Mister Right

UPDATED 02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST

After just over a year of marriage, Rachel Godwin is happy to say that she has given up criticizing husband Lenny's hopelessly impaired sense of style. Left on his own, he's likely to mix Adidas socks with Nike shoes, something that Godwin used to find unforgivable. Now, however, she says, "If he wears a crazy outfit I just go, 'Okay.' I realize I don't have to dress him anymore." For Landra Buchanan the moment of letting go came when she allowed her husband, Brett, to decide where they would live—then moved in, sight unseen. "The moving van pulled up," she says, "and I got out and went inside for the first time. It was magical."

To murmurs of understanding, punctuated by outbursts of knowing laughter, Godwin, Buchanan and five other women have gathered in Laura Doyle's living room in Costa Mesa, Calif., to share their stories at a Surrendered Circle meeting. After years of controlling behavior, they now espouse the idea of deferring to their husbands' wishes—about finances, about sex, even about socks. Their lives and marriages, they say, have never been better. Proudly surveying the group, Doyle, whose book The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide to Finding Intimacy, Passion and Peace With a Man made the New York Times bestseller list soon after its January debut, says, "Really exceptional women are drawn to this. They're insightful. They're willing to look at themselves. They're willing to make changes."

No, they are pathetic doormats, snort critics of the Surrendered Wife movement, which Doyle, 34, founded in 1998. "People are fleeing responsibility for their own lives," says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and author of several books on relationships, including Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong. And, says UCLA psychology professor Andrew Christensen, coauthor of Reconcilable Differences, a book about marital issues: "It's counter to the notion that two heads are better than one. It's saying that the husband will make better decisions and that the relationship will be too threatened if they make decisions together."

Indeed, the mantra of the Surrendered Circle meetings seems to be the phrase, "Whatever you think." As in: Your husband comes up with a nutty idea about switching his career. What do you say? According to Doyle: Whatever you think, dear.

And if he wants to have sex when you don't want to? "If you're not in the mood," says Doyle, "that's not a reason to say no. Instead I encourage you to think about what you need to get in the mood so you don't miss the opportunity."

One step on the road to total wifely surrender is the no-control date, an exercise that Doyle teaches in her workshops. The husband—who else?—picks everything: the movie, the restaurant, even the details of what his wife wears.

Doyle's approach to marital serenity came, she says, from the hard-earned lessons of her own 11-year-marriage to John Doyle, 44, an Internet commercial writer she met when she—daughter of a Huntington Beach, Calif., X-ray technician and his homemaker wife—was a junior at San José State University in 1988 and he was making industrial-training videos. "I thought he was handsome," she says. "I thought he had nice big shoulders. He made me laugh."

Although the attraction was instantaneous and the two moved in together after five months, it wasn't enough to sustain their marriage. By the time their fourth anniversary rolled around, says Laura: "It was going steadily downhill. I was really overwhelmed because I felt I had to oversee everything."

Combining marriage counseling, a steady diet of self-help books and the advice of married friends, Laura devised a strategy for saving her marriage. Difficult as it was, she says, she gradually stopped criticizing John and turned all decisions over to him. The marriage, she says, began to improve. And when a married friend suggested that she and a few other women get together over a potluck dinner to help each other, the Surrendered Circle was born. "It was a little overwhelming at first," says Laura. "I had no background in speaking."

But in 1999 she began offering four-session, $300 workshops to local women and started writing the manual that evolved into The Surrendered Wife. Two years ago she changed her birth surname, Mills, to her husband's. "It was a way of apologizing for all the years I tried to tell him how to be," she says.

Even for the founding Surrendered Wife, though, old habits sometimes die hard. "Yesterday," she admits, "we were filming a TV show. A woman asked John to sit on his jacket to pull down the shoulders. He did, but it bunched up again. I said, 'Stand up!' and he did and I pulled the jacket down.

"He didn't really need my help," she says. "A couple of minutes later, I apologized."

Mike Neill
Karen Brailsford in Costa Mesa

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