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

in Letters, Physics, Science | December 30th, 2013

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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Comments (35)

  1. Jan Heilig says . . .
    December 30, 2013 / 10:01 am

    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.

  2. CGANDY says . . .
    December 30, 2013 / 9:00 pm

    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.

  3. Angelina Love says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 1:13 am

    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!!!

  4. Dr. Debabrata Chakrabarti says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 1:32 am

    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.”

  5. Caren Epstein says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 7:20 am

    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!!!

  6. Hanoch says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 8:02 am

    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.

  7. Cindy says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 12:14 pm

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

  8. Cindy says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 12:20 pm

    …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.

  9. Freeman says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 4:32 pm

    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.

  10. Mike Johnson says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 7:25 pm

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

  11. E. Kraft says . . .
    December 31, 2013 / 8:35 pm

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

  12. katydid41 says . . .
    January 1, 2014 / 1:55 am

    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.

  13. Marlene says . . .
    January 1, 2014 / 2:49 pm

    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.

  14. Marlene says . . .
    January 1, 2014 / 2:57 pm

    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

  15. Iris says . . .
    February 27, 2014 / 6:18 am

    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.

  16. Karsus says . . .
    April 30, 2014 / 8:53 am

    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.

  17. Nichole says . . .
    January 27, 2015 / 8:07 pm

    Even if he did fall on the autistic spectrum it does not erase the fact that his letter is basically demands for his wife (who at that point didn’t even get along with) to serve him. Now it can be argued that it is a type of “autism survival guide”, however having your wife fold and do you laundry/ make and serve diner to you in your room (like some god, ha!) is misogynistic and is not seeing ones wife as an equal but as some sort of slave(even if the marriage was crumbling he should not have a list of demands for his wife to follow like a employee/slave). Smart as he may be in some areas, it seems as though he lacked in the basic understanding of gender equality. A flawed human for sure.

  18. Karen says . . .
    June 21, 2015 / 4:01 am

    Does his writings on love, as the quintessential force of the universe, fit with the profile of aspergers?

  19. Ibrahim says . . .
    August 10, 2015 / 11:24 am

    excuse me but….what is the problem with these requirements ???
    In my country, these are just some basic rules…mouah ah ah !!!

  20. L says . . .
    August 13, 2015 / 7:16 am

    Ibrahim : the problem with these requirements is that they turn women into low status little respected servants who produce poorly educate unsensitive brats like yourself.

  21. L says . . .
    August 13, 2015 / 7:28 am

    there is no reason to belive he was asperger, or if he was, he was not very much. He went along well and was charming to people at parties as has been reported multiple times.
    If he was asperger, it was slightly, not to the point of being completely incapacitated by any noise or stimulus.
    Those that have asperger to the point of being unable to tolerate stimulus are unable to express rich emotional lives, unlike what some suggest. It takes a moderate asperger to be able to express yourself like that.
    He seems like someone who wanted to have a lot of time for himself and that did not consider he had much time to owe to his wife and family.
    It sounds much more as though he did not get along well with his wife, valued his intellectual life more, and wanted to have the least possible amount of contact with his family, than it souns that he was unable to have contact with people.
    Asperger or not, it is cruel to be with someone that does not ever want to go out or spend time with you, and married with someone who does not want intimacy.
    Considering it was just some sort of patch on a marriage that didnt work, just to make it work for the kids it seems, it is somewhat understandable, except for the part about being served three times a day, which is over the top yet normal at the time. His intelligence did not make him see beyond the social conventions of the time in what regards gender roles it seems.
    The fact people say there is no problem at all with a marriage including those demands, since he is a genius, really does show how entitled society accepts male genius to be, especially in their relationship with women. People would not be so understanding with curie, as has been said.
    This tendance to not want to admit any hard or darker trait in a genius just because overall his impact on earth is positive, really shows a way of thinking that seems to me dangerous.
    It is obvious from this that he did not value his wife very much and wanted to spend the least amount of time with her and have the least possible amount of obligations towards his whole family. If they were in very bad terms, once again some of it can be understood, but brushing it away as him being a nice chap cause overall he did good to earth bewilders me.

