Haley and Leandra Debate the Phrase “Happy Wife, Happy Life”
10.13.17

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.


Haley, Anti

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.


Leandra, Pro

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.

Get more Postmodern Love ?
  • When I clicked, all I could think was “There is no way I’ll agree with Leandra” and then you went ahead and made a compelling case.

  • Cara Reaume

    I think Haley’s drawing from the historic use of these phrases within relationships that had a real economic, power, commitment and emotional imbalance – they originated in a time when most relationships *were* imbalanced. When taken in this historical context, they do feel patronizing and minimizing to me. And because sexism within relationships/marriages still exists today (sometimes in small, covert ways), I also am averse to hearing them. Like Haley said, I want to get as far away from that as possible. That being said, I can understand how within a modern and objectively balanced relationship, like Leandra’s, there is no reason to take offense to them. Finding them endearing doesn’t make you any less of a feminist (of course). For me though, they’re a relic from an sexist era whose dismissive connotations are still too loud for me to ignore. (And thank you MR, for sparking this discussion.)

    • stinevincent

      I agree here. I would just like to add that neither of these arguments really engage that much with the other. Leandra’s argument is a common one: “I feel fine about X thing that might be troublesome on a global level, therefore, it’s fine.” Haley’s argument is also familiar: “X thing, repeated often, may not be entirely benign.” The argument isn’t, “X should make you feel bad,” so how X makes you feel isn’t relevant. And the whole, “let’s go along with littler un-PC things so as not to alienate people” is not something I expected to hear from Leandra. If people are unwilling to even think about the wider repercussions of the little stuff, the lower-stakes stuff, then they’re probably kind of an asshole. And I don’t think feminism as a movement benefits from catering to assholes.

      • Cara Reaume

        Totally get you. But I disagree with your point that “The argument isn’t, “X should make you feel bad,” so how X makes you feel isn’t relevant.” – isn’t the argument that Haley’s making, in an abstract way, that X should make you feel bad? Because we’re really saying that these phrases are damaging to women, to us, in relationships. That they make us feel patronized, and well, bad. And so Leandra’s countering that she doesn’t feel emotionally slighted by them seems to be a valid argument, to me.

        Though I think you’re alluding to an important larger question: despite how they make you feel personally, do we have a collective responsibility to retire these phrases given their historical use to reduce women?

        Maybe. Maybe it should be part of the feminist agenda, given their damage. I think in my original comment I was hesitant to critique Leandra’s pov because she’d used “her feminism” as a defense. And I’m so afraid of policing women’s expressions of feminism that sometimes I forget that it’s okay to call them out if problematic. If “your feminism” – in this case perpetuating these phrases – is damaging to a large amount of women – in this case those that aren’t lucky enough to be in fully-equal partnerships, aka *lots* of women (I’m from suburban MI and see this constantly) – then maybe it is problematic.

  • Coconut

    I agree with Leandra.

    Sometimes my partner uses the “you’re the boss” phrase in front of other people. Sometimes I say “You decide this. Whatever you decide will make me happy too.” – this is when I let HIM be the boss, when I know he cares more about the outcome of situations, when he’s more educated about the topic or when I want to let him decide because I simply don’t really care. And very often, we say these things to compliment the others good taste in something.
    I’m convinced we’re essentially saying the same thing. – The only difference is that he has a thing for dad jokes.

  • Fereshteh-Faith Oftadeh

    Such a well-written piece. Leandra’s thoughts were so honest and sincere. Haley’s thoughts were strong and significant, however both writers can be described exactly the same way. I was significantly moved by two perspectives, both so logical and relatable.

  • Charlie

    I agree with Haley. Those phrases always make me cringe. Although I do understand Leandra’s thoughts. I think every comment that fits into this category also fits into a certain context – Leandra’s affecting it in a positive way. But having that said, others don’t know the personal, even intimate, details of that context and putting words out in the world also reminds people that these phrases exist (for example, I completely forgot about the word predominantly until I started reading MR). I personally hate the term girl boss.

  • K

    Interesting debate! I’m on Haley’s side: get rid of them. Women were given the title of “the boss” of the domestic environment to appease them for the lack of real power they had elsewhere. I neither want to be the boss of the domestic environment/ relationship (because men should take responsibility in that area too) nor lack power elsewhere!

