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Are millennials putting a little too much effort into parenting?

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Here's how husbands and wives can shift the focus back to what's even more important.

For years, psychologists and other researchers have told us that marital satisfaction takes a hit when spouses become parents. When little people enter into the family, life becomes much more complicated. Date nights are scooted out of the way to make room for diapers, and one-on-one time together is often interrupted. After having children, husbands and wives have less time to spend on themselves and each other, and instead often find themselves investing more into their children.
While focusing primarily on your children may seem like a good idea, it’s generally not. Instead, if you’re looking for the best way to love your family, one of the most beneficial things you can do is to love your spouse. In other words, identify first as spouses then as parents. This message is needed for today’s newest generation of parents — millennials, who now make up a staggering majority of parents today. Ninety-one percent of millennial parents responded to a recent survey and said they value “raising successful children” more highly than “living up to my full potential.”
Your marriage doesn’t have to take a nosedive after you start wiping little noses. If a couple takes time to invest in their marriage and each other, marital satisfaction doesn’t have to take such a big hit. “The couple may not get back to the excitement and bliss of the honeymoon phase before children entered the picture,” Dr. Andrew Sodergren, a clinical psychologist from Ohio, explained, “but taking time to intentionally nurture the marital relationship will help them maintain a sense of connection through the stress and strains of life.”
It’s not just spouses who will benefit from healthy marriages, either. In fact, the quality of their parents’ marriage has powerful and long-term psychological effects on the development of the children, too. Not only will spouses see benefits in their relationship with each other, but also with their relationship with their children. “Prioritizing a healthy marriage helps them to be their best at parenting,” Dr. Sodergren said. “Having a secure strong base in the marriage frees them up to be more attentive, responsive, and emotionally engaged with their children.”
From the Catholic perspective, a husband and wife’s main vocation is their marriage to each other. As beautiful as their family is, their role as parents is not their vocation. “The vows [a couple] took on their wedding day provide the specific form of their following of Christ. In the sacrament of marriage, the spouses make a total self-gift of self to Christ dwelling in the other spouse. In other words, one’s spouse becomes as Christ to him or her. Caring for the children that flow from their union is clearly a central aspect of living out this path to holiness. However, it is the relationship between the spouses that is the primary place spouses fulfill their calling to holiness.”
So should married couples put their marriage before their kids and identify first as spouses and then as parents? “Absolutely!” Dr. Sodergren said. “Studies have shown again and again that children do better in myriad domains when their parents are happily married to each other. At this point, there is no doubt that children have the best outcomes when they are raised by their biological mother and biological father who have a secure marital bond.” We asked Dr. Sodergren’s advice on how spouses can invest in their marriage while raising a family. Here are six of his practical suggestions:

1. Keep priorities straight

Even before our spouses, God is found at the center of a healthy marriage. “Everything else flows from this foundation,” Dr. Sodergren explained. “If these are our top two priorities, we should be regularly assessing how these relationships are doing. Are they growing or have they stagnated? Do I feel a close sense of connection and intimacy or are there things getting in the way that I need to address? What can I do to strengthen these relationships right now?”

2. Treasure partings and greetings

The daily routines in your marriage mean a lot. A practical way of respecting and loving your spouse is paying special attention to the start and end of the day. “When separating for the day, talk for a moment about when you will see each other again and share a deliberate hug and kiss,” Dr. Sodergren recommends. “Welcome each other in the same fashion, with some physical affection and some form of ‘good to see you’ or ‘welcome back’ exchange.  Such little ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’ rituals can have a strong psychological and even physiological effect.”

3. Examine your conscience

For Catholic couples, the power of the sacrament of confession cannot be understated. Dr. Sodergren recommended that couples participate in the sacrament together at least once a month (you can even make a date night out of it!) But it’s also important to take stock of wrongs and offenses in your married life with each other, too. “Spouses should daily make an examination of conscience that includes their behavior toward each other and regularly express sorrow to each other for times when they were in the wrong. Ruptures occur in every relationship, even ones that are overall very strong. It is our ability to repair them that makes the biggest difference in the long-run.” Practice your listening skills when your spouse is upset. Work on not going into defense mode when your spouse brings up something they’re frustrated about. “We need to be able to show some compassion in those moments and express sorrow over his/her pain,” Dr. Sodergren explained. “We need to be willing to learn from these moments and strive not to hurt one another in this fashion again.”

4. Parent as a team

Husbands and wives should have each other’s backs no matter what. Whether your family going through something challenging, or making a big decision, spouses should to strive to present a united front to their children. “Spouses need to approach parenting as a ‘we’ and an ‘us,'” Dr. Sodergren said. “Support each other and back each other up when facing difficult parenting situations.  If you have differences or concerns, work these out in private, not in front of others.” When couples are united, their children receive consistent messages. Instead of wondering if mom’s answer to a question will be different than dad’s thoughts, children can feel secure in a consistent routine.

5. Start dreaming about your future together

Typically, your marriage with your spouse began before children came into your lives. The sacrament of marriage will also continue after they move out of the house. Even though it seems like the stage of potty training or middle school drama with your kids will last forever, it’ll be over before you know it. So don’t waste time — start dreaming together as a couple. “How do you want to spend those golden years?” Dr. Sodergren recommended couples ask each other big picture questions. “What will you do together?  Are there trips you would like to take, or hobbies you would like to enjoy together? Are there projects or important causes that you both are passionate about that you would like to work on together?” When you and your spouse imagine and dream about the future, those conversations can help you persevere through tougher stages of parenting.

6. Seek out a Christian therapist 

Marriage is not always easy, and tough times come for every couple. For couples who feel like their marriage has grown stagnant, or those who are experiencing loneliness and hurt in their marriage, Dr. Sodergren recommended seeking out a Christian marital therapist. “Referrals to local providers can often be found by contacting a diocesan family life office. In addition, to having Catholic – or at least Christian – values, I encourage couples to seek marital therapists who have some training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense and Hold Me Tight. EFT has the best outcome research associated with it of any approach to marital therapy in the field. I have found it very helpful to the couples I work with and compatible with a Catholic view of marriage. My colleagues and I at Ruah Woods Psychological Services are continuing to strive to integrate an EFT approach with our Catholic values in the work we do with hurting couples.” To find therapists in your area, visit the Catholic Psychotherapy Association for recommendations.

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