Dear Mixed Feelings,
My thirteenth wedding anniversary was on July 31. I have to admit that I love my wife and I value my marriage, even more so now that we almost ended it one year ago, but I am still so annoyed by marriage conventions and traditions. You know, the things that are assumed to be true but really are just unexamined scripts that create expectations about what married life will be? These expectations are rarely met. If a wedding is the happiest day of your life, maybe you haven’t lived a very interesting life. Wearing a white dress to a wedding, for most modern women, has nothing to do with virginity. Saving yourself for marriage, as the conservative narrative goes, is like playing Russian roulette with intimacy: what if, sexually, you don’t match? I wouldn’t take that risk. And then there’s that phase, “Happy wife, happy life,” usually uttered with a knowing chuckle, as if the idea is normal, natural, fated even. I hate the phrase: it implies that marriage is not an equal partnership and that married women deserve more than their husbands. There is also the implication that my happiness hinges on my wife’s happiness, which is not always true in a real partnership. Why does this phrase bother me so much? What gives?
– Annoyed but happily married husband
When I was twenty-nine, my ex and I applied to become permanent residents of Canada. This process required, among many other things, a physical exam. He and I were young and fit, so we assumed this part would be a breeze. We’d been told that the doctor’s visit was mostly a formality, a glorified blood pressure check, so I planned for a short interruption in my otherwise busy day.
After the doctor held the stethoscope to each of our chests, he put down his folder and took off his glasses. He looked at me, then looked at my partner and said, “The secret to a happy life is two words: okay, honey.” He proceeded to give him a detailed argument on the importance of keeping me happy.
We emerged from the doctor’s office an hour later than planned, giggling at this earnest, antiquated relationship advice. “Okay, honey” is, of course, another way of saying “Happy wife, happy life.”
My ex and I were common-law married—which is not the same thing as standing up and declaring your commitment in front of your close and distant relatives. And when my ex and I split up, I was glad we’d never formally married. Ending a relationship is hard, but it’s not as hard as quitting an institution. And the thing we often forget about marriage is that it is an institution. It isn’t designed for individuals; it’s for the society at large. In fact, the National Marriage Project (which okay, is fairly conservative) calls marriage “an important public good.” The benefits of marriage, according to some academics, is that it channels individuals into stable family units and this stability is good for the society at large. Regardless of what you or I may think about this argument, it is a popular one. But what serves society doesn’t always serve individuals.
I tried to find the origin of “happy wife, happy life” but the only person willing to claim the phrase is a comedian whose bit is worth watching if you find tired gender clichés uproarious. But I was able to identify the beginnings of our ideas about marriage and happiness: the Victorians!
In fact, many of the practices and ideas that seem to annoy you about marriage can be traced back to the Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself is responsible for the contemporary wedding dress. She broke with the convention of royal brides wearing red and swathed herself in delicate white lace instead. The style of her dress—a tight bodice with an enormous, floofy skirt—is still synonymous with wedding dress in our cultural lexicon. Interestingly, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum notes that though the Victorians were especially prudish, white dresses had nothing to do with purity. White caught on with cultural elites because of its sheer impracticality. In an era when dresses were washed by hand, a white dress could only be worn once, making it a symbol of wealth and status.
The Victorian era was a time of revolution for the institution of marriage. Prior to the nineteenth century, people married for all kinds of reasons that had little to do with love and happiness. Most often, marriage was a means of managing resources and amassing wealth between families. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it in her book Marriage, A History,
The Victorians were the first people in history to try to make marriage the pivotal experience in people’s lives and married love the principal focus of their emotions, obligations and satisfactions.
Victorians actually wanted intimate relationships with their spouses, which—believe it or not—was a fairly radical way to think about marriage. It was the beginning of the presumption that marriage is meant to make us happy.
But, unfortunately for the Victorians, this is where things start to get messy. And maybe a brief history on the failures of the Victorian marriage feels tangential to you, but wait for it, because I suspect this is where much of your annoyance stems from.