  • The faster this stuff is out of the social consciousness the better it will be for the kids and upcoming generations. Whenever I hear/see these “harmless” tropes, all I picture is this: A bunch of straight,white, males going back forever in this country making all the decisions what got created, decided and published what they thought was “funny”. Being gay & in my 50’s, I just see things differently. I guess it’s better that people aren’t feeling bothered by it. But, if you make these jokes around me, man or woman, your gonna get a very nonplussed look from me.

    • Charlie

      Social consciousness was the word I was looking for when I was writing my comment. Thanks Wally!

    • Babs

      I agree with this. I think it’s less about how we personally feel about these sentiments and more about the stereotypes they encourage. Knowing the negative/patronizing weight these phrases carry, it seems almost lazy on both parts to accept them as endearing. Why not shoot for a compliment that’s more sincere, specific to your partner, and that doesn’t carry all the baggage?

    • Bo

      Love using nonplussed reactions to shut bad jokers down. And if they then try to explain it to you like you’re too dumb to understand, I whip out, “oh I understood it fine, it’s just…not…funny.” Nothing works better.

  • Emily

    Really enjoyed reading this piece –language is so important, as is the historical context of language. I’m in a relationship with a woman and we occasionally make jokes like this to each other because in this case there are TWO WIVES so it is ironic and about a partnership between two people. I am also definitely going to get this shirt once we get married:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/936f8e75af601dea2feea1a04ecd1d1d4b7b18c789a2e6d811bcdfac70af5b02.jpg

    • JennyWren

      LOL, I was just thinking that a same-sex relationship would really be the only equitable way to use this phrase!

  • Katrine Loris

    I am completely with Leandra on this one. When you know you stand as true equals in your home and in your relationship, these nuances do not carry the weight that they may in less fortunate relationships. When my husband says “Happy wife, happy life” it means, for me, that he’s working on keeping our life happy – not the lives we live outside of one another.

  • Emily Stark

    Whenever I hear “happy wife happy life” I always imagine that the opposite is true. If you don’t keep your wife happy, she’ll make your life hell. And that is a really sexist sentiment. That you give your wife power or boss-status so that she won’t be upset is infantilizing and plays into the nagging wife trope.

    Also, saying your wife is the boss also plays into that annoying thing guys do where they use stupidity as their best defense.

    • Coconut

      But “happy wife happy life” doesn’t necessary mean “when she’s not happy, she’ll make my life hell”.
      The only thing it really says is “I’m happy when she’s happy”, the rest is interpretation.

      • Kate

        Like Emily, I have always thought that the statement really meant, “be careful not to make her angry because who knows what crazy things an unhappy woman could do!” So I have always hated that phrase.

      • Lady Grinning Soul

        Absolutely.
        I have seen it many times in my husband’s face, when I am not happy, he is not happy. And vice-versa. I think women could be a little less armed, you know? Just chill sometimes…

  • Jane

    I genuinely think the meaning of and the motive behind those phrases is dependent on the type of relationship you have with your partner. I’ve seen it said between couples where there is a lot of resentment and hurt and that’s where, I think, Haley’s perspective makes sense – it’s typically used in a derogatory way then. But in a healthy relationship you’re looking out for each other’s happiness so, to Leandra’s point, it’s sweet and charming and comes from a true place like, “Yes! Do what makes you feel happy because that makes me feel happy too!”

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    I relate more to Leandra on this. Each household is different. A saying isn’t what defines the relationship between partners, or even influences it, it’s the individuals-their cultural and familial backgrounds and their culture together. While I understand Haley’s perspective, and share the ideals behind it, I think that how those sorts of sayings apply to modern day relationships, and what “she’s the boss,” “ask the boss” really means, depends on what is actually happening at home.

    • Babs

      The thing is, we’re not talking about things said privately within your household, but rather, publicly to others. I’m not saying we should care what others think, only that words matter. How we speak about our relationship in public has an effect. I would rather spread a message of true equality and shared value than one that calls that into question.

      • Charlie

        I think you hit the nail on the head here Babs by saying ‘one that calls that into question’.

