Recently I was interviewed on the radio to discuss the question of how to prioritize your relationship with your spouse vs. your kids. You can listen to the 20-minute segment here. Here’s the spoiler: I come down firmly on the side of keeping your spouse #1 on your list. This of course doesn’t mean that you ignore your children’s needs or that you spend 100% of your time and energy on your spouse. It just means that your relationship with your spouse comes first.
Many people think that “the children come first” and end up putting too little, or nothing at all, into the marital relationship. This often leads to trouble down the road, and the kids in fact lose out even more. Here are some reasons why everyone is better off when the marriage comes first:
Happy parents are better parents.
Marriage takes work. You’ve heard it before, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Any long-term relationship needs consistent emotional input to thrive. Just like you can’t expect to get in shape one time and then stop exercising, you can’t expect your relationship to remain in good shape if you’re not working on it. It will deteriorate over time as you drift apart.
For most people, a happy relationship is key to overall life satisfaction. If there is distance in your marriage, or worse, discord, stress, and even violence, you will be less happy than if your marriage offers you connection, security, and peace. Unhappy and stressed-out spouses can’t be the best parents they can be either. They have less patience, less emotional energy, and less empathy to offer to children who very much needs these things. Trying to offer your best to your kids while being drained in your marital relationship – the very place you would be turning to for emotional support instead of emotional strain – is like trying to run a marathon after getting beat up. You’re unlikely to succeed and it hurts like heck.
Marital conflict and divorce are bad for kids.
Living in a home where there is tension and conflict takes a toll on children. They are living with the stress as well – often they are far more aware than you think of the strain in your marriage, and they worry about it too. Kids hate when parents yell at each other, and spousal abuse has been demonstrated to have a host of very negative effects on children living in its midst. Children of divorce also tend to fare worse than children from intact families. (This is not to put blame on anyone who is divorced – there are of course situations where divorce is the better option. But a family based around a healthy and happy marriage is still the best environment for kids.)
If you pour your energy into childrearing and don’t save enough for your marriage, you can expect more arguments, more fights, more disconnection, and more unhappiness for everyone in the family. All couples have disagreements; only by putting in the effort to learn how to manage them effectively will you be able to keep the peace in your marriage, peace which is vital for your children’s well-being.
Children need a model for good relationships.
Speaking of disagreements, it is important to recognize how valuable these can be in educating your children positively. You know how the say “never argue in front of the kids?” I disagree. Argue in front of your kids! Of course, you have to know how to do it. Yelling, screaming, insulting, minimizing, criticizing, and a host of other unhealthy approaches are definitely harmful for kids to witness. But if you have developed tools for healthy communication, then showing your children how it’s done is phenomenally helpful to them. They will one day have their own long-term relationships, and few and far between are their opportunities to learn how to deal with conflict in them. If you are able to model that for your children, you are doing them a tremendous favor.
In addition, by building a great marriage you will be demonstrating to your children what they have to look forward to. Research shows that intimate relationships are the greatest factor in a person’s long-term happiness. Children who grow up in homes with marital conflict are more likely to delay or avoid entirely getting married. Prioritizing your marriage leaves your children with a legacy of knowing that happiness is truly attainable instead of believing that it is a lost cause.
Your children are not your friends.
A common consequence of spouses not feeling connected to each other is that they end up looking to their children, consciously or unconsciously, to fill some of the void. If you aren’t feeling loved or needed by your husband, you might turn to young children to feel that way. If you don’t enjoy your wife’s company, you may opt for activities with your teenagers instead of with her. Of course it is important to spend time with your children and develop emotional connections with them, but those should not replace your spouse. Your children are not your friends and you cannot put demands on them to fill your social or emotional needs.
Even worse, some parents turn their children into confidants, sharing with them problems at work, with money, and even in the marriage. This is called “the parentified child” and it exposes children to a level of responsibility and maturity they are not ready for. Prioritizing your marriage and making it a place where you can get these needs met is critical for the growth and success of your kids.
Your children will eventually leave.
Finally, there is a very practical reason for keeping your marriage at the top of the list: one day your children will all leave the home and you will be left there alone with your spouse. If you haven’t been keeping up a meaningful relationship, this moment can be awkward and disappointing, if not terrifying.
Couples who find themselves face to face with the empty nest are sometimes devastated to discover that there is no relationship left with the person with whom they have been sharing the house and childrearing responsibilities for so many years. Such couples may end up living together in mutual loneliness, or may decide to split up now that there is nothing holding them together. Dating at 60 is not nearly as much fun as it was at 20, as many newly single people of that age will tell you. Even worse might be the prospect of living your last decades on your own.
Family life is comprised of a complex set of relationships all interacting with each other. Maintaining them all is a juggling act – even more so when you add in the limitations of energy, money, and time (I know – there’s never enough time!). You can’t devote 100% of your resources to any one area, but you can make appropriate priorities among them. For all the reasons cited above and more, I strongly recommend putting your marriage at the top of your list.