By Mark Mouro
PACT Level 1
I don’t know about you, but when I was a young man growing up and trying to navigate the treacherous world of relationships, one adage stuck with me more than any other: “Happy wife, happy life.” Remember that one? Some of you may live by that motto. And while you may see some benefit, the saying also has its downside. Let’s look at how it, along with similar clichés, has the potential to adversely affect your relationship.
As a marriage and family therapist, I specialize in working with couples. Most of my couples happen to have young children, too. Often both partners are busy and stressed. They rarely make time to be with each other. As a result, part of my work becomes helping them identify and positively express their needs.
I’ve lost count now on the number of times the men in heterosexual relationships say they want whatever makes their wife happy. I like to call this the path of least resistance.
So then, when do you keep the peace? When do you fight for your right to be happy on your own terms? The right decision for any of us depends on many factors, especially in relationships. Let’s break down the pros and cons of abiding by “Happy wife, happy life.” Having the flexibility of both is where the real payoff is.
The Pros and Cons of Common Clichés
Research has shown that accepting the influence of your partner is good for the relationship in the long term. Being open to change shows that you’re in this together. For the most part, however, healthy long-term relationships can’t thrive on a steady diet of the clichés we pick up in life, neither the passive “Don’t rock the boat” nor an aggressive “Take it or leave it” approach. Having flexibility is important since relationships inevitably evolve and change over time.
Furthermore, a study from Rutgers University found that the more content the wife is with the long-term union, the happier the husband is with his life no matter how he feels about their nuptials. I hear from many of my male clients that they can easily let things go that their partner said and they don’t hold on to arguments from the past. If you can sacrifice your needs for your partner’s growth, it’s a collaboration and cooperation for the bigger picture.
The Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT) goes even further. This approach puts the relationship first, above all other self-interests. The relationship must be anchored in agreed-upon and shared values. This provides for mutual care when both partners know the relationship always takes precedence.
Most of the men I work with are heterosexual engineers in the Silicon Valley. Generally speaking, these men tend to circumvent conflict to preserve their relationships. And here's the thing, they tend to use the strategies that they learned growing up.
Growing up, these men often heard the message, “If you are a good boy and do as you're told, then you will not be excluded from the family.” Over time men learn that this strategy works, so they continue doing as they’re told well into their adult romantic relationships.
Now these same men find that the tools, often in the form of clichés, they used to manage conflict successfully for so long no longer serve them. And their attempts to accommodate their partner year after year result in a diminished individuality: their voice isn’t heard, and their opinions no longer matter. As men, they need to feel appreciated, but if they don’t speak up, they start to shrink down. If this goes on for too long, their partner begins to lose interest, and the couple begins to disconnect and drift.
Why We Embrace Our Clichés
Early on in sessions I provide a structure to manage conflict productively — especially when one partner has a tendency to avoid arguments or disagreement. When you become overwhelmed and feel the only thing you can do is to put a wall up for defense, it’s critical to be aware of what’s happening in the body, what your options are, and how it affects your partner.
For example, in one session with a couple yesterday, I commented on the husband’s “tell.” I asked his wife if she noticed the moment that her husband shut his eyes. I explained that this is common for people who are dysregulated. I also explained it’s a sign that her husband’s brain becomes flooded with incoming information. His brain won’t allow him to listen or respond well to what she is saying as his nervous system begins to shut down.
This is learned behavior, the coping method he developed a long time ago in order to protect himself. He learned to shield himself from criticism, hurt, and pain as he tried to maintain a sense of safety, waiting for the storm to end. He learned how not to exacerbate the situation.
When one partner uses this type of shielding as a defense, they don’t address the difficulty of integrating emotions, like the fear of rejection when speaking up to express themselves to their partner or the fear of upsetting their partner. In session we work to identify when one partner begins to feel overwhelmed, what the thoughts are in the moment, the body sensations they’re experiencing, and how to bring their nervous system back online so they can engage in a meaningful way.
In working with the couple whose husband was shutting down, I asked his wife to point this reaction out to him when she notices it in the future by saying, “I see your eyes are starting to close” and then by gently putting her hand on his knee. I explained that this will help him regulate his emotions and stay connected to her.
She immediately got it and responded that this was a shift in how she perceived the relationship and how they related. She remarked that when she took responsibility to help him through, it ultimately helped the relationship, which is what she wants first and foremost. A good example of how a cliché like “losing the battle and winning the war” works productively.
How We Release Our Cliché Attachment
When you’re having that internal battle with delaying immediate gratification in exchange for long-term success, as we all do at one time or another, tune into your motivations. What are you feeling? The desire to be heard in the moment? The need for self-preservation? A fear of rejection? What risks to the relationship do those important feelings carry?
Disagreement can be a positive force in relationships and doesn’t always have to lead to conflict. But as the cautionary cliché also warns, “Comfort breeds complacency.” Comfort puts you first, not the relationship. It’s amazing to see couples take risks with deeper levels of honesty and try new ways of relating to each other. I think this is part of the continuous practice of communicating the values you both agree on. Secure-functioning relationships are rooted in fairness, equality, and respect. And the balance that couples are always working to achieve is what PACT is built on.
So, I invite you to look at yourself and the clichés you live by. Are you in the “Happy wife, happy life/Go along to get along” camp or in the “My way or the highway/Take it or leave it” camp? My wish for you and your partner is to be in a mutually happy life. Both people in a relationship must believe that the relationship comes first and foremost, above the needs of each individual. If you find yourself clinging to one cliché or another, challenge yourself to return to the shared values and mutual care that allow your relationship to grow and thrive. Find your fair and reliable answers there.