While looking at pictures of sexy soccer players, I accidentally ran across a Woman’s Day article titled “The Husband Whisperer: 4 Tricks to Communicating with Your Man.” Besides reminding me why I’ve never bought a copy of Woman’s Day, it also convinced me I’ll never make a good husband whisperer. Not that I’m perfect in communicating with my husband – far from it! – but I’m instinctively leery of any approach that assumes a husband (or horse!) needs to be trained. Here, the goal is to train him to do what you want, when you want it, especially when it comes to household tasks. Oh, and he’s supposed to do it enthusiastically (unlike the surly Basement Cat pictured above.)
Credit where it’s due: The first tip, “Always say please and thank you — and touch him when you do” is less obvious than it might appear on its face. And it’s a good one. When you live with someone, it’s oh-so-easy to let basic manners slide. And touch is a great way to de-fang conflict of any sort – not just over housework. Touching can be pretty helpful in the midst of an argument, assuming your partner isn’t too pissed to let you close. (I’m not talking about sexay touch, just a hand on a forearm or shoulder.) My only gripe is that the example given is so stereotypical: taking out the trash.
The second tip, “Lead by example,” is one you’ve surely tried if you’re neater than your partner (or roommate, or children, or …). If it only worked, there’d be no demand for articles like this one. This tip is predicated on the idea that (some) men are household slackers, and women are all sticklers:
Why is it so difficult for a husband to swab the deck? It’s simple: Some men just aren’t that into cleaning. “Women see dirt and feel the mess that men don’t see or feel,” explained psychotherapist Marilyn Kagan, LCSW, who, with psychologist Neil Einbund, Ph.D., leads the Making Marriage Work courses at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
Hold on! At my house, when it comes to doing a cleaning job right, it’s frankly my husband who shines. Not I! Yes, I spend more hours on housework, but when he does a task, it’s like fairy dust was sprinkled on that area of the house. It sparkles. My goal is usually more modest: keeping the health department at bay. Sure, in a majority of couples, the woman typically has higher standards. But honestly, how many male partners will respond warmly to an in-home impersonation of Martha Stewart?
So I called my husband back into the kitchen. Lifting the saucepan, I pointed to the dried-up pools of soup. I could see by his bemused expression that it never occurred to him to look under the pot. “I know you’re tired, but I want to show you what works for me,” I said, as cheerful as an infomercial. “I just spray a little of this cleaning fluid on the spill, wipe and voilà!” He looked at me as if I had just performed a mindfreak. “What’s that you use again?” he inquired, much to my own amazement.
Not only did he continue to use the product I suggested, he now regularly cleans under pots, like a little boy exploring the dark rooty underworld beneath a rock. It may seem like a small victory, and the results aren’t always perfect, but little things like this are a giant step for my peace of mind.
If I were that fake-cheerful, I think my husband might prefer to crawl under a rock, himself. I wouldn’t blame him.
The third tip – “play the empathy card” – isn’t all wrong. The author suggests explaining that certain jobs are hard to do because we little women are smaller or weaker. I don’t think that’s totally illegit. My husband has a good six inches on me, and he can easily reach the highest shelf without rearranging furniture. He’s always willing to schlep tubs of laundry down to the basement. I’m secure enough in my feminist cred that I can simply be glad for a pragmatic division of labor based on our different strengths and abilities.
But again, why should empathy be confined to stereotypical tasks and qualities? Some days, my husband’s back is making him miserable while mine is just a little creaky. Or maybe he has a late evening meeting. Why shouldn’t I make his life a little easier by taking out the garbage? Empathy works a whole lot better when it swings both ways. Otherwise, it’s just pity.
The fourth and final tip is the pièce de resistance, and oh, I bet you saw it coming: “Reward good behavior – the sexier the better.” The expert cited puts this in its most innocuous form, though it’s still problematic:
“Reward your husband for completing a task by doing something you both enjoy, like dinner and a movie,” Alpert suggested. “Women often find men who are good husbands and fathers sexy, so the hint of an even greater reward in the bedroom will almost guarantee success.
Sure, when the work gets done without one person bearing most of the burden, there’s more likely time to have fun together. The problem, though, is couching the bedroom (but not the dinner/movie) specifically as a “reward” for him, not for both partners.
And it gets worse. By the end of the article, sex has become wholly transactional:
I let my husband pick from several chores I wanted to hand over, then I told him about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (sex!) that would be waiting for him if he handled that chore for the next few weeks. Intrigued, he chose homework help.
To my amazement, after dinner that Monday, he didn’t have to be reminded about our deal. “Can we do the homework now?” he asked eagerly. “After iCarly is over,” I said, reminding him of another deal we’d struck with our seven-year-old for one hour of TV chill time. When the two of them finally headed off to hit the books, I luxuriated in an extra hour of me-time. And how did my husband respond later? Let’s just say he enjoyed it so much that he decided to extend our deal!
And how did our author respond later? She doesn’t have any obligation to tell us, of course, but the article ends here, with the utterly clear implication that sex was a prize for her hubby. It’s something she gave him, not a shared experience. The author could’ve tempered the transactional framing without getting into TMI. She could’ve just said: “And for me, it was a win-win!” or something blandly wink-wink-nudge-nudge.
Instead, the article ends with pussy as commodity.
I agree that housework is a serious issue. Spats over it harm marriages and other long-term relationships. Its unequal distribution continues to hold back women.
But seeing sex as something women give up in order to entice their mates to supervise homework? How, exactly, is this different from paid sex work? How is it better? How will it foster more mutual pleasure (as opposed to just more frequent sex)?
How is it liberating for women – or men?
Also: Can you imagine the parallel article in a men’s magazine, “How to Be a Wife Whisperer”? I’d call it out for manipulativeness just as much as I did this piece. It’s unlikely ever to exist, because the work of that hypothetical article is pretty well covered in women’s magazines. But if it did exist, you can be pretty sure its ending would be the mirror image of the one in Women’s Day – with the twist that it’s the man convincing the woman to lead him to her “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. (Pot of gold!!! How ’bout we just say honeypot and be done with it?)