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  • This year, some 130,000 UK couples with dependent children will split up. Tweet This
  • It’s a sobering thought that if we hadn’t tried to make things work, our youngest four children wouldn’t exist at all. Tweet This
  • Research studies show that when mom is happy, the rest of the family tends to be happy. Tweet This

Maybe your marriage is a mess. It’s drifting; it’s become functional; it’s lost the love, and it’s not what you dreamed. In short, it needs a kick in the backside.

Maybe you’ve even finally decided it’s over. At last, you’ve summoned up the courage to call it a day. But before you give up that last flake of hope, or book that appointment with a lawyer, please humor me for a couple of minutes.

I’ve stood on the brink of divorce myself. In our case, I was on the receiving end. My wife Kate had tried to tell me for years. Yet somehow, I’d missed the signs. So when she did deliver her final ultimatum, I never saw it coming.

I was a good man but a clueless husband. I knew I had to change, but I hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant. Thankfully, Kate gave me that one last chance to find out how. And I did. That was 23 years ago.

I’m not belittling your circumstances. I’m not judging you for heading for the exit. Some marriages are best ended. But if a secret part of you, buried deep behind a protective layer of hurt and disillusionment, still desperately craves a reason not to throw away all of the memories and all of the potential—as yet unfulfilled—then read on …

* * *

“I just need you to be my friend.”

It was the phrase Kate used whenever we had a miscommunication, a misunderstanding, a spat. Each time, I had no real idea what she meant. Our marriage seemed great. I had a good job. We had money. We traveled. We had fun. What more could we want?

Yet every now and then, some stray comment would blow up into an argument that made no sense to me. I would take things personally and close down.

Before we had children, work and play allowed us to paper over the cracks, keeping us busy and distracted even if we hadn’t resolved the original issue. Having children gave us new purpose but drove the invisible wedge between us ever deeper.

Kate was a brilliant and natural mum. I loved being a dad. But it was easy for me to let Kate take the lion’s share of parenting and take a position of diminished responsibility myself. We fell into traditional roles of homemaker and provider. I would bring home the bacon. I was good at that.

As our roles became established, we stopped chatting with one another. We spent less and less time hanging out together on our own. To stay out of trouble, I did all the chores Kate asked me to do. “The bin needs emptying” meant I was in trouble. When we did talk, it was usually about children or work. The neglected wife micro-manages.

Our drift apart was so very subtle. Without realizing it, we had become strangers behind closed doors, sleepwalking toward separation. Eventually, Kate’s frustration at my lack of friendship came to a head. Another man had shown interest in her, making her feel valued and that she had something to offer. It presented a huge temptation, but she knew she couldn’t do anything about it. Nonetheless, the whole episode made her realize what was sorely lacking in our marriage. I wasn’t the friend she needed me to be.

Now she gave me an ultimatum. Either do something about it or our marriage would be over in a year. In Kate’s mind, it was a cry for help. For me, it was panic stations, a bolt from the blue. I thought I was about to lose the children I loved. I never saw it coming, and, worse, I had absolutely no idea what to do.

* * *

This year, some 130,000 UK couples with dependent children will split up. Just under half will be married, and just over half not married. Many other couples without children will also separate. According to family law firms, a disproportionate number will seek legal help during the month of January, when couples who struggled through a painful family Christmas decide to call it a day.

Some level of family breakdown is understandable, and even essential. It’s in everybody’s interest that truly horrible relationships, where there is open conflict or abuse, end.

But that wasn’t anything like us. We weren’t in open conflict. The vast majority of couples who split have grown apart, or had a breakdown of communication, or fallen out of love, or just got bored with one another.

In a recent study I did for Marriage Foundation with Professor Spencer James of Brigham Young University, we found that two out of three parents who had just split up had previously described themselves as happy and not arguing, especially one year earlier. That’s pretty astonishing. Most family breakdown comes out of the blue. So you’d think some of it ought to be avoidable. But how?

* * *

At the instigation of friends, I’d reluctantly gone to counseling and, to my considerable surprise, discovered a faith. Even if this was good for me, it had little effect on our marriage.

