May 6, 2018 • Sarah Jean Gosney
The Surrendered Wife, a book written by Laura Flynn Doyle, is a self-help book meant to help frustrated married women improve their relationships with their husbands. Before getting into the book, I, of course, must mention that I am not, in fact, married. However, the book had been recommended many times by like minded women to help other women improve the dynamics of their relationships. I felt that I should see what the hype was about. While I’m not married, I am in a long-term relationship, so I can evaluate it through that lens. I’ll also go ahead and put a spoiler alert in here; it’s not exactly as if it’s a plot-based book, but I will go into a fair amount of detail.
Overall, the book seemed eminently helpful and approachable. Doyle’s premise is that, to mend a strained marital relationship, a wife should learn to “surrender.” This is Doyle’s way of phrasing that a wife should follow her husband’s lead. She expertly avoids using the word “submit” in this description. In fact, she’s very clear that surrendering is not submitting, and claims that, despite what it may seem, she is still a proud feminist. I would argue that surrendering is really no different than submitting, but seeing as to how “submission” has become a dirty word, especially for Doyle’s intended audience of modern women, I understand why she chose to go with “surrendered.”
I think it’s critical to say that, at the very beginning of the book, Doyle mentions the four situations in which a wife should never attempt to surrender:
Doyle does make a point, however, to distinguish between physical and verbal abuse. She points out that verbal abuse is often a two-way street, and that as the wife repairs her sense of respect for her husband and break the cycle of vicious words, this culture tends to disappear.
The author scatters stories of her own trials as well as those of other women throughout the book, so you get a good sense of what her methods look like being put into practice. Doyle opens with describing how her marriage went from blissful to strained, and that her husband’s flaws seemed to stand out more all the time. Then she began telling him ways he could improve if only he would be “more ambitious at work, more romantic at home, and clean up after himself.” She explains that her husband only grew irritable with her approach, and she grew ever lonely.
Then she decided to do an experiment based on some things her friends were doing. She would let her husband handle the finances, and she would try to never criticize her husband, even if he deserved it. She realized that really what she was doing was relinquishing some of the control she had been exercising over her husband.
As there are 27 chapters in this book, I will highlight a few of the ones that stuck out to me as most important.
Before getting into the details, Doyle challenges the reader. “If you don’t think your husband deserves your respect, ask yourself what it was you saw in him that made you marry him in the first place. At that time you trusted and admired him. Chances are he’s not all that different now than he was then, and therefore is still worthy of your admiration.”
From what I can tell, this seems to be the biggest mental block for Doyle, and the one she expects to most challenge her readers. At its core, surrendering is about respect, and in many marriages it seems the wives don’t believe their husbands merit it. Doyle suggests starting small to build back this respect by simply listening to your husband. “…you accept his choices, big and small…You honor his choice of socks and stocks, food and friendships, art and attitudes.” This means that, when he takes the wrong turn on the freeway, you don’t correct him, even if you have to drive over the state line.
This, to anyone, probably sounds a bit extreme. I would argue that, eventually, once trust has built back up in your relationship, you could stand to let him know that he’s made a wrong turn. But Doyle’s point here is that respect, or lack thereof, can be found in the most basic actions, and therefore we must start with very small but seemingly dramatic changes.
I think this is truly the paradox of the happy generous woman. If she’s going to give freely and without resentment, a woman must first “selfishly” take care of herself before giving herself to others. Doyle talks about the importance of self-care and its role in helping a woman have the energy to go against her habits by surrendering. She recommends making a list of ten things you like to do because they are fun, and ten things you like to do because you feel good afterwards. She then suggests doing at least one or two things from each list daily to prevent yourself from getting depleted of precious energy. She brings up the ever-popular metaphor of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. I think for her readers, the metaphor is apt.
This, I believe, is one of the most important chapters. Doyle cautions the readers to remember that, how you see your man greatly influences how he sees himself. “The more you act like things are going to turn out well, the more often they do.” This, I can say from experience is true. The concept of having faith in your man–or at least pretending you do–is a huge enticement for him to have faith in himself. Doyle reminds us that it’s not about your husband never failing, because he’s guaranteed to do that. It’s about expecting him to and speaking as if he will succeed. Doyle understands that this will be a stretch for many women, but assures her readers that this becomes a positive feedback loop. The more you act like you respect and except your man to succeed, the easier it will become for you to genuinely feel this way. The more he thinks you believe in him, the more daring and brave he will be in every aspect of his life.
“As a modern woman, I expected that my husband and I would divide the work in our marriage equally according to our strengths. I believed we would come to the relationship as individuals, rather than limiting ourselves to outdated gender stereotypes…We never realized my egalitarian vision.”
Doyle explains that she had every intention of having a modern, equal marriage. She says though that it seemed, over time, that her strengths were more practical than her husbands, and that he seemed to be lazy and unwilling to help around the house. She also mentioned that long hours working a corporate job stressed her unduly and that she envied her husband for being able to work from home.
Ultimately, she realized the root of her unhappiness lay in the fact that she wanted her husband to bring to the marriage what she was bringing, “money…a solid sense of order, social planning, decorating…Since we were both 50% responsible for everything, and I liked my way of doing things better than his, I took responsibility for 99% of everything…” She realized that, instead of being equal, she was in charge.
So, she tried on some traditional gender roles for a change. Her husband happily became the primary bread winner. She ran the social calendar. She says they don’t do everything the old fashioned way (she would hate to give up working completely and doesn’t like to clean), but that they were much happier after incorporating some traditional roles into how they managed their household.
This was a chapter I really learned something from. Doyle talks about the need to both set boundaries for how much you take care of as well as giving your husband space to actually help you. “I can’t manage the finances anymore. It’s too stressful.” “I can’t carry our son into the house. I need the help of a big, strong man.”
She emphasizes the use of the word “can’t” as compared to “I don’t want to” or even outright asking for him to do something. She gives the following example. If your child told you they didn’t want to do their homework, what would you tell them? Probably you’d say tough luck, it’s your responsibility and you have to do it. But what if they said they can’t do their homework? You would most likely help them.
Doyle acknowledges that this is going to be hard for many women, as it’s both very direct and very vulnerable. But that, she insists, is exactly what makes it work. It triggers your husband’s desire to help and protect you while also making it very clear what you need.
“Keep in mind that you can be intimate with your husband only to the degree that you are willing to show him your soft underbelly, because vulnerability is the part of us that connects with other human beings.”
As Doyle says, vulnerability is the key to intimacy. And it’s going to have to come from you first if you ever want to see it from him. She says in her marriage, doing this required her to let her tears fall instead of hiding her sadness with anger. That she had to put her fists down and express when she was hurt, opening herself up to potential rejection. She assures us that this, as vulnerability often does with a man we trust, triggers his protective, loving side, whereas coming in with fists raised makes him prepare for an attack. Showing your vulnerability allows your husband to respond with tenderness rather than defensiveness, allowing you both to draw closer.
“In my own marriage, I made the mistake of telling my husband that I didn’t think we were making love enough and that I wanted him to initiate it more. Without missing a beat, John told me he would add ‘have sex with Laura’ to his list of chores–right between “take out the trash” and “weed the garden. Clearly he felt I was making a demand for him to perform, and he didn’t like it.”
Doyle then shifted strategies by saying “let’s have sex” she she felt the moment was right. Needless to say, this fell flat too. Ultimately she realized that, no matter what way she cut it, she was making demands. She gave up doing this, and took a more feminine approach. She recommends a few ways to get your husband’s attention, like “Tell him he looks sexy in those jeans and squeeze his butt.” She explains that, by giving him hints but allowing him to initiate, she felt more feminine and he, undoubtedly, felt more masculine.
In an age where sometimes it seems that everything masculine is demonized, it can be easy to forget that men really are different. Doyle encourages us to remember this and respect these differences when it comes to our men. She says to “forget the notion that “more communication” is the key to an intimate marriage.” She explains that, in male culture, sharing feelings is not a popular activity, but that this should not stop you from sharing your feelings freely. That said, she reminds us to withhold criticisms and negativity and instead try to share our more positive emotions. This will encourage intimacy, even if your husband doesn’t suddenly start gushing about his feelings. She ends the chapter by saying “I once asked John if he would object if nobody ever asked him how he felt again. I bet you can guess what he said.”
As much as I enjoyed the book and reading the women’s stories, I could tell off the bat that this book was not written for me. The woman that stars in this book is large and in charge, a bit bossy, and tends to shoulder all the responsibility in her life. At her best, she is an impressive figure to contend with in the workplace. At her worst, she is an overbearing nag toward her husband. I tend to have the exact opposite traits of the women in the book. I am one to keep my mouth shut rather than nagging, I readily follow a trusted man’s lead, and I (mostly) ask for help when needed. In my life, I’ve had to do the opposite training of women in this book to become more assertive. These women have assertiveness down pat and have put it into overdrive.
Even though I’m not the target demographic, I can tell how incredibly useful this book would be to countless women, and think it should be required reading for all new wives. Doyle shares with us her trials and her years of hard-won wisdom on how she repaired a strained, unfulfilling marriage. At the end of the book, she describes a shift between her and John, saying that she felt calm and gracious, and he was calm and protective. She said that, after all the hard work and blunders, she finally got the marriage she had always dreamed of.
You can buy the book here. I do not get any kickbacks from linking this book, however I believe in its power to transform.
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