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Wives, Please Don't Surrender

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

(This post is adapted from a special edition schmoozeletter.)

Last week, I posted what seems to have been a polarizing opinion on social media, and there were requests to elaborate.

In the controversial post, I recommended that readers “beware of marriage advice that recommends Laura Doyle books.” I had no idea that I was kicking a beehive. Professionals both recommend and criticize books regularly. I didn’t anticipate that would set off such a heated debate, a flurry of strongly worded comments, and a blizzard of lengthy private messages- on both sides of the issue. Laura Doyle enthusiasts were coming out of the woodwork to militantly defend their leader. And many surrendered, traumatized women were coming forward to share their pain.

If you read my blog or know my work, you can probably intuit why approaches to relationship that trend towards “surrender” wouldn’t be my recommendation. But just to elaborate a bit more on why I discourage materials like this, here is a longer explanation of last week’s post and what I see as the problem with a “submitted wife” model of marriage intervention:

In general, I try not to “call out” individuals by name; as I said in the post caption, I try to debate the value of ideas, not humans. (I’m also 100% ok with colleague and friends disagreeing with me.)

In this case, these books have titles like: “Kill all the marriage counselors” and “The Surrendered Wife” so I was surprised that anyone would find it strange for a couples’ therapist to oppose these books. (Yes, she subsequently published a book titled “The Empowered Wife” but it was not a correction of the earlier advice, just subtler branding of similar ideas.) I think it’s fair for couples’ therapists to refute calling for their own murder, (even facetiously- genocide isn’t funny) or wholesale disqualification of the field. (“Don’t go to professionals who went to school and studied years of research and evidence-based training to learn how to help relationships; instead ‘kill them,’ and then learn from a nonprofessional who extrapolated from her own nearly-failed marriage what must definitely apply to everyone else, and therefore must be evangelized.”)

Most formally trained and licensed couples’ therapists will generally not endorse advising women to keep their opinions to themselves, respond to a husband’s rage by asking themselves what they might have done to provoke it (“clean up your side of the street”) or implement covert tactics to “transform your marriage” while your husband is oblivious. Or chapter titles such as:

Your husband doesn’t want your opinion

Why most wives cause divorces and what you can do instead

Pretend you love your husband more than your children

Communication is overrated

Dishonesty is the best policy

Your husband is better with money than you are

The myth of verbal abuse

But honestly, I’m not here to criticize Laura's work exclusively; she is not the originator of these doctrines. They are old beliefs and practices which I believe are generally unhealthy and pejorative to both sexes. Surrender is a variation on submission, which is finds its roots Christian scripture.

The submitted wife model presupposes several concerning ideas:

Male ego is too fragile for women’s open communication and collaboration.

Women are the gatekeepers of the relationship’s health.

Women can and should shrink themselves to make space for men’s need for respect.

By doing so they can cleverly use their feminine wiles to “get” their husbands to do their will.

That, by the way, is the “empowerment” of “surrendering.”

The reality is that many women who follow this advice, find themselves incredibly disempowered and disenfranchised. I received an abundance of messages from women who believed there was something wrong with them, because they were told by religious mentors or coaches to use this approach, and subsequently felt even more beaten down in their marriages. If their husbands continued to behave with cruelty or abusively, they were told it was because they (the wives) were not implementing the submission properly or showing enough respect. I’m genuinely shocked that people would object to a therapist rejecting and opposing this.

Some defenses included something along the lines of: “How can you reject an entire approach on the basis of some objectionable content? There is so much good in there that could help so many people!” My responses to that are two-fold:

  1. There are many useful books and programs available, and consumers can do their own research. I would prefer to recommend the many well researched, high caliber marriage materials that don’t include what I deem harmful messaging.

  2. If you acknowledge that some of that advice is harmful, then, to give an analogy: would you send your child to a school where some of the teachers were abusive, because some of the teachers are good?

Of course some of what she says makes sense and is helpful. Many of her ideas are common sense. Much of this approach is predicated on gender stereotypes and realities of human nature that are sometimes true. Falsehood earns credibility when amalgamated with truths and appealing language. And in this case, topped with sweeping guarantees of blissful matrimony- to be a “ridiculously happy wife.”

Some commenters asked: “Have you even read her stuff??” (Or simply accused me of critiquing something I hadn’t read.) My answer to that is yes, I actually own and read two of her books- I’m not only judging the books by their (off-putting) titles. (And, by the way, the website has blog posts that share similar ideas as well, with very mixed reviews by readers and students.) But like I said: it’s not only about this author and her books- they’re just an example of a broader school of thought.

Some implied: "You're just threatened by her because she opposes therapists." Nope. My objection to Laura's approach is not based on the fact that she hates on therapists; that's simply the reason I don't feel bad to disagree with her actual content, publicly by name. But I respect the fact that someone who didn't have a good experience in therapy wouldn't endorse therapy. I also don't believe therapy has a monopoly on help or wisdom or that all therapists are good. However, being a licensed practitioner does demonstrate a certain level of education, training, and accountability.

Another defense: “But it works!” Well, that’s questionable.

From the number of messages I received saying that employing this approach resulted in further trauma for them, I gather that its magic not unanimous. But even if it does “work” for some people, that doesn’t make it healthy advice. A lot of her suggestions that “work” are essentially just generic psychological and relationship ideas that are far from unique to any single approach. To give another analogy: starvation diets “work” for people who want to shrink their bodies- but maybe the goal of shrinking bodies and starvation as a means to it is inherently flawed…

I'm also troubled by the notion of a nonclinical approach promising that it will bring marital happiness to women married to people who are mistreating them, including and especially affiliated with narcissistic personality disorder, serial infidelity, chronic raging, verbal abuse, and untreated addiction. Tasking the wife with assuming the onus of marital change, especially in cases like this, is dangerous and harmful. Writers are free to say these things, but I believe it’s important for the educated public to know that it’s not what’s recommended by professionals. (An exaggerated example would be someone who advertises essential oils for a malignant tumor, in lieu of treatment by oncologists.)

For those who say this approach transformed their marriages and gave them much success- I’m truly happy for you. Sincerely. But there are also many who say it made the situation far, far worse. So, if you love it, live it, believe in it, then you are welcome to recommend it. I don’t, so I won’t.

For those who say: “Well, there’s nothing that works for everyone,” to that I would certainly agree. But when content is marketed as “a must-read for every relationship,” the only thing that works, actively tries to steer readers away from responsible, professional help, and instead, contains advice that is contraindicated by professional research, it’s logical that professionals would disagree with it.

I hope this clarifies my position on marital books and approaches that promote this style of intervention. If you disagree, that’s cool- we can still be friends. Cuz I believe that it’s possible to disagree, even vehemently, and still appreciate each other.

*Some people requested suggestions of books that I do find beneficial for couples to read. Anything by John Gottman or Sue Johnson is based in academic research. The New Rules of Marriage by Terrence Real and Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel great too. If you prefer less “therapist-y” reading, The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly are excellent too. Most of those should be linked in the resources section of this website.*

For more on this subject, see this video.

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