While this book is indeed titled How to Be a Husband, please do not mistake it for a self-help book. Tim Dowling—columnist for The Guardian, husband, father of three, a person who once got into a shark tank for money—does not purport to have any pearls of wisdom about wedded life. What he does have is more than twenty years of marriage experience, and plenty of hilarious advice for what not to do in almost every conjugal situation.
With the sharp wit that has made his Guardian columns a weekly must-read, Dowling explores what it means to be a good husband in the twenty-first century. The bar has been raised dramatically in the last hundred years: back in the day, every time you went out for cigarettes, it was simply expected that you came back. Now, every time you’re sent out for espresso pods and tampons, it is expected that you come back with the right sort. And being a father doesn’t seem to command much innate respect these days, either. When his first child was born, Dowling imagined himself eliciting a natural awe as the distant, authoritative figurehead; he did not anticipate his children hijacking his Twitter account to post heartfelt admissions of loserdom like “Hi, I suck at everything I try in life.”
Still, two decades of wedded bliss is nothing to sneeze at, particularly from a couple who agreed to get married with the resigned determination of two people plotting to bury a body in the woods. How to Be a Husband is a wickedly funny guide to surviving the era of “The End of Men” (hint: it involves DIY), and an unexpectedly poignant memoir about love, marriage, and staying together until death doth you part.
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TIM DOWLING is an American journalist for The Guardian. He writes a weekly column for Weekend magazine. He lives with his wife and three sons in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This copy is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Tim Downling
The Forty GuidingPrinciples of Gross Marital Happiness
Successful cohabitation requires a couple toaddress many disparate and competing aims, but it may help to think youroverall strategy as being analogous to Bhutan’s mandated objective of GrossNational Happiness. First proposed by the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan in 1972,the concept of Gross National Happiness alloyed living standards, physical andspiritual well-being, environmental impact, and stability to develop an indexto measure the nation’s progress. And it works pretty well in Bhutan (the landof Gross National Happiness), as long as you’re not a member of the 20 percentof the population— mainly Hindus of Nepali origin—who were expelled from thecountry in the 1990s.
In marriage you and your partner must work togetherto construct a domestic operation that will make both of you as happy aspossible without sacrificing the collective health, security or long-term stability of thepartnership. I realize that put that way it sounds boring, which is preciselywhy I coined the catchyterm Gross Marital Happiness.
When I said this wasn’t a self-help book, that was becauseeverything I know about staying married can be boiled down to forty prettybasic insights. Actually, only thirty-seven—three of these are bollocks—but I wanted around number.
1. Go to bed angry if you wantto. It is often said that a couple should never let the sun set on an argument,but this isn’t practical. Some arguments are, by their nature, two-day events: too much is atstake to set an arbitrary bedtime deadline. Faced with a stark choice betweenclosure and a night’s sleep, you’re better off with the latter in almost everycase. I’ve gone to bed angry loads of times, with no particular deleteriouseffects. You don’t actually stay angry. It’s a bit like going to bed drunk; youwake up feeling completely different, if not necessarily better.
2. Not liking cats isn’treally a good enough reason to put your foot down. You have to be properlyallergic, or weirdly phobic.
3. Marriages and other long-term relationships have asignificant public element. Like an iceberg, the bulk of a marriage is hiddenfrom view, but the top bit, the bit that you take out to parties and show off,should appear exemplary to outsiders: charming without being cloying; happywith- outbeing giddy; entertainingly spiky, but also mutually respectful. Above all, thewhole thing should look effort- less. Everybody knows marriage is hard. No one wants to watchyou do the work.
4. The question of whether a woman should adopt herhusband’s surname after marriage (or whether some doubel-barreled compound ispreferable) is politically freighted, but what no one tells you before marriageis that changing your name is a huge drag. You’ll need to pay for a new passport(£72) and you can be fined for driving on your old license. You’ll have toinform your bank, your employer, HMRC, the insurance company, PayPal, and theNectar card people. You’ll need to take your marriage certificate to the bankto cash checks in your old name. Complications resulting from the switch willplague you for years afterward. And the benefits? There are no benefits. It’s acomplete waste of time. Forget principle and tradition: refuse to change yourname on the grounds that you can’t be arsed.
5. Even a marriage with healthy levels ofcommunication can’t make a dent in the huge stockpile of things that simplynever get said. If the pair of you spent all day every day trying to expresswhat’s in your soggy little hearts, you’d never manage to get through a box settogether. For purely practical reasons certain of your partner’s desires,ambitions, and motivations will have to be guessed at. You should also learn tobecome an efficient curator of your own inner life: display the importantstuff, shove the rest in storage, and rotate occasionally to keep thingsinteresting.
