“So daunting is the prospect of a wedding, much less a marriage, that the first option my girlfriend puts on the table is that we split up,” Dowling recalls. “After an hour of circular debate, we arrive at what seems a dead end. ‘So that’s it,’ she says. ‘We’re getting married.’ ‘I suppose,’ I say.”
But his girlfriend finds some consolation. “Never mind,” she reassures him. “We can always get divorced.”
After 23 years, three children, and a steady diet of scheduled sex and passive aggression, Dowling’s hilarious and poignant “How to Be a Husband” reveals how he has avoided that fate. Turns out, holding on to the position of husband is less about pledging unconditional love or cooking romantic dinners, and more about learning to watch figure skating with your mother-in-law and strategically backing out of unwinnable marital fights with a well-timed “whatever.”
Dowling, a journalist with the Guardian, does not hold himself up as exemplary partner. In fact, he kind of relishes telling us how awful he is at it. An early break in his writing career came in London, when a magazine asked him to contribute to its monthly “Man Enough” series — because an editor had heard that Dowling was the right guy to write a column about being man enough to live off your girlfriend. When the couple runs out of honeymoon cash at their Italian hotel, Dowling bravely sends his wife to beg at the British vice consul’s office. (“I’ll be back,” she says. “Don’t eat anything.”) During shouting matches, he’ll admit defeat with entirely nonconciliatory lines, such as “I’m wrestling with the unattractive possibility that you may have a point.” A disorganized work-from-homer, Dowling is also a master of the almost-finished DIY project and a midlife banjo enthusiast. The new hobby annoys his wife, not because he’s a bad player, but because “I pursue it with a rigor that exists nowhere else in my life.”
It’s worth taking another look at the title: This book is not about how to be a good husband, after all, or even how to be a better one. It’s more of a survival guide to the position — how to outlast the fights over money, the child-rearing battles, the intrusions of grief; the “worse” and “poorer” and “sickness” of the old vows; the inevitable but unexpected changes in the person you married long ago. “When you become a husband,” Dowling explains, “there is no minimum requirement for competence; it is no surprise to me that I’m not terribly good at it, even after all this time.”
So how does he survive? In an argument, for instance, Dowling says making your view prevail can be pointless. “A moral victory is something you’ll invariably end up celebrating on your own,” he warns. “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.”
He believes that husbands are almost congenitally reluctant to admit fault, however, so he outlines “Seven Ways in Which You Might Be Wrong.” These include the wrongness of omission, of forgetting your original purpose and of making it all about you. Dowling is a recidivist in most categories, especially that last one. But he finds comfort in his shortcomings: “To be an inadequate little man and still get up every morning and carry on — there’s a kind of weird dignity in that.”
The chapters in “How to Be a Husband” cover what you’d expect: money, sex, in-laws, kids. But if you’re cramming — and if you’re a mediocre husband, that’s precisely what you’re doing here — just try Chapter 8, “The Forty Guiding Principles of Gross Marital Happiness.” Photocopy these principles, shrink the font size, laminate them and stick them behind that tattered wedding picture in your wallet.
Some of them will ease your conscience: “It’s okay to steal small amounts of money from one another.” Most are sound advice: “Make certain you’re on the same side when battling outside forces: unfeeling authority, intractable bureaucracy, strangers who have parked stupidly.” Others will make you squirm: “If you’re going to insist that everything’s fine, have the decency to behave as if everything is fine.”
Dowling tries to keep his marriage going with techniques gleaned from therapists or celebrity couples. After discovering “whisper therapy” (Madonna and Guy Ritchie were doing it), Dowling sneaks up behind his wife and murmurs “You are special” in her ear. She smacks him over the head with a hairbrush and shouts, “What the f— are you doing?” These efforts don’t always go well, but “there is value in the occasional lame gesture and the half-assed experiment,” he decides. “It shows you’re trying.”
Often, trying is all there is. When his mother-in-law dies, Dowling is unsure how to comfort his devastated wife. “You might as well go and get the car inspected,” she finally says. “Really?” he responds, presumably thinking he should stay at her side. “Go on,” she decides. “We’ll never get another appointment.” And Dowling goes on because “sometimes, as a husband, you can offer no better help than to do as you are asked.”
During his years as a freelance writer, Dowling spent plenty of time at home with his young boys. But he feels just as inadequate as a father, whether pushing bike skills way too early, forgetting to help the boys pick a favorite team (“We’re Chelsea supporters,” his 9-year-old informs him) or getting everyone sunburned at a music festival. Though he revels in the “sheer, unadulterated presence” he offers his kids, he knows that “there is, of course, nothing remotely heroic about a father looking after his own children — especially not the way I do it.”
Though he laments this age of “The End of Men,” Dowling has not written a mansplaining manual or a How to Have It All book for dudes. It’s more How to Hold On to the Best Thing You’ve Got. While some guys may read portions aloud to their spouses — “See, it’s not just me!” — I suspect most of us will discreetly take a few notes and maybe even try some things out. Note to shoppers: This book is a great Valentine’s Day gift for today’s chronically disappointing husband.
Dowling recoils from the “self-help book” label. “Do not be like me,” he stresses. But in one way, we do want to be like him. Dowling’s wife — identified in the text only as “the English girl” or “my wife,” but revealed as “Sophie” in the dedication — comes off as one of those irresistible British television characters, never as cool in the American version of the show. The English girl is smart and sexy, funny but terrifying, foul-mouthed but loving with her family. If she has stuck with him, Dowling must be doing something right. Or maybe that’s just how she appears in her husband’s eyes, in which case they’re both doing something right.
No, Dowling and Sophie don’t have one of those “I love you . . . I love you, too” marriages; they’re more of a “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead” couple. But for those moments when life together gets overwhelming, Dowling offers one perfect piece of advice: “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.”
Read more from Book Party: