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Marriage and the ten-year fix

26 April 2013

If couples can stay married for the first ten years, they have a good chance of staying together for ever. To help make this happen, Harry Benson has designed a course, and written a book. He talked to Rebecca Paveley


MARRIAGE is now - perhaps more than ever before - a political issue. It has even gained a new prefix, "traditional", to describe a marital relationship between a man and a woman. But Harry Benson, the communications director of the think tank the Marriage Foundation, and founder of a course to help couples to stay together, has managed to sidestep the politics.

Remarkably - even though the Foundation was set up by the High Court Judge Sir Paul Cole-ridge to educate people on the benefits of marriage - it has avoided being embroiled in the political debate about same-sex marriage. Mr Benson prefers, instead, to talk about "successful relationships".

And talking about relationships is how he makes his living - first, with his course, which is now being rolled out around the country by the Christian charity Care for the Family; and now with the new edition of his book Let's Stick Together.

He did not start with the idea of counselling (although he did complete a certificate, and a psychology degree). Rather, his zeal to help other couples was born out of personal experience: the rocky path of his own marriage.

He and his wife, Kate, married young, when he was a pilot in the Royal Navy, and Kate, at just 19 years old, was in cookery school. They seemed, to friends and family, to lead a charmed life. He was posted to Hong Kong, then left the Navy, and forged a successful career as a stockbroker. Two children were born. But underneath the glossy veneer of their relationship, they had drifted apart.

His own background - divorced parents, and boarding school at seven - meant that he was emotionally closed, and not disposed to intimacy.

MR BENSON says that he knew nothing of the true state of his marriage until, after eight years, his wife took him to task. "Kate confronted me one day, and said that I was not the friend she needed; and if I didn't get it together, then it was over.

"I realised I had to do something urgently - mostly, I admit, because I was terrified of losing the children. I went to counselling. I was very closed and independent, and I didn't understand what Kate was feeling. I had a joint session with Kate, and she said our marriage was still a mess, and burst into tears, and went home.

"When I got home, she'd written me a 'job spec.' of what it meant to be Harry's wife. There were some nice things in there, some fringe benefits, but she said we weren't friends, and she finished with 'Who cares?' It was the 'Who cares?' that really got to me. I went and found her, and got down on my knees and promised to change."

The couple have been disarmingly frank about their problems. Kate admitted to feeling tempted by another man, and Harry owned up to his inadequacies as a husband and father. In fact, frequently in Let's Stick Together, he seems to take on himself all the blame for their relationship problems.

He urges couples to confront their own failings, and stop worrying about whether their partner will do the same. It is about realising that "the buck stops with me," he says.

This approach has been popular with new mothers in the Bristol area, where his course has been running. About 5000 have completed it - most of them first-time mothers. The session lasts one hour. "I'm not saying one hour on a course is going to change the world, but it's a start," he says. "It's not rocket science. You don't need to be a counsellor to run the course - in fact, it's much better if you're not."

MUCH of the advice it dispenses can be easily digested in an hour, even by exhausted mothers. It is the kind of relationship advice, he says, that once might have been available through extended families, but has now been forgotten: don't put each other down; make time for each other; don't think the worst of your partner; don't refuse to talk about the problem.

The tips may seem obvious, but, when they are spelled out to couples, they can make a huge difference, he says. Measuring their impact in hard statistics, however, is obviously difficult. The course seeks to prevent problems' arising in the first place rather than solve them later on. "If we'd been on such a course, I'm certain we'd never have got into the mess we did in the first place," he says.

The approach has certainly worked for his marriage. The Bensons went on to have six children, and have now been married for 26 years.

The Let's Stick Together course is aimed at new mothers because research has shown that it is in the early years of parenthood that relationships are most likely to fail. Mr Benson's recent report for the Marriage Foundation suggests that couples who get through the first ten years of marriage have the same chance of staying together as did their grandparents' generation.

He studied divorce patterns since the '60s, and found that the seven-year itch was a myth: marriages were most likely to fail in three to six years. Using an analysis of official divorce figures for England and Wales, he found that a couple getting married today would have a 20-per-cent chance of divorcing in the first ten years of marriage. After that, the risk would fall dramatically: to about 13 per cent in the second decade, six per cent in the subsequent ten years, and only two per cent after that.

HIS report also suggests that, despite the widely held belief - and government rhetoric - about family breakdown, divorce has declined over the past few years.

Where families do break down, it is more likely to be where the parents are in a cohabiting relationship rather than married. "The current rates of family breakdown show that 45 per cent of all 16- year-olds have seen the breakdown of their parents' relationships," he says.

"Among the 55 per cent who are living with both parents, 97 per cent of those parents are [still] married. Marriage is unquestionably the best means of making a relationship work for the long term."

And the first ten years are especially critical. "The first ten years is when all the potential for change exists," he told The Daily Telegraph. "If we could help people to decide how to form stable relationships, divorce rates could plummet."

Fluent when talking on his subject, he is less eloquent when talking about his faith, although his conversion to Christianity informed his dramatic career-change from finance to helping couples to weather their relationship problems.

A self-declared atheist, he became a Christian in Hong Kong. Kate had been a "churchgoing Anglican" before, but it was out there that her faith was transformed, he says.

The couple got to know a missionary working with drug addicts in Hong Kong, Jackie Pullinger. It was after this, Mr Benson says, that "a series of bizarre things happened to me, and I got well and truly walloped, and became a Christian."

Neither the course nor the book mentions his faith. The course - which at one point won govern-ment funding - is open to all parents, gay or straight, although just one lesbian mother attended among the 5000 who came. "The charity's doors are wide open," he says.

Yet his position at the Marriage Foundation is as a "salesman for marriage". And the Foundation's interpretation of marriage is, by and large, the traditional one, although its aims and mission carefully say nothing about sexuality. Its founder, Sir Paul Coleridge, has criticised the Government's same-sex-marriage policy, saying that it is a "minority issue", and that effort should be put into supporting marriage.

The foundation believes that the biggest threat to successful relationships, and marriage, is not same-sex marriage, but cohabitation.

"I despair of government - all governments - in recent years," Mr Benson says. "The key to family breakdown is the trend away from marriage. The whole debate about cohabitation has to happen, but people do not want to have it.

"When birth control came in, in the 1960s, it broke the link between marriage and childbearing. We have to get to grips with the whole birth-control issue. It led to cohabitation, which is fine for most couples, but when couples move in together, things become a whole lot harder when things aren't working.

"If you are courting, you have time to see if things are working, but cohabitation is trapping people into relationships, and some go on to have fragile marriages, and have children . . . and for some couples, a baby is a constraint too far. These couples have never really made a decision about their future: the inertia of living together runs on before they have committed fully to one another."

It is a language that few others are using today when discussing relationships, but Mr Benson's views are grounded in the thousands of hours that he has spent discussing and coaching couples in the best way to strengthen their relationship.

He is now stepping back from his hands-on position with the course. He will stay at the Marriage Foundation, but now that his course has been taken over by Care for the Family, he will no longer run sessions himself.

He has moved his family out of Bristol to the Somerset countryside. He still intends to write and advise on relationships; he is currently writing a book with his eldest daughter on father-daughter relationships. He will continue to focus on marriage, too: not just his own, but also his children's.

Summing up his mission, he quotes Jeremiah 29 and God's instruction to the exiles: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, so that they, too, may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease."

Let's Stick Together: The relationship book for new parents by Harry Benson is published by Lion Hudson at £6.99 (Church Times Bookshop £6.30); 978-0-74-595399-1.

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