“You know what they say, happy wife happy life!”
This phrase has been around forever, with husbands implying their overall happiness depends almost solely on their wife’s happiness levels. Even though it’s often used in a light-hearted manner, or for comedic value, it’s had critics in a flurry for years now.
No matter what side of the fence you sit on, we can all agree that this phrase probably needs some updating for the modern world we live in. If you want to get to the bottom of the debate and weigh in on the modernized concepts, read on.
The phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’ is often thrown around by spouses, teasing that if their partner is happy everything else can run smoothly.
Basically, it’s a shorthand way of saying that taking care of your partner’s needs can lead to a more peaceful existence.
While in theory, this seems like fairly sound advice, it’s often interpreted in different ways. Usually, it’s seen as lighthearted and humorous, rather than as serious relationship advice.
However, critics might argue that the saying is now a bit outdated as it reinforces certain gender stereotypes — especially focused on heterosexual relationships – namely that the husband must cater to the wife’s needs in the home. This identifies the women as the barometers of the relationship, with women’s judgments about their relationships viewed as more predictive of future happiness than men’s.
The overall idea is that women are inclined to care more about the health of the relationship, so if they’re not ‘happy’ it’s seen as a strong predictor of relationship failure. When viewed through this more critical lens, this focus on women’s satisfaction highlights the lack of shared responsibility the concept champions.
Like many of these phrases, it’s difficult to pin down the origins of this phrase and therefore is often considered to be a piece of folk wisdom.
Why we may not know where it came from, we can’t say we haven’t heard it! Similar to phrases such as the ‘7-year itch’, these colloquial phrases have been widely adopted by society without much too much thought into the greater significance behind them.
So with all the debate about the validity of this statement, is it true?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the debates, it’s important to note that striving for a happy relationship certainly isn’t a bad thing. As well as there being health benefits to a happy union, it’s quite a normal thing to desire happiness in a relationship.
This is not an issue that is up for debate, with the arguments centering more on the archaic (and potentially sexist) connotations of centering the chances of relationship success on the happiness of one partner.
In 2014, research suggested that there was some truth to this concept, with the association between a husband’s marital quality and life satisfaction being buoyed when his wife also reports a happy marriage.
Notably, in this study, the wife's happiness was affected if their husband became ill, but this did not reply in reverse. Suggesting that in this particular circumstance, the husband’s overall happiness was not impacted by their wife's well-being.
However, while this relationship satisfaction report supports this notion, it has only fueled even more heated debates about the statement's validity. For example, Diane Gleim LMFT poses several important questions in reaction to this result. What are the couple dynamics at play? How did it come to be that the wife’s emotional state is considered more important than the husband's? What are the beliefs and values that support this behavior?
New research conducted by Matthew Johnson, a relationship researcher, and professor of family science at the University of Toronto, challenges the old adage of a happy wife happy life concept — supporting the idea of an equal partnership.
These studies included relationship satisfaction reports provided by 901 mixed-gender couples who kept a daily diary for up to 21 days and yearly relationship satisfaction surveys provided by 3,405 couples over a five-year period.
This new study finds that in mixed-gender couples, men’s satisfaction levels were found to be just as significant as those of their female partners in predicting their future happiness together.
The results of this research support a more balanced view of modern romantic partnerships.
Romantic relationships shouldn’t just hinge on the happiness of one partner, or on a one-sided effort to keep the peace. Therefore, this robs both partners of their own agency, reducing both of their roles in the relationship.
Relationships should be an equal partnership, with both partners working to satisfy the needs and desires of their loved one — with healthy communication and boundaries. At the end of the day, your partner is a human being and will have good days and bad, and that shouldn’t dictate the outcome of the relationship.
As a wife, it could be tempting to buy into the ‘happy wife, happy life’ phraseology in order to get your own way. Instead of compromise, you could just wave around this statement in order to get what you wanted in the first place.
However, for obvious reasons, this one-sided weighting may lead to resentment or bitterness over the inequality of the dynamic.
"You are also missing out on so much intimacy if happiness is the only goal, without understanding both parties' needs,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.
“Are we really happy if the person we love deeply is miserable, or at least not comfortable sharing their feelings if they clash with our happiness?"
If the wife uses the phrase as a way to get what she wants, this manipulative intent will naturally erode the foundations of the relationship.
There is also another layer to this, as in many cases the wife doesn’t want their partner to just agree with everything they say to keep them ‘happy’. According to Gleim, “getting your way” isn’t always satisfying, and can actually feel like a cop-out on intimacy.
“This blocks the opportunity for a couple to address deeper misalignment,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“Being on the same page as a couple is a key part of relationship satisfaction, but if one person is essentially faking it you are growing apart a lot faster than you realize.”
If you choose to live by this kind of marriage advice as a partner or spouse, it makes your wife responsible for your own happiness.
This kind of dynamic is a breeding ground for negativity and resentment and also buys into the concept of a ‘nagging wife’ eroding her husband’s happiness. While your spouse’s happiness is important, this co-dependent dynamic places too much pressure on the relationship and could be detrimental to its overall success.
Therefore, placing so much emphasis on ‘keeping your wife happy’ could negatively impact your own happiness, which you then blame on your partner. This vicious cycle will only continue as long as this emphasis exists.
"Ask yourself what feels sustainable about this concept for you," says Seeger DeGeare.
"Is it saying 'happy wife' that helps you prioritize her needs as well as your own? Or does 'happy wife' give you an excuse to not think about your own needs and find healthy ways to express your emotions? Get curious with yourself about these questions as a way to better understand why this behavior might be functioning for you.”
With all of this debate in mind, it’s helpful to remember that most people don’t look into phraseology on such a critical level.
Many people may have thrown around this phrase before without thinking about it. For example, a husband may throw it over his shoulder to his friends as he leaves the pub early or says it with a smile as he picks up some flowers on his route home.
In these cases, there is likely no negative meaning behind it. However, even if it’s only used in a lighthearted way, it’s probably about time we kickstart this phrase's evolution to make it less triggering and certainly less gender constrictive.
After all, relationships thrive on mutual respect, communication, and compromise, rather than the adherence to a catchy but potentially problematic saying.
Even though we understand the appeal of a rhyming scheme, it’s best to think beyond cute phrases when approaching overall relationship satisfaction. This kind of terminology undermines and oversimplifies the dynamics of a real relationship, which let’s face it, requires a lot of work!
To evolve the meaning of this phrase, it’s important to take responsibility for your own happiness and change how you look at the message. Instead of focusing on one partner’s happiness, look at your relationship as a team dynamic — with both partners working towards each other's happiness on an equal playing field.
“Talk to your partner about what your shared goals are and what happiness in your relationship looks like,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“Happiness is a feeling and in relationships, it is also based so much around a unique definition of how that relationship functions. These are vital conversations that can not be skipped for the sake of keeping the peace.”
With all this said, we realize that it may not have the same catchiness as the original phraseology. If you still want a catchy phrase, there’s quite a ring to ‘happy house, happy spouse’ — don’t you think?
We trust though that if you adopt this phrase, you understand all the layers beneath it!