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“Happy Wife, Happy Life” and Mediation

Did you ever hear the expression “Happy Wife, Happy Life”? This overused adage seems to help some people (generally husbands) focus on their wife’s happiness in order to secure a peaceful, happy marriage. Often used as a mantra, it may actually seem to work in many cases although it smacks of manipulation and disingenuousness. Surprisingly, the concept may have some academic support.

Studies show that wives initiate two thirds of divorces. This statistic implies that indeed wives’ unhappiness may more frequently lead to divorce than husbands’ dissatisfaction. The concept of gender inequality in marital dissatisfaction is confirmed by a 2009 German study of Australian divorces that notes where there is a disparity on satisfaction of the husband and the wife, divorce is much more likely, especially if the relative dissatisfaction is experienced by the wife. Thus research supports the use of the “Happy Wife, Happy Life” aphorism as a marital reality.

But how do you make your wife happy? Do you buy her things? If that’s the answer, there is an internet site at your service. (with a tagline of “Unexpected Gestures of Love for Her”) seeks to assist husbands in making their wives happy by helping them choose presents for their wives, which can be conveniently ordered on the website. Actually, the wares are quite attractive, including eco-soap and herbal teas. In addition, the site offers a further service. Husbands needing marital advice can email the site and pose his marital question or problem. “Within 24 hours or sooner”, the person(s) operating the site will respond with the best advice they can give. The site notes that all emails will be kept confidential and, in order to receive the best advice possible, that “honesty is expected” from the husband seeking advice. (I’d like to be a fly on that wall!) But the maxim “Happy Wife, Happy Life” raises many serious questions, among them, what about the man’s happiness? How can you make someone else happy? What do you do if your spouse is unhappy, and you cannot seem to change it? What if you are unhappy? Is there a difference between the ways women achieve happiness in marriage versus the ways men achieve happiness in marriage?

In working with clients (divorcing and otherwise), I have come to think that the maxim is better stated as “Happy Life, Happy Wife (or Husband)”. People get married thinking that the other person can make them happy. (In the beginning of a marriage, that does seem the case, doesn’t it.) As the years of togetherness go on, it becomes clear that personal happiness is the basis of a happy marriage. It is difficult and virtually impossible to make someone else happy.

Many marriages fail because of low levels of happiness of the spouses or a disparity in their levels of contentment. But buying presents on a website will not fix the problem. “Happy Wife, Happy Life” is a superficial fix that does not work in the long run. Our divorce mediation clients often come to us as a result of this flawed method of marriage improvement.

How does the concept of “Happy Life, Happy Wife” play itself out in divorce mediation? How can we visualize the maxim in a way that can assist us in our jobs in working with divorcing couples who choose mediation?

In divorce mediation, clients come to us in all sorts of permutations. In some, the husband wants the divorce and the wife does not. In some, it is the wife that has decided to end the marriage and the husband would prefer to continue it. In some mediations, both parties wish to end the marriage, and face varying degrees of difficulty in how to do it, and what provisions will be fair to them and the children (if they have any). Some couples are on the fence about ending their marriage and just don’t know which direction to go. (For these couples, “mediation to stay married” or “marital mediation” might be suggested as an avenue to explore this situation. Mediation can be a powerful method useful to parties who want to repair their marriage in order to create more satisfaction to the spouses.)

Mental health and emotional intelligence also make a difference. We see clients at the end of their marriages in varying mental and emotional states as they work through the process. Some seem quite strong; some seem shell-shocked. Some are clearly suffering greatly. When the parties are equally strong, it is the optimum time for working with them through mediation. But this is not always the case.

When we have clients who are in pain, hurt, acting out, negative, or in anger, they may be at the lowest point in their emotional lives. Their marriage has “hit bottom”, and they themselves may feel that they have few emotional resources. If there is a disparity in emotional strength, the partner with the low feelings may feel coerced into going forward with the divorce process. But unfortunately, as we know, if one of the parties is determined to have a divorce, the divorce will happen. Mediation can be the least painful way of going through the divorce, so that even if a party is hurting and is not in their most positive emotional condition, it may be very worthwhile to embark on the mediation route.

There are ways to support the unhappy mediation client without sacrificing neutrality or seeming to align with the more ready spouse. One technique is to give the process the time it needs. Space sessions a couple of weeks apart, so that the less ready partner can slowly move towards divorce. This will give the less ready partner time to progress in their thinking about the divorce. That partner becomes less fearful as time goes on and begins to grow stronger. Their mood improves. While one could perhaps not call them “happy”, the unready partner is getting closer to being positive about the future and can start to be able to work on the divorce mediation.

Another element of “Happy Life, Happy Wife” is helping the less ready partner (who can be the Husband or the Wife) positively imagine life on the other side of the divorce. This can be done by something I call “envisioning”. Questions like “where do you see yourself living after the divorce” and “what do you think might change after the divorce” can lead to strong optimistic envisioning of the future. Warm feelings of safety and contentment can flow from these positive thoughts of what life will be like. The more ready partner can support the envisioning of the less ready party, and the planning for the life after divorce. The less ready partner can start to see that a “happy life” and an exciting new future filled with new adventures awaits him or her. This sets the stage for the mediation to go forward with two, strong, “happy” partners who can individually plan for their independent futures.

Yes, there is (or can be) a good life after divorce. That’s what our clients are trying to achieve in divorcing, and it is our responsibility as mediators to help them attain that goal. It is important to help our clients be strong and positive psychologically and emotionally as they go through their divorce mediation. And our work in helping our clients envision a positive future with new opportunities is as important as our work in helping clients come to the practical agreements needed to end their marriages.

© 2010 Laurie Israel. All rights reserved.


Laurie Israel

Laurie Israel is an attorney, consultant, and mediator, concentrating her practice on both prenuptial and postnuptial agreements. She works as a consultant and mediator nationwide. She previously practiced for 35 years in the areas of tax law, divorce, collaborative law, estate planning, probate of estates and trust administration, as well… MORE >

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