Six months on from the ultimatum, in frustration and despair, Kate wrote me a letter. It was a job spec of what it was like to be Harry’s wife. Terms and conditions. Holidays. Duties. Responsibilities. Perks.

She signed off with her deepest need for a friend. “Will it ever happen? Who knows. WHO CARES.” I found the letter on my bed when I came home from work.

The last two words, in capitals, cut me to the core. My God, I thought. What have I done? Until that moment, I’d wanted our marriage to work so that I could stay with the kids. In reality, this was all about me. I now knew I needed to make our marriage work for Kate.

I walked to the next room to find a closed Kate. I sunk to my knees and told her how I thought I understood at last. I was so sorry. She had no reason to believe that I would change, but I would.

This was the real turning point in our marriage, the tiny but seismic mental shift needed to make my marriage work for Kate. Not for me. Not for the children. For Kate. She was wonderful. She deserved it. She was worth it.

There have been plenty of important times in our marriage subsequently when we’ve dealt with difficult issues. But this was the crucial shift in attitude that suddenly put us in with a real chance. I now wanted to take responsibility for our relationship. I wanted the best for Kate, even if it took some getting used to for her. I started to pay attention, to notice her.

Today, we have been married for 31 years. Our marriage is unrecognizable from that awful moment of confrontation all those years ago. Our family has also multiplied. We now have six children in their teens or young adults. It’s a sobering thought that if we hadn’t tried to make things work, our youngest four children wouldn’t exist at all.

Yes, it’s been a long road. It’s not been easy. We’re still a work in progress. We have our ups and downs just like anyone else. But when Kate speaks, I listen and notice. Instead of a voice that seeks to micro-manage me, I hear a voice that says I love you and want to be close to you.

Today we can say with great confidence that we are happily married. We must be doing something right.

What we have done is rediscover some key principles of human nature.

In our book What Mums Want (And Dads Need To Know), we tell the full story of our return from the brink, as well as those of other real-life couples. We also surveyed 291 mothers about their priorities. The results overwhelmingly confirmed what Kate had been telling me all those years, yet I’d never heard.

  • What almost all mums said they wanted most is a friend, somebody who is interested in them and the children, and who is kind.
  • What they wanted least was somebody who provided, or who was strong, sexy, and adventurous.

So what mums want is a family man who puts mum first.

You’ll have read elsewhere about how men and women are different. And I’m not for one second talking here about roles. How you divide your roles is up to you. There is no right and wrong.

But there is one difference between men and women that is absolute. Women have babies. Men don’t. Mum has spent nine months growing a new person inside her. So her brain has become wired to think about how best to raise the children. It changes her orientation and focus. (If you doubt this, just think about how it’s still something of a taboo when a mum walks out on her children. Nobody blinks twice when a dad walks out.)

The experience of pregnancy automatically makes mothers child-oriented. The constant flow of thoughts about her child can then lead her to sideline dad because “it’s easier to do it myself.” But instead of taking it personally and finding solace in work, we dads need to recognize that a child-oriented mum needs a mum-oriented dad.

Research studies show that when mum is happy, the rest of the family tends to be happy. Happy wife, happy life! This is much less true for dads.

In these days where the focus is so much on equality and sharing, this is one area where human nature will always persist. Because we have this difference in orientation, how we then divide our roles tends to be defined by who is number one priority in our life. Kate tells me that she wants me to love her in the same way that she loves our children.

Our Marriage Foundation research shows that half of all mums in the UK say they are “happy” with their relationship, yet still not “very happy.” In other words, life is OK but not as good as it could be.

Remember that two out of three of the couples who are going to split this year fall into this category. Much of this future heartache need not happen.

I make no pretense that the adventure of life together will be easy. But your odds of success are so much better if the foundations are solid.

What mum wants is for dad to be her friend. Mum, you may need to write him a letter to tell him what that means—as Kate did. Dad, take responsibility for your relationship—as I did. Make it your goal to love her … and she’ll love you right back.

Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation UK and a PhD student of marriage at the University of Bristol.

Editor's Note: This essay has been reprinted with permission from the Marriage Foundation blog. Read the original post here.