In May, in response to Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt’s article in The Atlantic highlighting the popularity of Laura Doyle’s New York Times bestselling book, “The Surrendered Wife,” among Orthodox Jewish women, the Intimate Judaism podcast, of which I am a co-host, released an episode about Doyle’s approach.
Doyle refers to herself as being a “shrew” in the early years of her marriage, acting out her dissatisfaction with her marriage. She was not getting the love she wanted, nor even a hand around the house, and asking (or, in her word, nagging) her husband to spend time with her — or to wash the dishes — got her nowhere, so she stopped asking. Couples therapy did not work for them, so she looked for a strategy that would help her be “happily married.” Doyle was not necessarily looking for equality or a deep and emotionally intimate connection with her husband. She states that she was “too embarrassed” to get divorced, and just wanted to feel taken care of.
The strategy she arrives at distinguishes between husbands and female friends. She suggests that husbands are not really all that interested in talking about your feelings or hearing your opinions, while female friends are primed for friendship and emotional intimacy. Being happy in marriage, therefore, means that your husband takes you out to dinner and on vacations, and buys you dresses — because all he himself wants is a “happy wife.”
When the episode aired, by chance, among the positive feedback we received expressing appreciation for our nuanced approach was a message from Doyle’s public relations manager, asking me to host an article by Doyle on my website. Though I politely declined, I did inform him of the podcast episode, and invited Doyle to listen to it, and to be a guest on Intimate Judaism to represent her view.
The invitation alone stirred the pot. When we publicized our famous guest as a “coming attraction,” many responded to our social media posts with concern that her approach is dangerous and perpetuates abuse. We had hopes, however, for a stirring conversation, and to engage with her with an open mind.
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In our discussion of the book, my co-host, Rabbi Scott Kahn, and I admitted that some of her advice makes sense. For those who want the sense of connection that healthy relationships provide, it is certainly not advisable to attack, or to be critical and demanding.
It also makes sense that one cannot base one’s own happiness on the other person changing, which makes it a good idea to look for how to adjust in an adaptive way. But we felt that providing this advice in the way that she does, outside of the context of the particular relational dynamics, was misguided, if not dangerous. Too many questions about the specific couple remained unanswered. For example: what is making the wife demanding and creating emotional reactivity? What is making her male partner resistant to change?
Doyle’s approach does not promote a fundamentally healthy marital dynamic. Communication is de-emphasized and the approach requires no accountability on the husband’s part. Instead, it simply provides guidelines for the wife to build his self-esteem, even if it is not genuine. “Call him ‘moneybags’ even if he isn’t earning any money. Tell him ‘It’s not like you to be angry,’ when he is known to lose his temper. Respect him even if he has not earned respect. And let him make all the financial decisions, even at the risk of bankruptcy (‘he will learn’).” Are all men really that emotionally unaware and easy to maneuver? Isn’t an approach that is designed to engineer a husband’s behavior at least somewhat infantilizing? Perhaps the method would be valuable as a survival guide for those stuck in unhealthy marriages — for while it certainly wasn’t optimal, it might sometimes be necessary, especially when the woman has no leverage in the relationship. I couldn’t recommend it beyond that.
Why, then, is Doyle’s book and approach so popular in traditional cultures? What is drawing women to “surrender” in the ways she suggests? To my mind, “surrender” is something one does in battle, not in a happy and healthy marriage.
Are all of the women who find their answers in “The Surrendered Wife” suffering in problematic marriages from which they cannot escape? Are they reluctant to leave because of the stigma of divorce? Doyle herself was “too embarrassed,” after all. Or perhaps they do not have the social support or financial independence to tolerate divorce. They may be part of a social structure that that provides entitlements to men and is inherently oppressive to women. Or maybe it has less to do with society and more to do with the type of person one has married. Partners with narcissistic personalities, for example, may have a very hard time with the type of communication that is frequently recommended in emotionally focused couple’s therapy. These therapies often do not work well with narcissistic men, unless provided by a clinician who is very skilled at working with the population.
Say, for example, a husband comes home late from work and his wife has had a hard day managing the children on her own. She would like to communicate to him that it was hard for her, not to blame or attack, but just to elicit some empathy and understanding. He should be able to hear his partner say, “I felt so frustrated and lonely tonight” without getting defensive or feeling attacked. (“Lonely? But you knew I had to work late tonight!”) The defensive response may come from feeling guilty, but if he learns to self-soothe his own guilt, he will respond normatively, with validation and empathy. (“I understand that you had a long and frustrating evening and putting the kids to bed by yourself felt lonely — that must have been hard.”). A narcissistic person has a great deal of difficulty learning to do this because it requires separating his wife, and her feelings, from himself. He hears “I am frustrated and lonely because of you” and he becomes narcissistically injured. He will interpret his partner’s feelings as hurtful to him and will react defensively, sometimes even distancing for days.
This is essentially how Doyle described her own marriage.
We challenged Doyle on her belief that a woman should not approach her husband for sex — our podcast is “Intimate Judaism,” after all. Doyle says that when her husband avoided intimacy and sex with her, she would say “I read that married couples should have sex at least twice a week.” This approach did not work, and only increased his distancing. I noted that, normally, men are happy for their wives to initiate lovemaking, and that approaching her husband directly about her desire to experience closeness and intimacy might be more effective than citing statistics. She also might stay curious about her husband’s lack of interest. Perhaps his lack of interest has nothing to do with her. Open and honest communication can go a long way to clarifying such matters between partners, and resolve many issues before they start.
Healthy communication also includes being able to differentiate between each partner’s experience. One partner can feel burdened and tired or uninterested in sex, while the other may feel lonely and rejected. Each partner can validate and express empathy for these experiences — when they have been expressed as “I feel” statements — without feeling attacked or blamed.
Doyle insisted that there is no difference between saying “I feel rejected” and “You are rejecting me.” She stated that if she said she felt rejected, her husband would be insulted and distance from her for days. He would not have been able to hear the words “I feel lonely and rejected” as an expression of her feelings, and not as a direct attack on him.
Her example helped me understand why communication-based couple’s therapy failed this couple, and why she had needed to develop her strategy.
Ideally, marriages should not need strategies other than those that increase friendship, safety, and intimacy. However, in arranged or hierarchal marriages, where women often feel oppressed or disempowered, they may need to use what leverage they do have to survive. Even in modern societies, not everyone has the ability to communicate effectively. When a woman is mindful, and has intentional awareness that her partner does not have the skills for empathy, mutuality, and intimacy, she must adapt completely, without expectation for a shared journey. Genuine intimacy, safety, and mutual respect are unlikely outcomes, but sometimes, a husband who helps with the dishes and spends money on his wife because he feels good about making her happy may be the best offer on the table.
Unfortunately, Doyle does not make this distinction and promotes the tools that worked in a way that satisfied her as a universal approach to a potentially vulnerable population of women. This normalizes a worldview that prevents the expectation of a mutually respectful and equal marriage.
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In the end, though our discussion remained respectful, we found it difficult to communicate with Doyle. She deflected our questions, and, at every opportunity, used our platform to repeat, in a dogmatic trope, the same familiar stories from her book and from other podcasts and lectures. On several occasions, I pointed out to her that she did not acknowledge or engage with us or our questions directly. Presumably, she knew what she wanted to say, and was prepared to say it, regardless of our questions. Not quite the open debate we had been aiming for. Indeed, the conversation did not even meet our standards for an Intimate Judaism podcast episode; it is available here, for those who wish to listen: