What does marriage mean in 2019? Bride‑to‑be Katie Glass signs up to the "wife factory" to find out how not to do it.
It was my hilarious fiancé's idea. He'd been watching Marie Kondo and complaining about the state of my flat. He'd discovered I did not own an iron. Or a kettle. And kept only nail varnish and vodka in my fridge. "You should go to wife school," he joked, googling it as we laughed. I don't know who was more surprised when several options appeared.
I barely need detail my objections to wife school. The very concept feels regressive and sexist. What does it even mean to be a "wife" in 2019, when I earn more than my fiancé does? Going to wife school would have remained a silly joke if, secretly, I hadn't also had my own worries about my suitability for marriage.
With our wedding approaching next year, I'm increasingly anxious about what "for ever" really involves — and what becoming a wife means for me. Does craving security and romance while wanting a big party and meringue dress mean I'm not a proper feminist? Mostly, I worry marriage means losing my own identity. When people joke that being a wife entails having my husband's dinner on the table with a ribbon in my hair, I'm not laughing — that's exactly what I fear. Is there such a thing as a "modern marriage" or is that an oxymoron?
I'm not the only woman battling such concerns. The frequency of marriage — seen increasingly as expensive and unnecessary — is declining. And yet, like about 290,000 other British couples a year, I'm doing it. Maybe a "wife school" could teach me something about love as well as marriage. I decided to give it a go.
In Russia, wife schools have emerged alongside hyper capitalism. These academies train ladies (and gold diggers) to charm men, bag husbands and be perfect housewives for a competitive, oligarch-rich marriage market. I ask a Russian girlfriend if she has heard of such schools. "Sure," she shrugs. "They have sex lessons." My fiancé signed me up.
The Academy of Private Life lies behind an unassuming wooden door in a smart area of east Moscow. Inside it is buzzing with excitable women. In the reception area a Kegel machine — for pelvic floor exercises — sits alongside a bookshelf of self-help literature. Overhead a sign reads "#choosehappiness". Established by Larisa Renar, a psychologist, biologist and MBA, the academy's courses include How to Return Love to a Fading Relationship, How to Get Gifts, and one on the Art of Sexual Affection, advertised by a photograph of a woman in lingerie with the euphemistic strapline "How to play the magic flute".
Tonight, 20 women in their twenties and thirties, in pretty tops and flowing silk skirts, gather in the basement to learn How to Find a Husband. Our teacher, Ekaterina, wearing a gem-encrusted floor-length gown, leads us through a meditation.
We visualise ourselves in a pink love castle, a pink love flower blooming inside us and our ideal husband before us. Ekaterina instructs us to visualise our man, down to his "social status and income".
Around me, women concentrate. I ask Ekaterina why they come. "European and Russian women are not alike," she drawls. "European women are more concentrated on their career, they're more independent, concentrated on themselves. Russian women are looking for love, they dedicate themselves to the home, they are able to sacrifice their career for men." I suspect she is right. Once, economic necessity was the main reason women got married — we've all read our Jane Austen. Perhaps a lack of opportunity still drives some Russian women, or perhaps they're just naturally more romantic.
Renar's book suggests that women trying to attract a husband should wear dangly earrings and high heels and act "playful" girlish, "obedient" and "naive". I look down at my comfy playsuit and realise I'm going to have to change up my whole act.
The next day, in lipstick, heels and a minidress, I totter to Moscow's Secrets Centre, a funky hipster warehouse where women study "the development of marital relations". There is a statue of Cupid in the reception area. Inside, a vast sex shop is stocked with enough paraphernalia to make a dominatrix blush — red whips, pink leather handcuffs, gold nipple clamps and enough vibrators to plug all Amsterdam's dykes.
Our teacher, Maria, elfin-faced and white-haired in a skin-tight black dress, insists sex is the most important thing in any marriage. "It's very good if a woman cooks," she nods, but "first sex, then borscht".
In Russia, Maria explains, "every woman wants to have an oligarch". And men want "good sex". Maria's oldest student is 86.
In her classroom, young women in their early twenties sit in rows clutching clipboards as if at a university lecture. Today Maria's course is on How to Be a Perfect Lover. There's a lot to cover. First, it's important how we look. Maria advises we should wear fishnets because men are hunters instinctively attracted to something caught in a net. Manicured hands make frantic notes.
