Excerpt from The Superior Wife Syndrome
Something is rotten in the state of modern marriage: it’s the common expectation that wives should be superior. Wives are supposed to do all, know all, fix all.
Take this regular exchange I have with my husband of several decades. While I’m putting away groceries or cooking dinner or doing laundry, or all three at once, I’ll ask him to let the dog out.
“I have to do everything!” he’ll answer, in a testy, melodramatic huff, as he reluctantly gets up from the living room couch to open the front door.
The joke is, of course, that I’m the one who does nearly everything, but he pretends to get upset if he has to do one tiny thing. There are several layers of meaning embedded in his banter. First, he’s making fun of himself for being upset. Second, he’s admitting that he doesn’t do anything. Third, he’s acknowledging that I am the one who does everything. Finally, he’s apologizing for the situation, but confessing that there’s nothing he can do about it.
All in one brief punchline.
It’s no secret that in our family I’m the one who takes on more responsibility. I do more tasks, I oversee more of the daily business of living, and I also work full-time. I’m the head of our family unit: he’s one of my minions. In our marriage, for example, I am the only one who can cook a turkey and make mashed potatoes. I am the one who can bake a birthday cake, from scratch or from a mix. And I am the one who knows how to get a coffee stain out of a shirt and where we keep the good glue. I’m also the one who knows how to replace the fill valve and flapper in the toilet tank so it will flush properly. I know how to restore Windows on our home computer, how to troubleshoot the satellite television system, how to repair the wireless Internet connection, and how to load the iPod. I research, plan and arrange our family vacations; I pack the suitcases. I help our children decide where to apply to college, how to write the applications, and what to look for when we visit the schools. I hire the painters, the driveway repavers, the siding guys. I buy new sheets and pillows and bath mats, and I clean the carpet and comforter after every dog accident. I organize family get-togethers on major holidays, and I arrange dinners and movie dates with our friends.
My husband follows my lead, quite willingly, but he has no desire to be in charge. Going to work every day, washing two cars every week (even in winter!), and handling the family finances are the only jobs that he has signed up for. So, in his mind, every other family task is mine. Not long ago, I planned a four-day celebration for our daughter’s college graduation, one that was attended by our entire extended family. During our stay in Washington, D.C., an unfamiliar city, I asked my husband to pick up a cake from a nearby bakery. He was unenthusiastic, protesting loudly that he should not be the one to have to do this errand.
“I don’t want to have to think ,” he declared, as if this were the perfect reason for not doing something he doesn’t want to do. The implication, of course, is that I’m the one who’s supposed to do all of the family thinking. I think; therefore he doesn’t have to.
With this attitude, it’s no wonder that if I were hit by a truck tomorrow, he’d need lots of help to get by.
The truth of the matter is that I am not unique, nor am I alone. It turns out that a majority of married couples’about two out of three’are just like us, because the wife is the one who can’t get hit by a truck. She’s the one who develops expertise in nearly all aspects of modern life; she becomes the de facto master of the marital domain while also earning a significant part of the family income. It’s as if by taking on a husband, a wife gains a dependent’not quite a child, but not quite a true partner, either. She’s Marge Simpson to her husband’s Homer. This arrangement does not characterize every single married couple, of course, just a great many of them. While husbands may joke about wives being their “better half,” quite often it’s the literal truth. Wives are the better half’the ones who are capable and responsible, organized and efficient, caring and involved.