prized his solitude greatly. Another remark shows his difficulty with personal relationships. While he eventually fell in love with his cousin Elsa and finally divorced Mavic to marry her in 1919, that marriage too was troubled. Elsa died in 1936 soon after the couple moved to the U.S. Not long after her death, Einstein would write, “I have gotten used extremely well to life here. I live like a bear in my den…. This bearishness has been further enhanced by the death of my woman comrade, who was better with other people than I am.”

Einstein’s personal failings might pass by without much comment if had not, like his hero Gandhi, been elevated to the status of a “secular saint.” Yet, it is also the personal inconsistencies, the weaknesses and petty, even incredibly callous moments, that make so many famous figures’ lives compelling, if also confusing. As Einstein scholar John Stachel says, “Too much of an idol was made of Einstein. He’s not an idol—he’s a human, and that’s much more interesting.”

Related Content:

Listen as Albert Einstein Reads ‘The Common Language of Science’ (1941)

The Musical Mind of Albert Einstein: Great Physicist, Amateur Violinist and Devotee of Mozart

Einstein Documentary Offers A Revealing Portrait of the Great 20th Century Scientist

Albert Einstein Expresses His Admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, in Letter and Audio

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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by | Permalink | Comments (16) |

  • Jan Heilig

    It is true that Einstein was just a human, equal to us, and making idols out of people can only be decceived by a closer look. But there is a hint in his letters that he was not exactly like most of us: What he demands – his list, that sounds very unfair or selfish to our ears sounds very different to people with Asperger or any other form of Autism. Many of them could make a similar list. In fact, it sounds like someone trying to find order at any price as well as beeing undisturbed and protected from external “triggers” – disturbances that overloads their low tolerance to support every social relations to the “outer world”. If ever you may have the chance to read about the marriage behaviour of someone with an Asperger diagnosis you will find their way of live similar to the one Einstein asks for, but the reasons are not selfish, they are a way of survival for someone with lacks in his social abilities while in other areas Apspergers may show surprising high talents – like the one of Einstein.

    This list was new to me, but it supports in my eyes very well the hypothesis of Einstein beeing one with an Aspergian syndrom…what of course can never be proved with 100% evidence, but there ar a lot of hints for it. This list is just another one.


    I agree completely with Jan Heilig. I have four on the spectrum and have some Asperger tendencies myself. I can understand why he wrote them(his list of terms). Yes it may seem harsh to some, but with what I have seen and lived with. I understand and respect it, as well as his ability to self advocate for his needs. The difference in his life and mine is we adjust to it a bit better, and more socially at my house but we also have an understanding that if one of us needs to be totally isolated for a time that is sacred space.

  • Angelina Love

    Cruel List? He was the Man and he had his quirks BIG DEAL!!! I do not see this list or demands as cruel at all!!Give me a break!!!

  • Dr. Debabrata Chakrabarti

    The relation between the two has been specifically related in the biography of Moriz Winternitz by his son Georg Winternitz. See the publication aection of my website and click: Biography Moriz Winternitz (English, PDF, 330kB) p. 7-9 but particularly the following lines:
    “Einstein lived in Prague with his wife Mileva, neé Mariè (1875-1948) and their two sons,
    Hans Albert and Eduard, born in 1904 and 1910 respectively. Mileva was a Greek Orthodox Serbian whose parents lived in a small town in what was then Hungary later now Yugoslavia. She had become acquainted with Einstein in Zurich. Their participation in studies of the same subject soon led to a tender attachment, which resulted to their marriage in 1903. It struck me even at that time that Einstein frequently spent entire Sunday afternoons in our company without his wife or children even once. I came to know much later, however, that his marriage did not turn out to be a happy one. They lived apart from 1914 onwards. The marriage was officially dissolved in 1919 before Einstein wedded for the second time. I think I understand today to what circumstances we children owed our acquaintance with Einstein. In the company of his colleague’s harmonious family he obviously got his hard-earned relaxation through music and delightful conversation. In his later years he also liked to spend his hours of convalescence with his colleagues or friends and their families. His own family life was bound in great sorrow, and it was fortunate that his efforts were totally absorbed in an extraordinary interest in research. At times he could only find joy in nature, in music, and in unconstrained conversation with good friends.”

  • Caren Epstein

    As a high school teacher, I have had at least one autistic student each academic year. Several of my autistic students have the Asperger’s variety of autism. Yes, they have a lot of difficulty functioning “properly” with other people, but my experience with Asperger’s kids has been mostly quite positive. By the time they reach high school, most of them have learned how to live with the condition. And as an academic, I can tell you that not one of my Asperger’s kids has had an IQ of any less than 135. So perhaps their innate intelligence helps them to compensate for what skills they lack socially. Einstein’s list looks, to me, like a survival guide — he knew what his triggers were and he was at least partially successful at steering clear of them. And what did we, as a society, get in return? The most brilliant scientist/mathematician in human history. We, as a society, benefited tremendously from Einstein’s presence on our planet. Bravo!!!

  • Hanoch

    I don’t see anything compelling or confusing about this. It seems Einstein’s Conditions (particularly B & C) provide excellent evidence in favor of the proposition that reason and intellect, no matter how great, do not inexorably lead to morality.

  • Cindy

    Different time/place. But men were usually a-holes to their wives back then.

  • Cindy

    …and of course the men here will excuse and rationalize all this, entirely. But if this were Madame Curie with all these demands, oooo! “Bitch! Bitch!” Yeah, I can just hear it. Men sure don’t like their faults being called out; women are supposed to endlessly endure being faulted however.

  • Freeman

    Einstein’s “conditions” for a attempted reconciliation with Mileva sound most like a recognition of a relationship where the two participants were wholly unmatched in their needs for intimacy. It also reveals that NEITHER of the participants were fully able to come to terms with the others needs. But there is nothing in this that addresses “morality” in any sense.

  • Mike Johnson

    So what happened to Einstein’s son after he took off for the USA?

  • E. Kraft

    My question is the same as Mike Johnson what happened to his two son’s?

  • katydid41

    Einstein divorced his 1st wife AFTER she explained and proved the theory of relativity to him. He then published it and took full credit for it.

    He never matched that accomplishment again.

    Just another example of male “entitlement” in action… steal what you can from a woman and find a way to blame her for everything. Boys club rules.

  • Marlene

    I read this book years ago and found it extremely interesting, especially the chapter on Mileva Maric and Einstein. It supports what katydid41 is saying about the Theory of Relativity.

    By the way, I don’t think that we can conclude anything about Einstein’s having Asperger’s based on the material given here. Certainly his love letters to Mileva show a good deal of feeling, which would counter that diagnosis. I believe more material and more thought needs to go into understanding his character.

  • Marlene

    The link did not take so here’s the info on the book. It is -

    Einstein’s Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women by Andrea Gabor

  • Iris

    In response to Marlene; a diagnosis of Aspergers and the ability to demonstrate in writing ‘a good deal of feeling’ are not incompatible. People with Aspergers have rich emotional lives; the difficulties lie not in being able to feel positive emotions, but in being able to act upon them.

  • Karsus

    That list looks like “conditions to have me come back, despite the fact that we’re not getting along – for the sake of our children”

    … Sounds fair.