If you were asked whether your marriage or children are the higher priority, what would you say? Even if you’ve never pondered this question, I’m guessing most parents (especially mothers) have struggled at some point with the balance between these two.
This question has been on my mind since I wrote my Valentine’s Day post, in which I talked about making your marriage a high priority. I stopped short, though, of saying it should be the highest priority (other than one’s relationship with God). So when my husband and I recently attended a Family Life “Weekend to Remember” marriage conference, I was curious how they would handle this question. As I expected, their order of priorities (specifically for a wife) was as follows: “Growing in her relationship with God comes first; respecting and supporting her husband comes second; teaching and training her children come third.”
This is the basic position I had always heard growing up and believed to be true. In the early years of our marriage, however, I found a number of other young married women of conservative backgrounds who argued that husband and children ought to be given equal priority. After all, small children are extremely needy. Our husbands are grown-ups. They can understand it better when we have to put their needs on hold. Plus, we only have a few short years with our children, and our investment in their lives is shaping their future. Doesn’t it make sense to put our husbands somewhat on the back burner so we can deal with the more urgent needs of the children?
I don’t think we intend to neglect marriage. Even those who have been through divorce most likely got married planning to love and cherish one another for life. I’m doubtful, then, that most of us would consciously place our children as a higher priority than an existing marriage. We know how painful and costly divorce can be, and (unless circumstances are pretty bad)* we want our marriages to last.
But I think many of us mothers may place our children on a fairly level plane with our husbands. And in practice, we may end up placing them higher. Our busy lives are ruled by the tyranny of the urgent, and the children’s needs often seem more imperative. Yet, if we find ourselves asking whether it is more important to meet a husband’s vs. child’s particular need, I think we are asking the wrong question. Our husbands shouldn’t be just another person for whom we must meet needs – essentially another child. They ought to be on our team, leading the team, working with us to meet the needs of the children.
But meeting our children’s needs is not the whole purpose of our relationship. Yes, parenting is part of God’s design for marriage and ought to be a major focus. But God created marriage as a source of partnership and companionship in life as a whole, a way to mutually meet one another’s needs in many areas (see the aforementioned Valentine’s post for more on that). When we do this, we are stronger both individually and as a team, and as a result, we are better able to meet the needs of our children. So it’s not that our husbands themselves (or their particular needs) are more important…It’s that a stronger relationship with our husbands actually benefits our children as well. Thus, in order to benefit both parties, it is wise to place the higher priority on the marriage.
Understand, I am not advocating an emphasis on marriage to a degree that children feel neglected. As it was stated at the conference, our marriage is the top priority, but our children are a very close second. They absolutely need plenty of love, care, and affection, and there will be seasons when there is comparatively a good deal more time and energy spent on them than on each other. But in my view, this is not so much a question of what time is spent where. The key is, the family should not be built around the children.
So how can husbands and wives show priority for one another without making the kids feel neglected? Here are a few thoughts:
- SHOW AFFECTION IN FRONT OF THE CHILDREN. Sit next to each other on the couch while watching a family movie. Compliment one another in front of the kids. A smooch might result in a chorus of “ewws,” but in reality, children feel more secure knowing their parents love each other!
- MAKE THE KIDS WAIT TO TALK WHEN MOM AND DAD ARE TALKING. We could rarely ever have a decent conversation before the kids’ bedtime, but this rule makes it possible! Plus, the concept of not interrupting is important to learn in general.
- MAKE BOUNDARIES OF SPACE IN THE HOME WHEN NECESSARY. It is common for our kids to swarm around wherever we are. I’m glad they want to be near us, but I do think it’s appropriate sometimes to say, “We love you, but this is our space right now. Go play somewhere else.”
- MAKE TIME TO SPEND TOGETHER; AND GET THE KIDS USED TO THIS CONCEPT. If you are having trouble finding “couple time,” perhaps adjusting the kids’ sleeping schedules could leave free time in the evening or early morning. If a babysitter isn’t in the budget, maybe try trading babysitting with another couple, even if all you can afford to do is go sit on a park bench and talk. It’s important to develop shared interests, activities, and memories apart from the kids. After all, if they are the only thing you share, what happens once they leave?
- ONCE IN A WHILE, TRY FOR AN ACTUAL “GETAWAY.” When my husband and I decided to take a week-long trip a couple years ago, I was so excited…but also a nervous wreck. How would the kids survive? How would I survive?! Result? We were all completely fine! This weekend conference was the first overnight trip we’ve taken since, but I was able to be much more relaxed, and it seems the kids barely noticed we were gone. Turns out it’s nice for all of us to get a break from one another on occasion!
It may seem strange, but I believe children are actually happier when the family is not centered around them. This recent conference brought to light more areas that my husband and I need to work on in our marriage, but I think trying harder to make each other our top (earthly) priority is a good first step.
What are some things you do to prioritize your marriage?
Photo Credit: All images courtesy of Jessica Cole.
*Note: If your husband is physically or emotionally abusive to you or your children, it is absolutely appropriate to seek refuge. In addition to protecting your children and yourself, it may actually be the best thing for your husband and marriage. Get help. As one of the speakers at the conference said, we wives are to be helpers, but not enablers.