After 20 years of marriage, Tim Dowling has picked up a thing or two about togetherness, from sorting the laundry to fixing the roof. Here’s his handy guide to long-term love.
1. How to be useful
Modern masculinity is not a role per se; it is more a patchwork of disparate talents, specialist knowledge, non-lateral thinking and a handy lack of people skills. You must become a troubleshooter, ready to solve problems and fill gaps. Do not be afraid to step in wherever you think you can be of use. I don’t know what your particular niche skills are, but here are some of mine:
- Whistling loudly
Even today, with the End of Men almost upon us, I still don’t meet many women who can whistle really loudly. I often see them in the park, making a pathetic flutey noise that their dogs can easily pretend not to hear. I guess if you don’t learn to whistle properly by a certain age, you’re never going to pick it up. I don’t like to brag, but when I stick two fingers in my mouth and blow, all the dogs look my way. I haven’t figured out how to monetise this skill yet, but I need to act quickly.
There are plenty of women who can hold down high-pressure jobs while simultaneously looking after children, making cakes and training for triathlons, but you know what they don’t have? Focus. If there’s anything men are good at, it’s doing one thing to the exclusion of all other things, until the task is either completed or mostly completed. I don’t wash up. I wash up the baking tray, until that baking tray is so clean you could sell it on eBay under the description “like new”.
- Agreeing about curtains
Sometimes when you’re choosing curtains, you want advice from someone who says things like, “Love the colour, not sure about the pinch pleats” or, “The pattern goes well with the sofa, but are they a bit heavy for summer?” Other times, however, you just want someone who’ll say, “Yeah, fine, whatever.” If it’s the latter you require, please don’t hesitate to call.
- Professional Goldilocks
While women continue to rise to prominence across most employment sectors, they remain hampered by a gender-wide insensitivity to extremes of hot and cold. If you’ve ever seen a woman handle a mug straight from the dishwasher at the end of its cycle, you’ll know what I mean. With their weird tolerance of over-hot baths and underheated houses, women simply cannot be relied upon to gauge temperatures. Fairytales are lovely, but if you really want to know when your porridge is “just right”, don’t hire a little girl. Get a man in.
- Human pocket
Need me to carry anything? Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of pockets. In fact I’m all pockets: trouser pockets, coat pockets, front pockets, back pockets, inside pockets, outside pockets, breast pockets, ticket pockets. It’s OK – bring that tiny bag just big enough for a lipstick and a mint; or, better yet, no bag at all. I will carry your phone, your water, your glasses, your other glasses, your keys, your book. That’s why I was put on this Earth.
2. How to be wrong
Earlier today my wife was giving me a hard time about not putting the ladder back in the shed. I told her it was pointless keeping the ladder in the shed because I use it all the time, in the house; that it was much more sensible to store it under the stairs, like we used to. And why wasn’t I consulted about this switch in the first place?
My wife responded by saying that, at any rate, the ladder didn’t live in the middle of the sitting room, where it had been all weekend, and went on to imply that I was just being lazy and also, quite possibly, a twat.
Then I said: OK, this is not about the ladder any more. This is about the proper way to conduct discourse between adults. I refuse on principle – on principle! – to engage with a person who would resort to such a personal attack.
And that’s how I ended up here, on the moral high ground. It’s like a VIP room for idiots. In the context of marriage, a moral victory is something you’ll invariably end up celebrating on your own. If you’re going to get on in married life – if you’re going to have sex ever – you’ve got to learn to lose an argument. And to do that, you’ve got to learn how to be wrong.
Unfortunately being wrong does not come easy to men. A man will go to great lengths just to avoid being put in a position where he might be obliged to express uncertainty. “Why don’t you just say, ‘I don’t know’?” my wife will sometimes shout, after I’ve spent 10 minutes trying to create the opposite impression.
Women tend to be more forgiving about wrongness. Some women, in my experience, will even defer to a man’s pronouncements on a subject when he’s clearly wrong, if only to avoid denting his fragile ego in public. My wife is not one of those women. It’s one of the reasons I love her, and it’s also one of the reasons I won’t play tennis with her.
