Do people give up on marriage too easily?


Two recent articles from The Conservative Woman website have caught my interest: the first, by Kathy Gyngell, rightly takes High Court judge, Sir James Munby, to task for his remarks on modern families that seem to suggest willful ignorance of the misery of family breakdown from a child’s perspective. The second, by Harry Benson, challenges our Prime Minister to reverse the current fiscal situation in this country (in contrast to, say, Hungary which has generous family-friendly policies) in which it is economically and financially advantageous to cohabit rather than to marry.

I have just read Harry Benson’s recent book, co-authored with his wife Kate: What Mums Want (and Dads Need to Know) published by Lion Books. It is an unabashedly vigorous defence of marriage, full of sensible advice on how to make this relationship, so crucial to family and children’s stability, actually work. The authors, parents of six children, are frank about their own early marital problems and how they set out to solve them.

The answer seems deceptively simple: through friendship, consideration and forgiveness. If husbands are considerate, their wives are happier, the children are happier and the family is happier – simply because it is mothers who create the home and family life.

Benson points out that most divorces are instigated by “low conflict” couples; in other words, by couples who seem to their children to be getting on reasonably well, so that their decision to split up comes as a huge shock and seems to make no sense.

The Bensons are confident that such marriages can be healed and help to work. As they point out, staying together “for the sake of the children”, which seems to flout all modern norms of personal happiness and self-realisation, does not mean permanent misery: people change during their marriage; unhappy couples who work at their problems often report a complete change in their outlook five years later and so on.

The book does not discuss marriage from a Christian perspective but from a workable human one. The sacrificial nature of marriage is not reflected upon. Mention of their local vicar implies the Bensons are C of E. As they write exclusively about heterosexual married couples, it is reasonable to infer that their advice is not for same-sex married couples – especially as they talk about the complementary nature of men and women and how and why they differ in their responses and needs in a married relationship.

They describe several examples of couples on the brink of separation or divorce who retrieve their relationship – but only one mention of how a wife, about to leave her husband, went to her father’s funeral and “experienced a profound and unexpected deepening of her nominal Christian faith. It caused her to re-evaluate every aspect of her life, including her marriage.”

Interestingly, the Bensons’ research shows that individual counselling does not help couples to stay together; marriage weekends for both husband and wife, as well as the support of wise friends who don’t take sides, are much more successful in helping couples overcome their problems. These might seem intractable at the time; but as St John of the Cross wrote (not quoted by the authors but a favourite saying of mine): “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.”