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Yes, You Need To Prioritize Your Marriage Over Your Kids

Feb. 10, 2023 Fatherly

Many assume that’s the way it should be — after all, being a good parent means putting the kids’ needs first, no matter what, right? And because in this day and age parents are expected to be more attentive and accommodating to children than ever before, that’s a pretty all-consuming job.

But many psychologists and relationship experts push back on that idea, arguing that your spouse should come before your children. The theory is that without a strong marriage and loving home, kids won’t thrive, so you’re doing them a disservice by putting your spouse on the back burner, which can lead to marital trouble and even divorce. The question of who should come first is further complicated for religious couples, who also have to figure out where God fits into the hierarchy.

That you shouldn’t ruin your marriage for the sake of your children sounds like a no-brainer. And it’s unlikely anyone sets out to do so. But it happens a lot regardless. Many couples have trouble putting the theory into practice, or they think they need to focus solely on the kids while they’re small and can tend to the marriage later when the kids are more independent, a shift that can come too late to save the relationship.

But what does “putting your wife first” actually mean and look like in real life? How do you set boundaries with your kids while being a caring parent and husband? For that, we spoke to Linda and Charlie Bloom to add context to the conversation. They’re licensed marriage and family therapists who have been married since the 1970s, as well as parents and authors of 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love Last. The Blooms offered a nuanced perspective to the idea of prioritizing marriage over kids, one that offers clarity and doesn’t shy away from the fact that, yeah, this stuff is complex. Here’s what they said. 

Where did this idea come from that kids should always be the top priority, and how might that be harmful?

Charlie Bloom: There’s definitely a strong cultural bias toward favoring or prioritizing the needs of children over the parents. I’m not sure exactly what the source of that is, but it might be a reaction from previous generations where the opposite was the case, where kids’ needs were put on the back burner and they were better being seen and not heard.

It’s gotten to the point now where parents are judged and ostracized if they don’t accommodate and even anticipate and provide for kids’ needs over the needs of their relationships. The danger of that is that not only will the couple’s relationship be neglected, which in most of these cases where there’s a lot of helicopter parenting going on, that’s the case. But the other thing is that children grow up with the expectation that the world is going to indulge them, which creates a sense of entitlement. We deal with this quite a bit because parents pick up this cultural bias toward favoring the needs of children above everyone else.

What’s a good example of how parents subtly neglect their partners in favor of the children?

Linda Bloom: Weeks can go by with parents not checking in with each other, but they’ll check in with their kids every day, asking what they need, how they’re doing in school, chauffeuring them to ballet and piano lessons. They think that because adults are adults that they don’t have needs. Certainly, children’s needs shouldn’t be neglected, but devote some time during the week to nourish the romantic relationship, too. I’m a big believer in regular date nights and romantic getaways; you can also trade childcare with another family and take care of friends’ kids so they can go on a romantic getaway [and vice versa]. Those are some real, tangible things couples can do.

Do you think there’s a tendency for some parents to say, “I need to focus on my kids when they’re small and can get back to tending to my marriage later?”

LB: I have strong feelings about this, because there was a segment of time when Charlie and I were in our 30s when our careers got the lion’s share of our time and energy, and our children got the remainder. Our romantic partnership got the leftover crumbs; we subsisted on starvation rations for years, and it almost broke our family up, which would not have been good for our kids. That’s why I feel so strongly that people are playing with fire when they put careers and kids first and don’t pay attention to their romantic partnerships.

You spend 25 years raising your kids — it could be a long haul, especially with multiple children. And if you’ve neglected your domestic partnership during the time you spent so devoted to your children, you might end up being virtual strangers at the end of the two decades and might not even know each other very well. You may have accumulated resentments, sometimes on both sides, by not having your adult needs met. And in the end, you didn’t do your kids much of a favor, because you didn’t give them a model of a good partnership. That leads to them feeling nervous and confused and frightened about creating committed, fulfilling partnerships when they become adults.

What, exactly, does “putting your spouse in front of the kids” look like?

CB: I’m not comfortable with that term, and I certainly hear it a lot: ‘Who do you put first?’ It’s a generic question, as if there’s one answer that applies to all situations. Ultimately, it’s a case-by-case basis. But part of it is expressing your appreciation and gratitude for your partner. We often stroke kids and acknowledge their terrific poem or great game they played, but we don’t acknowledge what we appreciate about our partners. Not protecting kids from our arguments is also part of being emotionally honest with kids and with each other.

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