I’m married. I’m also the sort of person who likes to have a thorough understanding of the things I do, as opposed to just winging it. As such, I can claim my fair share of reading relationship advice. I’ve read Men are from Mars… (insert obvious and over-used Uranus joke). I’ve read about the Love Languages. I’ve read Cosmo (mostly when taking a break from reading relationship advice). I’ve even read a few deeply academic and less mainstream books on human psychology – the sorts of books that analyse who we marry against the image we’ve formed in our heads of our parent(s) during childhood.
I must confess, none of them really helped much. To clarify, I’m happily married (I must stress that point especially since I want to stay that way), but true marital contentment has come from a different place entirely, and not much from any of the many books I’ve read on the topic.
See, in my completely unprofessional opinion, the vast majority of marital advice is provided backwards. Someone studies the characteristics of happily (or unhappily) married couples, and then assumes those characteristics are the source of the happiness, rather than a symptom. Happily married couples have lots of sex, they’ll say, so having loads of sex leads to a happy marriage. Having sex with someone you’re enormously pissed off with isn’t terribly fulfilling or easy, but they’ll sometimes offer helpful tips on faking it effectively. Happy wives say nice things about their husbands, so saying nice things about your husband must lead to a happy marriage – ignoring the fact that nice words said in anger are referred to as sarcasm and aren’t terribly conducive to happiness.
The other problem with most marital advice is it assumes people are stereotypes – men like sex, women like shoes.
An example of such back-to-front and stereotyped advice recently appeared in Die Huisgenoot, and is discussed by Lili Radloff in this column. Lili quite generously pulls the good advice from the misogynistic context, in the spirit of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly, she does a fantastic job of separating the sexism from the sense, which broadly speaking comes down to this – doing something your partner appreciates is good for your relationship (provided it flows both ways).
Dressing nicely because your partner expects it (or society expects it from you on behalf of your partner) is a sexist relationship dynamic, and unhealthy. Dressing nicely because your partner appreciates it is a healthy relationship dynamic, and not sexist.
Even restated in a more positive way, though, the advice is not universally true, which brings me to my (entirely unscientific, untested, unverified but totally 101.3% universal) relationship advice, which is this: People are different, and people are WEIRD – marital happiness comes from taking the time to understand how your partner is uniquely weird, and then learning to do things that cater to that unique weirdness. This must be mutual, and (and this is important) – it doesn’t first have to make sense to you.
The need for compromise comes when you and your partner’s weirdness is in conflict. But (and this is also not based on rigorous sampling), I think a lot of the real conflict comes from trying to make sense of the weirdness, and not from any actual conflict of interest. To use the snappy dressing argument as an example, people who are not snappy dressers DON’T CARE about snappy dressing, and so resist more on the grounds that they consider it fundamentally dumb than that they are, for example, fatally allergic to nice clothes.
But maybe the only good reason that dressing well needs is that someone you care about appreciates it. This is generally the only good reason for making pancakes, which are neither healthy nor easy (compared to bacon or cereal) – pancakes are fun.
Not all men care much about sex. Sometimes it’s the women who want more sex (imagine!!). Not all men care for snappy dressers. Not all women care whether their husbands help around the house. Some men prefer constructive criticism over hollow praise. Not all women care whether their bum looks big in those jeans.
But some do. And that’s reason enough to care.