Dr. Jess on Sex: A happy wife means a happy life — or does it?

Why we should abandon denigrating relationship clichés

Happy wife, happy life. In uninspiring wedding speeches across the nation, this catchy rhyme is commonly invoked to convey to new grooms that in order to survive the shackles of marriage (please don’t get married if you liken marriage to prison!), they must give in to their wives as long as they both shall live.

The concept has always irked me — not because I believe wives don’t deserve to be happy or that their partners shouldn’t strive to make them happy, but because it’s often used in a context that undermines healthy, happy relationships.

After all, isn’t marriage a partnership founded on trust, commitment and reciprocity? Shifting the onus of responsibility for mutual happiness to one partner alone undermines the notion of partnership altogether.

Recently, however, headlines across the globe announced that happy wife, happy life is, in fact, rooted in science.

According to Dr. Cahit Guven of Deakin Business School, divorce in opposite-sex marriages is more likely to occur when there is a “happiness gap,” and its effect is more significant when wives are less happy than their husbands and not the other way around.

Dr. Guven and his team analyzed data from thousands of couples and attribute happiness gaps to imbalances in workloads, income disparities and differences in cultural, religious and social backgrounds. His team suggests that addressing these underlying issues can equalize happiness levels for both partners to reduce the risk of a breakup.

But why is a wife’s happiness in marriage so essential to staving off divorce?

Dr. Guven suggests that women have a higher baseline for happiness accompanied by greater expectations of being happy. 

Women are also more supportive of divorce as an acceptable outcome of an unhappy marriage and more likely to believe that singles can be just as happy as couples. Despite the fact that they’re more likely to expect to get married, they’re also more likely to initiate a divorce.

These findings combined with previous research indicating that the physical, emotional, financial and social benefits of marriage are greater for men might explain why the happiness gap takes a greater toll on wives.

There are, of course, other possible explanations, as another study found the opposite: men’s attitudes and health status have a more significant impact on the marriage than their wives’ — for better or for worse.

And yet another study found that men’s life satisfaction can remain high even when they rate marital satisfaction as low. Obviously, the evaluation of happiness and satisfaction is highly subjective.

Regardless of how you gauge happiness, relationships require teamwork — couples don’t thrive when one consistently demands and the other blindly acquiesces.

If opposite-sex couples choose to embrace the happy wife, happy life approach, I do hope it’s coupled with the less catchy happy husband, happy life pairing.

The former belief is often underpinned by stereotypes of female senselessness and male ineptitude: men aren’t capable of understanding relationships and even women themselves don’t understand what they want.

These stereotypes do not only denigrate both men and women, but hinder communication and intimacy — two of the core principles of lasting, happy relationships.

If you find yourself taking control or giving in to your partner to avoid conflict once in a while and it works for you, I’m not suggesting you overhaul your relationship.

There will, of course, be areas of your relationship in which one of you makes more decisions, and there is no perfect formula for striking a balance. 

However, if you consistently do so to avoid difficult conversations and justify your behaviour by appealing to gender stereotypes, you’re likely missing out on a better understanding of one another’s needs, motivations and concerns.

These conversations, though they can be uncomfortable, not only deepen intimacy and connection, but are likely to improve and broaden your sex life as you abandon rigid gender roles and expand your comfort zone with regard to communication.

The goal of making your partner happy is an admirable one, but happiness isn’t something you can generate for your partner on your own.

Partners need to be a part of the process. It’s likely that contributing to your partner’s happiness will boost your own, but you can’t make your spouse happy. 

Instead, you can work together to cultivate a happy life — the happy wife (and husband/partner) will follow.