My Dinner With The Doyle's

Matthew Heller last wrote for the magazine about the death of Herbalife founder Mark Hughes

If you'd joined Laura Doyle and her husband, John, for dinner a few years ago, the atmosphere might have been a little tense. "I might have felt anxious about what John was going to say," explains Laura. "I might have wanted to jump in and correct him."

Back then, Laura had a superiority complex, a "femino-centric" view that "everything female is the right way and everything male is the wrong way." And Laura says she was a bit of a shrew, always ready with unwanted advice for her husband, her "delusions of helpfulness" by no means welcome. "I'd shut down just to keep the anger from exploding," John recalls. "I watched a lot of TV. I literally checked out."

But on a recent evening, I join the Doyles for dinner in their modest Costa Mesa single-family home near the South Coast Plaza shopping mall. Laura serves a three-course meal, and when her boyish-looking husband contributes to the conversation, there is nary a wifely interjection.

"Most of the time I didn't even feel like doing it," she says. "I thought, 'Wow, that seemed like a great insight.' Probably I would have thought before, 'Why didn't he explain it this way?' "

The secret of this marital success? Laura Doyle has "surrendered." Not only that, she is the Surrendered Wife, the author of the eponymous bestseller that has turned the perky 34-year-old former advertising copywriter into an overnight self-help guru. "A surrendered wife is . . . a woman who acknowledges she can't change anyone besides herself," Laura says, her voice impassioned. "She gives up the illusion that she's that powerful, or if she could make her husband change, that that would make her happy."

For his part, John feels like he's been set free. "I'm charged with my own life now," he enthuses.

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"THE SURRENDERED WIFE," WHICH THE Doyles originally self-published with funds from their savings, has sold more than 150,000 copies in the United States since Simon & Schuster relaunched it as a $13 trade paperback in January. Its author also is the fulcrum of a cottage industry, leading Surrendered Wife workshops around the country. Devoted readers of her breezy prose and punchy prescriptions have formed Surrendered Circles--the book tells them how--and keep abreast of developments on www.surrenderedwife.com.

"Because I worked in advertising, people frequently say that's why this book is so big," Laura notes. "But I wrote high-tech marketing brochures. So this is the real deal. This is not the product of a media machine."

Her publisher's media machine, though, has had Laura on a hectic schedule, including appearances on "Dateline" and with Chris Rock, Marlee Matlin and Donny Osmond on "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher." "It was a kick," she reports. "A moment of 'my goodness.' "

Amid all this activity, she and John haven't been home much. So my dinner chez Doyle is a rare opportunity for them to entertain. Laura greets me at the front door in stockinged feet, a pink silk blouse accenting a floral print dress. With her blue eyes, somewhat square face and bobbed blond hair, there's a ruddy wholesomeness about her--Martha Stewart as portrayed by Edward Hopper, perhaps. The rustic flavor carries over to the kitchen-dining area, decorated in pastel colors with sturdy country-casual furniture. John, 45, a soft-spoken former financial software trainer and copywriter who is a mellow counterpoint to his sparkplug of a wife, wouldn't look out of place with a pitchfork either.

Over an appetizer of a green salad with almonds and mandarin slices, we talk about life before surrender. Newly wed at 22--she met John while she was a student at San Jose State University--Laura says the marriage went from a state of bliss to a state of doubt within a few years. "I just thought he wasn't romantic enough or ambitious enough or tidy enough, and I could just help him be all those things if I would give him some helpful suggestions."

John just felt "dominated."

They saw a therapist who sent them out on a trial "date" with the idea that Laura would practice not being in control. It didn't go well. "Backing out of the driveway, I started telling him how to get to the restaurant," Laura recalls. The therapist identified Laura's control problem but "wasn't going to help me figure out how do it differently." The next four years were "trial and error." She'd try things picked up from self-help books and conversations with happily married women. Gradually, the surrender concept took shape.

"It is not giving up but giving in to what you can't change," Laura explains. "If you're stuck in traffic, you might wish the cars would move, but you can't make them move. So you can either honk or fume or yell at other drivers, or you can say, 'I'm going to use this time to listen to books on tape.' "

Now, for example, John buys his own clothes and Laura stays away from his closet. Even if he came home one day in cowboy boots and polka-dot shorts, she says she would view it as "kind of an adventure." Following a major part of the surrender mantra, John also handles the household finances. All the energy Laura used to devote to controlling her husband she can "put onto myself and take responsibility for my own happiness."