The Victorians’ biggest problem was that their new, romantic ideas about marriage were incompatible with their rigid gender roles. Because women had so few rights (in most cases, for example, they couldn’t find reliable employment or secure a pension), they had a powerful incentive to marry. After marriage, thanks to the doctrine of coverture, a woman’s individual identity was subsumed by her husband’s. As one eighteenth century judge explained,
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.
It turns out that it is difficult to be intimately connected with someone and exert full legal and social dominion over them. The new ideals of love meant that it was no longer as socially acceptable for men to force wifely compliance through violence and intimidation. So, as Coontz puts it, “they became more likely to exert their control through love and consent than by coercion.” In other words: happy wife, happy life.
Coontz quotes the English domestic advice writer Sarah Ellis who suggested that “a wife should place herself, instead of running the risk of being placed, in a secondary position.” Barf, right? Glad we’ve moved on from that. Except we’ve only sort of moved on.
In 1998 psychologist John Gottman published a study of 130 newlywed heterosexual couples that found the happiest marriages were ones in which the husband was willing to “accept influence” from his wife. To be more specific, relationships where the couple made decisions together and where men took their wives into consideration were less likely to end in divorce. Maybe you are wondering about women accepting influence from their husbands. Gottman found that, statistically speaking, most women “let their husbands influence their decision making by taking their opinions and feelings into account,” while “data suggests that men do not return the favor.” Gottman also found that gay couples are also better at sharing power.
This was in 1998, not 1898. And sure, we’ve made some progress in the last twenty years, but we’ve got a ways to go. A 2014 study of older adults found that a man who is unhappy in his marriage “may still enjoy relatively high levels of life satisfaction if his wife views the marriage favorably.” But, if his wife is unhappy in the marriage, he is more likely to be miserable. This is probably related to the huge body of research that suggests men benefit more from marriage than women do. As the study’s authors put it, “A happily married woman may be highly motivated to provide care and practical support to her spouse.” Happy wife, happy life.
All those years ago, I wanted to believe the doctor directed his advice to my ex because he had read my anxiety on the blood pressure gauge. He could see it on our charts—my willingness to bend myself toward the relationship, and my partner’s lack of reciprocation.
What I didn’t tell my partner that morning was that I wanted him to take that advice—or I wanted him to find the kernel of usefulness that I imagined was buried in that advice. I didn’t want him to acquiesce to everything I said. I didn’t want him to make a job of pleasing me. I just wanted him to care about my experience of the life we were making together. I wanted him to take me into consideration with something close to the consideration he gave himself.
You say the problem with the phrase “happy wife, happy life” is that “it implies that marriage is not an equal partnership.” But it’s worth bearing in mind that the truth about marriage is that it often isn’t an equal partnership, despite our good intentions. The institution has a long, ugly history of placing women in “a secondary position.” And let’s pause to recognize that it is hard for both men and women to notice this. It was difficult for me, at age twenty-nine in the year 2010, to see my own wants and needs as equal to my partner’s. I hoped a doctor could convince him to value my well-being instead.
So you asked why you’re annoyed, and my best guess is this: gendered ideas around marriage are holding us all back—you and your wife included.
The data is pretty clear that women’s happiness is on the decline relative to men’s. Most modern women are overburdened by emotional and domestic labor. All husbands might benefit from considering how to redistribute that labor. You say that “happy wife, happy life” implies that “married women deserve more than their husbands,” which of course they do not. They deserve the same: the same decision making power, the same influence, the same amount of time and energy invested into daily domestic life. They’re just not getting it.
Women are far better off—both in and out of marriage—than they were in the Victorian era. But, as Claire Cain Miller points out in the New York Times, “the gender revolution has largely been one-sided—women have entered traditionally male jobs, but men have been reluctant to take on traditionally female activities.” The next time someone says, “happy wife, happy life,” you might say “Yes! That’s true!” and point them to this amazing comic. You might explain how even feminist men overestimate the amount of work they do around the house, or how gender roles are still getting in the way of real intimacy.
Maybe we can reclaim the “happy wife, happy life” ideology by deciding that while it’s not your job (or any husband’s job) to make your wife happy, you can make more space for her to secure her own happiness in the world.
Mixed Feelings is a new advice column that will draw on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.
Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.