How to Be a Good Wife

Robert Harris
Version Date: January 12, 2011

I wrote the major draft of this article when I was in my mid twenties, and after thirty-five more years of experience and observation, the content still seems useful enough to share with you. I'm not a professional marriage counselor, of course, and my experiences are anecdotal, but I think they reflect the realities of human nature. If you want to have one of that small percentage of marriages that are happy, read through these suggestions and see what you think

1. Renew the bond. When you meet after an absence (the workday or even a couple of hours or even sometimes a few minutes) reestablish the bond of affection between you. The secret is that it doesn't have to be overt or elaborate. A touch, a hug, a smile, a caress, a kiss (preferably non-perfunctory if the absence has been very long), even standing close. A hand caressed across the back or down the arm signals the continuation of affection and good will. The variations are endless. Make a funny face, wink half seriously, pretend your flirting ("Hey mister, need company?"), bump into him as if passing by. Be creative, and show that you still care. Many men do not demonstrate love or affection like this, but all or mostly all appreciate it. They get the message.
Renewing the bond is especially important as a first step even when you have had a bad day and just want to vent. Or even when you discovered that your husband put his new red T-shirt in the washer with your white sweater. Opening salvos are taken as generalizations. So if hubbie comes home and is greeted with, "Where have you been?" "Do you know what time it is?" "Are you too stupid or careless to separate the laundry?"--he will think your love for him has died and he will be tempted to "work late" in the future. Knowledge workers come home half brain dead and exhausted and looking for peace and rest. If you supply war, guess what. Same with blue collar workers. After installing plumbing or wiring in houses all day, they want a bit of relaxation in a safe, welcoming environment. If you greet them with the axe instead of the relax, neither of you will be happy.
The sad fact is that many people greet their dogs with more affection and enthusiasm than they use to greet their spouses.

2. Support him and encourage him.Stand with your husband. [gottman] In spite of their hairy chests and bulging muscles, most men have eggshell egos and need emotional support in order to be completely happy. Your husband needs a constant and caring voice telling him, "You can do it." Confidence in your man will strengthen him and encourage him. Next, tell him that what he is doing is good and worthy. Believe in him. Men want and need an ally in their marriage partner, someone who will stand by them in the face of opposition and criticism. Your husband doesn't need you to tell  him he's always wrong--enough people do that already. So, when you do agree with him--and let's hope this is often--make it a point to say, "You're right," or "I absolutely agree with you." And when you are at odds, disagree supportively. Show that when you disagree with his statement, you are not rejecting your husband. Remember that even in disagreements, you are allies, not adversaries. Probably the most polite way to disagree is to frame your position as a question. Instead of, "No, that was in Peoria," ask, "Wasn't that in Peoria?" Instead of, "You're wrong," try, "Are you sure? I think it was Monday."
When your husband seeks your honest opinion, give it to him. Soften it with advance protestations of concern and affection if necessary, but be truthful. The truth hurts sometimes, and there is no avoiding it. But if a man cannot find honesty in his wife, where can he find it? Pray that your honest answers will make him happy as often as possible.
Having said that, a major point to make that too many people don't seem to understand is that informal conversation between husband and wife is hardly ever about finding absolute truth or exactitude of remembrance. It's about communication and bonding. If your husband says the temperature is perfect and you think it's cold, you don't have to get into a big argument over it. If you meet a stranger and he says, "Nice weather we're having, isn't it?" just to be sociable and friendly, you don't respond by saying, "No, you're wrong. It's actually unpleasantly cold." So why act this way toward your husband?
If you really love your husband, don't correct him in front of other people. It's a principle in business to praise employees publicly and criticize them only in private. When you contradict your husband in front of others, the message they get is not, "Wow, she really knows the facts." Consider this example:
Husband: "Yes, we had a great lobster dinner the first night of the cruise."
Wife: "No, it was the second night."
Husband: "Anyway, Fred, the waiter, said we could have seconds."
Wife: "His name was Sam."
Just what is going on here? First of all, no one hearing hubbie tell his story really cares a bit whether the lobster was eaten the first or second night or whether the waiter's name was Fred or Sam. Correcting these facts is pointless. But most importantly, the message the hearers receive from the wife's arrogant self assurance that her memory is superior to his is that the she does not respect her husband, thinks he's unreliable and incompetent, probably doesn't love him, and really is in a power struggle to wear the pants in the family. What other earthly reason would she have for interrupting his story (itself a disrespectful act) only to supply meaningless corrections? Does she really think the hearers are going to say afterward, "Well, I'm certainly glad you clarified the waiter's name. The fact that his name was Sam instead of Fred really made an enormous difference to the story"? And as for the husband, he's going to get the same message the hearers get. Let's hope that's not a message you want to send, over and over again. (And, of course, if he happens to be right, you've humiliated and disrespected him in front of others without cause.)