6. The time-honored debate about leaving the loo seat up ordown is not a genuine source of friction in marriage; only between roommateswho don’t like each other anyway. The real rule, simple and inarguable, isthis: don’t piss on the seat. If you have sons, it is your sworn duty as afather to impress the importance of this rule upon them. When it comes tomaintaining a happy marriage, I can’t tell you what my failure to do so hascost me.
7. The marital bond is also akind of codependency. The stronger your marriage, the harder it is to refrainfrom alcohol for two days a week if one of you thinks it’s a stupid idea. It’srather sweet that you feel your spouse’s refusal to join in amounts topermission for you to backslide, but it’s not good for you.
8. When your wife carries onthe next morning on as if yesterday’s argument never happened, you shouldinterpret her behavior as a willingness to forgive and forget, and not as asign that she actually has forgotten. The benefit of the doubt is a key aspectof Gross Marital Happiness, and even if she has forgotten there is nothing tobe gained from guessing right.
9. If there is a single,immutable difference between men and women, it’s that women will almost neverpretend they didn’t see a heap of cat sick on the stairs.
10.Or at least I used to think so. It turns out anyonecan learn this tactic, and quickly become better at it than you.
11.Think of the work of your relationship less asnegotiation, and more as navigation. Marriage isn’t an ongoing dispute to besettled; it’s a lifelong course to be plotted. Also, you should really try toenjoy the journey, because the destination sucks.
12.When it comes to questions such as “How do I lookin this?” “Do sideburns suit me?” “Are these trousers all right?” and “Do youlike my new hair?” everyone, male or female, appreciates something that soundslike an honest answer. This is not necessarily the same as an honest answer.
13.There is no good rejoinder to the exclamation “I amNOT your mother!” but among the especially not good ones is “Then stop buyingme ugly sweaters!” Take my word for it.
14.Spending time together is an important component ofGross Marital Happiness, but it shouldn’t seem important; you don’t want tofeel undue pressure to enjoy yourselves. One of the most solemn promises I havemade to my wife is that I will never, ever take her on a minibreak.
Doing normal, everyday things as a couple counts asrelationship maintenance, in the same way that housework counts as exercise.Walking the dog counts. Eating breakfast together counts. Wandering aimlesslythrough a deserted shopping precinct together counts. Watching TV togetherdoesn’t count, unfortunately, although I’m currently appealing this.
15.One of the easiest ways to make a spouse feelneeded is to seek their counsel on a particular subject, as if your spouse wereyour line manager. Remember: you’re just after a bit of guidance or wisdom.Don’t present yourself as a mess to be cleaned up, which you also shouldn’t dowith your line manager.
16.Buy the second-biggest bed you can afford.Even if you are now happy sleeping stacked like cordwood in what is known as a“small double” (that’s four feet across) you should think about acquiring afuture-proof mattress, one that can accommodate manynights of going to bed angry, strange new sleeping positions aimed atalleviating back or shoulder pain, a six- to eight-year interval in which at least one child with nitsis in your bed at all times, and a late middle period where the strict rule youmade about dogs on the bed breaks down. The reason you should buy the second-biggest bed you can affordis so you know there’s one remaining upgrade available in case of emergency. Ioccasionally price up a “European super king” (6'6" X 6'6"), whichwould enable my wife and I to sleep in a T formation. I’ll probably never buyit, but I’m glad it’s out there.
17.Postal etiquette is important. If an envelope isnot addressed to you, you shouldn’t open it, unless you have been expresslyinstructed to do so for the purpose of reading its contents out loud over the phone.This includes any envelope addressed, ironically or otherwise, in the old-fashioned style of “Mrs.[Your Male Christian Name, Followed By Shared Surname], although on theseoccasions you can on always claim to have made an honest mistake (“I thought itwas meant for me!”) Exceptions to this rule include any catalog you might wishto peruse over lunch.
If an envelope is addressed to both of you, it’sfair game, even if your name comes second. Whenever you receive exciting orscary post—test results, medical or academic; stark-looking letters from thebank; very large checks—it’s considered good form to wait and open it together.
18.It’s okay to steal small amounts of money from oneanother. Under most circumstances it’s acceptable to liberate cash from thepockets/wallet/purse of your other half while he/she sleeps or is elsewhere. Theready cash that exists in your home at any given time is a form of jointsavings account, and there is a maximum amount which may be withdrawn withoutpermission or explanation. That figure may need to be adjusted for inflationoccasionally, but at the time of writing it’s £10.
