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Happy families: what’s the secret?

How many parents really understand what their children want and what they need?

Perhaps it was my reaction to the McCartney divorce that prompted me to take some time out for a week’s vacation with my son. At the request of a journalist, I had been considering what Beatrice McCartney’s feelings may be if, when she reaches an age to understand, a kind “friend” shows her a copy of Mr. Justice Bennett’s gruesome judgment of her mother. At the very least, it could cause her a lot of pain. And how will her psychological development be affected by such turbulence within her family?

People talk a lot about the impact of divorce on children. Even so, when I listen to some of them, I have the feeling it is only lip service. How many parents really listen to their children, to try and understand what they want and what they need?

I am not divorced myself, but I do have a child. On an impulse, I decided to whisk my son away to the heat of the desert in Eilat, Israel for a week. I hoped to find out how he was faring in his student world. He has certainly been working very hard. As it turned out, he wasn’t the only one with plenty on his mind.

It certainly appears that university life is as stress-filled as I remember it. Thousands of students, my son included, are currently waking up to the inescapable fact that exams are only a few weeks away. Like my boy, they are fending for themselves in rundown student houses that could do with some deep cleaning. They have to do their own shopping, washing, cooking and ironing, manage their own budgets and pass their exams. They also have to manage their relationships with others. Like many at university, my son has a girlfriend – whom he adores.

For much of the week my son and I lived in different time zones, even though we were staying in adjoining rooms! Every day I got up very early, so that I could go for a run before the heat made it impossible. I loved the desert, the mountains and the sea. I loved the wind, blowing in off the sea.  I got to wave to people running along, trying to cope with temperatures in excess of 30°C. I enjoyed fantastic Israeli dairy and fruit-filled breakfasts, and went to cycling classes run by a muscular Russian woman, whose favourite phrase was “Sprint!” I walked all over the place in the afternoons and felt wonderfully, physically fit.

My son’s girlfriend was in the USA, and he talked to her on his computer long into the night. So he never got up before noon, and spent most of his afternoons studying in his room. In the evenings we met up for dinner, and chatted over some wine and good food.

As I discovered, he had a lot of questions. What makes a successful relationship, he wanted to know? How do you know that a relationship is going to work out? If a relationship feels good, how do you know it will feel good always? What’s the secret?

I don’t know if there is one, “catch all” reply, but I gave his questions a lot of thought. As I was running along one morning, grateful that the wind had dropped and that the sun had only just begun to show over the horizon in adjoining Aqaba Jordan, the answer came to me out of the blue. I wonder if my thinking is right?

I think that a relationship works when both partners want and do more for one another, than they want and do for themselves. By this I mean that a relationship will work if both parties are able to put the good of one another before their own good.

It doesn’t mean that their relationship will be perfect. Sometimes, through sheer boredom and becoming accustomed to one another, it may just be about going through the sameness of the motions of giving – and often is. But giving something positive to one another, and continuing to put giving first and one another first, means that a relationship can last.

If this stops being consensual, if a couple stops doing this for each other – or even if just one of them stops – the relationship will falter and grind to a halt.

I decided to apply this test to people I know, some of them married for many years and others who are clients, either getting divorced or thinking about it. And it seems to work.

Am I right? I’d love to know what you think.

Now we have returned to England. I have returned to my partner, and my son has returned to his. What is more, he has given me something to think hard about and to advise my clients. Despite our different time zones, we had a great week!

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Judith Middleton says:

    You have written a really beautiful piece here Marilyn, making marriage sound so noble and altruistic. Sadly I guess Outdoor Man and I are the exception that prove the rule. Two selfish individuals who have got along just fine for over twenty years and I can only put that down to the ideals that we share for which see my entry called Like Minds at

  2. Miss Love says:

    There are a million different reasons why relationsips don’t work out, but a long time ago, I asked a similar question to the husband of couple that I respected very much and who had been married for almost 40 years. I asked him why he thought his marraige had been so happy and successful when so many others had failed. He thought about it for a while, laughed and said, “Well, I’ve worked away a lot over the years, and so I hardly ever saw my wife.”

    At the time, I thought it was very cruel, and it didn’t tie in with the fact that he was obviously devoted to his wife. But as time passed and as I found myself leading a very isolated life with my own husband, it began to make sense to me: This couple respected each other, lead relatively independant lives and valued the time that they spent together.

    I think it’s too easy to take each other for granted, and that can lead to relationships going down the pan.

  3. 22,000 ‘thank-yous’! says:

    […] a different note, the blog has also given me the opportunity to write a little bit about my life which I hope helps to humanise both the blog and […]

  4. Accepting and celebrating your life choices says:

    […] many people I’ve taken advantage of the Easter break to take a much-needed holiday. Unlike previous years, my time in Eilat – a stunning Israeli resort town on the banks of the Red Sea – was spent relaxing […]

  5. Grace says:

    Marilyn, I think you have hit the nail on the head!

    If a couple nurture and care for each other as you describe; if they help each other to become all they can be, they can be fulfilled as well as happy. It is not just a question of staying together, having a “happy enough” life. It’s about keeping the spark and the juice in the marriage.

    Everyday my husband and I take five minutes in the morning to do a Daily Temperature Reading during which we exchange appreciations, new information, puzzles, requests and wishes and hopes for the day. The results far outweigh the time it takes. I think couples often become disconnected, espescially after they become parents. It is important that they find ways such as the DTR to re-establish connection.

    Thanks again. It’s a great blog:)

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