December 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
The trend for going all out to keep your spouse happy is not limited to women
We made a promise we swore we’d always remember,” as Bruce Springsteen sang. “No retreat , baby, no surrender.” What of that promise now? Surrender has become the biggest thing in sexual politics since the underwire bra. Everywhere you look — apparently knocked batty by TV series such as Mad Men, Big Love and that new one about air hostesses and their pantyhose — successful public women are embracing the notion of the Surrendered Wife.
The much-admired Tory backbencher Louise Mensch has described dressing up to look attractive for her husband as an “act of love”. The TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp says: “While I might be in charge when I’m at work, at home my husband is the boss [. . .] I constantly foster the idea among his sons that he’s brilliant and strong and infallible.”
Jilly Cooper has recently reissued her 1969 book How To Stay Married — a manual for happiness that insists “your husband must come first” and recommends that you turn a blind eye to affairs in the hope they blow over. Her eccentric claim that “you deserve to be cheated on if you are not available for sex for two days in a row” has been redacted from the new edition, but the book’s spirit remains intact.
Even Nancy Dell’Olio — touted by some (well, herself) as a future Italian foreign minister — says: “My priority is to please my man and that gives me more pleasure than anything else.”
All this comes, let it not be forgotten, not too long after Fay Weldon was publicly excoriated for saying that women would make their marriages happier and their own lives easier if, instead of nagging their husbands to pick their socks up and clean the loo, these women picked the socks up and wielded the bog brush themselves.
Should all this be regarded as a despicable, Vichy France-style surrender in the sex war? Should we deplore women playing up to regressive stereotypes with their kitschy, passive-aggressive, babydoll-nightie-and-kitten-heel-slipper-wearing shenanigans? Well: maybe and maybe not.
It’s suggested that all this may simply be the accommodation that intelligent, wellqualified women are forced to make when they “marry down”: that the cost of a happy family life, for such women, is soothing the male ego by allowing beta husbands to feel alpha in their domestic lives.
But that is to take a patronising and old-fashioned view of maleness. And it is only one half of the picture. There is a reciprocal phenomenon: those men who find themselves in the traditional provider role are making similar accommodations. There are flags of truce appearing on both sides — and signs of an enjoyable game of football breaking out in no man’s land. And this is where that less widely noticed phenomenon of the Surrendered Husband comes in. That is why, taken in the round, these surrenderings are not a reversal in the great cause of sexual emancipation: rather, they are a step forward. In both cases they are an indication that the people with power outside the home are seeking to yield it inside.
The clunky old winner-takes-all approach to sexual politics — the big man in the boardroom has to be the big man in the living room too — is slipping away. Empowered, high-earning, breadwinning women don’t have to adopt that paradigm wholesale. They can find a third way. There’s room for accommodation, role-play, and the graceful suggestion that marriage isn’t a competition but a collaboration: that feminism can mean more than simply giving women the whip hand. It might mean removing the whip from the equation altogether, or at least relegating it to the bedside table.
If you want a marriage to be successful, shouldn’t you want to make your other half feel good? Shouldn’t you want to let your other half feel in charge some of the time? Alpha females don’t betray their sex by being a bit submissive in the home; and nor do alpha males. Much as we live in a new age of Surrendered Wives, we also live in a new age of Surrendered Husbands. That’s to the good.
To adapt the Boss’s words, we made a promise: we said we’d always surrender. And for anyone wishing to be a Surrendered Husband, let me offer a few suggestions.
1 Submit, but don’t look like you’re submitting
This is the cardinal rule. Your wife wants a strong, independent man who knows his own mind and who says and does, exactly what she wants him to say and do — even if she doesn’t know until she sees it what she wants. She wants a man who will anticipate, rather than slavishly follow, her contradictory and capricious desires; a man who will make her happiness the centre of his world, but will never be complacent about her affections; a man very attractive to other women but who has eyes only for her. The last thing she wants is some sort of henpecked wimp.
2 Listen. I said LISTEN!
Seriously, this one’s a winner. I’ve done the research. A thrillingly bogus “scientists have found” story I once read in a middle-market newspaper claimed that men and women have a different number of words they need to speak each day: men grunt out their 500-word allowance at work, and then come home wanting to watch telly in silence; women have 4,000 or so to unload between the time he opens the door and bed. What was odd was that both me and my then girlfriend cut the article out of the paper, but she wouldn’t stop bloody talking about it.