It's important we smell of sex, Maria says, claiming that after the age of 20 women's sexual pheromones dry up (studies have yet to prove conclusively the existence of human sex pheromones). She hands around pheromone perfume to try. It smells like gone-off White Musk. Maria prefers a scientific approach to sex: she imparts statistics about what men fantasise about (too filthy to print).
Some girls giggle, others blush. One asks whether we'll get a certificate when we finish the class. I catch up with her later to ask what she thinks men look for in a woman. "Knowledgable," she says. "Knowledgable in sex techniques."
I giggle through Russian sex lessons, but I am also irritated. I grew up with post-feminism — the rise of ladettes, the Spice Girls, Anne Summers on the high street. I'm a pro-sex feminist, yet Russia's sex classes aren't about women's desires — only the grim necessity of doing what your man wants in bed. As a route to personal happiness that's miserable, and as the basis for marriage, well, surely it's impossible? What happens when your pheromone perfume has run out and the baby's crying again?
Not all the courses are sexual. There are classes in How to Create the Perfect Couple, How to Quarrel Correctly and How to Revive Fading Relationships. For 6,500 roubles ($150) I sign up for How to Make a Man Fall in Love with You. It's for women whose "husband has cooled" or for whom "boredom and routine prevail" in their relationships. Our teacher, a pneumatic blonde with Slavic cheekbones, introduces herself as a psychologist and sexologist.
The 10 women here are aged between 20 and 45. Some are single, others married or divorced. One sensibly dressed fortysomething in mom jeans explains she's here because something is missing from her marriage. A pretty 18-year-old in a pink hoodie worries she can't get her relationships "to the logical completion". "Do you mean a wedding?" the teacher asks. The girl nods: "Yes, I don't want to make mistakes women shouldn't make."
The first thing we learn is that in order to make a man fall in love with you, you have to love yourself to a "narcissistic" extent. If men see us as a princess, they'll treat us like one. The second thing we must learn is to take: presents, actions, attention. To make a man love us we must let him invest.
Over an intense four hours we cover what feels like a PhD thesis in relationships: we learn hypnosis, neurolinguistic programming, psychological techniques and "love spells". Is this what people mean when they say marriage takes work?
On the white board our teacher draws a diagram showing the three different parts of the brain that control instincts, emotions and rationality. She explains men's actions are controlled by their subconscious mind, so we should use hypnosis to influence them. To do this, we must make sure that our man's conscious brain is switched off — ie, when they're playing video games, watching sport, are postcoital or drunk. At such moments we might whisper: "Your heart is beating when you're next to me." Visual metaphors are important, apparently. We learn about men's "imprints" — the early experiences that establish their ideas of the perfect wife, perhaps influenced by their mother or female characters they saw in films, books and cartoons. We are told to find out what they are.
We are taught a convoluted hypnosis technique, invented by the American psychiatrist Milton Erickson, that involves telling a story in six parts. You start by talking about, say, how beautiful Italy is, pivot to chatting about a friend, then weave in something you want. After that, return to the friend, then Italy, leaving the demand sandwiched in between, working on his subconscious.
We learn to fluctuate our emotions like a Katy Perry song to make our man want us more. Close then distant, hot then cold. The teacher suggests establishing a common ritual, then breaking it. For example, having coffee with him every Monday, then suddenly not turning up. One woman frets that she won't be able to remember all this. Don't worry, grins our teacher, soon it'll be like riding a bike. Still, I'm uncomfortable. Shouldn't we be framing men as our peers, not as obstacles to be negotiated?
It's during the second half of the course that things gets seriously weird. The lights go off. Our teacher gets out a box of latex dildos and instructs us to take one. We're told to hold the phallus tightly, close our eyes and take ownership of it. "Touch it, think about how it feels," she encourages. I notice my stance widen and realise I am manspreading. Do I feel more powerful? More confident? I'm still considering this when our teacher slams her penis to the ground, telling us to do the same. In order to make men love us, she explains, we have to get rid of our phalluses. We must be women, not men.
The woman next to me starts crying. She realises, she says, that behaving like a man is where she's been going wrong. She isn't sure she wants to give up her penis. I know how she feels. Suddenly I understand Freud's "penis envy".
I return from Russia with more questions than answers. Namely: do women want so little, and are men really this easy to manipulate?
I spend the next few days attempting to hypnotise my fiancé. I grill him about his "imprints" and discover he fancied Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, which is worrying. Should I be whispering, "It rubs the lotion on its skin"? I act girlishly, wear heels and fishnets, and am almost disappointed by how delighted he is. I magnanimously offer to let him buy me some earrings and, to my amazement, he agrees.
