“Happy wife, happy life.”
It’s one of those pieces of marital advice that seems to have been around forever. And many people, having allegedly tested it out in the arena of personal experience, swear by it as the simple secret to a happy marriage.
But is it really?
On the surface it may sound good. The “wisdom” sounds true. The simplicity of the statement is tempting. But marriage is hard enough without trying to use advice you scrolled out of the fortune cookie at Panda Express.
Perhaps we have bought into the image of the sitcom family, where the husband is a bumbling, overgrown boy and the wife is an overbearing, contemptuous nag. Maybe we are a culture of masochists who believe that the pain is part of the pleasure.
Or maybe we think that marriage is too much work and after a long day at the office, we just want a simple solution that will help us make it through the next 50 years together.
Whatever the rationale, if you are one of the people who have bought into the belief of the “happy wife, happy life”philosophy, here are five reasons why the implementation of this advice is disastrous, along with suggestions on what to do to fix it:
1. It equates appeasement with marital success
Many men believe that the best measurement of their success as a spouse is the mood of their wife. Therefore, if they can mollify the anger or anxiety in their wife, then they are doing a good job. But this is not true. First, if your wife is angry, or anxious, or sad, or confused, or lonely, or whatever, it may have nothing to do with you. She may have had a bad day at work, or her best friend may be moving away, or she may have had an argument with her sister. These things may always upset your wife, regardless of your input, and may never be fully resolved by her or you. The belief that you are the sole contributing factor to your wife’s mood (either in a negative or positive way) is a narcissistic fantasy. Your job is to understand, empathize, and join with her in coping with those feelings. To let her know that she is neither crazy or stupid for thinking or feeling the way she does. In short, you are to support and encourage, not fix. Second, doing superficial tasks to reduce your wife’s anger, anxiety, or sadness only increases the feelings she is having. It never resolves them. She sees your efforts as insufficient because she intuitively understands that you are trying to placate her. You cannot do what you do because you want her negative feelings to stop. Instead, your actions must be guided by a burning desire to have your wife feel loved and cherished. If your philosophy for doing nice things for your wife is “Happy wife, happy life,” then you must be honest with yourself. Your goal is not to make her feel loved or valued. Your goal is to have a “happy life.” That’s the intent of that phrase. The target you are hoping to hit is a selfish attempt to avoid conflict masked as unconditional love. But this is not love at all. The core motivation that drives you is for yourself, not for her. For example, if a wife complains that her husband does not put his dishes in the dishwasher, a “happy wife, happy life” husband will begin putting the dishes up to maximize the peace in his life, i.e. to get rid of the conflict. But a loving husband will understand that his action of not putting up the dishes made his feel taken for granted and unappreciated. To help her feel loved and cherished, he will analyze not only the dish situation but also other areas in their marriage that could create the same negative feelings, such as leaving his wet towels on the floor or leaving a pile of clean laundry on the bed for her to fold. The loving husband does not want to maximize his peace. He wants to maximize his wife’s value.
2. It exchanges building relationship and strengthening “us” for one person’s temporary happiness.
This eventually evolves into a negative cycle that vacillates between “what have you done for me lately” to “uh-oh, what have I done?” Marriage is not about making myself happy. Or you happy. Marriage is about mutually nurturing the “us” that we agreed to be. This is why you and your wife vowed to cherish and to be faithful to each other in sex, sickness, poverty, tragedy, health, abundance, and victories, for as long as you both shall live. Marriage is not about making one person happy. It is about creating an “us” that can successfully weather the continual troughs and triumphs of life. Without this “us” mentality, issues cannot be resolved, individuals become viewed as the problem, and a roommate existence quickly develops between the partners. They become good at shuttling the kids around and paying the bills. But they have lost the ability to lock arms against those things that threaten to dissolve their relationship, because they prioritized one person’s happiness over the other’s. If you want your marriage to survive, strengthening the “us” MUST be a priority.
