Happily ever after: The secret to a happy marriage

Want to know the secret to a happy, life-long relationship? It’s simple – just be kind. Áilín Quinlan meets the Bensons, happily married for 30 years and counting.

Celebrating their 30-year anniversary with the family from left, Grace, Johnnie, Sizzle, Harry, Charlie, Kate, Polly, Rosie and her husband Tom.

"OH yeah?” my husband of nearly 30 years inquired sarcastically when I mentioned the concept of happy wife, happy life. 

“In other words, I’m supposed to give in to you all the time?”

Harry Benson has heard that dismissive tone countless times — most recently from outraged TV host and This Morning presenter Eamon Holmes — since he first began to explain to men that they needed to be nicer to, kinder to and more interested in, their wives.

Twenty-two years ago and in a state of desperation about a marriage which had stealthily slipped its moorings and was heading for the rocks, the former Royal Navy Commando helicopter pilot stuck a post-it note on his computer.

The post-it had one word scribbled on it. That word was “compliments”.

Benson’s wife Kate laughed when she saw the little note — but it helped save the couple’s eight-year-old marriage. The post-it was to remind Harry to be nicer to his wife. 

If he hadn’t, he quips, now, his two eldest children would have had completely different childhood experiences and the four younger ones probably wouldn’t even exist.

Two years after he stuck that note to his computer, he says, giving his wife compliments had become a habit.

Now Harry Benson and his wife Kate have a happy and successful 30-year marriage and have co-written a book, What Mums Want (and Dads Need to Know).

Harry believes, as he has repeated numerous times to the dismay of countless men, that it really is a case of happy wife, happy life.

Someone has to take responsibility for the marriage when a woman is busy focusing on the children, he points out — and that role and responsibility, Benson believes, falls — yes — on the shoulders of the man.

“If men could realise that what mums want is friendship, kindness and interest, there would be a lot less family breakdown,” he declares. 

Happy couple: The Bensons on their wedding day.

It’s not rocket science, agrees therapist of 25 years’ experience, and a relationships expert with Relationships Ireland, Tony Moore. 

He says he’s been telling Irish people for years that although kindness, courtesy and generosity often tend to be discounted as old-fashioned and unimportant, they are crucial to a relationship. 

People forget, says Moore, about what he calls “the very basic importance of showing kindness and tenderness towards each other.” 

He often realises, he says, that the problem in a failing relationship is not necessarily a lack of communication but the deeply disrespectful and contemptuous way partners talk to each other. 

“Being nice is actually the absolute centre of everything – it’s not a ‘soft’ thing, it is about being courteous, respectful and well mannered.”

And that’s essentially where Harry Benson is at.

He was a 23-year-old navy helicopter pilot when he met 19-year-old cookery student — and his wife-to-be, Kate — at a party. Some two and a half years later they got married. 

Harry left the navy and went into the finance sector, Kate became a food stylist and they moved to Asia. 

Five years after their wedding they had their first child — and that was when the cracks began to show: “Until the children were born we had lots of time and space,” he says.

His wife gave up her work as a magazine editor when the babies started to arrive and, like many mothers, became, quite naturally, child-orientated. 

Meanwhile, like many a Dad before him, Harry immersed himself in his job as a partner in a brokerage firm, and in what he believed was the all-consuming role as family breadwinner.

“We just drifted apart,” he recalls. His wife, he says was a “brilliant mum,” and gradually he took a back seat. 

“Kate ended up making all the major decisions about the children.

“It just happened. It was very subtle. I focused on work and paying the bills. The problem was that Kate was constantly asking me to ‘do’ things. That was fine for a while — then it began to grate.”

She was micro-managing because he wasn’t involved — and he was withdrawing because he was always being given jobs. 

“Our conversation tended to revolve around could you do this or that — she became frustrated. I neglected her and withdrew because I felt I was being asked to do things.” 

After eight years of marriage — they now had two children — Kate realised she’d lost her best friend: “She confronted me. She said that unless things changed, our marriage would be in trouble within 12 months.

