Should you prioritize your spouse over your children in order to have a successful marriage? This myth has circulated for years but don't be fooled. The truth is, relationships are incredibly complex, deep and constantly changing. It's not a matter of who you put first, it's about balance and knowing the unique needs of your family.
In the past year, the article How American Parenting Is Killing The American Marriage has circulated in my social media feeds. The article touches on the assumption that Americans put all their energy into their kids instead of their marriage and because of that, divorce rates are rising. Gray divorce (empty nesters divorcing after many years of marriage) is cited as proof of this. (for more information on the real reason why gray divorce may be occurring please refer to How We Know the Divorce Rate is Falling.). The article also equates American parenting to a religion where it is blasphemous to say anything bad about our children.
As a couples therapist practicing Imago relationship therapy with years of working with couples on complicated issues, I find the message of this article to be a simplistic and unhelpful explanation for the complex issues that arise between couples.
A quick web search will give you the raw, honest truth about American parenting on the multitude of mom blogs that talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of parenting. Scary Mommy which embodies these messages of non-judgment and honesty in parenting has over 1 million followers on their Facebook page.
Many of the comments I have seen prompted by this article say things like: "you should always put your spouse before your children", or "I'm a wife/husband first and a mom/dad second." Life is a balancing act and if you choose to become a parent, you will often be balancing different relationships. Just because you make your children a priority does not mean your relationship with your partner has to suffer and it does not mean that your partner will not feel loved and valued. In all relationships, the pendulum shifts. There will be times when your children need you the most and times when your children don't need you as much. There will be times when you feel totally connected to your partner and times you will feel disconnected. This is all normal and this is all okay.
I work with childless couples and couples with children and ultimately, the root of the majority of issues is usually the same. All couples, no matter how functional or well-adjusted have the same core theme or story underneath many of their disagreement. The fights may look different, but underneath what people are saying lies the very same power struggle. This struggle harkens back to childhood which is what is getting triggered in the here and now.
For example, a couple that I worked with involved a man who felt that his mother was highly critical of him in childhood. He was triggered whenever he experienced his wife as critical because it was replaying the incredibly hurtful dynamic that he had with his mother. His wife believed she was not critical. She had a childhood where she felt she didn't have a voice. Her parents were dismissive of her needs, feelings and opinions, so as an adult she felt compelled to speak up for herself and be assertive. Because this dynamic was triggering a deeper issue, the couple felt disconnected and started to disengage. They felt they were incompatible because they didn't understand where the resentment was coming from. When they realized the root of the conflict they were able to start the process of moving forward and healing together .
Couples issues are often deep and complex. There are two people that merge their lives together with different personalities, different upbringings and different ways of viewing the world. I often have couples that are on the opposite ends of the spectrum with how they operate in life. Another couple I worked with were completely opposite in how they expressed themselves in the world. One was loud, effusive and uninhibited. The other was quiet, proper and very shy. Frustrations emerged because this couple had to learn to make sense of each other. Because the way their partner operated was so outside their realm of operating, it was hard to see how the other could make sense because they were so different. The work for this couple was to understand the deeper reasons of how their ways of being served a purpose and that just because someone has a different want of operating doesn't mean it's wrong, it's just different. In Imago, we don't expect couples to agree with each other all the time, but we do ask them to see how their partner makes sense, even if it is completely foreign to them.
If we want to criticize American parenting, why not shift the focus to American culture in which many live a lifestyle where everyone is stretched thin and overburdened? The couples I see with children are actually trying to be everything to everyone- they try to excel at work, be a good spouse and a good parent and then somehow try to find time to do things that they enjoy. It is impossible to be everything to everyone. Most people are just trying to get through the day. Many can't afford regular babysitters, can't take much time off of work, are working more than one job to make ends meet and so tired by the end of the day, all they want to do is sleep. Parents feel guilty enough as it is. Their marriages are unlikely to benefit with the message that their marriage will implode if they aren't putting their marriage first.
The idea of 'spouse before children' can be a confusing message to send to children. Adults can take care of themselves- babies and young children cannot. During the formative years of childhood, children need to have a safe space where they feel unconditionally loved, supported, and yes, prioritized. Telling children that you love your spouse more than them, or declaring that your marriage comes first is not the message you want your child to receive. Many adult clients who received that message in childhood are often in years of therapy because of it. Children won't become raging narcissists if you give them unconditional love and support, as long as you also set limits with them and make them aware that other people's needs are as important as their own.
It would be great if couples problems were solved simply by prioritizing each other but it doesn't work that way for most people. Having couples re-romanticize their relationship, make time for dates, romance and fun and other exercises that help couples reconnect and re-prioritize their marriage are a part of couples therapy but only a piece of the puzzle. If you feel like all your relationship needs is more time together to get back on track, then it is important to try to find ways to do that but I would also encourage you to look deeper to see what is underneath. It may be the best thing for your relationship in the long run.