‘Happy wife, happy life’ is a well-known expression, but in an age where men and women are supposed to be equals, is it true? Does a happy wife really have more influence on a family’s well-being than a happy husband?
Although a few studies point in this direction, none has tested the happiness of both mum and dad against a range of family outcomes. Until now.
With my colleague Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln, we looked at a big national sample of thousands of mums and dads who had children in the years 2000 or 2001. Both parents were asked “how happy are you in your relationship” when their child was nine months old. These families have been surveyed several times since then. We then looked at how families turned out when the children were 14 years old.
Both parents play a big part in how families turn out years later. Both mum and dad make their own individual unique impact, but mum’s happiness is definitely the more important factor of the two.
What we found was crystal clear. Mums who are happy with their relationship – as a new parent – are more likely to stay together with the dad over the next 14 years and more likely to remain happy. Their teenage children are less likely to display high levels of mental health problems, and mum’s relationship with her children is more likely to be close.
It’s not that this isn’t also true for dads who rate their relationship as similarly happy. It’s just that the effect is far more pronounced. Dad’s initial happiness is also much less of a factor for how sons turn out than daughters.
So this is pretty clear evidence that if mum – married or unmarried – thinks she is getting on well with dad, then the family is well set for the future.
Happy wife, happy life!
But why mum? Surely it takes two. Men and women are equal, after all.
What I think is happening is that when couples become parents, the dynamics of the relationship change dramatically.
A new mum has spent nine months constantly aware of the baby growing inside her, so it shouldn’t be too surprising if the focus of her attention shifts to the baby when it is born.
This is true for dad as well, but because his brain hasn’t been conditioned by pregnancy to think about the baby all the time, it makes sense to let mum take the lead with what needs to be done. With her attention now on the child, unless he takes active responsibility for their relationship, no-one will.
My wife Kate was and is a brilliant mum. After our first two children were born, she naturally took prime responsibility for the children. While I focused on being a good dad and earning a living, I slowly became more and more passive and stopped taking the initiative at home. Her stream of requests: “Can you do this, can you do that” were fine at first, but eventually began to grate on both of us. Without noticing, we drifted apart. It was very subtle.
It was only when I realised my most important role was to love Kate that things turned around. We tell the story of how to bring a loveless marriage back from the brink in our book What mums want and dads need to know (Lion Hudson). Our marriage today is unrecognisable.
But I think there’s also a deeply biblical angle to the principle of ‘Happy wife, happy life’.
In Ephesians, Paul tells us that a husband is to love his wife as Jesus loves us. That surely means taking ultimate responsibility for the relationship and how he treats her.
In the last fifty years we have seen huge changes for the better: more opportunities for women in the workplace, more encouragement for men at home. But with either parent equally capable of earning money or looking after the children, many men have struggled to find their role in the home.
As I have long argued, the one role that nobody can take from a dad is the responsibility to love mum. And when he does that, then she will love him right back. That’s what I think my experience and the research are showing.
Dads, love mum. When mum is happy with dad, the whole family benefits.