It would be easy to scoff at such ideas, elaborated by Laura Doyle in her book The Surrendered Wife (Simon & Schuster) as retro or ridiculous. But last week Doyle made the national media rounds, and her book is already on Amazon's Top 10. Surrendered Wives circles have sprouted in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. The book has understandably provoked strong reactions. Popular therapist and author John Gray praises it, on the front cover, as a "practical and valuable tool." But UCLA psychologist Andrew Christensen moans, "It's destructive. It's a throwback, and it doesn't protect women."
Doyle, 33, a robust blond from Huntington Beach, Calif., was reared by battling parents who taught her that marriage should be an equal partnership. But the writer, who bills herself in her biography as "a feminist and former shrew," says she nearly ruined her marriage to husband John, 44, by becoming a control freak, constantly nagging and demeaning him. Doyle says she turned to happier friends for advice. One told her she never criticized her husband; another said she gave hers control of the money. From there, and aided by ideas in other self-help books, Doyle formulated the concept of the surrendered wife. She says her marriage thrived, causing friends to ask for her help. Now she runs workshops. "My mission is to teach women about the power of surrender," she says. "It's my own world peace crusade."
Some of Doyle's ideas have the imprint of sanity. Being the commanding, demanding warrior goddess may work in the office, she argues, but you should leave her there and treat your husband like a friend and grownup. "Honor his choice of socks and stocks, food and friendships, art and attitudes...have regard for his ideas, suggestions, family and work," she writes. There is a lot to be said for apologizing, for walking away rather than escalating an argument. And Doyle, like many therapists, urges women to do nice things for themselves and build on their interests and friendships outside of marriage.
But some of Doyle's ideas seem demeaning and questionable. Men are to be given the finances, regardless of who in the relationship is better with money. (Doyle says men need this in order to feel masculine.) Wives are to request a weekly or monthly cash stipend. Even if men make some early bad decisions, she argues, they will learn quickly, and wives will find them generous. (Try telling that to the naive women standing in divorce court or dealing with their dead husbands' debtors.) If your husband misses the right freeway exit, stay quiet, she counsels, even "if he keeps going in the wrong direction ... past the state line." If he asks for your opinion on which shirt to wear or how to deal with the boss, you should smile serenely and say, "Whatever you think," because by "telling him what you think you risk contradicting him...he wants to know you bless what he thinks more."
"What she is saying here is how to manipulate your husband," warns Philadelphia therapist Michael Broder. "True intimacy comes from being able to express your true thoughts and feelings." But Doyle counters that her book is not hard doctrine or meant for everyone. "If your behavior is extreme, and you're being pushed to the other extreme, you're likely to end up in the middle. I don't expect you to do this perfectly. I still don't." (She does it well enough for her husband, who has called their marriage "an empowering" experience.)
Doyle refers naysayers to her pleased disciples. Rachel Godwin, 23, used to demand that her husband Lenny wear his Adidas socks only with his Adidas sneakers, never his Nikes. Now, she says, Doyle's methods have salvaged her troubled marriage. Yet Judy Divine, 61, a remarried retiree, has a mixed reaction. Divine turned over the finances to her husband Bob and became less critical. But Bob, it turns out, likes her opinion and doesn't want to hear "whatever you think" all the time. Divine says she would give the book to a friend but would tell her, "You may not want all of this, but there's some valuable stuff here." It may be tougher for the rest of us to find the diamonds amid all the coal.