3 Use flowers wisely and well
Flowers are your friend. Yes, they’re a cliché. Yes, they only need to be replaced. Yes, lilies that fester smell ranker than weeds (and lilies that aren’t festering can kill your cat if it eats them: fact). But they work. That is to say, they work when they are unexpected. They do not work when a) she has complained within the past ten days that you never give her flowers (oddly, though such a complaint must be acted on, it actually makes things worse only if you’re seen to be acting on it), b) you have something to apologise for, or c) it’s Valentine’s Day or her birthday, when they by and large just look unimaginative. Brands matter. Scarlet & Violet: good. John Lewis: borderline. Co-op: poor (even though they last wonderfully). Esso: don’t even think about it.
4 Don’t expect sex. Not even on your birthday
Hoping, sure — “hoping” is fine. Indeed, it’s compulsory. But while it is quite proper that the unwavering beam of your erotic attention should fasten at all times on the nymph-like form of your beloved, it is a dangerous presumption to take for granted the idea that the fixation of said beam grants some sort of reciprocal entitlement. That said — and here, perhaps more than in any other area of life, the peculiar and complex nature of the Surrendered Husband’s position is made manifest — you must also never, ever, say “thank you” after sex. Not even if it seems like the polite thing to do. The trick is to be really dominating and alpha, but only when she wants you to be.
5 Take fatherhood seriously
That means changing nappies and doing all that new man stuff, of course. If you can let her occasionally catch sight of you — as if by accident — cuddling your newborn son to your naked chest (with your stomach sucked in and wearing that nice pair of jeans — not the boxer shorts with Peppa Pig on them) so much the better. But it also means doing everything you can to make her life as a mother easier than that of previous generations, while emphatically and plausibly agreeing with her that she has it harder than her mum ever did. And, no, you don’t have breasts — but you can be involved in feeding. Think the hell ahead and purée some butternut.
6 Do the cooking
Not all of it. She might want to be able to spend time in the kitchen without you bossing her about, re-seasoning her soup or quietly adjusting the hobs under her sauté pan. But don’t be that guy who boasts “I do most of the cooking” and means by it that whenever there’s the opportunity to show off to guests he’s the one who mangles something out of Heston or Yotam. Do the boring, thankless cooking too: the weekday soup, the Sunday night poached eggs, or the macaroni cheese. And wash up afterwards.
7 Accept change
Heraclitus said that you cannot step into the same river twice. Some other smart-arse replied that you cannot step into the same river once. We take the point. To make a grotesquely sexist generalisation (which is the point of articles like these): men tend to cherish the comfort of what’s familiar, while women will tend to want fresh beauty around them. The Surrendered Husband must let go of material things, be they cluttery books, unsightly items of inherited furniture, or well-loved cardigans. “I thought we agreed on this rug two years ago!” is not the way to play it. You miss the point. She cares about how her environment looks: you would rather not think about it. Let her have her way.
8 Don’t fall into the classic male errors
That is: if she has a problem, don’t start trying to suggest practical solutions. She wants to talk about the problem, not solve it. If she was after a solution, don’t you think she’d have asked someone more likely to have one? She doesn’t need an idiot like you treating it like your second shot at the Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award. Likewise, don’t get all “rational”. The fact no human being can discern any difference between Farrow and Ball and Dulux doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
9 Initiate things
Let it be you who suggests the mini-break in the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel, the family trip to the zoo, or the why-don’t-I-take-the-kids-so-you-can-get-a-massage morning. If you initiate it, rather than assent to it, the credit and pleasure you get is unimaginably larger. Rather than mutual resentment — she asks, you shrug OK, she feels invisible and unloved, you feel nagged and harried — you can bask in smugness. The net effect on time and finances is exactly the same: you will spend that morning with the children watching Fireman Sam, while she gasps and yelps under Gunther’s tender ministrations.
10 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
The refrain of 1: Corinthians 13:7 should be your own. You must learn to construe a range of different behaviours — some of them unnatural — as acts of love. Let us cite some instances. Not eating a kebab before bed is an act of love — whether or not you forgo the chilli sauce. Taking a perfectly good piece of fish and cooking it in a steamer is an act of love. Going to the gym is an act of love. Eating a meal that doesn’t involve carbs is an act of love. Making space in the fridge for whatever the hell it is that the Dukan Diet involves is an act of love. Be patient. Remember: you might want to involve her in some unnatural acts of love yourself at some point.