I WAS HAVING DINNER with a new friend recently in her home, which twinkles with cleverly designed lighting and slow-burning candles. We were talking over a warm Asian chicken salad about intimacy and the inevitability of relationships losing their sparkle, especially after children arrive. I was saying how difficult it can be to find the time to look after your relationship so that it continues to thrive through the years, instead of stagnating in a fetid pool of complacency. Despite the slightly depressing subject matter, I was quite enjoying myself.
“You need to look after your man,” my new friend said, interrupting my meandering lament and making me choke on my marinated chicken. I thought I was hearing things or that I’d stepped into a time machine, destination 1954. But no. She was repeating it now. And laughing at how severely her words had unsettled me. “You need to look after your man.”
I was immediately furious and curious, and in the throes of this furious curiosity I asked my new friend to describe this outlandish “look after your man” scenario.
What in the name of Germaine Greer did she mean? It was simple, really, she said. “Men are not complex creatures, certainly not as complex as us women. One of their biggest, most simple needs is to be looked after. It brings out the best in men in my experience, so looking after your man makes perfect sense,” she said.
She told me about her friend who recently broke up with her husband. Over the years they had gone from being mad about each other to being little more than housemates and how because that shift was unacceptable to both of them they decided to call it a day. This woman was with a new partner now and wanted to start that relationship on a very different footing. She told my new friend. “I’m going to try it your way this time, I am going to look after my man and see what happens.”
Over the years, my new friend has become an occasional ‘look after your man’ guru. This is the kind of thing she means: When her “lover” comes home she makes sure everything is in place. His favourite mood-setting music is on, a delicious meal is cooking and, if it’s, winter the fire is blazing. Her “lover” gets sat down in front of the fire with the newspaper and a large drink while she puts the finishing touches to dinner.
She also takes off his shoes because she has a pair of slippers warmed and ready for him. (I look at her face then, for a trace of a mischief, but this is not a joke and there will be no punchline except for the one that goes “look after your man”.)
She carries on then about the finer details of this programme, about chucking out all greying items of underwear, about the thread count in your Egyptian cotton sheets and about the importance of making sure your bedroom is designed “for love”.
Professionally she is a high-powered, dynamic, takes no prisoners, suffers no fools, businesswomen. In her most intimate relationship she is a woman who is not ashamed to serve. “I make no apologies for that. I enjoy looking after him. I see how he expands with joy when I make all that effort and I like being around that joy. I see how looking after him impacts on how he treats me. Bringing me beautiful flowers. Giving me compliments all the time. I see how he respects me and adores me and feels safe around me. It works for both of us.”
We argue back and forth for a bit. I use the F word. Feminism, that is. I say, shouldn’t the mantra be “you need to look after each other”, advocating a truly egalitarian approach?
She pretty much laughs in my face. Launches into a spiel about the differences between men and women and how those differences need to be respected, celebrated even, and warns about how if they are not factored in to the equation then the relationship is headed for trouble.
At the end of the evening I hail a taxi back to 2012, giggling to myself in the cab. Look after your man, I think. How quaint. But she has got me thinking. Sometimes it feels as though even when you don’t want to hear a certain message, the world and his acquiescent wife is going to try and drive it home anyway.
A while back another friend sent me a link to a talk entitled “Five Essential Feminine Power Secrets to Creating Relationship Magic”. I haven’t listened to it yet but I gather the gist of it is that feminine “power” can be a helpful aide to accessing all that potential you glimpsed in your relationship when you first got together. The magic stuff that can seem so annoyingly ephemeral.
I may look more deeply into this. Or I may continue to shake my head and marvel that I now have a friend who says stuff like “you need to look after your man”.
Either way I know I have to do something. And I also know this: whatever I do, I will not be warming anybody’s slippers.
In other news . . . For even more surprising relationship tips, follow @YoungBrides1839 on Twitter. An enterprising young Irish woman is posting snippets from an endlessly entertaining Young Brides Handbook which once belonged to her husband’s great-grandmother. Sample: “Music and dancing, in moderation, are accomplishments which need not be forgotten because the marriage knot is tied.” So, you know, phew