“Yes, Dear”: Henpecked Husbands and One-Sided Relationship Dynamics

“Yes, dear” is the characteristic phrase of a one-sided relationship dynamic where the woman functions as the “boss” of the relationship and the man is said to be “henpecked” or “whipped”. This is a common portrayal of marriage on TV or in jokes, but it also underlies a lot of real relationship advice for men. It’s a problem because taking it to heart can leave men unable to stand up for themselves in relationships.

Stories and jokes aren’t obliged to portray healthy relationships, but in light of these portrayals and especially the serious advice, men (particularly young men) need to learn that this is not ideal, and certainly not inevitable, in a relationship. It’s likely that we’re not as concerned about teaching men to stand up for themselves in relationships due to the history of men being head of household, but that’s largely a thing of the past.

Sections:

  1. Examples (Real Life, Media Portrayals, Images)
  2. Problems (What’s at stake here? And is the man as head of household really a thing of the past?)
  3. Conclusion

(Length: 1,400 words)

1. Examples

1.1 Real Life

President Obama’s marriage advice to men is “do whatever she tells you”, but to women he opens with a self-deprecating comment about how long his wife has been putting up with him and then says “it takes about 10 years to train a man properly, so you got to be patient with him, cause he’ll screw up a bunch, but eventually we learn, it just takes us a little longer, we’re not as smart, Michelle’s been very patient with me” (videoarticle). And on parenting: “I just do what Michelle tells me to do and it seems to work out”.

Just a joke? Perhaps, but it’s a common one, not considered “crude” (unlike most jokes judged sexist against women), and it’s seen from a respectable and influential figure. I can really see some young men taking this seriously. Feminist Amanda Marcotte mentions another example from Obama (a joke that he quite smoking “because I’m scared of my wife”) and notes that “The idea of the man-child paired off with the mommy-wife has become quite a cultural phenomenon” (though she focuses on how it hurts women by making them take on more responsibility in a relationship).

Even if you aren’t worried about such jokes, it’s clear that some people do seriously suggest this dynamic as ideal, necessary for a relationship to last, or inevitable (sometimes semi-jokingly: “haha, yeah, but seriously…”). One newspaper article reported advice from a man after 60 years of marriage: “As long as you agree with a woman, you’ll be all right. I know the best answer is always, ‘Yes dear’.”

Some celebrities: “Here’s the secret to a happy marriage: Do what your wife tells you.” (Denzel Washington), “The first rule is that I make her feel like she’s getting everything. The second rule is that I actually do let her have her way in everything.” (Justin Timberlake), “She’s always right. Even when you don’t always think that’s the case, make her feel like it is. Trust me.” (Adam Levine).

A post on SitAlong (a dating blog for people over 50) called “Why Are Women Always Right in a Relationship?” says they asked 30 couples who’d been married for more than 20 years, and the standard response from the husband is that “they’ve been wrong for the past 20 years, and that their wife is always right”. It later clarifies that this shouldn’t apply to important conversations (like about family or the future), where “men have to present their opinions too”, but how easy is it to switch gears and drop their regular relationship dynamic and habits?

Finally, here’s an article in The Telegraph that’s skeptical of henpecked husbands and men who talk about “getting in trouble with the missus” or “having to check with the boss”. The author dismisses it as men trying to sound wanted, or feeling resentful for having to be involved with parenthood and chores. But there’s a pool asking readers whether they “know men who pretend their wives are tyrants” and the most popular answer (42% of 4,000+ votes) is “no, they’re not pretending”. (And that’s even using the hyperbole or extreme wording of “tyrant”.)

tyrant

1.2 Media Portrayals

Multiple TVTropes pages demonstrate this “yes, dear” relationship dynamic. There’s “Exiled to the Couch” where one partner, usually the husband, is sent to sleep on the couch as a result of an argument. And there’s “Henpecked Husband” (which has a long history), about a guy who “squirms under the thumb of a domineering wife” in a relationship where her “word is law, and he can only obey, with a meek and humble, ‘Yes, dear.'”. Both of those pages have a lot of examples of shows. See also the tropes “Women are Wiser”, “Guys are Slobs”, and “Men are Uncultured”.

1.3 Images

2. Problems

2.1 What’s at stake here?

Taking this relationship dynamic to heart could lead a man to lack self-respect and boundaries in a relationship, let himself get taken advantage of, and even accept full-on psychological abuse. There’s evidence that we take psychological abuse against men less seriously. A 2004 study found that a wide range of activities (42 of the 100 surveyed) are more likely to be seen as abusive if done by a man (just 1 was more likely to be seen as abusive if done by a woman). For example, for “monitored spouse to know where s/he was”, 66% of respondents said abusive if done by a man and 35% said abusive if done by a woman.

That’s why switching the genders in the advice on this page can make the seriousness more clear. Imagine that celebrities and presidents gave advice to women to “just do whatever your husband tells you”. There would be outrage, because that could lead women to accept unhealthy relationships.

I do understand the historical context. As the entry for “Henpecked Husband” explains, the trope was originally a subversion of expectations because a husband dominated by his wife was the reversal of the proper configuration of the man being in charge of the household. In the context of the man expecting to be head of household, it’s understandable to focus on ensuring woman’s boundaries. But that’s not the environment most of us live in: “the notion that the man must be the head of the family is mostly a Discredited Trope”.

2.2 Is the man as head of household really a thing of the past?

Everywhere? No, but it doesn’t look like the standard situation or expectation in mainstream Western culture anymore. A study (paper here) from researchers at Iowa State University notes that a woman “may hold more power in relational domains because of the perception that women are skilled in handling relationship issues” and that “some studies have reported that men often feel powerless in certain domains, such as the family”. Their own experiment recorded 72 married couples during problem-solving discussions, finding that wives were more dominant (talking more and getting their way more) regardless of which partner initially raised the concern. And a 2008 Pew survey found that women more often made three of the four household decisions asked about (weekend activities, household finances, and big purchases—the other question was about controlling the remote and no gender difference was found).

At the very least we can draw from these studies the weaker conclusion that the man as head of household is generally a thing of the past, which means we need to start worrying about teaching men self-respect, boundaries, and the ability to stand up for themselves, just like we do for women. Depending on how far you want to go from a few studies, we might even make the stronger conclusion that the trend has actually reversed and women are more often the head of household, which means that it’s even more important to teach men to stand up for themselves.

3. Conclusion

As alluded to at the beginning, I’m not trying to “police” TV shows or jokes, because those things aren’t obligated to portray healthy relationships (although we should perhaps hold presidents to a higher standard). My hope is just that we do a better job of making it explicit that this is not (and should not be) reality. We also need to recognize that this is actually genuine advice a lot of the time, and respond by better teaching men self-respect, boundaries, the ability to stand up for themselves.

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