Why "Happy Wife, Happy Life" Is Baloney
You've heard it before. And research supports it. So why do I disagree?
Posted October 6, 2021 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- "Happy Wife, Happy Life" tells a spouse that her emotional state is more important than his.
- Many couples who follow this adage eventually have the difficulties the dynamic tries to avoid in the first place.
- Learning differentiation skills is the way out of the problematic pattern.
I do not like the old adage, “Happy wife, happy life." And I know many other couples therapists who feel the same way.
I realize there is some research from 2014 that supports this idea. Hmph.
What I find troublesome is that we are not looking at why this research supports this adage. What are the couple dynamics at play? How did it come to be that the wife’s emotional state is considered more important than the husband’s? What are the beliefs and values that support this behavior? Where did those beliefs and values come from? How is this working out for both? A deeper dive is necessary. Or, what if the wife has clinical depression? What if the wife is a perfectionist? What if the wife has chronic anxiety? Because in these scenarios, no amount of the husband’s attempts to please her will decrease the effects of those conditions and "make" her happy.
I have seen this “happy wife, happy life” dynamic over and over again in real-life marriages. When couples practice this in most areas of their relationship, (the clinical term is “global and not situational”) problems inevitably start to occur.
In fact, just recently, a wife said to me, “I appreciate all that my husband does for me but I will admit there are times I want him to push back.” She was aware that “getting her way” was not satisfying to her and just beginning to realize that this dynamic has negative consequences.
Let me be clear: what I am not protesting is partners being kind and considerate to one another. Asking your partner, "I’m going into the kitchen to get a snack. Do you want anything?” or texting your partner, “I’m at the store—do we need anything to pick up?” or simply saying, “I’m so proud of all the hard work you put into building the new shed in the backyard. It looks great!” are all good, healthy things to do in a relationship.
Being in a relationship means putting our partner’s physical and emotional wants and needs on the same level as our own. It means that your partner's experience matters just as much to you as your own experience matters to you. Being in a relationship means juggling both of these priorities simultaneously and equally, and it's possible to do.
Here’s where this practice I am suggesting gets sticky and takes strong interpersonal skills: when we equally value our partner’s wants and needs with our own, it means: (a) our differing wants/needs will eventually be in conflict and therefore we must decide what to do about it, and (b) we can experience very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that we don’t know what to do with. This is exactly why many people live the "happy wife, happy life" philosophy—because they want to avoid the stickiness of all this.
I see these negative consequences from this philosophy all the time. Couples become enmeshed, do not learn conflict resolution skills, and when there are differences in wants and needs, the husband just defaults to doing it her way. Like the wife I just referenced, I also see the effects on each partner: she has lost some respect for him and wants him to push back but he is now out of touch with his own sense of self after repeatedly deciding his wants and needs are second to hers. He can also begin to feel resentment. “We always do it her way, what about me?” or “I’ve co-created a dictator!” Both of which are legitimate grievances.
What is so striking is that that wife’s comment about wanting her husband to “push back” is really a request for intimacy, not conflict. It's a request to know her husband more deeply than he has revealed himself to date. Hers is a statement of wanting differentiation—of understanding, “I am me, I have my own thoughts/feelings/wants/needs/desires/preferences and you are you and you have your own that are unique to you. They may not always align, so let’s figure things out when we differ.” In this scenario there is no assumption of constant agreement and, instead, a stance of curiosity, “Who is my partner? What do they want?” and “How can we make this work for us both?”
Now, when couples attempt to change their enmeshed dynamic to a more differentiated one, it is usually a rocky start. (“I don’t like that you’re changing things!”) (“I am both angry at you and sad that I never knew this about you before.”) The situation becomes a stress test of sorts: Will he capitulate to her emotional outburst and restart the “happy wife, happy life” process all over again or can they stay differentiated while they work this out?