The Marriage Deal

Every relationship has a silent bargain. Here’s how to renegotiate yours:

Precisely seven years and two months into Marla and Joey’s marriage, Marla announced that she was through making dinner. “That’s it,” she said. “I don’t do dinner anymore. Anyone in this family who wants supper will have to cook it, buy it, or figure out some other source for it.”

Marla no longer cooks in the evening except at those inspired moments when she herself feels a yen for her own home-baked potatoes gratine or her kids crave her glorious tortilla pie. Sure, she felt occasional pangs of guilt when Joey and the kids, Sam and Annie, looked at her with soulful, hungry eyes. But she got over it. “it was that or divorce,” she says cheerfully. “ I couldn’t work full time, love my children full time and be a great sport without beginning to hate everyone.”

What looks like a walkout on Marla’s part is actually a well-thought-out renegotiation. At the start of her marriage, she happily did all the domestic chores. By the fourth year, though, she began to question and resent it. “We both work outside the home, after all,” she says. “And year five of our marriage was an annus horribilis sexually. I was pissed. But I never connected my decimated libido with my dissatisfaction, nor did I know how to lessen the stress.”

When a friend said to stop doing so much, she’d say, “Yeah, right. And who’d do the cleaning then? My husband, who doesn’t see dirt? Our four-year-old who loves having it around?”

It took her two more years to come to this—dinner, the last frontier—simply because it gave her an hour to herself. After heated bargaining, Joey traded his most hated task, the bookkeeping for their home and family business, to Marla in exchange for making dinner. Marla, fairly blissed out by the trade, feels she got a good deal.

I’ve never met a couple who haven’t had to renegotiate at some point in their marriage—and inevitably, it’s the wife who initiates it. I say “renegotiate” rather than “negotiate” because the original marital deal is almost always invisible. It’s made by default, like one of those periodical subscriptions that appears on your credit card bill and must be canceled if you want it to stop coming. This negative-option deal is usually one that puts the wife in charge of the home and its contents, including the physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing of all its members—a full-time job emotionally, if not physically. It may not be a bad deal for all women, but those for whom it becomes too much feel psychologically bound to it, stuck with it.

Marla would never have considered fighting for a good deal when she was a bride, having long felt that marriage itself was a good deal. The crassness of the very idea of a “deal” would have offended her, as would the prospect of haggling for “better terms.” she liked being so focused on Joey, sharing their tiny bed, arranging their social life—things that would later chafe when her career took off. Yet, look closely at Marla and Joey’s arrangement after they married. Although domesticity was never he priority, Marla found herself doing the cleaning and cooking; she was the one who called the plumber, the electrician, the cotors—the one, moreover, who was supposed to notice when these people were needed, and stayed home when they came. It was a deal made automatically and silently, which made any unhappiness about it difficult to locate and express. Like Joey, many husbands remain oblivious even now to the deal, and respond defensively to the distress that ensues.

She: “I feel overwhelmed. I just can’t do this anymore.”
He: “Do what?”
She: “I don’t know. Everything.”
He: “Who’s asking you to do ‘everything’?”
She: “You are. You just expect it.”
He: “No I don’t. You’re the one who expects so much. Why don’t you stop making yourself crazy and stop blaming me.”

She doesn’t know how to begin to “stop making herself crazy” because all that she does is for their joint wellbeing and it infuses their every waking moment. As for blaming him, well, who else is there to blame?

Even now, with tough and autonomous and successful brides at the helm, making a relationship more wife-oriented means nothing less than overhauling ourselves—our attitudes, expectations, behavior and our deep and reflexive attachment to the culture’s ancient ideals and roles. In my experience, it’s almost never the husband who says, “Let’s rethink this. This isn’t working for me”—proof that this original, silent marital agreement gave him the deal of the century. He didn’t even have to ask for it; he’s right when he says it’s not his fault—it was designed for his benefit hundreds of years ago and still stands today as the prototype of traditional marriage. I know modern guys who, the moment they’re married, ask their wives, “So what’s for dinner?” just the way they asked their mothers the questions decades before.

“The happiness in your life depends now on continuing to please a single person, and to this all other objects must be secondary,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1790 to his daughter Martha on the occasion of her new marriage. Pleasing one’s husband, he was warning her, was to be thought of not as merely generous and loving, but as the single route to her own pleasure. In many other letters written to young wives at the time, and in “conduct books” that arose to advise brides on the “rules” of their new role, the message was the same. Pleasing their husbands was synonymous with pleasing themselves.

This has led—yes, even now—to the excruciating difficulty many women have with marital renegotiation. “If pleasing him is what pleases me,” a wife says to herself, “then anything I want to do that happens to displease him will make me unhappy, too.” Many a wife throws up her hands when she feels she must choose between her family’s desires and her own—if, say, she wants to go back to school, focus more on her career, have a more separate life, have more fun, do anything that makes her less available, and so less pleasing, to the family. She starts with the sense that doing things for her own happiness is selfish, and feels further thwarted by this idea that her efforts toward her own happiness will not, in the end, even make her happy!