3. Love him as he is.  Take a minute or two to write out a sign that says, "A husband is not a project." Put this sign on the mirror or refrigerator or your office cubicle where you will see it every day. The attitude of "You're perfect; now change" slowly destroys a relationship. I once overheard a young woman say she had found the perfect candidate for a husband. "There are only five things I need to change about him," she told a friend. That's a perfect setup for either a two year marriage or a life with a miserable, emasculated man. I once knew a man whose wife criticized everything he did--how much shampoo he used, how he drove, how he vacuumed, how he rinsed the sink, how  he dressed, how he drank coffee, how he folded his undies, how he mowed the lawn, how he interacted with others, and so on. When he told her he didn't feel loved, she became angry. Eventually she began issuing ultimatums, threatening him that unless he changed, there would be consequences. I'll let you write the rest of this paragraph.
So I hope you will choose a husband whose faults you can live with. Think how difficult it is to change yourself. Changing your husband will be a lot harder. You might succeed, but at the cost of his love for you and your love for him.
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman notes that 69 percent of marital conflicts are over unsolvable problems (Chapter 7).  And when resolution is possible, Gottman sayss, "people can cange only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted as they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change" (Chapter 7).
Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady asks, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" The question that too many uninformed wives ask is, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?" The answer is that men and women are quite different. Part of loving your husband as he is, then, is to avoid trying to make him into a woman. He's not going to be like you, no matter how much you criticize him or try to change him. I once knew a man who was criticized because he didn't take better care of his cuticles. Happy is the woman who realizes that pretty cuticles are not a man thing.
Lastly, I'm reminded of that often repeated saying, "Be glad for your husband's faults. It's those very faults that kept him from getting a better wife."

4. Forgive him. For some reason, women seem to keep score on men's shortcomings and crimes against their wives. Women notice criminal acts by their husbands many times more often than their oblivious husbands notice their wives' transgressions. That explains why husbands are always apologizing and wives seldom are.
Anyway,  your husband will make mistakes, probably serious ones. Do not be surprised or offended when you  see that he is not perfect. Be understanding and forgive him.
When his crime is minor, like forgetting an anniversary or neglecting to call you when he will be late, consider these slips as nothing compared to the real miseries suffered daily on every square mile of the earth's surface. If his crime is more serious, consider that we sometimes say or do things when our true feelings are temporarily overwhelmed. If in his folly or weakness, he puts a wedge between you, don't hammer it in deeper; pull it out. "Fractures well cured make us more strong." --George Herbert
Of course you will never forget a hurt or slight. Women have massive storage areas in their brains for maintaining emotional experiences (happy or unhappy), so if he forgot your anniversary dinner five years ago and went bowling with his buddies, you won't forget that. But if you have truly forgiven him, you will never, ever use it as a weapon during an argument. Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting, but it does mean letting go. Too many couples make up after a fight over something or other, forgiving each other. Then comes the next fight and the whole history of the husband's crimes gets retailed from start to finish. (Men don't often do this because they don't remember the details or even the incidents. Their brains are not wired to do that.) If you bring up the five-years-ago crime, your husband will realize that you have never really forgiven him for it, but that you still hold a grudge that has placed a barrier between you. If you are an unforgiving type of person, who has to keep score, and if you are not yet married, stay single. You're not going to find a man who never needs forgiveness.