  • YouandWhoseArmy

    I appreciate if you enjoy equality and emotional understanding in your relationship, but these phrases were created with the intent to alternately condescend to or demean women and reduce them to emotional, bossy, or shrill stereotypes. They haven’t aged well and aren’t cute merely bc we’re lucky enough to be in a generation where women are finally enjoying equal partnerships. I appreciate Leandra’s take, but I don’t think it’s helpful to perpetuate them.

  • I’m team Haley on this one. While I see Leandra’s point (prob because I’m also married to a feminist male), what makes the phrases even marginally acceptable is the amazing amount of feminist work that’s going on behind the scenes, and that work isn’t visible or understood by the heteronormative, sexist culture at large. I don’t think the phrases can be said by Abie, even with him having the best of intentions, without being misconstrued by someone who’s listening to him say them.

    • sq

      I think you make a better point than both Haley and Leandra combined.

  • tshirtshark

    This is very real to me right now. I think I’m on the fence. On the one hand I’m with Haley – in that it creates a model that I have been struggling to distance myself from. On the other – I am in a similar boat as Leandra. I will say being married probably changes how you absorb these sort of things. I used to think being married and being in an LTR were the same. But they’re not. You’re thoroughly locked in to one – and you have to pick your battles.

  • padutchchick

    Having had two husbands who cared not one whit for my happiness, I would not mind one that did! (yes, I know I’m responsible for my own. It just would be nice had they thought about me now and then. Ancient history!) But that being said, I still hear this a lot. A LOT. Especially from my boss, whose wife IS the boss. He even has a t-shirt that says “yes, dear.” There are sometimes I envy these women with highly cooperative husbands. I never even knew they existed.

  • kay

    it’s so awesome that MR did this article bc this phrase is such thing. when i got engaged and started hearing it all the time i was like what? it was jarring bc it was unlike any expectation that had existed in my actual relationships. i side with haley and to make my case I’m going to use an intersectional example that has been unpacked more broadly and is better understood than “happy wife happy life”. I’m using this intersectional example bc i think i can make the case that oppression is operating the same way in both, and the unpacked one shows how to unravel the more unexamined one. consider when a white person says of a black person “they are so articulate”. it’s meant as a compliment, it’s probably accurate, and being articulate really is a great skill to have. none of these are the problem, the problem is that it betrays the low low expectations of an oppressive stereotype. you can hear it in the tone that it’s usually said (surprised/impressed admiration), the fact that it’s said so often, and who it’s said about- you don’t hear people exclaiming “so articulate!” about white people. the oppressive subtext of the articulate comment is “look at this cute animal who learned words”. it’s an indirect expression of white supremacy. the oppressive subtext of happy wife happy life is “you better give that cute animal her treats on the regular or she will shit in your shoe”. you can hear it in the tone (bemused warning), the fact that its said so often, and who it’s said about- you never hear happy husband happy life. yes “happy wife happy life” is probably accurate, it’s meant in love, and happiness is a good goal in marriage. none of these are the problem, the problem is that it betrays the low low expectations of an oppressive stereotype. the husband has the life and the wife, the wife is no more than something to placate. it’s an indirect expression of patriarchal oppression. the false logic of oppression is that the oppressed don’t have much mental capacity, and that is operating in both the happy wife and articulate comments.
    if you like this saying, you like it. if it means something nice in your marriage, then it does. but the *cultural content* of “happy wife happy life” is the content of oppressive stereotyping. it could be reclaimed but it’s important to understand the original meaning.

    • Elli rvs

      YES and thank you!

  • la.petite.celtique

    What an interesting debate!!
    Generally speaking I totally agree with Haley and with the idea of letting those kind of expressions in the old era where they came from. Unfortunately our society still being far from the equal one that all of us want and deserve.
    That said, only you know the truth behind every word, expression, jokes, believes, tastes….of your partner, only you know your

  • Abby

    I personally don’t mind it, my husband says stuff about me being “the boss” or “happy wife, happy life” but honestly in my relationship it’s completely true so it doesn’t bother me.

  • Miciah

    Theres nothing wrong w/ supporting your woman and making her feel like her opinions and thoughts are valid and distictive. Youre being assigned worth by your partnr when he says, “Happy wife, happy life”. Any head strong woman would appreciate that attitude of a husband who is naturally meant to be the head of his own household.

    • Emily

      I feel like the idea that the husband is “naturally meant to be the head of his own household” expressed here is exactly the basis for why these expressions don’t really work in a more egalitarian situation, where both ‘rule the household’ equally

      • Miciah

        I get your point, but the only downfall w/ that is that marriage is between two DIFERENT human beings, so naturally they will not agree on every topic. If one mates yields to another’s choice at least sometimes it creates a happy equilibrium. IN MY OPINION, I believe wome are typically more emotional than men ( nt that men are not allowed to be emotional). Thus by letting said wife get her way, if u will, husband doesn’t have to deal w/ the backlash a wife may bring to the table in response to her husband’s decision.

        • kay

          you just stated the exact stereotype that makes this expression problematic. the stereotype is women are more emotional, less rational, and can’t emotionally handle not getting their way, like a child throwing a tantrum. many women are raised to fulfill this expectation, and watch it modeled in their families. but it is not a fact that this is the fundamental nature of women.
          this stereotype comes from the male perspective of confusion and disgust that women can’t control their bodies- menstruation, birth, nursing, the messiness, the smells, the changes of motherhood. the male conception of all this is that it makes women animalistic, instinctual, closer to nature- and things in nature are subject to the seasons and have no will or agency to overcome their instincts. thus the thing that makes humans human- our ability to make choices- is diminished in women, in this age-old oppressive mythology. you can see these ideas in most religions and you can find this expressed in nearly these exact words all throughout history.
          the idea that women are more emotional than men, that they will respond irrationally when they don’t get their way, and can’t be appealed to reasonably but must just be yielded to, comes directly from the line of thought that women operate instinctively and have less control over their nature and can’t be held accountable for their behavior. because they can’t be expected to make choices. because they are more like animals and children, and less like human agents with the capacity for human will. and thus, men, having a higher understanding but yet compelled to live with a more natural creature, must oblige and indulge, and lower their expectations. because they are not dealing with an equal.

          • Miciah

            I think that you are taking what I said too far, and too deep. What I said does not imply that women are like animals, ONLY acting on instinct. I will no longer engage in this convo because it’s going nowhere. Best to you and your associates/ colleagues.

      • Miciah

        BUT Yes, women and men are both equal individuals, humans if u will- but there are just certain dynamics we can’t act like are not there.

  • María

    #teamhaley

  • Elise

    I think this comes down to two questions: can we allow these sayings to exist in a contemporary context? And how do we define this contemporary context?

    As Haley has pointed out, these originate from a time when women and men were not equal and when marriage had strictly embedded gender roles. It’s easy to feel far removed from this time, but this is still a reality a lot of people live in– I would suggest much more so outside of the liberal, urban bubbles we live in. Leandra references a context specific to her own relationship, one in which she feels respected, equal, and loved (which is awesome, seriously). The thing is, I have a hard time thinking it’s OK to keep allowing these sayings when there are plenty of relationships in which this isn’t the case. By mindlessly repeating these sayings in today’s context, aren’t we just reinforcing these constructs that still exist and have always existed? We can make fun of them, and maybe they’ve changed meaning in very specific contexts (i.e. Leandra’s relationship, and I want to say urban environments in which traditional values have loosened), but overall they haven’t. I’m speaking to my experience living in both rural and urban areas across the U.S., and referencing a certain amount of privilege that comes from living in “enlightened” urban areas. Plenty of the country is steeped in traditional values that devalue women and pull from a time of super obvious inequality. Language reflects reality, and the reality is that 95% of the time I’ve heard this saying, it’s been super patronizing (and afterwards a group of old white men with beer bellies chuckle to themselves). Tbh we aren’t past this and these sayings show it.

    Is it ironic if only you think it is?

  • Leandra, I feel you very much …

    (I am afraid my love and I use a very simple method to deal with cliches concerning marriage: we use them ironically and laugh at them all the time. Nevertheless, we live by the principle “Happy spouse happy house” because we want to.)

    • JennyWren

      I LOVE “Happy spouse happy house.” That is a great way of talking about a loving and reciprocal relationship.

