When Haley pitched an op-ed that would implore the retirement of (heterosexual) “husband sayings” like “Happy wife, happy life,” and “She’s the boss,” she was met with some contention from Leandra, who claimed she rather enjoys them. Thus, a debate was born. Read both their stances below and then weigh in with one of your own.
The first time I heard the expression, “Happy wife, happy life,” I was a junior in college and found it kind of charming. It was presented to me as relationship advice from a financial professor prone to didactic hallway stop-and-chats, and it followed a rhetorical question: Want to hear my one and only piece of advice for a long and happy relationship?
My boyfriend at the time and I had a running joke that we “wanted a divorce” whenever we annoyed each other, and so the phrase came into playful circulation between us. I imagine that’s exactly what Leandra will say when she defends its use: that it’s cute, sort of a joke, but also an earnest commentary on mutual service. (Am I right or wrong? I haven’t read her defense yet.) But over the years, I’ve come to cringe whenever I hear it, just as I have its cliché cousins: “She’s got me on a tight leash!,” or, “Ask the wife, she’s the boss!”
These expressions, which, in my opinion, dovetail perfectly with another, more-sexist era than our own, reinforce a hetero-normative paradigm wherein women and men aren’t on equal footing in love and commitment. In this archetype, women are either the nagging housewives, the uptight show-runners, the sole bearers of familial responsibilities, or the delicate flowers, the unpredictable saps, the weaker halves in need of extra TLC. When a man holds up his hands as if to say, “Whatever she wants!,” doesn’t a husband in some way insult both her humanity and his own?
Let me explain it another way: Imagine you’re babysitting three kids and all of them are misbehaving. As your control of them continues to spiral out, you decide to take the oldest kid aside and boost her ego: “I need your help,” you tell her. “I need you to be in charge for a while. You’re very mature and responsible. That’s the only reason I’m asking you.” You don’t say that, necessarily, because she is indeed mature; you say it to patronize her, to give her the false impression that she’s the babysitter’s assistant instead of the baby.
“She’s the boss” gives me that same feeling. Is she really the boss? Or are you just placating her? To me, the phrase seems facetious, as if to imply the wife is so unreasonable, her whims so unpredictable, that the best way through a decision is not a level-headed dialogue, but by throwing up hands and letting her decide. Or, in a different tone, the phrase could be an excuse for a man to not take on the emotional labor of weighing a decision. Both are sexist, obviously.
I don’t think people are so malicious in using these, I just want to get as far away from these gender stereotypes as possible. I want to get to a place where monogamous relationships, in their ideal form, include two whole people capable of worlds of emotion who are equally deserving of love, compassion, understanding and, most importantly, a say.
“Happy wife, happy life” reduces a woman to her illogical unknowability, and reduces a man to his unwillingness to understand her. It also robs them both of their due agency. It’s not that I don’t think these expressions can exist without those things being true (I’m sure many people don’t really feel that way), but I fear their continued use is keeping an old, harmful perspective alive through subtle turns of phrase.
It hasn’t occurred to me in any salient way that Abie, my husband, uses the particularities of such tropes as, “She’s the boss,” and, “Happy wife, happy life,” to describe me when we are in the presence of company. Usually this company is distant — acquaintances at best, straight up passersby at worst — but I have heard him portray me on what may largely be considered a condescending pedestal among the feminist community to those who are closest to us, too.
Until a recent edit meeting, when Haley mentioned her disdain for such remarks within marriage, I did not recognize that I was the unwitting victim of these maxims. Only I don’t actually feel like a victim. As a matter of fact, I find it sweet that my partner should call me “the boss.”
Maybe it would feel patronizing if I wasn’t an equal at home, if I didn’t feel heard or contribute to every decision that is made (and bill that is paid) under our roof, if I felt the pang of domestic disrespect. But I don’t; my husband is a class act feminist, a freedom fighter dedicated to The Cause. And, not to get too caught up in the minutiae or to take this assignment so literally, but I have seen firsthand that when I am not happy, it has a sincere impact on Abie. It can fuck up his day and sometimes his month. It might make him feel impotent.
The last three years, for example, felt like one drawn out, deflated doctor visit and I am sure, if not certain, that if my attitude were better, if I had been more willing to “see the light,” his would have been, too. There is a nuanced note of failure that only I can detect in his tone when, sometimes, he says, “Happy wife, happy life.”
It breaks my heart not because I feel pressure to experience joy in order to accommodate his small talk, but because I know it makes him wonder: where did I go wrong? He hasn’t gone wrong, I’m complicated, and his willingness to embrace genuine empathy, not to say or think, “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling,” but to sit down next to me and feel it with me, that’s real.
Maybe the other piece of my comfort in his prose has less to do with what I consider erect honesty or sincerity, and more with the way I’ve been absorbing feminism. It is so easy to find yourself on the defense, ready to catch every open-for-interpretation remark that is thrown your way with fire emanating from the throat. We’ve been conditioned to do this and I am just as responsible as the next for appeasing the outrage machine as such. We pit ourselves against the other sex: men. Sometimes, we define feminism by the rules of doing this.
But I don’t want to play that game. To fall so squarely into a stereotype that may accidentally alienate instead of humanize our cause. I don’t believe that because I enjoy when my husband extends the courtesy of publicly announcing my household rulership, I’m not a feminist. I revel in few things more than I do feeling his support — the trampoline of love that is always beneath me — and that does not make me any less strong or independent. Am I a narcissist because we have seemingly prioritized my happiness over his? (I have yet to come up with a single rhyme to exemplify his happiness as my own), probably. But that is a story for another time. Today, I’m just a happy wife.
Collages by Emily Zirimis.