What’s the secret to a happy marriage? Harry Benson found out the hard way when he survived the near break-up of his marriage to his wife Kate. In the presence of their vicar, she told him she’d developed feelings for someone else and was thinking of leaving him.
Kate told him that while he was a good father to their two young children when it suited him, he didn’t seem interested in her. She gave him a year to sort himself out.
That was years ago. They’re still together and they have six children. Out of their experience of rebuilding their own marriage they started The Marriage Foundation, which works to support couples through research and education. And they’ve just written a book together sharing what they’ve learned over the years entitled What Mums Want (And Dads Need To Know) published on January 20 by Lion Hudson.
This week, when families are recovering from Christmas and New Year breaks that all too often reveal the stresses and strains on relationships and tip some couples over the edge, is allegedly the time when there’s a rush to solicitors to arrange for divorces. But, the Bensons say, it doesn’t have to be that way – and healthy relationships are not rocket science.
They conducted research based on surveys of nearly 300 married mothers and asked them what they wanted from their husbands. Almost everyone said the same thing – they wanted him to be a friend, to be “interested in me” and to be “interested in the children”.
And, Harry tells Christian Today, it’s up to men to take responsibility for that.
In the book, he says to men: “You may think it’s unfair that you should take the lead on this. Equality is really important in the sense of your both having equal value. But equality doesn’t work when it comes to responsibility. Somebody has to carry the load, or nobody will.”
He makes it clear that he’s not advocating a “complementarian” view of male and female relations in which women are under men’s authority (in fact, he strongly rejects the suggestion). But he points to a biological fact that’s very obvious, but under-appreciated. “You can’t argue with the overwhelming fact that women have babies and men don’t. They are hard-wired to be child-orientated,” he tells Christian Today. The risk then is that a vast communication gap opens in which women feel neglected and men feel superfluous.
The answer? The book is a rich collection of stories and reflections from his and Kate’s experiences and those of other couples they’ve encountered. But the take-away for this (male) writer is: “Be kind and gentle to your wife. Put her interests first in your life. Be willing to drop everything, even at risk to your career or your children or your hobbies. And see what happens. What woman could resist a man who will do that?”
Harry reflects on a “light-bulb moment” he had not long ago.
“Two years ago I went away on a silent retreat and I was encouraged to spend three days walking along as if Jesus was beside me. I asked him, ‘Jesus, what do you think about marriage?’ He said, ‘Well, Harry, it’s like you and me – put your arm through mine and let’s walk.'”
So the model for marriage, he says, is based on this relationship between Christ and his people – “when Jesus loves me and I respond”.
Is this intentional kindness and commitment a sure-fire way of saving a marriage? Sadly not, and there are some sad stories in the book as well. But commitment is at the heart of a successful marriage, Harry believes – and married people are better at staying together just because of what the marriage commitment represents.
“Part of the reason marriage is so important – and weddings are so important – is that it’s a public shutting of the door on the other options,” he says.
Weddings? Apparently, yes: he points to research that shows the more people there are at a wedding, the stronger the marriage. And the modern trend to cohabitation, before or instead of marriage, is something he feels the Church ought to be resisting more than it is, because it works against commitment. He’s clear that these are very broad-brush distinctions, but he says: “The difference between men and women is that with men it’s about commitment and making decisions about the future, with women it’s about attachment and bonding. When couples move in together, the woman is likely to feel committed earlier. Cohabiting can lead to a mis-match and a power struggle; in marriage everything’s clear.
“Cohabitation stops you leaving. You risk getting stuck in a fragile relationship and you hope a baby will keep you together.”
Marriage, he says, from a sociological viewpoint, is “a guarantee that the man will stick around”. “The question is, how do we deal with the problem of lack of commitment? One answer is education; men need to buy into a future together.”
In the end, it takes two people to make a marriage work, not just one. But Harry and Kate Benson’s book – an engaging read but backed up by pages of notes and references – seems to put its finger on a controversial but vital component in the relationship: male responsibility. In today’s egalitarian world it’s not likely to be a popular message, but it rings true.