      • Thank you: I did come up with the expression while reading this post, it was tickling my brainand it sounded so true.
        I was also once considered the boss in our marriage, by a French maitre, no less, and we still laugh about that. We do take turns to boss around in necessary situations (eg. I tend to set up and encourage certain regular homework behaviors and he sees to it that our/my workout regimen is good)

    • Angela

      That is much better. It’s all about balance!

  • Kristin

    Oooh good points on both sides. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive arguments. I am the female, kvetchier, and more demanding half of my relationship, and I hear a lot of these phrases. But it doesn’t make me feel patronized; I’m equal, I’m just the squeakier wheel.

  • Kiera

    Is this not proof that everyone’s interpretation of words and the feeling that comes from hearing them be derived from the person speaking them and your personal sense of what that individual means along with the situation in which they were spoken? I think we get into deep trouble when we characterize a set of words to mean or represent ONE thing. How limiting. How boring. Why give words power rather than seek your own truth? A good reason to write from both perspectives, but dangerous when viewed as right or wrong.

  • JennyWren

    I think for me it’s very telling that there is no equivalent expression that women use about men. There’s no generally recognized, jokey, ironic way of saying “He’s the boss!” because society assumes that men will take the lead and that women will be nurturing and supportive. Likewise, we don’t have to say “Happy husband, happy life!” because we take it for granted that men will do whatever they like anyway.

    I also don’t like the idea that relationships have a fixed dynamic. My husband and I take the lead in different things, and sometimes they fall along traditional gender lines and sometimes they don’t. I don’t think it’s sustainable to lable someone the “boss,” even in jest, or place somone in the position of being the taker or the giver.

    I think there are better ways to signal when your partner is taking the lead on something, and better ways to say that you’re being supportive of your partner. Using a hackneyed expression like these seems to be almost offering an excuse for something that needs no justification. You don’t have to take offence at them, they’re just lazy and disappointing.

    • Kate

      Your first paragraph. THAT’S the argument right there. Nailed it.

    • sweetlooweeze

      YES exactly you make a good point with that as well. Men FORGET to make us happy sometimes— they need that reminder!

  • Emily

    I agree with Haley! Something about these phrases does rub me the wrong way, and they stem from a patriarchal meaning and historical source, even if they are contextualized by a certain truth to the fact that if one’s partner isn’t happy, it’s hard to be happy one’s self – but this could be phrased in a nicer and more egalitarian way as just simply saying “I’m happy when she’s happy” or “i feel best when I can make her happy.” just my two cents

  • I don’t have a problem with “happy wife, happy life” as much as I do with “she’s the boss”. Happy wife, happy life seemed kind of innocent because each person in the relationship should be prioritizing each other’s happiness (as well as their own, of course) but I’ve never really thought of the origins. Haley does make an excellent point when you consider it though.
    She’s the boss really bothers me because a relationship is a partnership and no one should be the sole boss. Someone recently asked my boyfriend if I was the boss in the relationship and he said yes out of politeness/friendliness, but I still felt so uncomfortable that I said our dog was the boss.

  • Marie-Eve

    Haley! 👏👏👏
    “reinforce a hetero-normative paradigm wherein women and men aren’t on equal footing in love and commitment.”

  • Jam Jam

    Yes! It really grates when I work with “powerful” and/or wealthy men who go out of their way to point out how their wife “wears the pants” or that he “married up”. I only hear it from men with stay-at-home wives, so it’s like he’s acknowledging that they both know she has less power, but have agreed to pretend otherwise.

  • Bo

    You know, until I read this, I never even construed “happy wife, happy life” as condescending or sexist. I always read it the way Leandra’s described, as a comment that men should put effort into their marriage and to making their wives happy because marriage takes up such an major, important part of their lives – i.e, it’s unlikely you’ll have a truly happy life if you’re not putting the effort into your marriage to make your wife unhappy.

