Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: How I became a surrendered wife

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown 'People react in different ways when I tell them. A number of male friends are intrigued, while women laugh or despair'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It started with a smile, this experiment. In April an irritating new book by another American who presumed to tell us how to lead perfectly perfect lives was published in the UK. The Surrendered Wife, by Laura Doyle, blazed a trail of controversy like a firework, frizzling and frazzling and then dying away.

The book claims to be a step-by-step guide to finding peace with a man, essentially by giving him more control. You do this by making yourself pleasing in every way you can, never reading his mind or baiting or provoking him, letting him solve your problems, never showing him you are better than he is at doing things ­ essentially a sweet wee wifie like those stereotyped images from the 1950s.

None the less, as I watched the TV programme based on the book (which I later read), I thought I might try and live out these ideas for real. It would be fun; it would make good copy, and we would all have a laugh following the instructions and foolish homilies.

Now, eight weeks later, I am no longer laughing. I feel chastened, acutely alive to my own arrogance, to my inclination to control, and to my other terrible failings.

At the beginning, there were days when I couldn't bring myself to carry on with the experiment. But in fits and starts, like a struggling diet junkie, I stuck with it. And I have to say that something is beginning to change, and for the better. Personal re-engineering does work ­ just look at Michael Portillo's miraculous transformation into a man for all people.

Yes, yes, I know. The backlash is always round the corner (often led by the enemy within), determinedly forcing women into slavish servitude in order to deliver the world back into the greedy hands of men. The most girly anti-feminist would not have to walk far into the book to feel seized and imprisoned. Some nauseating bits I would gladly tear out and burn in a public place in Bradford. The title, to begin with. And Chapter 13, "Abandon the Myth of Equality", which asks women to change hats when they come home from work and switch to acting all sweet and swooning helpless so that their male partners can feel like cowboys.

Actually all the gender stuff is pretty trite and useless and potentially harmful, although at least there are warnings that if the cowboy starts kicking you or your children about or if he is "chronically unfaithful" you must dump him.

But there are some sections and chapters which are startlingly revealing for anybody in a long-term relationship. Hidden mirrors placed around the pages which catch you out and make you look and see and think differently about how you are behaving and the effect of this on the people you most love in the world.

Falling in love or staying in love is not hard, says Doyle, but finding a way of being with somebody over a long time without forcing them to change into your idea of them is very difficult. To reclaim the relationship you had in your early years together, you need to push back the layers of exhaustion and habit which have settled over life and question the drift into spats that mean little but happen all too often.

People react in interesting ways when I tell them what I am attempting. A number of male friends and acquaintances are intrigued; some are even admiring. Although some of the latter are pleased because they think that yet another shovel of muck is being thrown over the dungaree-wearing Andrea Dworkin and her demented daughters.

Women laugh or despair. My son is unconvinced that I will go through with it, and my husband, Colin, who is likely to be the chief beneficiary of the sweet new me who will be emerging shortly, was at first appalled at the very thought that I would be offering him not demands and complaints (which he knows how to deal with) but contrition and generosity.

He said he feared that I would parade my virtue, like a Christian missionary in a heathen place, and that I would manipulate him: "This is control, of the most insidious kind. I don't want to live with Mary Tyler Moore. You have not consulted me on whether you should do this, which breaks the first principle of a surrendered wife. How can you surrender if I ask you not to?"

He has a point, but I do so anyway ­ when I can keep it up. I have to confess that some situations are beyond redemption. There is a questionnaire early in the book which reveals that I tend to issue instructions and expect them to be followed, even when I know nothing about the matter in hand. Colin then will go to war to stop me getting my way.

One of the most idiotic encounters in recent weeks has been over the house gutters. I want to get them cleaned and he won't let me for no good reason. He stalls me by saying that we should maybe replace the whole lot. Nothing happens. I finally make a decision and present it to him as badly as I can, so that he feels at once tyrannical and indecisive.

This project remains blocked. But there are optimistic signs elsewhere. I come home from a tiring trip up north and go into the kitchen immediately. Why? Because I want to check up on my husband. I need to catch him failing so I can carp about it. I drive furiously down the road, fuming with self-righteousness and self-pity. "You never cook. Men never think about anything else when they're working. I always make sure there is food for you when you come home ..."

There is no sign of any culinary activity; and there is no turning back now. Colin watches me as I perform my rehearsed act, and then says: "But there is enough food left over from yesterday. There was no point in cooking anything extra. And you told me this before you left."

What follows is miserable defeat, bitter guilt, lots of apologies and promises, the force of which shocks him, I think, because normally these events (he can be unreasonable and nagging, too, of course) come and go. But now I see that each one scrapes off a little more of that shining paint, the colours that excited and drew you to each other in the first place.

I cook almost every night because I want to and because I think the kitchen is my space. Yet when we met he would cook wonderful meals and I loved watching him as he worked, wine glass in his hand, creating something for and with love. When did this stop? Why did I not notice? And why did I so take over this activity and then blame him when he started feeling an interloper in the kitchen?

Questions such as this start small changes in behaviour which can lighten life immeasurably. I no longer start stupid rows over the best parking spaces or why he never asks for directions or who should phone our friends to invite them to dinner. I am teaching myself to notice the enormous amount he does instead of always alighting on the unfinished jobs and failures. I can't force him to do the same but he is trying and this too then makes my efforts easier.

We live in a place and time where men and women can have relationships based on equality, unimaginable intimacy and familiarity. You can still never really know another person, but in a loving modern relationship, you can come pretty close. My parents, in common with others of their generation, did not know each other. The men never discussed their work and the women lived most of their lives with their children, relatives and other women friends. They made fewer demands on each other, but hidden resentments, unhappiness, lack of fulfilment and loneliness choked many lives. But they understood better when to let things be and which blazing thoughts and words should be left to quietly cool down.

We still do have rows and arguments and some of them are more vicious than before because I am reminded that I am supposed to be a "surrendered wife". Once in a while, I need to binge on a spectacularly unnecessary argument. But these are getting less frequent and there is much greater closeness and intimacy once more. There is more tenderness too and vulnerability, which we feel able to reveal to each other again.

We are here for such a short time. The lucky among us find partners who are good and true. These two truths are too often lost in the baggage of our busy modern lives. The past few weeks have taught me this and much else. And I think that for all of us, my young daughter in particular, life is that much sweeter as a result. As Fay Weldon says of the book: "Forget the rights and wrongs ­ it works. It's a miracle."