5. Be amiable.  Study to be as agreeable as you can. Don't be fake, but see if you can't cultivate an easy-going outlook. Try to do all things with a glad and free heart, willingly, and without needing to call on your sense of duty. A single cup of tea made as a result of unpremeditated love is better than an eight course meal prepared because of a feeling of obligation. And don't go out of your way to be difficult. For some reason, too many wives do just that. Overheard at the grocery store: Husband: "Shall we get some grape jelly?" Wife: "That would be for you. I don't like it and won't eat any of it." Whatever happened to "Sure, darling"? Overheard on the street: Husband: "Let's go over to the pizza place and get some ice cream." Wife: "Well, I really don't want to go, but I will just to make you happy." Do you think that this response made the husband happy? Was he glad that she agreed to go along? Don't make a big production over your reluctant willingness to go along. Either agree to a request cheerfully or say, "No thanks." Agreeing and then displaying a glum attitude is actually worse than simply not agreeing.
And speaking of agreement, part of amiability is cheerful agreement. I've touched on this a little bit earlier, but it bears elaborating here. The estimates vary, but there seems to be general opinion that men speak only about one third as many words in a day as women do. So when your husband says something, it is part of being amiable to practice the same active listening techniques you offer to strangers or people at the office. Smile, nod your head, find grounds for agreement. Too often we find the opposite in marriages.  I once knew a man whose wife disagreed with everything he said. It didn't matter which side he took--he even experimented with this--she always took the other side. He: "Movies are getting worse and worse." She: "I think they are getting better. Only a few aren't good." Or He: "Movies are really getting good, with all those special effects." She: "That doesn't matter. Movies are getting worse and worse." At one point he decided to make only statements of incontrovertable fact. He: "It's a cloudy day." But she was much too clever for that ploy. She: "There aren't that many clouds." Once in a great while, he managed to find a fact that could not be contradicted. He: "This thermometer says 74 degrees." But she was still clever. She: "Well, that's obvious," or sometimes, "It's probably not accurate, so who cares?" So, do you think that was a happy marriage?
I'm beginning to think that this way of responding is a personality habit. I know another man whose female coworker responds the same way. If he says, "I don't want Barney to join the team because he's a goof off," she will counter with, "It's not really Barney's fault. He's really okay." But if he says, "I think we should get Barney on the team," she will come back with, "But he's a disruption and a goof off." Negative people like to think of themselves as realists, but the game they play can be played by anyone:
Joe: "Let's go to lunch at Moe's."
Tom: "But we might die in a car wreck on the way."
Sam: "Or we could get food poisoning."
Joe: "Why are you so negative?"
Tom: "Hey, I'm just being realistic."
Sam: "I just want us to see the whole picture."
Free advice tip: Unless you are indeed trying to end your marriage or damage your husband's emotions, never say, "Whatever" in that contemptuously dismissive tone of voice. It's like rolling your eyes. Open signs of contempt and disrespect are the shortcut to a dead marriage (one that's over) or a zombied marriage (one that's dead but walks on).

6. Don't nag him. As the saying goes, "Once is a request; twice is a reminder; three times is a nag." If the second reminder doesn't work, make a list of reminders and put it on the refrigerator. (On the other hand, some husbands ask to be reminded until they get something done.) Nagging sometimes comes from a difference of agendas and priorities between husband and wife. Wife wants the snow tires on or off or the garage cleaned out, while husband wants to paint the boat or get some office work done. Nagging can seem like a control ploy, so it's not a good technique for strengthing a relationship. Try partnering with your husband on the task and enjoy it together. Enough said. More would be a nag.