    Now, as for the “she’s the boss”, “whatever the missus wants”, etc – my dad uses these about my mum on a daily basis and you know, you would be hard-pressed to find a household with more authority stacked towards the woman than my parents’ house! My mum has the final say over the major decisions – not in a gratuitous sense, nor because she’s neurotic or nags or to ‘soothe her nerves’, but because she’s a brilliant critical thinker, patient, rational, incredibly financially savvy and has a good heart (She’s also the boss at her workplace, for the same reasons). Dad knows all of these things and worked out a long time ago that good outcomes are often associated with consulting Mum first. He’s not trying to talk her down when he says “she’s the boss”, he’s just stating a fact and is happy to defer to her judgement.
    So, having grown up in the environment where the woman really is the boss, I came quite late to the party to realising it was more often used condescendingly than factually, in my parents’ context. It’s fascinating that when a male outsider, eg a friend of mine/the family etc, sees my parents’ relationship at work, they’ll whip out “ooooh, she’s the boss”, but not in the way dad uses it; they’re using the old sarcastic meaning. Even when they can see for themselves right in front of them that that isn’t how my parents’ relationship works, that my mother’s decision-making is genuinely respected, they need to try to re-frame it to a more soothing narrative, like this is all a show! He’s just letting her run off steam before taking charge again! Like they need to just bring her down a few pegs in their mind. Talk about neurotic.

    • sq

      I was going to comment a similar thing about my parents relationship. I’ve heard my dad refer to my mum as the boss all my life, and it’s because there is truth in that, she makes all the main decisions and runs the finances. They both seem happy with their dynamic. I suppose maybe their relationship is different to what people my age might aim for. I’d call my parents relationship equal even though they have different roles.

  • Rosie

    Both good arguments.
    My problem with the phrase comes down to the way, traditionally at least, it’s usage implies that a wife must be ‘kept happy’ – that she is not capable of being happy without her husband’s input. And so also, that it is work for a man to do, to keep his wife happy – not something he does innately because he wants and encourages her happiness. The old gender separator – ‘wants’ and ‘duties’.

    I think also the implication that the husband will not have a happy life, if he does not keep his wife happy, is suggestive of ‘nagging’, a.k.a. a wife making reasonable requests of her husband for equal work in a relationship, and him viewing her requests as an annoyance, to be avoided. This concept of a man devaluing the thoughts and opinions of his life partner are very difficult.

    I think on the surface the phrase is innocent enough – and I am quite sure any modern man using the phrase today means it differently – perhaps to mean ‘I really don’t mind what we choose so I’m happy for you to make this decision, if you want to’ or ‘seeing my wife happy makes me feel very genuine happiness – my life would be a half life if my partner was unhappy’

    I suppose then you can see that the merit of the phrase depends on the intended meaning, or the received meaning.

    Also it reminds me of the 50’s/60’s quite a lot.

  • Jay

    Do you know this feeling that you want to take a position in a discussion, but you just cant?!

    Haley, I got you. Leandra, so did I.

    I just recently had a discussion with my BF about that.

    Cause he was all like „happy wife, happy life“. And it was nice. But I felt kinda degraded. Or not taking seriously, guess that‘s the better expression. And most of all, I felt like him not being him.

    So we talked.

    And that was so important…

    Cause I think it is all good if it comes naturally, and both sides are cool with it.

    We just met. And it was like: He says right out what he thinks. So do I. We agree to disagree. And that‘s cool. He kisses me on the street. I dont like that in public, that much. Normally. But ok. If he likes it… Then again, I feel like kissing him on the cheek, randomly. He is surprised. But it is fine. I do something embarrassing by going on the swings at a playground. He takes pictures. Not making a weird comment. And I dont comment that he keeps repeating himself on this one story all the time (well I do, but I dont judge…) I guess this is kind of a balance. Accepting the weirds. And letting each other be…

    So be like „Happy him, happy life“ some times, and „happy me, happy life“ others.

    If that makes any sense?

  • Michelle

    Sexist sayings take me back to my childhood. My father is a very arrogant and sexist man who refers to “women’s work” and asks me “how is your lord and master?” aka my husband. It kills me inside! He uses every sexist saying in the book to this day and alienates women. While I can see how the phrase “happy wife happy life” could be cute, its simply not in my experience. It works both ways. Happy husband & happy wife = happy life. If my husband is unhappy, it affects me and our marriage and vice versa.

  • Senka

    “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.” This!!!

    It resonated with me, because really too many times we pit ourselves against male gender as such due to many historical power imbalances between sexes, so often we attack and hurt those who deserve it the less. The actual allies, feminist men. I have done that myself. Everyone can make a mistake, and say something slightly insensitive out of habit, or just because he or she heard it one too many times. But let’s not punish those who are actually on our side, just because they are the ones willing to listen and have conversation, and we need someone to lash out on.

