The nagging wife: symptom or cause?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The 'nagging wife' is a centuries-old stereotype that refuses to die. She's the subject of eye-rolling banter between men, the warning from the pulpit and the marriage guidance book, the defence of countless men who have committed murder. In recent weeks, she has resurfaced as a truly 21st century reminder to women that there's something else they're probably not doing well enough at - in the form of a piece entitled 'I wasn't treating my husband fairly, and it wasn't fair'.

The post, which appears to have gone viral in the grand tradition of 'pseudo-meaningful revelations about my relationship that easily translate into clickbait' (247,000 shares on Facebook), details a wife's realisation that her controlling and obsessive attitude to household matters was belittling her husband and buying into another hard-to-stamp-out stereotype - that of the 'useless' husband who can't be trusted to do a thing around the house.

Thousands upon thousands of women have apparently recognised themselves in this tale and I don't think she's entirely wrong. I've heard her tale in conversations in the office or on nights out with friends. 'Wife always knows best' - 'happy wife, happy life' - I've heard people say it and I've most definitely seen them post it on Facebook (there is a theme here. Facebook has a lot to answer for). And I don't buy into it because, really, what does it say when the only words that come out of your mouth regarding your partner, your husband, the father of your children - are about how 'useless' he is and how you won't 'let' him do things?

This works both ways. It's clear that men and women are called to respect and honour each other and sickly relationship-themed clickbait is, for all its faults, reasonably good at pointing this out. However what's often noticeable is the way this point is made differently, depending on whether the post in question is primarily about, or written by, a man or a woman. A key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from men (particularly of the loosely Christian variety): 'You'll be bawling your eyes out when you read about the amazing thing this guy did for his wife'. Conversely, a key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from women: 'The one thing I realised I needed to do more of/less of as a wife and mother'. As ever, identifying our inadequacies and how we must 'do better' defines us as women.

In writing about her tendency to take control and insist that things are done 'her way' - the purchasing of meat, the sorting of laundry - one woman has identified a key way that power struggles between couples often play out. She mentions that she doesn't believe men act in the same way towards women, referencing the fact her husband is 'just not as concerned with some of the minutiae as I am'. But what she doesn't identify is what is so often the reason for this, and the reason for the way women frequently feel compelled to assert power.

I don't know many women who are comfortable with simply doing nothing. Relaxing, chilling out, whatever you prefer to call it. I'm one of them. I've had countless conversations with friends where we've discussed our discomfort with sitting still. There are, quite simply, always things that must be done, whether that means housework or running errands or getting through our 'to read' list or writing another blog post. Not for nothing do we talk about the 'second shift' or the 'double burden' - the fact that women's increased entry into the workplace has not resulted, in the majority of cases, in an egalitarian set-up when it comes to housework, childcare, and the general organisation of family life. 

Even women who do enjoy a more equal partnership struggle to allow themselves downtime, knowing at the same time that their partners have no such qualms about relaxing - and for many it's learned from childhood in the way they've seen the household roles their parents have played.

The curse of modern womanhood, as we all know too well, is that whatever you do and however you do it, feelings of guilt and inadequacy will snap at your heels like an angry terrier. The majority of society, from politicians to journalists, to people on parenting forums and your own relatives have a wealth of opinions on what constitutes acceptable womanhood and unfortunately, most of us socialised to care a whole lot about what others think about us and out lifestyle choices.

This, of course, happens in different ways. I enjoy a pretty egalitarian marriage and couldn't care less if I haven't dusted my mantelpieces in living memory, but I've certainly considered myself a bit of a let-down for sitting on the sofa watching television when emails have languished in my inbox and projects haven't moved forward as quickly as I would have liked (and those are personal emails and personal projects, not even work-related ones).

Even today, especially today, the running of the home and of family life inevitably falls on the shoulders of women. Even if it doesn't, in theory - for those in equal partnerships for example - we still consider it our responsibility, berating ourselves internally when they let something slip. The minutiae of daily life all too easily becomes a source of anxiety - I know I've had to remind myself that I am, in fact, allowed to relax and that this is not the same thing as laziness. And for many women, the efficiency and performance of the minutiae of daily life is one of the few areas in which they can exert power and control.

Guarding against a hunger for power and control is something all humans must do. A toxic force within relationships and families, it often manifests in differing ways because of the ways men and women are brought up to behave and to gain power, and the ways society considers it acceptable for them to do so. Discouraged from speaking our minds and pursuing confrontation or appearing to 'dominate' a relationship, women are encouraged instead to resort to manipulation and only ever to demonstrate indirectly that they might 'know best', or indeed have feelings about anything at all. It's even a tactic that's encouraged by numerous Christian books on marriage: upholding traditional gender roles means subtly manipulating and influencing your husband rather than asking him or telling him. That would, of course, be 'nagging', or assuming a dominant role.

'Nagging', and the range of emotions and issues it encompasses - the wrong meat purchased, the blue sock accidentally included in the white wash, the fact that somehow, people do things differently to you and that's just not right - must therefore be looked at as part of the wider picture of how women are permitted to exercise control over their own lives and the lives of others. 

The key sphere in which women are permitted by society to exercise authority is the home. In a world of judgement, anxiety and the feeling that whatever you do will somehow be not good enough and that there are countless factors in your life that you can't control, household tasks are one of things that you can. Whereas men are allowed to assert authority in the public sphere and as the 'head of the household', women remain largely responsible for all that lies beneath, and even today, they know that their worth as women is often judged by it.

Men have - usually - not been brought up to notice the minutiae of the home and family life. They haven't had to, because, historically, it's always been women's work. It's something that's been done for them and they've often never really had to think about it - yet many (not all) expect it to somehow get done anyway. Even in relationships where both partners truly don't care about crumbs on the floor and the correct brand of mayonnaise being purchased, women feel compelled to set standards lest they be judged by society, their friends, their mother-in-law - and found wanting in a way that men never will. 

In a world where this burden still inevitably falls to women, in a world where humans want control and power, the woman whose anxiety and anger over things not being done 'her way' can be seen as a symptom, not just a cause, of gender relations that need restoration. Perhaps a more balanced and egalitarian approach to home life - where tasks and responsibilities are not gendered - might alleviate the need to control and 'take charge' over simple household tasks.
 

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