3. It creates passive husbands.
If anyone out there is thinking, “But my husband LIKES for me to lead!” I have news for you. You’re wrong! Men don’t want to be passive. They want to feel the surge of testosterone pumping through their heart. They want the barbarian to come out! They don’t like to be civilized. It makes them question the wild essence of their masculinity. They want to use their strength (in character, in body, and in heart) to conquer the impossible dreams, to slay the raging dragons, and to fix the doggone leaking refrigerator! They don’t want to outsource their leadership any more than they have to. (Hint: this is why we men don’t like asking for directions) They want to lead! The problem is that they have been so civilized throughout life that they no longer know how to go about it. “Happy wife, happy life” has emasculated them. Because they equate their success as a husband with the mood of their wife, they live in a continual fear of failure. They don’t want to be wrong. They want to do their best, but the constant fear that they are going to act in the wrong way often results in men taking the path of least resistance and waiting, like a child, to be told what to do. This, of course, makes the wife upset, because if she has to tell her husband how to love her, then it diminishes the significance of his action. She does not want to have to tell her husband what to do, because then he is only doing it out of obligation. She wants him to WANT to do those things, to be motivated out of a desire within himself to love her, and when he cannot or does not, her unhappiness creates a retreating reflex within him. Like a child playing Operation, he jerks his hand back from the game and passes the wand to his partner, passively waiting until he is allowed to play again. For this reason, criticism never encourages a man to stop being passive. But belief does. If your husband is passive, let him know that you believe he CAN succeed in leading the family. Hand the wand back to him and let him know that you believe he will succeed, if he will only try again.
4. It creates frustrated, bitter, overwhelmed women who eventually become controlling.
What woman wants a passive husband?…Nobody! But when a husband will not take initiative, when he will not use his strength for the good of the “us”, when he would prefer to stay indoors rather than go out and slay the dragons that threaten his family, his wife is left with no choice but to protect her own heart, to do the hard work of both a warrior and a king. And if she is going to be forced to do all of the work, she will resent his passivity while simultaneously reinforcing it by believing he will never change. This leads her to parent, to lecture, to nag, to scream, to yell, and to cry, which may alter things for a week or two but never produces long-term results. Why? Because men only hear this as parenting, nagging, lecturing, yelling, and crying — all indicators that he SUCKS! as a husband because she’s unhappy. They do not hear it for what it really is: a broken-hearted, sobbing, knee-buckling plea to be loved in a way that makes her heart sing and frees her to partner with him with all of the love, power, strength, nurturance, and femininity that only a wife can offer. If the husband does not understand this, if he pulls back due to feeling rejected, his wife will eventually withdraw from him intellectually, emotionally, and physically; for no independent, competent, healthy adult woman wants to be intimate with a child. She will hate him for putting her in this position but she will also have difficulty letting go of the control she’s exercised for so long due to fearing he will fail her as before. This is a situation where your wife will not trust what she hears. She will only trust what she sees. Promises to “do better” will not get the job done. Rather, daily (and, yes, I really mean DAILY) demonstrate that you hear her desire to be loved and cherished by going that extra mile, considering her needs, and defining what you are willing to give up in order to keep this valuable treasure God has provided. Let your actions be the notes that makes her heart sing.
5. It creates an imbalance of power in the relationship.
Every couple has defined roles that each partner takes in the relationship, such as who pays the bills, who leads the spiritual walk, who makes the big decisions, who initiates sex, who earns the most money, who takes the lead in parenting, etc. But when the paradigm of “happy wife, happy life” is instituted, an imbalance of power is created in the marriage as the husband acquiesces to a relationship based on power and control rather than one based on equality. This rarely, if ever, succeeds. First, no adult wants to feel as if they are the least important person in the relationship. If this occurs, they will try to assert themselves so that they have the power, not their partner. Predictably, this creates a power struggle between the partners wherein there must be a clear winner/loser. And unless you’re different than most people, that’s never a fun dynamic. Second, throughout our lives we have functioned in one of two ways in most of our relationships. We have either been dependent (where mom and dad take care of our needs) or we have been independent (where we take care of our own needs). But marriage is a relationship where neither of these roles works. Marriage is about a shared interdependency where both partners serve each other. The relationship may begin with frequent overtures and romantic gestures to woo the heart of the woman. But when translated into marriage, “happy wife, happy life” evolves into a series of frantic behaviors to keep her happy that cannot sustain a long-term relationship. Lasting relationships, though, balance the power between the couple, sharing responsibilities and roles as much as possible, and mutually serving each other so that no one feels powerless or unimportant.
LET’S END THIS
Face it. Relationships are hard. But being married doesn’t have to be painful. It may not be easy, but marriage was designed for love, companionship, and joy, not misery.
Check out the list above and see if you are causing yourself needless pain.
If so, please know you don’t have to live this way. Together you and your spouse can end the craziness that this mantra has created. Together you can both be happy.