One of the great tactical advantages of admitting you’re wrong is that in marriage nobody wants to be a bad winner. The few times I’ve won an argument, I’ve noticed a strange hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach which somehow robs the moment of all satisfaction. And that is not how I want to feel at the end of an argument. That’s how I want my wife to feel.
3. How to be happy
The time-honoured debate about leaving the loo seat up or down is not a genuine source of friction in marriage. The real rule, simple and inarguable, is this: don’t piss on the seat. If you have sons, it is your sworn duty as a father to impress upon them the importance of this rule. I can’t tell you what my failure to do so has cost me.
It’s OK to steal small amounts of money from one another. Under most circumstances it’s acceptable to liberate cash from the pockets/wallet/purse of your other half while he/she sleeps or is elsewhere. The ready cash that exists in your home at any given time is a form of joint savings account, and there is a maximum amount that may be withdrawn without permission or explanation. That figure may need to be adjusted for inflation, but at the time of writing it is £10.
Never underestimate the tremendous healing power of sitting down together from time to time to speak frankly and openly about the marital difficulties facing other couples you know.
A little paranoia is a good thing in marriage; complacency is the more dangerous enemy. You should never feel so secure that you are unable to imagine the whole thing falling apart over a long weekend. I can’t give you an exact figure for how many sleepless nights per year you should spend worrying that you’re going to die alone and unhappy if you don’t get your shit together spouse-wise, but it’s somewhere between five and eight.
4. How to cook
Some people possess both a talent for cooking and an ability to derive pleasure from exercising their skills to feed others. Whenever possible you should try to include such a person in your holiday plans, whether or not you enjoy their company.
But it’s not uncommon to marry someone for love alone, even if that someone can’t cook. My wife did, and so did I. Almost everything we know about cooking, we learned together, through a series of hideous culinary accidents.
My wife and I pooled what little knowledge we had, and between us we developed a repertoire that spanned a seven-day meal cycle, if you included a takeaway on Sunday.
These are not recipes as such, just dishes that have evolved over years of trial and error, including one that is simply called Mexican (it is not remotely Mexican, but it does call for four tins of refried beans), and a weird, paprika-tinged collection of odds and ends known, with no great affection, as Spicy Ricey. These two meals remain in the rotation after 15 years, but they are rarely served to outsiders. Dinner parties are a different matter.
“I hate having dinner parties,” my wife says.
“You’re not supposed to say that while everyone’s still here,” I say, indicating our guests.
Some thoughts on sex
Even if sex is no longer marriage’s unique selling point, it remains an important component of any union and so deserves at least cursory treatment. You may, if you wish, infer that the following highly informative sexual bullet points have been gleaned from decades of personal experience, but, officially, I learned all this from watching television.
• While the actual amount of sex undertaken will vary from couple to couple, there is no getting round the fact that marriage is in part an epic exercise in sexual rejection. Being a good husband means hearing the word “no” (variants include “Stop it”, “F*** off “, “Leave me alone”) countless times over many years without going hot in the face with hurt and self-loathing, or at least not appearing to. It means gallantly turning down half-hearted offers of perfunctory, mechanical sex from someone too tired to contemplate anything else, and then finding a way, five minutes later, to say that you’ve changed your mind.
• Sex, for the most part, happens between couples who go to bed at the same time. It’s fine to stay up later than your partner, as long as you bear in mind that you are effectively choosing between sex and Newsnight. Waking up your partner for sex is famously not a good idea, although I’ve always imagined I would be totally accommodating about it if it happened to me.
5. How to keep a sense of humour
At the outset of parenthood you may wonder what kind of father you are going to be. Don’t worry: you are going to be your father, more or less. It’s not your fault – you’ve only got the one role model, if that. That said, I did not envisage a time when, during one of my lectures about manners and public etiquette in a noodle bar, my children would take turns poking chopsticks into my ears, until the theory that I was possessed of a sense of humour about myself had been comprehensively disproved.
