We don't serve the needs of our children when we neglect our relationship in order to attend to them. It can sometimes feel as if there is a competition for attention between our partner and our kids. When we realize that the well being of the children is directly related to the well being of our marriage, we are less apt to feel guilty or neglectful when we devote time to our primary relationship.
For Betty, the children always came first. She claimed that since 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 by saying to Stefan, "You're not giving enough to them, so I need to." "I'm not focusing on them," Stefan responded, "because you're doing it enough for us both, and they need to learn to stand on their own two feet. When are you going to let them grow up?" "You just don't care about your own children," Betty blurted through tears. They had this conversation hundreds of times over the course of their marriage. Sadly, they were both unable to see that the biggest casualty of the crisis was not the children, but their marriage. For years, the relationship had been starving from lack of attention while Betty and Stefan argued over their perceived needs of the children. Both of their children had now grown into adulthood while the marriage had not grown at all.
Betty's relentless attention to her children was a way of avoiding the real problems in the marriage, which had become nearly devoid of affection and care. Stefan's unwillingness to feed 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 the game. Not only did they lose out on the kind of support they needed to become more independent and responsible, but they missed the opportunity to grow up in the care of a loving partnership.
As a result, neither of them was very hopeful about the prospects for their own successful marriage. 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 it was easier to follow old patterns and they were fearful of being alone. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is in demonstrating a happy marriage. More than anything else we can do for them, this example supports and encourages the possibility of creating such a relationship in their own lives. The time to learn about the blessings of a marriage is not after the kids have left home. If we haven't done it by then, it's probably too late. The time to model a healthy marriage is throughout our children's development. One day they might even thank you for it.