Why your spouse should always come first.
The experts are clear that if you prioritize your children over your marriage, you are hurting the children and the marriage.
Well-known researchers John and Julie Gottmann suggest picturing your marriage as the cradle that holds your child’s heart. If there is turbulence or instability in that cradle it disturbs your child’s heart. Keeping the cradle strong and peaceful ensures your child’s long-term wellbeing.
As a child of divorce, I can attest to the impact of the loss of an intact family. Memories and ripples of a family fracture never go away. Conversely, a strong marriage protects your child’s heart during his or her development into adulthood and prepares him or her for stable future relationships.
There is some controversy about whether your marriage or your children should come first.
Let’s be clear: Children’s basic needs must come first. No one is advocating neglecting children’s physical or emotional health. That being said, the marriage should take priority over the children. Most of us go way overboard after meeting the basic needs for our children, but the truth is — children can thrive without scouts or dance lessons three times a week, but they can’t thrive when their family is on shaky ground.
What’s wrong with a child-centered marriage? It doesn’t sound so bad. All parents want to give their children a better childhood than their own. Particularly for parents who had less-than-perfect childhoods, it' tempting to focus on nothing but your beautiful child’s development and future. But kids need a stable home first.
Tension at home can lead to anxiety, depression and aggression in children.
David Code, author of How To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First says one of the biggest parenting myths is believing that the more attention we give our kids, the better they will turn out. The truth, he says, is that over-parenting has created a generation of kids who are more troubled, entitled and needy.
Just as we can spoil a child with material goods, we can coddle our children with too much attention, stifling their ability to make decisions and learn from mistakes. One reason we focus too much on the children is that we often find it easier spending time with our kids than with our partners. "We don’t realize we’re using our kids as an escape from our spouses," says Code.
Keeping our focus on our kids also provides a poor role model for how satisfying relationships work.
Perhaps you feel you can give your children and your spouse your all, and neither will suffer. But as children grow, responsibilities for them only increase. I have two school-aged children and I love them love dearly. They would happily take every second of my day if I offered it to them. In fact, the more time I spend with them the more time they tend to want. Spending time with them, plus their school work and extracurricular activities can quickly eat up any spare moments.
There’s also the daily balance of work, preparing meals and cleaning. While kids are clamoring for our attention, our spouses generally don’t complain about lack of time. They are equally busy with work, helping with the kids and home care. However, over time this focus on everything except one another causes drifting and disconnect in marriage. The drifting occurs so slowly that we aren’t even aware it is happening.
Here are six loving ways parents can prioritize marriage and prevent marital disconnect:
1. Identify and express your needs to one another (kindly)
This requires strong communication skills. It does no good to accuse your spouse of prioritizing the children over you, particularly if you are not helping with their daily care. However, most spouses respond well to comments made in love such as, "I miss spending time with you." Or, "I miss the talks we used to have." Expressing one’s feelings using "I" language is much better than accusatory language using "you" as in, "You never put my needs first." Keeping your feelings and needs from your spouse only increases your distance.
2. Find time each day to reconnect and communicate about non-child matters
My husband and I have recently begun taking 15 minutes after dinner to talk together in our sun room. We ask the children to play or read on their own for that short amount of time. (The youngest is still learning to not interrupt us. The oldest finds it helpful to set a timer.) Find a time in your day that works for you. It’s amazing how a short time each day can help you feel reconnected. Light conversation about your day is ideal. Complaining or criticizing during this sacred time will only discourage your spouse from wanting to spend time together. I got this idea from William Doherty’s Take Back Your Marriage, which has other helpful tips about putting your marriage first.
3. Get creative about time you spend together
Many of us have difficulty scheduling traditional date nights due to lack of childcare of time. (I’m in this camp, too.) If you have time for things like TV, reading, shopping, home projects, hobbies or sports, then you have time to invest in your marriage. My husband and I have minimized the amount of TV we watch. When we have a favorite show, we watch together, making an event of it.
When we need childcare, we often swap with a close friend or family member who also needs childcare. Sometimes, we send the kids to bed a bit early so we can have a glass of wine, sit by the fire, watch a movie or hang out. When the kids are in school, we try to have lunch dates instead of dinner dates so childcare is not required.
4. Meet each other’s needs outside the marriage
Exercise or time spent individually with friends can also benefit the family. Don’t expect your spouse to meet all your needs. Help cover one another at home so these rejuvenating activities can take place.
5. Treat each other like husband and wife (not mom and dad)
This includes touching and showing affection during the day, and making time for intimacy—sexual, emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy. Remember, you can hire cleaning help, you can send the ironing out, you can order a pizza for dinner, and you can even hire a babysitter. But there is no one else who you want to meet your spouse’s intimate needs.
6. Make decisions together
We allow our kids to choose one sport per season, in addition to piano lessons. We would veto certain sports if they required too much time. During summer, we curtail most of their regular activities. If your lives revolve around sporting events, it's time to scale back. Free time to enjoy being a family is so important to bonding. We often escape to a lake cottage where TV and computers are absent and board and water games are plentiful. This change in routine helps us de-stress and learn how to have fun again. But this time is only possible when we limit our other commitments.
Children require a substantial investment of our time, attention and resources, but, in return, fill our lives with joy that can’t be measured. However, parents must not lose their relationship in the midst of the overwhelming nature of parenting.
Spouses must tend their marriage with intention so the whole family can thrive.
After nearly 15 years of marriage, I’m still learning this. Small improvements in your family can make a big difference. Don’t feel guilty when you are taking time for your marriage. Remind yourself that you are benefiting your children as well. The alternative is to do nothing and continue the almost imperceptible drift apart.
Many marriages follow a U-shaped curve, where satisfaction dips after children enter the family, but climb again when the children leave. Some marriages don’t make it across the long bridge of child rearing. With intention, you can maintain satisfaction in your marriage even during the active parenting years and can reach even higher peaks after experiencing the rewards of raising children and spending decades together.
Lori Lowe writes a newspaper column and a blog called Marriage Gems, offering research-based marriage tips. She is writing a narrative nonfiction book profiling couples who have used adversity to improve their marriages.