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‘Superior Wife Syndrome’ aims to save couples

In "The Superior Wife Syndrome," psychologist Carin Rubenstein explores contemporary marriages and explains how the inequality between husband and wife can damage relationships. The following is an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In "The Superior Wife Syndrome," psychologist Carin Rubenstein explores contemporary marriages and explains how the inequality between husband and wife can damage relationships. The following is an excerpt.

Something is rotten in the state of modern marriage: it's the common expectation that wives should be superior. Wives are supposed to do all, know all, fix all.

Take this regular exchange I have with my husband of several decades. While I'm putting away groceries or cooking dinner or doing laundry, or all three at once, I'll ask him to let the dog out.

"I have to do everything!" he'll answer, in a testy, melodramatic huff, as he reluctantly gets up from the living room couch to open the front door.

The joke is, of course, that I'm the one who does nearly everything, but he pretends to get upset if he has to do one tiny thing. There are several layers of meaning embedded in his banter. First, he's making fun of himself for being upset. Second, he's admitting that he doesn't do anything. Third, he's acknowledging that I am the one who does everything. Finally, he's apologizing for the situation but confessing that there's nothing he can do about it.

All in one brief punch line.

It's no secret that in our family I'm the one who takes on more responsibility. I do more tasks, I oversee more of the daily business of living, and I also work full-time. I'm the head of our family unit: he's one of my minions.

In our marriage, for example, I am the only one who can cook a turkey and make mashed potatoes. I am the one who can bake a birthday cake, from scratch or from a mix. And I am the one who knows how to get a coffee stain out of a shirt and where we keep the good glue. I'm also the one who knows how to replace the fill valve and flapper in the toilet tank so it will flush properly. I know how to restore Windows on our home computer, how to troubleshoot the satellite television system, how to repair the wireless Internet connection, and how to load the iPod.

I research, plan, and arrange our family vacations; I pack the suitcases. I help our children decide where to apply to college, how to write the applications, and what to look for when we visit the schools. I hire the painters, the driveway repavers, the siding guys. I buy new sheets and pillows and bath mats, and I clean the carpet and comforter after every dog accident. I organize family gettogethers on major holidays, and I arrange dinners and movie dates with our friends.

Image: Superior Wife Syndrome cover
\"Superior Wife Syndrome\" book cover

My husband follows my lead, quite willingly, but he has no desire to be in charge. Going to work every day, washing two cars every week (even in winter!), and handling the family finances are the only jobs that he has signed up for. So, in his mind, every other family task is mine.

Not long ago I planned a four-day celebration for our daughter's college graduation, one that was attended by our entire extended family. During our stay in Washington, D.C., an unfamiliar city, I asked my husband to pick up a cake from a nearby bakery. He was unenthusiastic, protesting loudly that he should not be the one to have to do this errand.

"I don't want to have to think," he declared, as if this were the perfect reason for not doing something he doesn't want to do. The implication, of course, is that I'm the one who's supposed to do all the family thinking. I think, therefore he doesn't have to.

With this attitude, it's no wonder that if I were hit by a truck tomorrow, he'd need lots of help to get by.

The truth of the matter is that I am not unique, nor am I alone. It turns out that a majority of married couples — about two out of three — are just like us: the wife is the one who can't get hit by a truck. She's the one who develops expertise in nearly all aspects of modern life; she becomes the de facto master of the marital domain while also earning a significant part of the family income.

It's as if by taking on a husband, a wife gains a dependent — not quite a child, but not quite a true partner either. She's Marge Simpson to her husband's Homer. This arrangement does not characterize every single married couple, of course, just a great many of them. While husbands may joke about wives being their "better half," quite often it's the literal truth. Wives are the better half — the ones who are capable and responsible, organized and efficient, caring and involved.

I don't mean to say that wives think of themselves as superior beings: they do not. Most would never, ever call themselves better or more mature or more capable than their husbands, even if they are. Instead they might view themselves as the family manager. They might concede that they give more to the marriage. They might view themselves as being in charge.

But few would ever use a word like superior, because it implies dominion over their mate. Also because it sounds snobbish and condescending and bitchy. And the bitch factor — the fear of being perceived as mean and nasty and fearsome — is what keeps superior wives from admitting their status. No wife wants to be seen as a bitch on wheels, as the Wicked Witch of the West, as the Cruella de Vil of the neighborhood.

The superiority of wives has become the only remaining fact of modern life that dare not speak its name.

We've come a long way since the early 1980s, a time when there was serious speculation that women suffered from a secret fear of independence. This was the premise of a bestselling book called "The Cinderella Complex," which held that almost all women long for and need to be cared for by a man on a permanent basis.

