Almost exactly 22 years ago, I got home from work to find a letter lying on my bed. It was addressed to ‘Harry’ in my wife Kate’s handwriting.
I had no idea what it would say. But since Kate was sitting next door, I figured that whatever she wanted to say was best said on paper, rather than in person.
A few weeks earlier, Kate had confronted me that our marriage was in trouble. I wasn’t the friend she needed me to be and unless I got my act together, our marriage would be over in a year.
I sat down to read the letter with some trepidation. It was written as a rather bland ‘job spec’ of what it was to be Harry’s wife: terms, conditions, perks, travel, pay, etc. I didn’t really know what to think. But the last couple of lines changed everything.
“What I really want is a friend,” she wrote. “Will I ever get it, who knows. WHO CARES.”
Those last two words, in capitals, knocked me to the core. The despairing tone was obvious. What have I done, I thought. I’ve neglected her so badly. In my mind, it was as if a tiny switch flicked across. Suddenly, I knew I needed to make our marriage work for Kate.
I walked next door to find a closed and distant wife. I dropped to my knees and said, “I’m so sorry. You’ve no reason to believe I will change. But I will.”
That tiny change of attitude, a mental shift, to put Kate first, to have her at the forefront of my mind rather than an afterthought, had seismic consequences.
Today, we have been married over 30 years and have six children. Both of us would readily admit that it has subsequently been far from plain sailing. More of a roller-coaster at times. But we’re still here and our kids are OK so must be doing something right …
But how typical is our experience?
The Marriage Foundation recently published a report by me and Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln that looked at what happens to unhappy couples. We analyzed data from a Millennium Cohort Study sample of some 10,000 mothers who had babies in the year 2000 or 2001. We looked at what happened to the mothers, as couples, between the first and last of these waves, i.e. over a period of just over 10 years. At the initial wave, mothers and partners—if present—were asked, “how happy are you in your relationship?” Answers were scored from 1 to 7 where 1 = very unhappy and 7 = very happy. Mothers were also asked if they suspect they are on the brink of separation. The answers were scored from 1 to 5 where 1 = strongly agree and 5 = strongly disagree.
We found that some 5 percent were unhappy in their relationship soon after the baby was born. Just under a third of these then split up. Of the majority who stayed together, only 7 percent (of the 5 percent, so that’s 0.3 percent of the total sample) were still unhappy by the time their child was aged 11, whereas 68 percent said they were now happy (see figure below).
Source: H. Benson & S. McKay, Couples on the Brink, Marriage Foundation, Feb. 2017.
American studies mirror our findings. A 2002 study found that two-thirds of unhappy adults who stayed together were happy five years later. They also found that those who divorced were no happier, on average, than those who stayed together.
In other words, most people who are unhappily married—or cohabiting—end up happy if they stick at it. Like Kate and I, they find ways through.
Our study shows that:
- Unhappiness is, thankfully, much rarer than people imagine. It affects just one in 20 parents with newborns.
- Unhappiness is usually temporary. Staying unhappy is incredibly rare. Just one in every 400 parents in the entire study was unhappy at both time points, soon after their child was born and then again when their child was 11.
- Furthermore, we found that the small minority of married parents who suspect their relationship is on the brink have a similar breakup rate—just under 30 percent—as couples who do not think they are on the brink. That’s not the case for cohabiting parents with newborn children, who, regardless of how secure or insecure they are in their relationship, are more likely than married parents to split up during the next 10 years.
How did my wife and I do it?
It turns out that our experience of growing apart after the children arrive on the scene is very typical indeed.
When couples become parents, everything changes. Forget Mars and Venus. The difference between men and women that matters most is that women have babies. That long experience of pregnancy automatically and subconsciously tunes a woman’s mind toward her child. So, when the baby appears, it’s not surprising that mom tends to take charge and make the decisions.
Like many dads, I loved being involved. But it was all too easy to take a back seat—whether willingly or not—and leave mom to take the initiative. Our conversations gradually deteriorated into a series of functional questions “can you do this?” and “can you do that?” That was fine for a while. But slowly, eventually, it began to grate. Kate became frustrated at being responsible for everything. I withdrew and focused on work. Kate then felt neglected and micromanaged me.
We drifted apart. It was very subtle and very common.
Somebody has to look after the relationship. With mom’s focus on the child, that has to be dad.
If we men can get into our heads that our first task is to love mom, to notice her, to have her in the forefront of our thoughts, our marriage will be terrific.
Happy wife, happy life. Believe it or not, there’s research to support this. It’s much less true the other way around. For example, in one study of 722 older husbands and wives, husbands reported that they were happier with both marriage and life when their wives were also happy with their marriage. Happy husbands didn’t seem to have the same effect on their wives.
Is this putting an unfair burden on men? Doesn’t it take two to tango? Not at all. It’s a tiny shift in thinking that recognizes human nature. When a woman becomes child-oriented, dad needs to become mom-oriented. Somebody needs to take responsibility for the relationship. Remember that this is not about who does what role. Couples can take on whatever roles they like.
So, how do you turn around an unhappy marriage?
- Have hope. When you’re in a bad place, you can’t imagine ever getting out. But remember you felt the same in reverse when you were in love. You couldn’t imagine that things could ever go bad. Yet they did. Unhappiness is rarely permanent. Your marriage can and will get better.
- Seek wise friends. Wise friends won’t take sides and say ‘I never liked him/her anyway’. They’ll want you to succeed. Without wise friends to support and guide us as a couple, I doubt we would ever have made it. Ask an older couple what they think. They will almost certainly tell you that they’ve been through the same thing.
- Be kind. Kindness is an especially attractive quality. We men need to be particularly careful to be kind. Husbands, love your wives. And they will love you right back. In that order. Then, and only then, will you get all you ever wanted.
Trust me, I’ve done it. Now it’s your turn.
Harry Benson is Research Director of the UK-based Marriage Foundation and co-author with his wife Kate Benson of What Mums Want (And Dads Need to Know), which will be released in the U.S. in April 2017. An earlier (and shorter) version of this post appeared on the Marriage Foundation blog.