The other day I was ironing my wife’s dress when I received a text message from her.
‘Home late. Still at lunch,’ it read.
It was 5pm and lunch was at the Savoy Grill, one of the poshest restaurants in London. And the reason why she was going to be late was because she was sat at the Chef’s Table with her boss, who had ordered more wine.
‘Fine,’ I wrote back.
And then I let the hot iron linger a little too long on the Isabella Oliver maxi dress that I was pressing for her visit to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen, Prince Philip, William and Kate last night.
The reason for my petulant act was jealousy. Pure and simple.
I should be eating at chef’s tables. I should be going to the Palace. I should be the successful one.
Because I used to be. Now, however, my wife lives the life I used to lead and there are times when the green-eyed monster overwhelms me.
Such feelings are perfectly natural, according to clinical psychologist Linda Blair. ‘Whenever you have a unit of people together they make comparisons with themselves. It’s an extension of sibling rivalry. You want to be the best in your group. Inbuilt in us from childhood is a desire to be a centre of attention. That’s how we survive when we’re little. The need to compete is a basic instinct.’
When my wife Rebecca and I first met, I was the more successful. I was editor of a top-selling magazine with salary and perks to match. My wife was also a high-flier, a senior executive in the publishing industry.
But I always had the upper hand, a situation which prevailed for the next ten years, when she gave up work to become a full-time mother to our three children, my stepdaughter, Daisy, nine, and sons, Tom, seven, and four-year-old Sam.
Then last year, our worlds were turned upside down.
After being in work for 28 years, I was made redundant.
I was devastated , but I was sure I’d find another position quickly. I failed. This led to a drastic re-appraisal of our situation. My wife began job hunting – and landed a dream role as editor of one of Britain’s biggest-selling women’s magazine.
And so the tightening of the vice on my fragile male ego began.
She is now the breadwinner while I am a housedad to our children. I do everything for them that she used to do – the housework, the hand-holding, the nagging – and as much as I take great pride in being there to nurture and develop our kids, I am occasionally floored by the drudgery of this existence – and deeply envious of hers.
There are 200,000 housedads in Britain and, although many are there by choice, a great number have been forced into this situation because of economic circumstances. Many have had this life thrust upon them through redundancy, or the simple fact that their partners earn more than them and, like me, many find it damaging to their self-worth, which in turns breeds envy.
This is not an all-consuming emotion, but it does rear its head from time to time and when it does, it shapes the dynamics of our relationship.
Stress management specialist Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress (Wiley and Sons), believes jealousy is common among professional couples.
She explains: ‘Many of us forge our identity and self-worth based on what we do. Many people who lose their job experience “identity theft”.’
Identity theft. I can relate to that phrase. Redundancy robbed me of my power to earn enough to keep my family – and earning enough has always been how I have defined myself.
Despite this, if anything, our circumstances have brought my wife and I closer. For all the occasional envy I feel, I don’t resent my wife her success. She’s earned it. The way I’ve coped is to try to be as good, if not better, than she ever was around the house.
I treat raising our children as a job in itself, and though I don’t get paid for it, I figure I’m earning the gross equivalent of the £25,000 a year I would have to earn in order to pay for childcare.
But there are tensions and the flashpoints in our relationship revolve around three things: lifestyle, status and money.
I come from a traditional working class background and felt my masculinity was threatened by me being out of work and my wife supporting us. She was used to running the home her way. What worried me most, however, was that she would find me less attractive.
She married an ambitious, high-flying dynamic kind of guy. Now she has to listen to him moaning about book bags, school bake sales and her leaving her tights on the bedroom floor.
She says it doesn’t change the way she feels.
But still, it makes me feel less of a man. I would swap back in a heartbeat, but not so her. She is happy and thriving.
Our alliance is one of acceptance that there is nothing we can do about it so we just have to get on with it. We have children. They come first. I just wish I could afford to buy them birthday and Christmas presents instead of watching them unwrap the gifts bought with their mother’s toil and then feel guilty about the grateful hugs they give me because I was the one who had the time to go shopping for them.
But the degree of my jealousy is quite mild compared to others.
A childless friend of mine has a much harder time with his wife’s success. Nick and Corinne met on a business course university ten years ago and both landed jobs at the same accountancy firm. But while Corinne’s career soared, Nick’s stalled, and now, as a senior manager, Corinne earns almost twice as much as her husband.
‘It felt like Corinne would get a promotion every year, but I kept getting overlooked,’ Nick, 33, explained. ‘At first, I was delighted for her. We’d go out to a great restaurant and celebrate with champagne, but when it kept happening, I thought, “Hang on, what’s she got that I haven’t?”’
Nick tried to correct the imbalance by becoming more and more competitive, but when his endeavours proved fruitless, he started to take out his feelings of inadequacy on his wife.
‘She was the star of the show,’ he said. ‘Her bosses and colleagues were falling over themselves to praise her. We’d go out to work functions and I’d feel like an appendage, like I didn’t matter. She tried to make me feel good about myself by saying it wasn’t what she was earning that mattered, but the total dual income we were bringing home, but I didn’t buy that.
‘I became petulant and surly around the house, always putting her down and criticising, not just her, but the people she worked with. I said she was only successful because she was attractive.’
Their relationship hit the buffers when, after one drinks party, Nick started verbally attacking Corinne.
‘I’d had way too much to drink, but all the resentment I’d been feeling over the years came to the surface. She’d paid for all our holidays, bought me more expensive presents than I could afford to buy her, and I just lost it. I accused her of sleeping with her boss. Before I really knew what I’d said, she threw me out.’
Finally, Corinne gave Nick an ultimatum: get therapy or divorced.
Nick chose the former and it saved their relationship.
Linda Blair says she sees many couples like Nick and Corinne.
‘There are two basic ways that you deal with jealousy,’ she says. ‘Either you puff yourself up to be a bigger chicken, or you stick pins in the other one.’
Nick’s story resonates with me and though I have never consciously put my wife down, there have been times when I have been less than over-enthusiastic about her achievements.
When she did a presentation in front of 1,000 people, I chose to regale her of the time I presented to an audience of 2,000 on three consecutive nights. It was as if I was saying: ‘Anything you can do, I used to do better.’
So what can be done about this?
Linda Blair advises the jealous spouse to find a different way to be successful. In my case, it might be to be a better stay-at-home-parent than my wife ever was.
Debbie Mandel says couples have to communicate.
‘The jealous spouse needs to announce his or her reality and be heard without interruption,’ she says. ‘Then the successful spouse can ask the jealous one what he or she is longing for. The key is not to give advice and fix it. Home improvement begins with self-improvement.
‘The jealous spouse needs to tap into the positive side of jealousy which is to grow as a person, find a mentor, update skills and network to turn adversity into advantage. The successful spouse should never issue commands and use the bell-tolling words “I’m paying for it.” The goal is to realise that you are a team – sometimes you shine and carry the ball, and sometimes the other person does.
‘It is easy to cheer someone on when he or she is down. However, to cheer and affirm someone who is successful can take the marriage to new heights.’
And when all else fails? Have lots of sex. ‘Sex is similar to exercise,’ says Debbie Mandel. ‘Have lots of sex to forge intimacy and connection.’
Sounds like a plan. Once I’ve finished ironing these school uniforms.