I did not imagine that the oldest one would develop a habit of greeting me by slapping me lightly on both cheeks, or that the middle one would hijack my Twitter account to post heartfelt admissions of loserdom (“Hi, I suck at everything I try in life”) or that the youngest would insist on addressing me as “Daddy me laddy”.
Episodes like these prompted some questions of my own: when did I graduate from care-giver to figure of fun? As they get older, I just seem to get funnier. Is it to do with my personality, I wonder, or is it something about the times we live in? I have a sneaking suspicion that my self-importance may be in some innate way self-sabotaging, if only because I suck at everything I try in life. But I also know that when I was a child, grown-ups were more or less exempt from ridicule.
In the winter of 1974 my father walked into a glass wall at the Hilton in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was striding across the deck of the indoor swimming area, wife and four small children trying to keep pace with him, past a neat line of deck chairs towards the poolside restaurant. He was attempting to slip between two occupied tables when he hit the glass at full speed.
I remember him crawling around on his hands and knees for what seemed a long time, dazed and unable to grasp what had just happened. “For Christ’s sake, Bob, get up,” my mother said. “I’m trying,” he said, as blood dripped from his nose. He was fine after a few minutes, but we did not eat in the hotel restaurant that night. Were I to walk into a glass wall, I sometimes think my children’s only regrets would be about not having the presence of mind to film it.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me to laugh. Mind you, I didn’t feel a tremendous amount of empathy either. I was too busy feeling guilty, because I’d known the glass was there all along. I’d spotted the illusion earlier and had been vaguely planning some stunt to fool my family.
For that reason I was pleased we were heading right for it; I just hadn’t reckoned on my father getting quite so far ahead of me. I never intended for him to walk into the glass, but there was a moment when I realised he wasn’t going to stop, and I still chose to say nothing. I figured God would get me back for it someday. Perhaps, at last, He has.
6. How to keep the magic alive
I am, in so very many ways, not the man my wife married. To present just one small example: I am, at the time of writing, wearing a beard. Not a false one – it’s attached. For almost 20 years my wife knew me as a clean-shaven man. I had what I thought were strong, if ill-defined, objections to facial hair. Then one day, about two years ago, I grew one.
I don’t recall making an actual decision, but that’s the great thing about a beard – it just happens. It’s the product of something you’re not doing, the point where sloth meets affectation – the sweet spot I’ve been searching for my whole life. So taken was I with my new image that I forgot to consult the one person who mattered.
I was more than a month in when I finally said to my wife, “So, do you, um, like the beard?” She appraised my face as if the question had not yet occurred to her. “I don’t mind the beard,” she said. She looked at me again, as if perhaps she’d spoken too soon, but then she walked away without adding anything. And that was it – another odd change accommodated, folded into the marriage without protest or ceremony.
Not all change in marriage can be hailed as progress, or even neutral adjustment. Sometimes people adopt unpleasant habits or objectionable political views. My wife has recently acquired a taste for playing Candy Crush on her phone in bed. This drives me insane. “Why?” she says. “Is it because you hate me being good at things?” “No,” I say. “It’s because I’m tired, and there’s a multisocket extension lead on my pillow.”
I’ll admit that I myself am not necessarily getting better every day in every way, and that many of my changes for the worse were unexpected. My wife couldn’t have known when she met me that I would one day be nearly impossible to contact by email, because there was no email. How could I warn her?
Back then I could never have envisaged a dystopian future in which strangers could submit written questions to you while you were sitting alone in a room minding your own business.
Cumulatively these changes, both little and large, add up to two totally different people over the course of two decades.
My wife is patently not the same woman I married, the woman who used to smoke but now chews nicotine gum, and who deposits the chewed pieces in the little well of the door handle on the driver’s side of the car until it’s practically overflowing with them, so that sometimes when she slams the door a few bounce out and land on the seat, and then the next person who drives sits on them unawares and gets stuck there.
This disgusting and wholly unforeseen habit aside, to me she remains very like the girl I met in New York almost a quarter of a century ago, in that, from time to time, she still scares the shit out of me. That much, I think, will never change.
This is an edited extract from How To Be A Husband by Tim Dowling, published by Fourth Estate.
Source: The Guardian