“I never saw it coming. I knew we had occasional differences but I never realised our marriage was in trouble,” says Harry.

Chastened by his wife’s warning – he describes it as a “bolt from the blue” which shocked him to the core, he realised that he was about to lose his children.

“I loved my children desperately and I knew that I needed to do whatever it took to avoid losing them.”

Now he sees that his initial motivation was not to save his relationship with Kate or to rescue the marriage, but simply “fear of losing the kids”.

He made some changes, but not nearly enough.

A few months later, Kate wrote him a letter in which she outlined her role as his wife and explained that what she really wanted was a friend. “Will I ever get it? Who knows? Who cares?” she asked.

“Those last two sentences really shocked me,” Harry recalls. A veteran of the Falklands war, Harry wasn’t the kind of guy who was comfortable with girl-talk. He didn’t tend to wear his heart on his sleeve and he didn’t need compliments or chat sessions.

But he says, he realised that: “I had neglected my wife. In that moment a switch flicked and I realised I had to make my marriage work.”

Sticking the post-it note on his computer was the first of the seismic changes he implemented in the way he interacted with his wife.

“That small mental shift had a huge effect on our marriage and gave us a chance.”

There were ups and downs in the years that followed, but he stuck to his guns, spending time with his wife, giving her compliments and in advance of birthdays and other special occasions, remembering to ask her advice on what she’d like for a present: “Before that, I used to panic. Presents were always difficult. I dreaded Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Also now, asking her showed her I was thinking ahead of time.”

“I learned that if I wanted my marriage to work, I had to hang out with Kate and chat to her and if I didn’t do that, it was very easy to slip into a bad pattern — it was all part of noticing my wife and prioritising my marriage.”

When he and his family returned to England, Harry earned a degree in psychology and spent 10 years running the relationships charity he later founded.

During this time he counselled couples of all kinds on establishing and maintaining strong healthy marriages before leaving to work as research director with the Marriage Foundation, which he co-founded with former High Court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge.

“I began to realise that the key change that happens to all couples is when they have children. The women automatically become child-oriented. Someone has to look after the relationship.”

Husbands need to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the state of their marriage, he believes.

“A number of studies show that a happy mum tends to have happy children and a happy husband,” he says.

“Happy Wife, Happy Life is for real. But oddly enough, when a husband is happy it doesn’t necessarily percolate outwards,” he observes.

Kindness was one of the things missing from Benson’s marriage all those years ago, and it is one of the things, which, according to his own research, that wives value most in a partnership - above even financial security or sex. 

But will men listen?

“Men will listen to this. The men come back to me and say it’s unfair, but I say that all I can tell you is that if you love your wife, if you are kind to her, have interest in her, notice her and be a friend to her, she will love you right back.

“You will not be in trouble. You will get all the freedom you want and all the love you want and what more can a man want?”

What Mums Want (and Dads Need to Know), by Harry and Kate Benson, published by Lion Hudson in paperback (£8,99)

MAKING IT WORK

1. Men should understand, says Harry Benson, “that the only real difference between men and women is that women have babies and men don’t.” 

The experience of having a child tends to make mums child-centred and child-focused, he says, which in turn means that someone else — the male partner — has to look after the relationship. Step up to the plate, guys. 

2. What mums really, really want is friendship, kindness and interest from their male partner. If men accepted this, Benson believes, it could revolutionise family life and there would be far less family breakdown. 

3. Manners, courtesy and sheer old-fashioned niceness are crucial to a healthy relationship, says Tony Moore. Say please and don’t forget to say thank you, he advises. 

4. Appreciate the fact that someone loves you.

“People think everyone finds someone, so ‘why should I be so grateful?’ But that’s not the case, Moore explains.

“If you find someone who loves you warts and all, you should appreciate how valuable that is.”

Don’t take it for granted with perfunctory kisses he warns: “If a person is kind and gentle and kisses us in a lovely way, we feel much closer to that person. That’s fundamental to relationships and marriage.”

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