Harry Benson: 'Our children all but drove us apart'

Think babies bring you closer? Think again, says a father of six. Starting a family pushed his marriage to the brink – but it ultimately taught him important lessons about how to stay together

Interview,Nick Harding
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:21

On a bright summer day in 1986 I married my wife, Kate. I was a young Navy pilot, a veteran of the Falklands War, about to set out for Asia on a new career in finance. The first years of our marriage were full of excitement, fun and new experiences. The business was a success; we travelled widely and had two children.

Anyone looking in from the outside would have seen something close to ideal; a relaxed ex-pat lifestyle, success, wealth and healthy, happy children.

So when, after eight years of marriage, Kate told me how unhappy she was and stated that unless things changed we were heading for divorce, it was a bolt from the blue. When she explained that despite the good aspects of our marriage she felt we were no longer friends, I had no idea what she meant. Because of course, while on the surface our relationship appeared incredibly privileged and stable, inside, thanks to the way I related to my wife, the marriage was a mess.

It took a course of counselling to make me realise how my upbringing, my father's absence from the age of three and my years as a child in boarding school, had left me emotionally shut off. I had to learn from an early age to get by without loved ones around and that it was better not to feel, to be closed. This had carried through to my adult life and consequently, in terms of my relationship with Kate, it had developed into bad habits.

The catalyst for the crisis point in our marriage was the birth of our first children. Prior to this the relationship had been about excitement and fun, and that had covered up the underlying problems.

The seeds of our difficulties had always been there and as soon as we became parents they were given the freedom to grow as we dropped into the classic mother and father roles. Kate was the primary carer and I became preoccupied with being the breadwinner. I lost the ability to empathise with her. I did my thing and she did hers. Although I got involved with the children, I was never really able to step into Kate's shoes and see things from her perspective. We would end up having what to my mind were inexplicable arguments. I could not understand what caused them. It left Kate frustrated and left me confused. We were drifting apart.

Of course children do not always herald these kinds of problems; in fact in most cases they strengthen relationships, particularly marriages. But when parents are exhausted and preoccupied with work or childcare, vulnerabilities are often exposed.

In my case I made a fundamental decision to change the way I was as a husband and partner, to shift my attitude. I realised it was not enough to want to make the marriage work for the children; I needed to want it to work for Kate and for us. Consequently we went on a marriage course and it revolutionised our relationship. We learnt practical skills that helped us both and it made me realise that it is possible to learn methods that allow you to have a great marriage.

It became obvious to me that there were and still are so many Harrys and Kates out there; couples who could benefit from the simple knowledge and skills we were taught. People who, with a small change in the way they conducted their relationships, need not get in to the kind of mess that we had got into. It became a vocational calling for me and, at the age of 37 I sold my share of the company I owned in Bangkok and moved back to the UK with Kate and our growing family to start a degree in psychology at Bristol University.

Today I run the Bristol Community Family Trust, a charity which has effectively become the most successful relationship project in the country. Since founding it in 2002, we have run more than 450 marriage, relationship and mentoring courses in Bristol, currently helping around 1,100 people a year. I have undertaken groundbreaking research studies on family breakdown and acted as deputy chairman of a group submitting family policy proposals for the Centre for Social Justice. Our flagship relationship course for new parents is called Let's Stick Together, and is now reaching 30 per cent of all new mothers in Bristol through health visitors, post-natal clinics and Surestart children's centres. I have written a book based on the course and it is my hope that as more people realise the value of making a few simple and easy adjustments to their relationships, the course will be rolled out nationally as part of standard post-natal care.

In essence the course applies what I have seen and read in research to the practical side of helping couples stay together. It is not about forcing couples to stay together. It is about taking the best quality research and interpreting those findings in a way that gives couples workable tools to help them make their relationships work.

Modern relationship research has moved away from a focus on specific issues, like sex or money for instance, and increasingly looks at patterns of behaviour in the way couples interact. It looks at relationship success and failure in terms of good and bad habits. Studies have found that having more good habits, like understanding what type of actions your partner responds to, and fewer bad habits, like putting your partner down, is more important in making a relationship successful than compatibility.

Ultimately, these behaviours reflect the underlying attitudes we have to each other, how we handle our differences, much more than how much we have in common. As part of my work I have looked at the findings of two American research groups who have found fairly similar bad behaviour patterns that adversely affect relationships. I call them STOP signs.

The utter exhaustion of new parenthood means that we don't always react to one another as best friends should. Bad habits can develop and become entrenched over time and start to undermine even the best of relationships. Four particular bad habits tend to distinguish those who do not do so well during the early years of parenthood. These habits are scoring points, returning a perceived criticism or niggle with our own criticism; thinking the worst, assuming an underlying negative in a partner's action; opting out, disengaging from a discussion or argument; and finally putting down. By recognising we are doing these things in a relationship, as if we see a big STOP sign, and taking simple steps to remedy them like apologising when we try to score points, we change patterns of behaviour.

As well as nipping our bad habits in the bud, it's also important to build up our good habits, to get on well together, have fun and friendship and treat each other positively. Relationships have a better chance of success when we understand that we respond to love in different ways. Psychologist Gary Chapman theorises there are five main ways to express love; he calls them love languages. They are time, words, actions, gifts and touch. If we can adopt the good habit of understanding which love language our partner responds to best, our relationship has a better chance of success. The problems arise when we assume our spouse or partner responds to love in the same way we do.

Love languages and STOP signs are ideas everyone can relate to. Despite what some counsellors or psychoanalysts will tell you, the basics of a successful marriage are not difficult to grasp. It is not rocket science, it is straightforward. Little changes make a big difference. It only takes one person to change in a relationship for the simple reason that people react to the way you treat them. Treat them well and they will treat you well in return. Mistreat them and they will mistreat you. It only takes one person to start the process.

For new parents, with the excitement and exhaustion of early parenthood, the first thing that can get overlooked is the relationship with your partner. You get tired and drift apart and forget why you started the relationship in the first place. It's at this time in a relationship that the simple methods I use can be most effective.

Next month Kate and I will have been married for 24 years. We now have six children aged seven to 19. If we hadn't sorted out our problems, if I hadn't made an attitude shift and if I hadn't been on a course and learned how to identify where I was going wrong and address the issues I had, we would have been separated. Our two oldest children would have grown up with their mother and father living apart and our next four children wouldn't even exist, which is unthinkable. People ask why I do what I do. I care like mad that so many couples get into a mess unnecessarily. Half of the children born today are going to experience family breakdown unless we do something differently. Thankfully, in most cases, family breakdown is utterly avoidable.

Let's Stick Together by Harry Benson is published by Lion, £6.99

Spot the danger signs

'Stop' signs

All of us will recognise one or more of these bad marital habits. We never get rid of them completely. They usually occur when we are most tired or stressed. The trick is to notice them and stop doing them.

S – Scoring points

Your partner raises a concern or criticism. You feel under attack and return fire.

Harry advises: the gentlest, most sensible route is to apologise.

T – Thinking the worst

The assumption that behind a partner's harmless deed or omission lies a dark intent to get at you, gain some advantage or to do you down.

Harry advises: face your fears and check the reality. Ask your partner if everything is OK or if something is troubling them.

O – Opting out

The habit of avoiding conflict and disengaging from conversations.

Harry advises: keep talking, hang in there and if it really is the wrong time to talk, ask for time out.

P – Putting down

Expressing words or actions that are taken to be dismissive, critical, contemptuous or belittling.

Harry advises: be aware of your own attitude and how that may be interpreted.

The language of love

There are many ways to show love for our partners, and words are only part of the story. Here are five of the main ways in which we can express affection:

Time – if you love someone, then you enjoy spending time with them above all else. This does not have to mean special activities or intimacy – just the act of being together is enough.

Words – we need to be continually conversing with our partners. Communication is important and makes each of you feel connected and valued.

Actions – doing something for your partner, such as a household chore or cooking a meal, shows love and caring.

Gifts – use material gestures, not just an expensive gift but a note or something to confirm you are thinking about your partner.

Touch – more than anything, physical contact conveys love and affection, be it a hug or a hand being held.

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