Who Comes First, the Kids or the Marriage?
Making your kids the centerpiece is not a good idea.
Posted Nov 18, 2011
Making your kids the centerpiece of your life may seem like a good idea, but generally it's not. Besides the more obvious risks such as overprotection and indulgence, making your children's happiness your highest priority can result in an unanticipated and undesired consequence: the promotion of the idea that marriage requires the sacrifice of one's personal needs and desires in order to fulfill the higher moral imperative of responsible child rearing. There's no question that some degree of sacrifice is required for any relationship worth its salt to be successful, but the real question for parents is always, "Where is the line between my responsibility to my children, my responsibility to my spouse, and my responsibility to myself?"
When one or both partners make their children's happiness a higher priority than the health of their marriage, they run the risk of neglecting the needs of the marriage, and in doing so, fostering feelings of resentment, neglect, resignation, and alienation in themselves and/or each other. Even if the consequences aren't overtly harmful, they can erode the quality of the couples' connection and give children the message that marriage isn't a particularly fun place to be much of the time. As most parents know, children sense much more of their parent's moods, feelings, and attitudes than they outwardly express. Unhappy and unfulfilled parents can lead their kids to conclude that marriage makes people unhappy, or if the focus of their discord centers on child-rearing differences, that they are the source of their parents' unhappiness.
It's natural and beneficial for parents to make their children's well being a high priority. It's better to err by caring too much than not enough. Still, making the needs of the marriage subordinate to the needs of the children can, as many have discovered the hard way, lead to unexpected consequences. For Betty, the children always came first. She claimed that because her husband Stefan was an adult, he could take care of himself and shouldn't need much attention. Even as her children grew into adolescence and young adulthood, she never modified her position. She justified her stance and frequently told Stefan, "You're not giving enough to them, so I have to." "I'm not focusing on them," Stefan would respond, "because they need to stand on their own two feet. When are you going to let them grow up?"
"You don't care about your own children," Betty would blurt through her tears, and the cycle would continue. They had this conversation hundreds of times over the course of their marriage. Sadly, both were unable to see that the casualties of the impasse were the children, as well as their marriage. For years, their relationship had been starving as a result of a deficit of attention. With both children now grown to adulthood, their marriage had devolved into cold, resentful stagnation.
Betty's relentless attention to her children was a way of avoiding the real problems in the marriage, which had to do with a lack of intimacy and a loss of trust. Stefan's unwillingness to nurture the marriage by acknowledging his own loneliness and sadness served to perpetuate the pattern. Ironically, but predictably, the children for whom Betty sacrificed her marriage were also losers in this game. Not only did they lose out on the kind of support they needed to become more independent and responsible themselves, but they missed the opportunity to grow up under the guidance and example of a loving partnership. Betty and Stefan managed to stay together even after their kids moved away from home, but their marriage remained unsatisfying because they never faced their real issues. They stayed together because they were fearful of being alone and opted for the familiarity of the old pattern.
More than anything else we can do for our children, the example of a happy marriage supports and encourages the possibility of creating such a relationship in their lives. The time to experience the true blessings of a marriage is not after the kids have left home. It's never too early or too late to put your marriage first!
Adapted from 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love Last by Linda and Charlie Bloom, New World Library, 2004.