Today that notion seems quaint, even absurd, like a bad joke. The theory that women furtively yearn to be swept off their feet, adored, and treated like a princess seems as alien to many superior wives as the idea of opening a restaurant on Mars or living in an igloo. While some contemporary wives may harbor this kind of retro longing, few expect such wishes to be fulfilled, even if only for a few days or weeks out of the year.

Indeed, the cultural mood had shifted so drastically by the end of the 1980s that fiercely independent working wives — and not secret Cinderellas — had become the focus of attention in American domestic life. Suddenly the mass of working women, far from being afraid of freedom, were wallowing in it. They were the ones working for pay all day, then returning home to do domestic work all night.

Because couples devalued women's paid work, many of them assumed women should be responsible for child care and domestic chores, according to Arlie Hochschild, who wrote "The Second Shift" in 1989. Women were victims of a "stalled revolution," she said, trapped in the old role of unpaid domestic servant while also leaping into a new one, of paid employee. They were leaders of a work/family revolution, but their husbands were sleeping through the bugle call to action. And in those days, most families considered the husband to be the head of the household, even if he had a working wife. While many men began to feel social pressure to do more at home, few responded in a meaningful fashion.

Today superior wives are still stuck in the same prerevolutionary rut. They continue to work the second shift, only now they're doing even more. They're doing everything, and doing it better too. While second-shift wives put in more hours of work at home, superior wives do that and more. They run and manage their family, often because they have no other choice. Beyond second-shifters, they're expected to do all, be all, and know all, but with little or no credit for their sizeable effort. As a result, their superiority is often invisible, shrouded in silence and secrecy.

The recipe for concocting a modern superior wife is simple. First, take a husband who tries to do as little as possible, one who may even fake incompetence to avoid responsibility. Second, add a wife who steps into the breach and uses her natural ability to master most aspects of adult and family life. And third, stir in the complicity of both: a husband who avoids domestic effort, worry, and stress, and a wife who allows her husband to be an unequal partner. Let the mixture simmer, and eventually the result will be a marriage that includes a superior wife.

I'm not just saying this because my own marriage ended up this way: I've got solid, scientific proof that it's true. The Web research I conducted over the past few years provides strong and incontrovertible evidence that the superior wife syndrome is real. My research consists of several original surveys that I designed, posted on the Internet, and analyzed statistically, which I'll describe in detail in chapter 1.

Using these surveys, I studied 1,529 wives and husbands from across the country and around the world. The wives and husbands who answered were mostly Americans and came from all fifty states. I heard from a husband in Hilo, Hawaii, and a wife in Kasilof, Alaska. My research included at least one wife from Delray Beach, Florida, and another from Athens, Georgia; one from Bismarck, North Dakota, and another from Cheyenne, Wyoming; and several from East Brunswick, New Jersey.

I heard from husbands in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Houston, Texas, and Carlsbad, New Mexico. Although my focus is mainly on superior wives in the United States, I also heard from Englishspeaking spouses around the world. I had responses from wives in Istanbul, Turkey; Sydney, Australia; Bournemouth, England; and Bayamón, Puerto Rico; I heard from husbands in Davao, Philippines; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In addition I conducted personal interviews with a large number of married women and men. I quote from them extensively here, both their written answers and what they told me on the telephone or in person. I've changed their names and some identifying details, since I promised them anonymity, although I've used their comments almost verbatim.

I also pored over the latest social science research about marriage and relationships, divorce and femininity, household chores and dual-earner couples. All my research leads me to conclude that superior wives have emerged as the heads of the household, they make most of the family decisions, and they handle most of the family management tasks.

Indeed, when wives describe their situation, they use the word everything constantly. It's as if "everything" is their one-word motto: "I do everything" and "Everything is what I do" and "I have the most responsibility for everything."

Adelina, for instance, is a thirty-one-year-old office manager and mother of one from San Jose, California. She and her husband, Frank, work fulltime, and both earn about the same amount. Here's how she describes her role in the family: "I do all of the financial planning, the long-term investing, the registering for work benefits at enrollment time, and the balancing of the checking account. Anything paperwork-related is me. I also do most of the clothes shopping, grocery shopping, and household shopping. I handle everything related to our daughter's school, her doctor visits, her friends. I handle our family calendar, I plan parties, I take care of correspondence. Frank calls me the CEO." There is, however, one thing that Adelina never does: "I don't take out the trash, ever."

Adelina could accurately describe her job in life as "Everything but the trash."

Republished from "The Superior Wife Syndrome: Why Women Do Everything So Well and Why — For the Sake of Our Marriages — We've Got to Stop" by Carin Rubenstein, with permission. Copyright 2009.