Before I was married, I eagerly read every resource I could find on marriage—from self-help books to the latest research—in the hopes that this knowledge would one day help me overcome my family’s history of divorce. By the time I said “I do,” I had amassed a large amount of head knowledge about marriage but zero guidance on how to implement that information in the real-life struggles of married life.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the best marriage help is not found in the latest “top 10 relationship tips,” but in the hope and wisdom of older married couples who’ve endured the “for better and worse” times and are willing to share their marriage success stories with others. That’s what I love most about Harry and Kate Benson’s new book (released this month in the U.S.), What Mums Want (And Dads Need to Know). Followers of this blog know Harry as the research director of the UK Marriage Foundation, whose work we feature here on a regular basis. Harry's also a devoted husband, married 28 years to his wife, Kate, and the proud father of six children. It’s not surprising that his book is packed with solid research, including a new survey of UK moms, as well as valuable tips on how couples can communicate and love each other better. But what sets the book apart from other marriage advice books is that Harry and Kate have also filled it with true stories of couples whose marriages were once “on the brink” but ultimately made it through, often with a little help from married friends.
Harry and Kate recognize (from their own experience) that couples in troubled marriages need more than just tools: they need support and hope from other married couples who have been through similar struggles. And that’s just what their book provides—beginning with the Bensons’ own inspirational story. Harry and Kate take turns sharing their unique perspectives on the problems they faced in their marriage and how they overcame them. With their down to earth style and honesty, they offer wisdom gained from 28 years of married ups and downs, including: you are not alone in your struggles (we’ve been there too!); unhappiness in marriage is temporary; if husbands will love their wives, their wives will love them back; and marriage gets better with time and dedication. “The key factor that helps couples through bad patches, like so much else in a marriage, boils down to dedication,” they write, defining dedication as, “making a decision to be a couple with a permanent future.”
What’s striking is that the key to their marriage success was not intensive marriage counseling but the practical support and advice they received from trusted married friends who mentored them through the hard times. As they explain:
The best hope for a struggling marriage is a wise friend, ideally a wise couple… We have had various wise friends along the way who held us to account, sat us down, gave us a route map, and supported and encouraged us.
They devote an entire chapter of the book to the importance of “Wise Friends,” including tips on how to identify the right people to confide in about a marital problem. Harry even argues that the wisdom and support of trusted loved ones may be more important to troubled marriages than professional therapy. “Most struggling couples don’t need therapy or counseling,” he writes. “They just need a bit of practical inspiration and hope.”
And “practical inspiration and hope” is exactly what readers find in What Mums Want. The many married friends who gave the Bensons’ hope over the years have a strong presence in the book: including a married friend who advised Kate to end a potentially dangerous relationship with another man; their vicar and his wife, who provided much-needed counseling; and an older married couple who helped them with a marital dispute and offered wisdom from their 38-year marriage. Harry emphasizes the valuable role these friends and others played in their marriage’s survival, noting, "Without the love and help of these wise friends, I am certain that our marriage would have continued its downward drift and eventually come to a confused end that neither of us wanted."
They also share the help they gained from the marriage courses they’ve taken over the years, including one my husband and I attended, Marriage Encounter. Around the time when their marriage was on the brink, Harry and Kate attended a Marriage Encounter weekend, where they learned how to communicate through hand-written love letters, and where Harry writes, "I fell in love with my wife properly, for the first time, a mere nine years into our married life.” One of the strengths of the Marriage Encounter outreach, as my husband and I discovered, is the community of married couples it provides once the weekend is over, such as a monthly meeting with other local couples who attended the weekend, where you form friendships and gain marriage mentors for life.
I certainly don’t intend to skip over the main theme of What Mums Want, which is that the “core of a successful marriage is a happy wife,” and that a husband who is kind and pays attention to his wife will enjoy a healthier marriage. The book describes how Harry learned to be the husband Kate needed, and it contains wisdom and practical tools to help other husbands do the same.
Ultimately, though, the book is about the Bensons reaching out to offer couples in struggling marriages the much-needed hope and guidance they received from friends over the years. They even devote a section of the book to assisting happily married couples in “paying it forward” by offering advice on how to mentor struggling couples. And that, to me, is what makes What Mums Want such an invaluable gift: it reminds us of the necessity of community to a healthy marriage culture. As Harry and Kate Benson’s success story illustrates, marriage is not meant to be done alone but thrives with the support, guidance, and inspiration of other married couples.