I attempt the Erickson technique to get him to do something he hates — take me shopping at Bicester Village. "I took the dog to the park today," I begin casually. "I'm seeing Cecily later. She loves discount shopping. Oh, isn't Bicester village wonderful?" No response. I continue blathering. "Discount shopping's such fun. Cecily's wonderful. Did I mention I took the dog to the park?" He looks up. "If you want to go to Bicester Village, why don't you just ask?"
Finally, I try cutting off my penis — a metaphor that feels increasingly uncomfortable outside Russia — and turn myself into a housewife. I cook, clean, make the bed, go to the launderette with his shirts, do the big shop, organise the car parking — although, actually, that seems like his job. I'm so busy I've no time for work. Is this why there aren't more famous female Russian writers? After a week I'm annoyed. Is this really the only way to be a wife?
Unlike many of the women I met at Russian wife school, I'm not marrying for money. (The tax breaks aren't that great). I'm not even marrying to have kids. My reasons are not practical but emotional. I want someone to be close to, have fun with, and share a connection and support. An intimate witness: someone who shares my values and ambitions as well as orgasms and housework.
I want a partnership in which we both thrive, not where my life is about servicing his needs. So I head west to America in search of another way to be a wife.
Wife 4 Life University, now renamed WifeSavers, is like Open University for marital harmony. It was founded by Ramona Zabriskie, who looks like a glamorous Aunt Bessie, or Martha Stewart before she went to jail. She has been a wife and a "celebrated marriage mentor" for 40 years.
Ramona is sweet as apple pie. She is so excited I'm getting married and thrilled I'll be attending her wife school. She dreams of the day all brides will marry with one of her wife school certificates.
My WifeSavers education is modular. Each module earns me a badge, as at Brownies, and a "delight" that I choose from a list. Options include buying myself a "super-cute pair of socks".
American wife school doesn't offer quick fixes. It's more work than my English degree was. The online course combines video tutorials, quizzes and worksheets. I tell my fiancé I will have to do wife homework and he looks optimistically at the ironing. As if! I'm busy writing essays, doing tests and learning affirmations, such as "I am ready to do what it takes to cherish and be cherished".
My worksheets involve thinking about the marriages that have influenced me (such as that of my parents, who quickly divorced), how I met my fiancé (drunk in Soho) and why we want to be together (because I fall asleep laughing with him and he's so good in bed). It asks me about why and how I want to be a wife, encouraging me to explore our differences.
Ramona gets me to write about our best and worst times together. I write about the time we took mushrooms in an outside bubble bath in Big Sur. And the time I was admitted to hospital and he looked after me, washing my hair. After three weeks, I notice that we still haven't discussed sex. Instead of focusing on the material aspects of the relationship, as we did in Russia, we spend more time examining our emotions. This feels more like modern marriage.
Which is not to say that some of the things Ramona says don't feel dated. I get frustrated when she declares that "by your very nature, your gender [women] are creative". And irritated when she tells me I am "a dream maker — women make dreams come true for themselves and those around them". It's telling that marriage began declining in the 1970s as feminism exploded and women saw other options for themselves. If I've learnt anything at both my wife schools, it's what I don't want — and that's to be defined by a gender stereotype I don't recognise in myself. Surely modern marriages work only when people are free to bring what they want, and are best at, to a relationship regardless of their sex.
There are also some empowering moments at American wife school. Ramona encourages me not to look to my husband for everything I need, but instead to nurture my own creativity, self-respect and self-care. But I find it frustrating that, while the focus might be different, it's still the women having to do the heavy lifting. As if marriage is always — and only — women's work.
Still, I am affected by one of the exercises she asks me to do. She gets me to write a letter to my husband as if it were decades from now. In it, I tell him about all the fun we've had: honeymooning in Italy in our VW campervan, feeding fresh pasta to our dog, building a cabin in the woods, spending our 10th anniversary at Burning Man. I write about how hard things were when we lost our business after our daughter was born, when our granddaughter was ill.
I thank him for making me feel safe, for having my back, for teaching me what family is. As I'm writing it, I come to understand what I want from marriage: a partner, a family, a best friend I'm having lots of sex with. Is modern marriage really that simple? Maybe
I needed to go to wife school to learn that it is.
Written by: Katie Glass
© The Times of London