7. Study to be unselfish and kind and generous. Marriage is a fellowship, a joint venture, not a business transaction. What you give to your husband, you give to the marriage, and therefore to yourself. Taking is so easy and giving is so hard. But learn to deny yourself at least a little. The cruel truth is that marriage is not a 50-50 proposition. The math never adds up. Both spouses think they put in more to the relationship than they are getting back. And if you keep score ("Let's see, today I did three loads of laundry and all he did was clean out the kitty litter, making that minus two for him"), you'll only frustrate yourself and start feeling hostile toward the person you freely chose to live with. Part of the problem is perception. We always think we're doing more on a project or in a relationship than the other person. And part of this is reality. For example, unmarried women do twice the amount of house cleaning as unmarried men. When they get married, both men and women think they will be able to divide the housework equally. Let's say the woman is used to doing an hour a day and the man half an hour a day. When they marry, the woman thinks the man will do half an hour a day (half of what she is doing as a single woman) while the man thinks he will be doing only fifteen minutes a day. But with two people and maybe a kid pretty soon, the housework quantity is now an hour a day.
What does this have to do with being unselfish and kind and generous? It used to be said that when men consider getting married, they think about what they are giving up and consider whether it's worth it. When women consider getting married, they think about what they are getting and consider whether it's worth it. Men likely undercalculate and women overcalculate. The result is that, while men need simply to make an adjustment ("I knew I'd be giving up a lot, just calculated a bit low"), women feel cheated ("Hey, I didn't get what I bargained for"). The result of the result is resentment on the part of the wife. There's a proverb somewhere that says, "The only way to be happy is to give yourself away." I think that means that a generous heart has a better chance at contentment than a heart that is always calculating how much is coming in
versus how much is going out.

8. Decide openly who will wear the pants in the family. Too many marriages are destroyed or rendered miserable by the covert struggle for dominance between the spouses. Many other marriages thrive because there is a clear agreement on who does what and who has authority in what arena. For example, in many marriages, the wife watches the finances and the social calendar while the husband takes care of the house and car maintenance. Those who adopt the "hundred dollar rule" agree that neither one will spend more than $100 without first consulting the other. Decide on who is going to make decisions about what areas, and who will have final authority when you can't agree. These sorts of issues should be resolved early on or they will create a festering discontent and a chronic struggle for dominance. And if you have children, clear authority lines are a must, or the kid will learn in less than five minutes how to exploit the lack of clear management. ("Go to daddy first, and if he says no, go to mommy.")

9. Put God at the center of your marriage. It’s said (even in the idea above!) that every marriage involves a struggle for dominance. Chaucer’s answer to the question, “What do women want?” was, “Sway”—that is, control or dominance. Thus, many women begin marriage by criticizing and tearing down their husbands, to “take him down a notch or two,” so that they can gain power. After all, if a man is constantly told that his choices, opinions, and statements are all, always wrong, he will be less likely to dominate the relationship. Noting like a little insecurity and self doubt to make a man less confident in his decisions. But the tyranny of the wife isn't any better than the tyranny of the  husband.
My suggestion is to put God at the center of the marriage rather than either one of you. Make him the one in control and follow his authority, so that both you and your husband will be less likely to insist on dominance.

10. Read the books I’ve recommended in How to Save Your Marriage.  

Conclusion: Following these pointers will go a long way toward making and keeping your husband happy--on one condition. You must really love, respect, and honor him. Marriage is not about technique as much as it is about friendship. If you don't like the person you married, no amount of technique is going to overcome that. It is true that Aristotle teaches us that, just as belief leads to action, so action leads to belief--that if you act a certain way long enough, you will come believe that way. So by acting as if you like your husband (by followng the advice above) perhaps you can actually come to like him. But there are no guarantees there. Don't rely on an Aristotelian conversion. So, final advice: marry someone you really like, who is a friend. Too many people marry for the wrong reasons (money, prestige, sex, business opportunity, "because all my friends were gettng married," and so forth).

See the other articles in this series

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at