19.Sharing can be ugly. People misplace stuff, forgetstuff, run out of stuff, and neglect to buy stuff—it’s human—and in cases whereyou possess an identical or perfectly serviceable equivalent, you should not bedifficult about handing it over to your spouse on request. This includes, butis by no means limited to, travel cards, bank cards, house keys, car keys, yourmobile phone, a razor (male to female only, and don’t ask for it back; youdon’t want it), your deodorant, and yes, on occasion, your toothbrush. Youshould fully expect your selflessness to be reciprocated in your time of need,even if it isn’t.
20.A spouse’s appalling taste in music must bepardoned, since any effort to improve it is doomed to fail. If you think yourspouse’s musical taste is appalling, chances are she doesn’t think much ofyours either.
21.If you don’t have someone other than your spouse—afriend, sibling, or colleague—that you can go to a movie with at short notice,you will end up seeing only about half the movies you wanted to see before youdie.
22.It is generally acknowledged that a cheap applianceis a false economy, destined to cast a pall of impermanence over your household.But the opposite is true of toasters. The cost of a toaster is in inverseproportion to the quality of toast it produces, and pricier models tend to beless robust, and are responsible for much unnecessary marital discord. A poshtoaster is a false extravagance.
23.Never go out on Valentine’s Day. As far asrelationships go, February 14 is amateur night. Book a table for the thirteenthinstead; you’ll have the restaurant to yourselves.
24.Remember: marriage isn’t all good. Like anythingultimately beneficial, marriage has some unwanted side effects. It can leaveparticipants feeling hemmed in, held back, and harried. It represents anongoing threat to one’s individuality, personal privacy, fulfillment, andfreedom. You will be happier once you understand that this works both ways.When you’re feeling resentment, for example, it helps to bear in mind that youare also, at some level, resented.
25.Early on in marriage it’s vital for a couple toagree upon an easily recognizable gesture—a raised eyebrow, say, or adiscreetly pointed elbow—that will henceforth serve to mean “You see thisperson I am talking to? Please use his name in a sentence immediately. I haveforgotten it.”
26.Naturally there is a lot of disagreement in anypartnership, but make certain you’re on the same side when battling outsideforces: unfeeling authority, intractable bureaucracy, strangers who have parkedstupidly. Mindless solidarity is vital under these circumstances—fight side byside, or run away together giggling, but don’t be divided. Occasionally thisthem-against-us attitude can lead tocouples resorting to criminal behavior—like Bonnie and Clyde—but even that canbe very cementing, and you know what? I’m not a cop.
27.Love is one of those emotions you occasionally haveto talk yourself into. In the teeth of the shit storm of accusation andrecrimination that marriage can sometimes turn into, it’s vital you take timeout to dwell upon all the things about your partner that are admirable,exceptional, and charming. Sometimes it’s easier to do this when your partneris asleep.
28.Own your stupidity. Self-awareness is a reliablyendearing trait, and over time your spouse will come to admire your willingnessto recognize precisely when you have been/are being an idiot. In fact anobjective grasp of your own stupidity is almost preferable to not being stupidin the first place, and it’s much, much easier.
29.Being married is like sharing a basement with afellow hostage: after five years there are very few off-putting things you won’tknow about one another. After ten years there are none. Don’t worry too muchabout having revealed yourself over time to be a weak, irritating, andphysically disgusting human being—the trick is to maintain a daily standardconsistently above your most unattractive self. Once your partner has seen youat your worst, she’ll realize how much effort you’re putting in just to makeyourself presentable.
30.As a periodic experiment, try pretending thateverything your partner says during an argument is factually correct. It’s easyto be a good listener—you just close your mouth and sit on your hands—but itcan difficult to see other people’s opinions the way they do—as thetruth—especially when they are wrong.
31.When it comes to marriage, there is no such thingas a false sense of security. There is only security and its opposite, andnothing stays the same for long. Stop worrying that your feelings ofcontentment may be temporary or illusory; they’re all you’ve got. Snatch themup and enjoy them while they last.
32.Never underestimate the tremendous healing power ofsit- tingdown together from time to time to speak frankly and openly about the maritaldifficulties facing other couples you know.
33.The Department of Health currently recommends thatmen should drink no more than twenty-one units of alcohol per week, and women fourteen,a consumption ratio of three to two. This does not mean you can divide a bottleof wine according to these proportions. If you’re married, it’s halfeach—guidelines be damned.
34.A little paranoia is a good thing in marriage;complacency is the more dangerous enemy. You should never feel so secure inyour partnership that you are unable to imagine the whole thing falling apartover a long weekend. I can’t give you an exact figure for how many sleeplessnights per year you should spend worrying that you’re going to die alone andunhappy if you don’t get your shit together spouse-wise, but it’s somewherebetween five and eight.
35.Try to speak at least once during the day, everyday. If nothing else, it keeps vital channels of communication open andoperating.
My wife has a habit ofringing me in the middle ...
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