My article, “How to Be Married to a Man,” recently published in the Where What When, earned me a lot of head nods and a couple of high-fives from male readers. It also led some women to indicate that perhaps I could offer some comparable tips to the other gender. (That would be the male gender. I am spelling that out for the men, who, of course, need things made explicit for them, because they don’t do things like “infer” from what you said.) In recognition of the great need, I present you with this article about how to be married to a woman. And this time, I can claim a lot more credibility, since I (a man) am married to a woman.
I will break down the essence into a triplet that I did not invent but that has been used widely by many other folks and is pretty darn helpful: It’s all about the three A’s: affection, attention, appreciation.
Affection: Men are classically bad at this function. There is a story told in many forms – here is one of them – about a man whose miserable wife schlepped him to a marriage counselor to try to get him to be more expressive about his feelings for her. She felt unloved and unwanted. For his part, the man couldn’t understand what the problem was: “I made a promise to my wife on our wedding day, and I intend to keep it,” he explained to the therapist. “Oh?” inquired the wisely taciturn counselor. His male client elaborated: “Yes indeed. I told her that very day that I loved her, and I promised her that if anything changed she’d be the first to know.”
Ha ha, right, gentlemen? It is unfortunately not so funny, insofar as many of us practice this approach to some degree. For most men, hearing “I love you” on a daily basis is not nearly as emotionally nourishing as, say, a hot steak dinner (see previous article). For many women, however, the “I love you” beats the steak hands-down any day. Men, wise up. You need to tell your wife that you love her (and mean it). Regularly. Yes, I know you’re not comfortable expressing your feelings like that. Well, guess what? I’m not so comfortable taking out the stinky garbage, but I do it anyway. Regularly.
Let’s be clear here: it’s not that your wife forgets that you love her. It’s just that she likes to hear it, over and over. She likes frequent refills. Here’s an example: Smart husbands bring their wives flowers for Shabbos, Yom Tov, and other occasions. Now, to you and me, it just doesn’t make sense. The flowers will absolutely, definitely be dead well before your next oil change is due. Wouldn’t it be so much more sensible to give her a nice potted plant that would last longer? Go ahead, try that; next Friday, bring a home a hefty Boston Fern and see how that goes over. Unless your wife is particularly horticultural, I’m guessing it will score you exactly zero points. Why? Because women do not go for one giant dose of affection, off of which they are supposed to survive for an extended period, like some kind of love camel. Women want small tokens of love over a long time. Hence flowers are the right choice because they are ephemeral. She sees that you are thinking of her and expending money on her – even just a few dollars – on a weekly basis. And hence, too, the “I love you” statements have to keep coming. But because women, despite my grandiose generalizations, are in fact individuals, you need to discover exactly what brand of affection-on-a-regular-basis your wife is seeking, whether it’s verbal affirmations, flowers, hugs, or what have you. (Bonus tip: why don’t you ask her?)
- : Just as you cannot buy a large gift and hope that it will cover you for the next year or decade, you can’t spend a day with your wife and then ignore her for the rest of the week. Your wife wants your attention. This means putting your focus exclusively on her on a regular basis (there’s that word “regular” again) to whatever extent is realistic for the schedule on which your life operates. For some people, that might come down to just a few minutes a day – but as with the flowers, it is the fact that it keeps coming back that shows that it’s real. Otherwise it can feel like you’re buying her off with a lump sum rather than taking the trouble to keep recurrent transactions going. Conversely, small deposits of time over many occasions indicate that you actually want to spend that time with her. (Note that the Rambam states that it’s better to give a dollar a day than $365 once a year. It is a different quality of giving.)
Indeed, attention takes place even when you’re not actually with her. Remembering to buy flowers when you’re out is not only a nice sign of love and affection, it also shows her that you think of her from time to time – that she “takes up space in your hard drive,” in the words of a respected rav. So does bringing her back her favorite pastry from the bakery you passed by or even picking up her preferred brand of contact solution because you knew she was running low. These things all demonstrate that she is important to you and that you are thinking of her.
Attention also means listening to her chat about her day rather than checking your email/the news/the score on your iPhone during dinner or in the car or while you are cleaning up together. (Hey, now there’s a good idea.) Hopefully, most of the time, what she has to share is not dire or urgent, but you still have to listen. More than that, you have to attend. Registering sound waves on your eardrums while actually attending to the smartphone does not count, because your attention is on the smartphone and not the wife. It does not convey to the wife that she is important to you, even if you did hear what she was saying and can repeat it back to her in some exaggerated attempt to prove you were listening. When you listen to her about the small things as well as the big things, you show her that what is going on inside her is important to you – that she is important to you. That’s what she wants and needs from you.
Appreciation: We men are frequently the main providers in our households. We go out to work eight-plus hours a day, sometimes slogging through a grueling commute, and coming home in the evening to our wives who perhaps do not work, or work less than us, or work at less intense jobs than we do. Consequently, we often come to the extremely boneheaded conclusion that we are working harder than they are. Let’s be clear about this: if you have children, your wife is probably working much harder than you are, even if she is a stay-at-home-mom. And if she is even minimally employed on top of that, it’s a pretty sure bet.
Some of our male readers are right now nodding their heads in agreement. Those would be the men who have had to manage the household for any period of time while their wife has been away or ill, and who have experienced what it is like to try to get the kids in the bath while cleaning up from dinner and packing up the lunch boxes, and the baby is crying and probably needs a diaper change except that you can’t remember where the diapers are, and once you find them you end up putting it on backwards anyway, and nobody will brush their teeth because you didn’t put the toothpaste on the right way. And so on.
Needless to say, I have a tremendous amount of respect for my wife.
What is needed, however, is that I say it. That is, I tell my wife – once again, regularly and frequently – how much I appreciate what she does. The truth is that it’s remarkably easy, because I know what my life would be like if she didn’t do what she does. If she did not cook me dinner, odds are I would be eating a whole lot of toast and tuna fish. So I appreciate when she cooks me dinner. I appreciate it, out loud, every single time, because that’s one more night I’m not eating toast for dinner. (Sometimes if she doesn’t cook, I might be eating leftovers, but of course that also means that she made me food the night before.) I appreciate when she puts the kids to bed, because if she didn’t, I would be going bonkers trying to pull it off with half as much patience as she does. If you think about it for not very long, I am sure you can come up with a similar, extensive list of deeds your wife does for you. You are not entitled to these favors. Nowhere did she sign a contract stating that she will cook your meals or do your laundry. We must be super grateful for all the things our wives do for us all the time that we often hardly notice; we must say so to them, and we must mean it. It means an awful lot to your wife when you sincerely thank her for dinner, even – especially – when it wasn’t a five-course holiday meal. Try it and see.
Dear readers: although this article is (intentionally) humorous, it is also filled with very real and helpful advice. My advice is, take my advice. As with my previous article, this is by no means a complete list of what it takes to make your wife happy. (Thought you could get away with three things, eh?) But these principles are a good foundation: Start with these, but don’t stop with them.
Rabbi Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, is a marriage and family counselor, and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center (www.baltimoretherapycenter.com). He can be reached at Raffi@baltimoretherapycenter.com or at 443-598-BTC-1 (2821).