Saturday 3 February 2007
Jemima Lewis: Why British men make good husbands
Women have a weakness for ideals. We find a man who is almost perfect, then fixate on the almost
It is perhaps not wise to extrapolate lessons on marriage from the behaviour of Silvio Berlusconi, a Latin lover of such bravura that he might have been born with a rose clamped between his teeth. Nevertheless, the spat this week between the former Italian PM and his long-suffering wife does illuminate some uncomfortable truths about men and wedlock.
Veronica Lario wrote an open letter to the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica, complaining about the lechery of her 70-year-old husband. In particular, she was outraged by his behaviour at a recent television awards ceremony, where he propositioned a series of beautiful women. Two of them were MPs - though to the goggle-eyed British observer they looked more like Playboy centrefolds - and the third was a Venezuelan-born TV presenter and former Miss Amazonia.
"I'd go anywhere with you, even a desert island," he growled at the latter, before clapping eyes on Mara Carfagna MP, a pulchritudinous member of the Italian parliament's constitutional affairs committee. "Take a look at her!" he ogled. "I'd marry her if I weren't married already."
Berlusconi's roving eye will not have come as a total surprise to his wife. He was married when they met, and she was an actress in a play called The Magnificent Cuckold, which required her to bare her breasts. Berlusconi was instantly smitten - "I felt a flash of lightning!" - and pursued her until she became his mistress and then his wife. Their union has long been dogged by rumours of infidelity, but this latest escapade was, as Ms Lario put it, "damaging to my dignity as a woman".
Berlusconi's public statement in response - "Forgive me, I beg you ... I guard your dignity like a treasure within my heart ... Accept this public apology as an act of love. One of many. A big kiss. Silvio" - would not have cut much mustard with me. Generally speaking, the more florid the declaration of love, the worse the bounder behind it. Besides, grovelling in public is hardly a punishment at all for a man who lives to be centre stage.
Nevertheless, Ms Lario is to be admired for dealing with this ancient problem in an upfront fashion. Like those rare women who kick up a fuss about being fondled on the Tube - seizing the culprit's hand and raising it aloft with a cry of "This man is a pervert!" - she refused to shoulder the shame of her husband's behaviour alone.
It is a mysterious fact that, although men have more to gain from wedlock, it is usually women who take responsibility for keeping a marriage off the rocks. Studies show that married men are healthier, happier and live longer than their bachelor counterparts. (Women, by contrast, fare better in all categories if they remain lifelong spinsters.)
Yet men go into matrimony as if to the gallows. Even my own husband - a model of uxoriousness, so far - turned a whiter shade of pale the night before our wedding. "I'm having a funny feeling," he confided, lying rigid on our bed like a felled tree. "I think it's called 'fight or flight'."
Once the knot has been tied, men seem to relax into marriage with surprising ease. Too much ease, say some. The single biggest lament of wives of my age - past the honeymoon period, but too young to be afflicted by mid-life adultery - is that their husbands don't seem to notice them any more. Frilly underwear that once would have elicited gargles of lust no longer merits even a lowering of his newspaper. When he gets a dreamy look in his eye, its because he's plotting to ask for a pay rise. Conversation ebbs away into a staccato series of mumbles.
To see just how bad things can get we must look to Japan, where silent, workaholic husbands have given marriage such a miserable name that young women are increasingly opting for spinsterhood. There is even an organisation called the Japan Doting Husbands Association, whose mission is to "protect and nurture" the nation's few remaining doting husbands.
The group has five golden rules, including calling your wife by her name rather than grunting, and looking into her eyes while talking. Last week was their inaugural Beloved Wives Day, during which men were encouraged to get home by 8pm and say something nice to Her Indoors. One man, Shigeru Shibata, marked the occasion by telling his spouse of 30 years that he loved her - for the first time.
Somewhere between Shigeru Shibata and Silvio Berlusconi lies the ideal husband: demonstrative but sincere, flamboyant but faithful. And perhaps this is part of the problem. Women have a weakness for ideals. We find a man who is almost perfect, and then we fixate on the almost.
In some ways, the average British husband - monosyllabic, flatulent but fond - is a model of good sense. He doesn't expect his wife to look like Sophia Loren, or his house to look like World of Interiors. Having overcome his pre-nuptial terrors, he just wants to relax and take things for granted. If it's passion and heartbreak you want, go for a Berlusconi. For happiness, find yourself a quiet one.
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