  22. L says . . .
    August 13, 2015 / 7:34 am

    basically what caren epstein says is
    — he was successful at steering clear of what bothered him by having pretty harsh demands on a woman and only bothering a woman – while in exchange he provided the world first rate science ; so bravo, no problem there.

  23. PacificSage says . . .
    September 30, 2015 / 4:43 pm

    “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

    I’ve always know this quote, but in response to the fact that Einstein was flawed & not a perfect idol, It dawned on me it’s application:

    Small minds idolize people
    Average minds idolize events
    Great minds idolize ideas.

  24. Dave says . . .
    November 6, 2015 / 11:54 am

    Please do not try to speak for me, you do it badly.

  25. OTOH-rama says . . .
    January 19, 2016 / 10:06 am

    And of course Albert is the villain in this script.

    Does no one ask what behavior in Maric prompted Albert to ask he not be verbally abused of belittled in front of the children?

    And what an awful man he must have been to feel the need to put in writing that his wife no longer “reproach” him.

  26. Carol says . . .
    January 31, 2016 / 4:00 pm

    Perhaps a different lens by which we can consider the list and the man who wrote it…
    To a scientific intelligence which seeks to describe and predict, the list is a tool almost akin to an algorithm or heuristic. It could be Einsteins attempt to solve a complex social and marital problem by defining a solution in terms acceptable to him. No room for potentially divergent discussions or explorations of causes and dimensions of the problem- just an attempted solution.
    We can critique the shortcomings of the list for signs of self interest,differential entitlement,or evidence of Asbergers, and it is not hard to identify, but the list was clearly intended to act as a formula to allow the family to continue living together. What misery must have necessitated such a proposal? I recall all too well marriage to a brilliant person and raising children within the shadow of bizarre neglect caused by Asbergers

  27. patricia_m says . . .
    March 21, 2016 / 5:06 am

    how odd to realize that some women find it ok to receive a list of what to do and not do in their marriage :)

  28. patricia_m says . . .
    March 21, 2016 / 5:17 am

    is it because we’re talking about a genius that no one dares saying that he seemed to want a distant presence and a slave rather than a wife? “don’t expect any intimacy” is just as disturbing as “you will give me intimacy every time I will want it”… I’m not sure I get all the asperger comments when the article says that he didn’t lament when they separated, asperger or not he didn’t seem to care much about her, it does sound as simple as that…

  29. Lons says . . .
    April 17, 2016 / 7:15 pm

    Why didn’t he get to keep his boys

  30. Frida Bagel says . . .
    April 23, 2016 / 7:29 pm

    Talk about blaming the victim! I was raised in a house where it was always said that there are two sides to every story. Well there aren’t always two sides two every story. She is not responsible for him being a d**k. If he didn’t want to continue the relationship he had options, which he later exercised. Being cruel is never warranted. We should not have any tolerance for it no matter how exalted the person is. We, as a society have no control over the behavior of an individual. We do, however have a choice of deciding what we find acceptable. It is by that, that a society should be judged.

  31. Tamara says . . .
    May 6, 2016 / 12:52 pm

    I believe that Mileva was a toxic personality (NPD) and Albert was simply setting strong boundaries with her. He appears to have “married his mother”, as unaware victims often do. He broke down with PTSD after the divorce.

  32. Tamara says . . .
    May 6, 2016 / 12:55 pm

    Galileo, Kepler, and Newton suffered similarly. Survivors find good things happen to them when they break away and achieve No Contact.

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    May 21, 2016 / 4:08 am

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  34. Ca Dozo says . . .
    June 9, 2016 / 11:26 am

    He went on to other recognition. His Nobel Prize was not for the Theory of Relativity.

  35. Jeff Mcneill says . . .
    September 14, 2016 / 5:49 pm

    It is so very sad that people are willing to guess and to judge without knowing the context. Apparently the letter was written to convince the wife to agree to a divorce. She was adamantly against it, and so what you see are a set of impossible conditions. She agreed shortly thereafter. That Einstein was serious or that this was a literal request is merely a conclusion that people with no imagination jump to. Everyone who wants to self-satisfyingly diagnose asperger’s or misogyny are certainly no psychiatrists.

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