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Men: The best gift for Mothering Sunday? Be kind to your wife!

(This article was originally published in this week’s Church of England newspaper)

Twenty two years ago, I stood on the brink of divorce. My wife Kate and I were good parents to our two young children. I had a good job and worked hard to make sure I could feed my family. Sure, there was the odd misunderstanding and argument between us as a couple. What family didn’t have them?

But our problem was not that we were rowing all the time. It was that we had stopped talking. We had done the classic thing of ‘growing apart’. We were no longer friends.

Growing apart is by far the biggest underlying cause of family breakdown in the UK today. Two out of every three parents who split up reported that they were at least somewhat happy and only quarrelling occasionally just one year earlier. In other words, there was nothing terribly wrong with their relationship.

For most families, and especially for their children, break-up comes out of the blue. All those years ago, when I was confronted that all was not well in our own household, I too never saw it coming.

The happy ‘ending’ to my own story is that Kate and I did get back on track, turned our marriage around and had four more children. We have now been married for thirty years. It’s been a bumpy ride at times and we still have very normal ups and downs, like anyone else. But both of us would say today that we are very happily married.

Soon after our confrontation, I realised that there must be millions more Harrys and Kates out there who needn’t get into the mess we did. So I’ve been researching writing and teaching about marriage and family ever since.

Yet it’s only recently that I’ve realised that our story is THE story, because it’s rooted in our fundamental human nature.

What should I – or any of us – have done differently to make my marriage work and avoid what seems like an unnecessary break-up?

When couples become parents, everything changes. How we handle that transition sets the tone for our relationship as a couple for years to come.

When our first child was born, it was immediately obvious that Kate was made to be a mother. Like most mums, she was brilliant at it. I adored being a dad. But it seemed natural to let Kate make the decisions about all things baby. She made all the big calls on the baby’s room, clothes, routine, feeding. So it was all too easy for me to take a backseat at home and focus on work and paying the bills. It’s all very sensible stuff.

Except that subtly, barely noticeably, our conversations at home slowly degenerated into “Harry, darling, could you do this for me please? Could you do that?” This was fine for a while. But eventually it started to grate on both of us. Kate became frustrated that I seemed not to take the initiative. I backed off because I began to feel got at. She then felt neglected.

As Kate now often tells couples, the neglected wife micro-manages. She talks about the bins, the children, the dishwasher, the bills, the mowing, the broken handle, the problem with the car, and the shopping.

This is what ‘growing apart’ looks like. It should be a big danger sign. It means nobody is taking responsibility for the relationship.

That’s dad job. Husband, love your wife. And she’ll love you right back. In that order.

A number of recent studies point to mum as the most important person in the household. When mum is happy, both children and dad are also more likely to be happy. It’s much less true the other way round. This makes huge sense. Think of more or less any strong family you know. It’ll be mum who is the centre of gravity, the rock around whom the family rotates, the lynch pin. ‘Happy wife, happy life’ is a real phenomenon!

So what makes mum happy? What do mums want from their husband?

We asked 291 mums to rate a whole series of characteristics, qualities and roles of dads in terms of their importance, for our book What Mums Want (And Dads Need To Know).

You can read the full survey report here.

Men might be surprised to know that being romantic, sexy, strong or adventurous all came near the bottom of the list, as did being a provider. Right at the bottom were earning a decent salary and fixing things! None of these were completely unimportant. They just weren’t rated very highly.

What mums wanted most above all was a friend, somebody who is interested in them and the children, somebody kind.

Kindness lies at the heart of any successful relationship. Being kind is an action. It means thinking about somebody else and then doing something about it. It means paying attention, noticing, asking, anticipating, offering. It means taking responsibility. It’s all the things I didn’t do when we grew apart. And it’s all the things I try to do now that make our marriage work.

When I neglect Kate, I know she can put up with it for a bit. But it slowly weighs her down, like a wet blanket. She feels cold and resentful, and doesn’t even like the person she loves.

But when I am kind to Kate, I know she lights up. She feels happier, more enthusiastic, more loving, more energetic, and more interested in me!

It’s a no-brainer really, isn’t it?

Men, if you want a happy life, then be kind to your wife! Mothering Sunday is a good place to start.

Harry Benson is research director of Marriage Foundation and co-author – with Kate – of What Mums Want (and Dads Need To Know)

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