  • Madeline Polton

    As on of three kids, my dad used to say that he was only has happy as his most unhappy child. This makes us sounds like at all times, one of us was deeply depressed but thats not the case. I guess it was more, if one of us was really going through something hard or sad, he would feel that for us too. Maybe, what Leandra is feeling goes both ways. If my husband is struggling, I know that I certainly take it with me. Same with my daughter. You are only as good as the ones that you love the most are.

  • Angela

    I came into this thinking I would side with Haley, completely prepared to be like “nope that is not ok” mostly because whenever I heard a man say “happy wife, happy life” its been an old dude making a condescending joke. But I completely understand where Leandra is coming from and actually relate to her and her relationship more than I thought I would. I noticed that sometimes I enjoy being the one to “wear the pants” in the relationship (even though that phrase is so outdated it actually hurts) and my fiance isn’t any “less” of a man because I like to make decisions. Every decision we make is eventually made together, down to the stupid color of the napkins we will be using at our wedding, but sometimes I’m more stubborn than he is and he gives in because, apparently, my happiness is important to him. From what I understand about relationships, sacrificing something small to make your significant other happy is what makes them work. That’s not to say that one should sacrifice everything for the other. It is all about balance; I can choose the flowers and he can choose the band, and soon enough we’re married.

  • Nora

    I think it depends on what the couple is comfortable with. Clearly, Leandra likes it and knows that her husband is saying it in a loving way, so they can by all means use it. If a woman doesn’t like it, her partner should be understanding and not use it.

    Oddly enough, I agree with both Haley and Leandra. I can see that some men who use it are using it in a dismissive and oppressing way, but there are some men out there who use it in a loving way. I also believe that it is more “happy partner, happy life.” I am in a committed, long-term relationship and when he is unhappy, it does impact me because I love him and want him to be happy. Although I am not responsible for his happiness, I do try to cheer him up. When I am upset, he does the same thing. Being in a relationship means you have someone other than yourself to think about, and that is a beautiful and wonderful thing.

    As I am writing this, I am remembering the oft-quoted tenant about feminism. “Feminism means not having to chose.”

  • sweetlooweeze

    This is interesting. I definitely agree with Leandra. I feel like the phrase “happy wife, happy life” stems from what we could call a “fact of life.” A fact of life is that women have a potential to bring a man an extreme sense of joy that they hadn’t experienced in their life without her, and on the same note, like leandra says, when we’re down because of their love for us they feel down and also too, we can bug the MESS out of them until things get right. So if a man keeps his wife happy, she will be sure to keep him happy (in and out the bedroom lol) whereas if she’s not, it’ll be that much harder. Has nothing to do with condescension or looking down on the one or the other.

  • sweetlooweeze

    I also think that one would really need to be happily married to understand why Leandra or others dont find the phrase offensive

    • AJ

      I don’t agree. I’ve been happily married for 32 years and neither one of us would ever trivialize the other’s feelings in such a way.

  • AJ

    Kudos if those phrases work in your relationship. Everyone should always be entitled to live their relationship on their own terms. Still I feel they should never be used to “describe” your relationship to anyone else. They were and always will be condescending at the least.

  • Jolanda van der Wagt

    I have heard this phrase before, but I also know the opposite to be true (happy man, happy life). So I have never seen anything sexist about it. Interesting discussion :).

  • eliza

    leandra’s argument just subverts the history and past (arguably present) implications of these phrases. it’s like saying me and my best friend call each other the n word but it’s cool cause for us that word means bestie. like no.

  • ss259

    We all know (we do, don’t we?) that it’s hard to accept that something is wrong when it involves acknowledging that you yourself have been the target or the source of it…

  • Julie

    I’m with Haley on this one 100%. The whole “Ask her, she’s the boss!” thing is just one example of the many times in society where men are allowed to be passive participants and the women are expected to pick up the slack – be the one making the plans, carting the kids around, making the dinner, actively working on relationships. It’s laziness and it’s the easy way out of having to actively give a shit about something that isn’t their career/personal growth.