The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 15th, 2007

The good wife is an old fashioned realist

How to be a perfect wife is not, you might have thought, a very contemporary question. Decades of feminism have been much more concerned with how to be a perfect career woman, exotic lover, fully fledged fashionista, alpha female and, latterly, yummy mummy; being a wife has been somewhat incidental, even for those who get married or stay married.

Gloomy research appears from time to time, suggesting that when women who try to have it all find they can’t, the first thing they give up on is their husbands, not least on sex with their husbands. That may be partly why two marriages out of three end in divorce and most people don’t marry at all; marriage rates are at their lowest since records began.

So was rather quaint to read in The Times last week an article entitled “In search of the good wife”, complete with a questionnaire from 1958. “Do you renew your nail varnish as soon as it chips?” it demands. “Do you go through his clothes every month or so to check on minor repairs? And then do you make them? Would you stay on at a party when you knew he was tired and wanted to go home? Do you use table napkins? Do you know the cheapest cuts of meat? Do you clean your handbag as often as you clean your shoes? Do you resent it when he has a night out with the boys?”

A familiar picture soon emerges of a carefully groomed woman with primped hair and a wasp waist who calms down the children and touches up her lipstick when her husband comes home from work, listens charmingly to his day’s debriefing, and then offers him a well cooked but thrifty dinner.

There was a time not so long ago when that would have been simply ridiculous. This traditional vision of matrimonial labour was considered not just laughable but repressive: a woman’s abilities and ambitions were sacrificed to her husband’s, without any security other than his goodwill.

Now, though, it seems that this vision is being revisited, and not only by Stepford wives, or those alarming “surrendered wives” of the American religious right. Ordinary women are at last beginning to realise that feminists, in their passionate rejection of traditional marriage, may have thrown out the man with the bathwater, and that they rather wish they hadn’t. A man, like a woman, needs an incentive to get married and stay married; feminism forgot that, and forgot too that marriage is more in women’s interests than in men’s.

So the old fashioned question has become interesting again, at least for women who want to find and keep a husband and realise, increasingly, how difficult that is: what makes a good wife? I think women should start by facing some awkward facts.

It’s a mistake in any relationship to insist too much on egalitarian principles. Feminism, understandably, has concentrated too much on women’s rights and, by extension, too much on husbands’ duties. Why, on top of working long hours and forsaking all others, would a man put out the garbage and change the nappies for a woman who is too busy with her own career and too tired by her own schedule to bother much about him? Or, to be blunt, to have sex with him?

It may be his duty to put up and shut up and keep on doing the late night feeds and the early morning commuting, but it’s hardly very appealing. Nor is insisting on these duties a very clever way of trying to hold on to a husband, if that is what a woman wants.

One hard fact a would-be wife has to face — and I was absolutely horrified to realise this myself — is that it’s not possible for a married couple to have two demanding jobs and children and a good relationship. Something has to give. If the relationship has to be neglected, then the marriage will fail, which will be very bad for the children. If the children are neglected, then the marriage is worthless anyway.

So something must give on the work front and this is probably, for many women, the price of being a good wife and having a good marriage. Unless a couple are extremely well paid, and have plenty of domestic help, her brilliant career will have to be less brilliant for a while; she will have to spend some time in the Mummy lane.

It could, of course, be the other way round. But another harsh truth is that alpha males won’t stay at home in the Daddy lane and nor will plenty of other males of all descriptions; they refuse to be ersatz housewives. They would rather not get married, and as the figures show, increasingly they aren’t, and increasingly, if they are, they move out. So rule number one for a wife is to forget about equal rights and entitlements. Think instead about motivation.

When you want to please your child, or your lover, you think hard about what might make them happy and then do it. It’s not a chore, or even if it is that hardly matters; it’s an act of love or of loyalty. Yet strangely, in marriage this obvious motivational technique seems to wither away with the wedding flowers. Women are convinced it is their right not to have sex when they don’t feel like it, and it is a man’s duty to wash up, though he hates it — and so it is, of course. But that’s not the point. Granny was right; never say no, and never nag.

I think that my generation, and later ones even more so, have been led astray by romantic 1960s notions of sincerity and authenticity; it began to be believed that in the name of existential good faith and psychological well being individuals ought always to act and speak in accordance with their feelings — telling it like is and letting it all hang out. So sex without passionate desire — the boffe de politesse of a kindly marriage — is inauthentic.

Similarly, talking without expressing all one’s resentments and expectations and anxieties is a kind of insincerity, or dishonesty even. But this rather adolescent attitude is entirely at odds with the tolerance, discretion and generosity of body and spirit needed in a good marriage.

Husbands are mostly quite simple. Generally, what they want is unlimited, enthusiastic sex, constant reassurance, good food and plenty of freedom, of at least three of these four. Some can be trained to be very helpful domestically and some even enjoy it; but most are not bred for it. But they have many excellent and endearing qualities; the rewards of living with a well-motivated husband, if not quite above rubies, are very considerable, high though the price may be.