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OF COURSE, FIXING YOUR OWN marriage is one thing. Having the temerity to advise others is another--particularly when, like Laura, you have no professional credentials. But Laura, whose parents went through a bitter divorce when she was 17, says she "got nothing" out of reading more "scientific" books.

"What I needed was step-by-step instructions," she adds as we move to a main course of risotto with portabello mushrooms and pine nuts. "What can I do right now that will improve my marriage? . . . I just wanted something practical." Now she seems to have filled the needs of thousands of other women. "Once your mind is stretched around this idea of surrendering, it's really hard not to do it."

Critics are having a more difficult time stretching their minds around it. The New Yorker called "The Surrendered Wife" "an instruction manual for a new generation of Stepford Wives." Relationship experts have not been kind, either. John Gottman, one of the country's leading marriage researchers, dismissed Doyle as "kind of a dinosaur, a throwback." Another therapist told Time magazine, "What she is saying here is how to manipulate your husband."

Andrew Christensen, a UCLA psychology professor and co-author of the marital-issues book "Reconcilable Differences," has similar concerns. Instead of advocating a "better balance of control" in a couple's relationship, "she goes to the other extreme so the wife gives up all control to [her] husband," Christensen says. "She assumes men and women can't collaborate and have a partnership. That's really outrageous."

Doyle, he believes, advocates "dishonesty at times and lack of openness." As for her central concept, "Surrender implies defeat. It implies war and one party is a victim."

Doyle won't surrender to the critics. "My publicist told me [the New Yorker review] probably wasn't something I'd enjoy reading, so I'm not going to read it," she says. She names Christensen as one critic who has not even read the book. (He responds: "I have read her book very carefully.")

She's ready for questions about manipulation: "I think trying to control somebody else is manipulative." In her pre-surrender days, manipulation would mean disguising her real desires. Rather than tell John straight out that she wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, she would suggest seeing his family in Phoenix. "I'd say, 'While we're there we could visit the Grand Canyon'. . . You think of something else that makes it noble or selfless. That's a massive manipulation."

"The Surrendered Wife," moreover, isn't the first self-help phenom to sound the manipulation alarm. One therapist said of "The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right," published in 1995, that it pandered "to the lowest level of consciousness in society."

John Doyle chimes in that the surrendered wife is no geisha girl. Rather, a surrendered wife is "a person with her own mind [who] expresses what she wants," he says. Laura agrees that a surrendered wife "would be expressing her desires and feelings. She wouldn't be making demands."

Making sexual demands is definitely not for the surrendered wife. Instead, she should become a coy seductress, using feminine wiles to show she is sexually available. And she should do so at least once a week, whether she feels like it or not. In the book, Laura reports that this approach was "blissfully rewarded" in her own marriage.

Laura is so convincing, so practiced in her spiel that she can make surrender sound like liberation. "I am very much a feminist," she insists. "I want women to have more choices. That's the essence of feminism." You also get the sense that she is desperate to avoid repeating the family history--her parents' marriage was "always on the rocks" and she didn't have "a good model" for an intimate relationship.

"Let's see if we can save women from the stress they suffer after a divorce," Laura says. "Let's make one of the choices being able to stay happily married instead of saying, 'Get rid of that creep.' "

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THE MEAL CONCLUDES WITH fresh strawberries and a sweetened sour cream dip. We discuss their future plans--children are a possibility and Simon & Schuster will release her second book, "The Surrendered Single," next year. "It will teach the same principles--you can't control when and where and how you fall in love, but you can practice better self-care, make yourself available, take the feminine approach," Laura explains.

You certainly get the impression that the Doyles are enjoying the experience of meteoric success without letting it get to their heads. "It's just remarkable," Laura says. "This morning, I did [phone interviews with] media in South Africa and Germany . . . [The book is] an international hit. Who knew?"

Before John takes on his role as "official dishwasher," they escort me to the door. "Laura is a really good cook and I appreciate that she'd cook for me," John assures me. Laura's appreciative, too. With a laugh, she says, "This gave me a little Martha Stewart high."

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