“Well, the children have always come first” is a remark that echoes in the offices of too many marriage therapists. Imagine if their wedding vows had been, “I, John, take you, Jane, to be my beloved wife. I promise to stand by idly, but with deep emotional pain while you shower all of your attention onto our children, while making me just an afterthought.” The bride saying, “I, Jane, take you, John, to be my beloved husband. With the birth of our first child, I promise to make you feel insignificant and disrespected. When our second child is born, I will make sure you feel unloved, lonely, and unappreciated. As our family grows, I will become defensive whenever you try to express your feelings of hurt and jealousy.” Their wedding guests looking on in utter shock “perhaps” would have forgone the traditional showering of rice or bubbles, and instead doused the ill-advised couple with Holy Water while directing the limo straight to a marriage boot camp.
Most couples do not set out with the intention of putting their marriage in harm’s way. Just like the couple in the following true story where only the names have been changed. It was a slippery slope that damaged Cindy’s relationship due to the emotional scars from childhood neglect she brought into her marital union. She was determined to be the opposite of her mother and was especially proud of the family calendar where she color-coded each of her four children’s activities. But after twenty-two years the children flew the nest and Cindy was left to forlornly stare at the now blank calendar. She was overwhelmed by feelings of loss and emptiness as she struggled to find a sense of self. On top of everything else, she realized that she hardly remembered who her husband was to her outside of his fatherly duties. As she began to find her equilibrium she mentioned to her husband, Bob, how much she missed the full calendar. His response rocked her to her core, “I never made it onto your calendar.” Cindy was fortunate that her marriage could be healed because her husband was willing to forgive her, and work together to rebuild their relationship.
This article could have been easily titled “How to Damage Your Marriage in One Easy Step” or “Countless Ways to Hurt Your Spouse While Overindulging Your Children.” A couple of generations ago it would have been inconceivable to put children ahead of a spouse. So, why have so many modern parents gotten this backward by instituting child-centered marriages? In my private practice some of the reasons range from a lack of marriage exemplars, emotional baggage from childhood, mistakenly believing that as an adult their spouse should meet their own needs, and subpar pre-Cana instruction. The salient reason is “hyper-parenting” which reinforces the idea that the kids are running the show where the main purpose is to meet their every whim.
Your marriage is your children’s curriculum, and they should not be in competition with your beloved for your attention. On the surface what appears to be a ‘win’ for the children is actually a loss because a marriage where children reign supreme will lack depth. They not only lose the opportunity to witness a healthy marriage but have to bear witness to a weak domestic church. Will their ‘inheritance’ from you be emotional baggage filled with heartache, pain, and confusion that they carry into their own marriage someday, continuing the damaging cycle? Or will you prioritize your marriage so they can benefit from witnessing your mutual love as their sense of safety is enhanced?
Happy Spouse, Happy House
It is easier to prioritize your relationship as the norm, rather than try to find your way back to each other after the children are grown and you are empty nesters. Being intentional about spending quality time together is essential because it is too easy to “get lost” in the busyness of life. That is not to say that there will be times when your children must come first because of unique circumstances, but those will be the exception and not the rule. In fact, recent research by the University of Rochester shows that being mindful of emotional flexibility in challenging situations strengthens and enriches close relationships.
So, how do you put your spouse first without making your children feel like second-class citizens? Read below-curated tips from couples with strong marriages:
- Say, “Our marriage comes first because it’s what keeps our family strong for you children; it’s a gift we give each other and you.”
- Clear your calendar so that your children are not overscheduled and actually schedule ‘couple time’ into your calendar to show your commitment to each other.
- Always present a united front to your children regarding parenting decisions as this shows great respect for your spouse, models partnership, and minimizes their attempts to play you against each other.
- Greet your spouse when they arrive home with a smile and a hug that lasts at least twenty seconds, long enough for the feel-good hormone oxytocin to be released. This natural ‘wonder drug’ forges a stronger bond and connection between the huggers. As a bonus, Oxytocin has been shown to boost the immune system and lower stress.
- Express gratitude and appreciation towards your spouse and about your spouse.
- Nourish your romantic life with a weekly date night and yearly weekend away just for the two of you.
- Show physical affection in front of your children with quick kisses, by holding hands, and saying, “I love you” often so that the kids overhear you.
- Start your day early by waking up before your children for coffee, scripture, and prayer.
- Discover a common hobby that you can enjoy together as a couple.
- Let your children know that you are setting an alarm for 20 minutes while they play while Mommy and Daddy have ‘talk time.’ Teach them the sanctity of your marital conversations by setting expectations about your need for privacy without interruptions.
The question, which begs to be answered, is will your children someday blame or bless you for their experience of your marriage? Life is full of choices, some with little consequence, while others have life-altering effects. Choose wisely.
Need More Ideas To Put Your Marriage First?
What if you could exercise loving curiosity to strengthen your marriage?
Relationships usually begin with excitement and butterflies in the stomach. We hang on to our partner’s every word and can hardly stand to be apart. But this ‘romantic intoxication’ slowly fades and we lose the urgent sense of wanting to know them. We settle into complacency and allow our busyness to become an idol. 365 Dates to Renew Your Christian Marriage: Catholic Edition will help you:
- Set aside dedicated time just for your relationship
- Pursue your spouse while falling deeper in love
- Grow in emotional intimacy
- View your spouse in a new light
Image: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash