Tim Dowling’s ‘forty precepts of gross marital happiness’

As the 4th Estate website rounds off its ‘Family Reunion’ theme, we turn to much-loved Guardian columnist Tim Dowling’s wonderful How to Be a Husband, and consider the benefits of matrimony. Tim is a husband of some twenty years, and his marriage is resounding proof that even the most impossible partnership can work out for the best. Some of the time.

So while his book is called How to Be a Husband, it’s not really a how-to guide at all. Nor is it a compendium of petty remarks and brinkmanship – although it contains plenty of both. You may pick up a few DIY hints. You might learn that while marriage is founded on love, it endures through bloody hard work. Most likely it will make you whimper with the laughter of painful recognition.

How to Be a Husband is a cautionary tale about throwing caution to the wind. It’s a new manifesto for marriage and an answer to why, even when we suck at it, we stick at it. Read on to discover the first few of Tim’s ‘forty precepts of gross marital happiness’…  


‘Successful cohabitation requires a couple to address many disparate and competing aims, but it may help to think of your overall strategy as being analogous to Bhutan’s mandated objective of Gross National Happiness. First proposed by the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan in 1972, the concept of Gross National Happiness alloyed living standards, physical and spiritual well-being, environmental impact and stability to develop an index to measure the nation’s progress. And it works pretty well in Bhutan (the Land of Gross National Happiness), as long as you’re not a member of the 20 per cent of the population – mainly Hindus of Nepali origin – who were expelled from the country in the 1990s.

In marriage you and your partner must work together to construct a domestic operation that will make both of you as happy as possible without sacrificing the collective health, security or long-term stability of the partnership. I realize that put that way it sounds boring, which is precisely why I coined the catchy term Gross Marital Happiness.

When I said this wasn’t a self-help book, that was because everything I know about staying married can be boiled down to forty pretty basic insights. Actually, only thirty-seven – three of these are bollocks – but I wanted a round number.

  • Go to bed angry if you want to. It is often said that a couple should never let the sun set on an argument, but some arguments are, by their nature, two-day events: too much is at stake to set an arbitrary bedtime deadline. Faced with a stark choice between closure and a night’s sleep, you’re better off with the latter in almost every case. I’ve gone to bed angry loads of times, with no deleterious effects. You don’t actually stay angry. It’s a bit like going to bed drunk; you wake up feeling completely different, if not necessarily better.
  • Not liking cats isn’t really a good enough reason to put your foot down. You have to be properly allergic, or weirdly phobic.
  • Marriages and other long-term relationships have a significant public element. Like an iceberg, the bulk of a marriage is hidden from view, but the top bit, the bit that you take out to parties, should appear exemplary to outsiders: charming without being cloying; happy without being giddy; entertainingly spiky, but also mutually respectful. Above all, the whole thing should look effortless. Everybody knows marriage is hard. No one wants to watch you do the work.
  • The question of whether a woman should adopt her husband’s surname after marriage (or whether some double-barrelled compound is preferable) is politically freighted, but what no one tells you before marriage is 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 licence. You’ll have to inform your bank, your employer, HMRC, the insurance company, PayPal and the Nectar card people. You’ll need to take your marriage certificate to the bank to cash cheques in your old name. Complications resulting from the switch will plague you for years afterwards. And the benefits? There are no benefits. It’s a complete waste of time. Forget principle and tradition: refuse to change your name on the grounds that you can’t be arsed.
  • Even a marriage with healthy levels of communication can’t make a dent in the huge stockpile of things that simply never get said. If the pair of you spent all day every day trying to express what’s in your soggy little hearts, you’d never manage to get through a box set together. For purely practical reasons, certain of your partner’s desires, ambitions and motivations will have to be guessed at. You should also learn to become an efficient curator of your own inner life: display the important stuff, shove the rest in storage, and rotate occasionally to keep things interesting.’


© Tim Dowling 2014


How to Be a HusbandTo be enlightened by the other thirty-five precepts, How to Be a Husband is out in paperback on 9 April 2015

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