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Harry Benson’s marriage lines: The STOP signs that spell doom for this couple


Embarrassing details about the marriage of Hugh and Tini Owens have been splashed all over the news.

After many years of marriage, Mrs Owens wants a divorce, citing the unreasonable behaviour of her husband as the required ‘fact’. However three levels of courts, including most recently the Supreme Court, have decreed that her evidence does not demonstrate unreasonable behaviour and so she must wait the required five years for a contested but no-fault divorce.

It has always seemed absurd to me that one person in a marriage can pin 100 per cent of the fault on the other. Alas, nobody but the couple themselves see what really goes on behind the curtains. Yet the law requires one spouse to take all the blame if they want their marriage to end within two years if uncontested and five years if contested.

There are two people in a marriage. And nobody is perfect. So I simply don’t believe that one spouse can ever be wholly 100 per cent innocent. I can buy 95:5. But never 100:0.

Nonetheless the harsh reality here is that if you’re going to have a law that requires ‘unreasonable behaviour’, then some behaviours must necessarily fall short of that bar. That’s what seems to have happened in this case.

Yes, it doesn’t look good and yes, I support the case for divorce reform, in particular the removal of need for fault or blame and a sensible speeding up of the process.

However forget the legal stuff. What’s really interesting here is the detail supplied by the newspapers that does give us a rare look behind the curtains of this particular marriage.

Here’s my take on why it probably went wrong. And it can be summarised by my four STOP signs:

· S=Scoring Points

· T=Thinking the worst

· O=Opting out

· P=Putting down

There’s a good deal of research that shows how these four behaviours are good warning signs that something is going wrong.

Mrs Owens kept a diary of the 27 times she claimed her husband behaved unreasonably to her. They are riddled with STOP signs. For example:

While on the way home from holiday, they argued over what present to buy their housekeeper. He suggested one thing but she bought another. He then supposedly berated her, saying: ‘Why did you not listen to me? Why did you not buy what I told you?’ This petty argument went on as they boarded the plane, making Mrs Owens feel embarrassed. Mr Owens disputes that he mistreated her. Nevertheless, this is a clear example of a Put down, where the implication is that one person thinks the other is foolish or ridiculous or generally lower down the pecking order of life. Not nice and not a great way to run a relationship. Whether Mr Owens intended it or not, it’s how it comes across. And his wife clearly felt Put down.

On another occasion, Mrs Owens suggested the couple eat at a pub one night as she had to prepare for a party the next day. Mr Owens agreed but only reluctantly, holding his head in his hands through the subsequent embarrassingly conversation-free dinner.

Withdrawing in this way is a clear example of Opting out. Mr Owens may have merely been trying to avoid conflict but the impression he would have given is that he was ignoring her and didn’t care about her. That’s Opting out, a STOP sign that is slightly more common among men but not exclusively so.

However, there is pretty decent evidence that Mrs Owens – like every other imperfect person I’ve ever come across – also uses her own STOP signs:

In a restaurant, she turned away to talk to a waiter during a discussion with her husband and a friend. When she turned back and tried to regain the place in the conversation, her husband berated her for ‘missing out by talking to the waiter’, a definite Put down. Yet her complaint about feeling embarrassed in front of her friend could easily be interpreted as Thinking the worst. Her husband sounds clumsy and unthinking with his words. But he could still love her and still have a point. She could have apologised and laughed it off. And although it’s easy to sympathise that she may have had years of this kind of minor mistreatment, these things could have built up into an underlying assumption that he was out to get her in all that he said and did. That’s extremely unlikely to be the case but it could easily seem that way to her. Thinking the worst usually reflects personal history. But we also have a responsibility to talk about this stuff and deal with it differently.

And of course her very list of his alleged 27 misdemeanours is a sign of Scoring points. You did this. Don’t look at me. It’s all your fault.

In the end, this marriage sounds doomed. Even if he seems determined not to end it, she has hardened her heart too far to make the marriage work. So I sympathise with her plight.

Where do STOP signs come from?

As my wife Kate and I wrote in our book What Mums Want and Dads Need to Know, there’s a wealth of evidence that our bad habits become established in the early years of parenthood.

What distinguishes men and women is that women have nine months of pregnancy during which their focus, automatically and inevitably, switches from spouse to child. In response, it’s all too easy for a new dad to submit to the new mum’s apparent expertise and take a back seat in decision-making. This is a subtle process that is in no way malevolent. It just happens.

Very gradually, as mum focuses on the child and dad focuses on work, neither looks after their relationship which becomes less about fun and intimacy and more about the function of parenting.

As they grow apart, the neglected wife micromanages. Do this please. Do that please. Eventually it begins to grate on both parents. This is a big clue that all men need to notice and act upon.

The solution, as Kate and I found in our own back-from-the-brink experience as new parents, is for the husband to take responsibility for the relationship.

Happy wife means happy life. And as we discovered in our survey of 300 mums, what mums really want above all else is friendship, interest and kindness.

That’s what Mrs Owens didn’t get from Mr Owens. My guess is that this had been brewing for years. If we husbands don’t treat our wives with kindness and interest, then we lose our friendship and all we will see are these little STOP signs.

Is that you? Don’t blame. Talk about it. Talk to wise friends. And husbands, love your wives. When you do that, they will love you right back! Why ever would they not?!

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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