Case in point: A woman I know became emotionally paralyzed when it was time for her to go back to get her master’s degree once her child was 10—the year she and her husband had agreed she’d do so. “He’s acting like, ‘Well yeah, I know we talked about it ages ago, but that was before we had kids, and I can’t believe you’d leave our daughter to do something so minor as art history.’” The trouble is, she’s the one who has come to feel her goal is silly and “minor” because it pales next to the overwhelming needs of her family. Fearful of forfeiting her family’s goodwill or disappointing them, she’s thinking of forgetting the whole thing “because it’s just not worth it anymore. It doesn’t matter anyway.”

Scratch the surface of almost any renegotiation and you’re likely to find a wife struggling with the issue of continuing to please her family and also finding room to please herself. Before the kids, it wasn’t issue. With the kids, her pleasure is supposed to be all bound up in the delight and selflessness of child-rearing. a wife is likely to be at least as ambivalent about departing from the traditional blueprint as her husband is, because of the desire and pressure to remain in the primary nurturing role.

Other key times for renegotiation are moments of stress and change: when one spouse is laid off or takes a new job; when the babies are out of diapers or the kids have gone off to school; when the wife’s (or husband’s) mother or father come to stay.

I encourage a wife to see that it’s not her husband she’s fighting in a renegotiation; it’s the entire institution of marriage, which still holds the original blueprint and hidden rules for women’s conduct. If she were renegotiating for better terms inside any other institution—the military, say, or the academy, or the church—she would know in advance how impossible it is for a woman to be heard. (Ask a woman in the army!) But marriage seems to be a female-designed institution, we think of it as a woman’s “natural” habitat, a place where she’ll naturally flourish.

That won’t truly be the case, though, unless a wife and her husband, togehter, push like crazy at the rigid walls of this ancient institution—blast them open wide enough to house our big, complicated lives.

So: My thoughts about how to renegotiate for that space.

Be very precise about what you want.
Renegotiating requires enormous clarity and controlled emotions. Before you talk, you have to get beyond the vagueness of “I do everything around here” or “I’m exhausted, that’s why we don’t have sex.” You have to get beyond the outrage, too (I’m not picking up one more sock around here”). You’d never go to your boss weeping and say, “All I do around here is work.” You’d say evenly, “I’ve been working very hard for the company and would like to discuss a healthy raise.” Ditch the anger, too, since merely releasing it sometimes offers enough temporary relief to send you right back to the conditions that created it without doing anything about them.

Know what you want and the least you’ll settle for.
Have suggestions ready; it may take several sessions. (Marla volunteered to take over the bookkeeping only because her husband didn’t think it was fair to drop dinner without a trade.) Pay no attention to accusations of being “cold-blooded” or “hard” or “selfish” or a bitch. The person with the good deal always thinks the person with the bad one should allow it. Proceed openly and persistently until your bottom line is agreed to. You love your husband, so keep it friendly. If possible.

Please yourself and you’ll please others.
This is the basis of happy negotiation, not the other way around. Let your husband negotiate for terms that pleas him—he’s not at a historical disadvantage, you are. (Has a man ever been called “selfish” for wanting to do things his way? And if he has been, does he care?) Moreover, history makes us nervous about moving outside the blueprint, even when it’s to our benefit—so beware of guilt. Finally, know that even men who moan and carry on as if they’ve been totally abandoned when their wives successfully renegotiate changes are the first ones to rave, a decade later, about their happy, vital marriages and their happy, vital wives.

Do not look at your renegotiated deal through any eyes but your own.
The reactions of our families and friends to changes we make in our marriages can echo the conduct books’: They’ll call you selfish.

Barbara and Peter, whose bedtimes overlapped because Peter worked the night shift in an auto plant, decided to have different bedrooms. You’d have thought, talking to Peter’s mother and father, that the sky had fallen. “What kind of marriage is this?” they shrieked. “Is your marriage in trouble?” their friends wondered. The couple had broken the blueprint, and nobody liked it.

Don’t expect approval.
Know that your family, on some level, wants you to do everything; that they’d be happy if their only job was just to show up. They will fight you. Stay clear about the benefits for them and for you pleasing you. Be willing to forfeit everyone’s approval…’ll click in in time. Know, too, that the most unconventional couples inevitably have the happiest marriages—they’re the ones who tend to ignore what other people do, and arrange their lives according to what’s best for them.

Renegotiation is not only about fairness but about desire. Even if all you want to renegotiate is who makes coffee in the morning, good sex is on the line. You’ll not want to sleep with a man whom you perceive to have all the perks and all the power. you’ll lose your desire for someone who doesn’t see how much you do and doesn’t seem to care that it’s unfair—and accuses you of being “difficult” or acting “strange.” Desire is no fool—it simply dissolves when there’s no fun around. And not wanting sex will put far more pressure on your marriage than even the toughest renegotiation will. That’s what all this is about: an attempt to recover pleasure. A woman who feels her marriage is as wife-oriented as it is husband-and-child-oriented is probably not getting headaches before having sex.

When you’re at the negotiating table hammering out the small things, and you want to kill him, remember that this, too, is a sign that what you’re doing here is a good thing—for you and for him.