Attitude adjustment might ease things on home front

Family Matters

April 25, 2004|By Susan Reimer

THIS IS GOING TO COME AS a nasty shock to those who know me, and to those who are sure they do, but I think Dr. Laura Schlessinger might be on to something.

The blunt and conservative talk radio phenomenon has churned out yet another book, and even its title is designed to irritate: The Proper Care & Feeding of Husbands (HarperCollins, $24.95).

Feminists can be counted on to pull their hair out in handfuls at what this title suggests. And men are going to feel more like the family pet than the lord of the realm.

Dr. Laura doesn't waste a minute getting to her main point and, as quickly as the introduction, she quotes a male caller as follows: "Men are only interested in two things: If I'm not horny, make me a sandwich."

I'm not sure which sex should feel worse about that characterization, but what follows is an amalgam of Defending the Caveman and The Surrendered Wife: Make your man feel more like a man and he will make you feel more like a woman.

If you can get past the relentlessly retro vision of marriage Dr. Laura puts out there, there might be something worth salvaging in this recycling of the phone calls and letters she receives.

The goal of any marriage should be the happiness of both parties, she says, but harmony is essential once there are children. However, it will be in short supply if Mom is punishing Dad every day at 6 p.m.

For Dr. Laura, marriage is not a particularly two-way street and it isn't up to him to relieve her feelings of frustration or exhaustion or depression.

But, she can get what she wants out of him -- the garbage out to the curb or dinner and a movie -- if she just ditches the martyr act and meets him with a chilled martini and a fresh coat of face paint.

Sounds a little like my mother saying, "You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar." I thought we gave up that kind of emotional manipulation in the name of healthy and honest relationships.

But Dr. Laura swears by it, and, if you can banish the vision of you at the door in fishnets and a bustier, you might see a glimmer of an idea.

Whatever else she suggests, Dr. Laura is right about one thing: We can't change another person's behavior; we can only change how we respond to that behavior. The bonus -- and it is not guaranteed -- would be when our husbands make changes in response to ours.

If we aren't in a hellish mood when he walks in the door, he might take a chance and ask how our day went ("Actually listening to what we say: priceless"). If we don't leave a list of chores pinned to the garage door with a steak knife, he might feel moved to bring the trashcans in from the curb.

And we can't keep using coffee with a girlfriend as an opportunity to ridicule our husbands because that kind of regular griping will surely poison the well.

And, finally, if we aren't furious with each other over all this and more, the bedroom might not be such a punishing room.

I am not completely convinced. It might take longer than we are willing to wait for him to notice that we are not shrieking or sullen at the end of the day.

It might be months before he notices that we are not cataloguing ancient sins or sighing with exasperation at his attempts to help.

But it won't take the kids that long to pick up on the vibe that Mommy and Daddy are no longer staring daggers at each other when they are in the room.

Like I said, I am not convinced. But I do know this. Women can't keep heaping their disappointment at the feet of the men they marry. Even if it is his fault, he isn't clever enough to fix it.

As usual, it is up to us to make things better, for ourselves and for our children, and we can do that by deciding that we don't want to be unhappy.

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