What came first, the chicken or the egg? When you ask a question like this, we can debate endlessly and probably never come to a conclusive answer. But one thing for sure is, what came first? Your relationship or your kids? Whether you’re married or not, it’s likely that a relationship developed before you had children together. But yet a lot of us have a hard time wrapping our heads around the idea of prioritizing our marriage or putting our marriage first once we become parents.
For most of us, hearing the term “put your marriage first” sounds a lot like you’re being told to put your kids last. This is not the case. Prioritizing your marriage in no way means to neglect your children’s needs or to ignore them in any way. It does not mean clinging on to the life you had before they were born and refusing to acknowledge that your life is different now. It’s actually the very opposite. And I have learned the importance of putting my marriage first from my parents divorce and all of the years that lead up to it.
During my childhood, I remember my parents and I doing everything together as a family and rarely having time apart from each other. It sounds idealistic and sounds like I must’ve had a loving home with amazing parents but this just wasn’t the case. I didn’t do a lot of kid friendly activities—-there were no sports, dance classes, or play dates. I mostly tagged along with adults. And soon I realized I had become the glue that was holding my parents broken marriage together. They fought a lot and separated a few times during my childhood. And then they started doing more and more things with out each other and with just me. When things seemed to settle when I was around 10 or 11 years old, as most preteens, I began begging for more freedom and more time with my friends.
I had no idea at the time why my parents were so devastated by this, but I now know, they didn’t have a relationship outside of the one they built around me. My parents’ generation did not believe in date-nights or having identities outside of being a parent. So when I began asking for more independence and having my own life, they were faced with each other. I remember my parents being angry that I had friends–often times picking apart the friendships I had developed. And I felt terrible or guilty for having my own life.
After years of this, I watched as my parents tried to work things out. But I could see that they wanted different things, had little in common, and that things were damaged beyond repair. They couldn’t communicate without having a huge blowout and I was always pulled in the middle. Of course there are so many variables, it’s hard to say if not prioritizing their marriage was the only reason that their relationship fell apart but I believe it was one of the main reasons. My mother often complained about my father not being affectionate or romantic and I rarely saw them hug or kiss. He mostly complained about her spending habits—which I believed shopping became her source of happiness—and her infidelities. There was a disconnect. Now that I’m a mother, I can see how easily things can fall apart if you stop paying attention.
Life is already busy before we have children. But when we become parents it’s an entirely different level of busy. And if you’re not looking closely or paying attention you can lose yourself and eventually grow apart from those you’re closest to including your spouse. Looking back, I wish I had some time away from my parents—guilt free. And perhaps they had lives outside of being parents—guilt free. Had they allowed me some space while they reconnected it could have made a big difference.
Eventually our children will gain independence and have lives of their own, which is why it’s so important to not forget to do the same for ourselves—maintaining our identities and relationships. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you’re not happy it’s nearly impossible to raise happy children. According to Phycology Today:
“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.”