Credit: Army Medicine

For the last couple of years, my wife Kate and I have spent three weeks praying once a day for about 15 to 20 marriages. Most of the couples spring to mind because they are in difficulty. Others are doing fine but it just seemed right to include them for whatever reason. Most couples we know personally. Some we’ve heard about from friends or church. We pray for each by name. Some we tell, most we don’t.

What has struck us each time the list of names materialises is that the future of each marriage seems to be largely in the hands of the husband. It’s invariably the husband who needs to step up to the plate, to start being kind to his wife, or stop being defensive, or end the affair, or cut down on his drinking.

I’m all too aware that it takes two to tango. Just as in a dance, people react to one another. Marriages thus either tend to go in a virtuous cycle, when it’s easy to be nice when our spouse is being nice, or in a downward spiral when our bad behaviour feeds off one another.

But if the best tangos also need one person to keep things going, to set a direction, to initiate change as necessary, to take responsibility, to lead.

In our forthcoming book ‘What mums want (and dads need to know)’, Kate and I have told our own story of how, as new parents with two young children, our marriage went horribly wrong and how we brought it back from the brink. Today we have six children – teens and young adults – and have just celebrated our thirtieth anniversary.

The key turning point for us was when Kate wrote me a letter of what it was like to be Harry’s wife. It was like a job spec: terms and conditions, responsibilities, perks, travel, etc.

She ended with a note of despair. ‘What I really want is friendship,’ she wrote. ‘Will I ever get it? Who knows. WHO CARES’.

Those last two words, in capitals, struck me to the core. What have I done, I thought?

It was a lightbulb moment. Suddenly I realised that I needed to make our marriage work

It was a lightbulb moment. Suddenly I realised that I needed to make our marriage work for Kate. Not for me. Not for the children. For Kate. I went to her and told her how sorry I was. She had no reason to believe I would change. But I would.

The mental shift that now oriented me toward Kate was tiny but its effect was seismic. Thereafter we were in with a chance. Kate had always wanted the best for me. Until then, through ignorance, I’d never really thought about it. It had taken me eight years of marriage but at last I knew I wanted the best for her.

Since then, it’s been a long journey. We have ups and downs like everyone else. But both of us can safely say that our marriage today is genuinely wonderfully happy.

Before we had children, we’d been able to paper over the cracks in our relationship. Time and money allowed us to move on without ever fully resolving issues. Becoming parents changed everything.

Nine months of pregnancy automatically makes a woman think about her child all the time. When a woman becomes a mother, she can’t help but become child-oriented. Forget Mars and Venus. This is the indisputable difference between men and women that really counts. Women have babies and men don’t.

I loved being a father but quickly took a back seat at home

Kate was and is a brilliant mother. I loved being a father but quickly took a back seat at home, focusing on being a provider at work. That was fine for a while. But it meant that when I was at home I gradually stopped taking the initiative. Kate needed to micro-manage me – could you do this please, could you do that please – almost as if I was another child in the house. This became frustrating for both of us.

What went wrong is that, little by little, with great subtlety, we spent less time chatting together as friends. We drifted apart.

Drifting apart is the number one reason couples split up. Ironically, I’ve now spent the last 20 years teaching thousands of couples how to have a strong marriage and researching and writing about what works. One of my research findings is that two out of every three couples who split up had just one year beforehand reported that they were happy and not arguing especially. Astonishing, isn’t it?

Two out of every three couples who split up had just one year beforehand reported that they were happy and not arguing especially

So much family breakdown ought never to happen. Yet it does. The jump into parenthood sets the trend for years to come. When women become child-oriented, men need to become mum-oriented. Do this and our marriages will work. That’s the mental shift Kate and I believe will keep marriages strong and avoid a great deal of unnecessary breakdown.

Unhappiness is rarely permanent – and I am not for one second talking here about truly horrible relationships. There are plenty of research studies, including my own, that show how unhappy people rarely stay that way. There are also plenty of studies that show how when mum is happy, the rest of the family tend to be happy. This is much less true for dads.

What mums want most from dad is friendship. They want a husband who is interested in them and the children. They want a husband who is kind. That’s the secret of a happy marriage and it’s so much more within our grasp than we might imagine.

So come on men. Let’s step up and take responsibility for our marriages. That’s what mums want and what dads need to know.  

Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation.

Harry and his wife Kate are authors of What Mums Want (And Dads Need To Know), to be published by Lion on 20 January.

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Cover photo credit (Flickr: Army Medicine)

For top tips on how to have a long lasting marriage listen to Clif and Marie Reid on Woman to Woman as they talk Marriage MOT