To find intimacy, passion and peace with a man,” writes budding relationship guru du jour Laura Doyle in her book The Surrendered Wife, women need to “give up unnecessary control and responsibility and resist the temptation to criticize, belittle or dismiss their husbands.” To create a happy marriage, Doyle also advocates returning to more traditional gender roles: man as decision-maker, woman as supportive helpmate. While her suggestions might seem to some a pathetic attempt to resuscitate an over-romanticized June Cleaver identity, girlfriend’s books are selling like hotcakes. According to a recent New York Times article, more than 100,000 copies have been sold since the book hit the market last month, Doyle has made numerous TV appearances — and the big “O” herself has expressed interest too.
The success of Surrendered Wife speaks to two issues: First, that women are more independent, successful and empowered than ever before; and second, that many of us struggle to figure out how to translate those laudable, hard-earned feminist victories into a viable relationship.
The post-feminist love game
“The underlying principle of The Surrendered Wife is simple,” reads the book’s jacket. “The control women wield at work and with children must be left at the front door of any marriage.” I confess that as a twentysomething, I would have found Doyle’s ideas particularly noxious to my feminist sensibilities. Women, I would have said, are not the only ones who have to rise to the challenge of feminism; men have to learn to deal as well.
But from my perspective today at age 35 and as a wife for almost two years, Doyle may have a point. Let’s face it: The image of the independent, accomplished, career diva/uber mom that seems to dominate our post-feminist consciousness is hardly all that it’s been cracked up to be. If it was all that, far fewer of us would be spending time complaining about our relationships — or the lack thereof.
In feminists’ attempts to eradicate the sexist mores and laws that kept women from realizing their full intellectual, financial and spiritual potential, they not only flipped the script, they threw it out. And the recipe (flawed as it may have been) for functional, if not always happy, relationships got thrown out right along with it. No one could predict what would happen to our intimate relationships when power dynamics shifted, when feminist desires grated up against deeply-entrenched patriarchal identities — not to mention conflicting desires.
What a 21st century girl wants
At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, I suggest that the equality most women desire is really about equal pay and opportunity — just not always in our relationships. What many of us seem to want is a well-paid, sensitive, benevolent patriarch who is respectful enough of our hustle to support our desire to work, but paid enough to give us the option not to work if we didn’t want to. In other words, we want to earn enough to pay our own way — for say, a meal at a restaurant, or for a home — but we are not particularly attracted to the men who would let us. When it’s to our advantage we cling as tightly to patriarchal ideas as men do.
Not to wax nostalgic for the good old days, but those much-needed feminist advances also left our generation disconcertingly bewildered about what our roles are as women and men, and how we should relate to each other. Women’s struggle for political, economic and social equality in theory has always been infinitely clearer than the practical, day-to-day battle we wage trying to honor both our independence and our relationship needs. No wonder Doyle’s book is selling off the shelves: slipping into old patterns of behavior are a helluva lot easier than trying to figure out new ones.
Surrender the battle to win the war
Doyle’s message is selling because she makes some very good points. The same qualities that make women so successful in the workplace — aggressiveness, unabashed ambition, competitive one-upmanship, an approach to problem-solving that is best exemplified in the motto “I came, I saw, I kicked ass” — don’t bode so well in the bedroom. Men are not adjusting very well to the idea that the role of bread winner is no longer exclusively their domain. And the battle for territory can get pretty ugly. And futile, too.
What works in a marriage, is less about equality than a respect for difference, specifically the very distinct but complimentary masculine and feminine energies that each partner brings. We women have to ask ourselves, Am I trying to win the battle or the war? If the answer is the latter then we have to pick our battles and give up some of that much-valued independence and control.
This is not to say that I think Doyle’s got it all figured out. Some of the things she suggests, like turning over complete control of the purse strings and giving up a little booty at least once a week (whether you feel like it or not), will remain forever offensive to my feminist sensibilities. But we’d all do ourselves a favor if we finally accepted that the goal of feminism can’t be to change the laws of nature. Men and women are wonderfully, frustratingly and delectably different. It’s about time we started to figure out ways to honor that without compromising ourselves.