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Should you prioritize your marriage over your children?

FAMILY
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Despite what most experts advise, family life isn’t a competition.

Should you prioritize your marriage over your children? Secular wisdom and Christian thought tend to agree on the answer: Heck yes, you should. You’ll all suffer if you don’t.  

A piece at Focus on the Family gives the popular reasoning behind the ranking:

Children need to know that their parents love not only them, but each other. Their sense of security grows as they see parents loving each other. To put your marriage on hold for 18 years – or even one year – while you raise children is not only detrimental to your marriage, but it is also devastating to your children.

I’ve seen advice on this topic ranging from weekly mandatory child-free date nights, to “Daddy always kisses Mommy first when he gets home from work.”

And honestly, I think it’s absolute nonsense.

First of all, the question of who to prioritize already assumes that the needs of your children and the needs of your spouse are fundamentally at odds. But . We’re not talking about who ought to get the last crust of bread in our famine wracked village. Love, and attention and affection and respect, are renewable resources. We’re not going to run out.

Yes, it’s important not to forget that your spouse has needs too, even when you’re already drowning in the kids’ needs. Yes, it’s important to keep the romance alive. Yes, it’s a good idea to get some alone time with just your spouse every so often. None of that is in question. But that’s not “prioritizing” your spouse; that’s just loving them. You can do all those things at the same time as loving your kids.

All that somber advice about making sure you prioritize your marriage so that it doesn’t accidentally crumble to the ground while you were tending to your children? I know that it’s meant to remind people not to get so lost in their role as parent that they forget their role as spouse. That’s fair. But another message rings clear through the dire warnings — that having kids makes it especially challenging to love your partner.

Children don’t “put your marriage on hold.” They may change the way you express love to each other, but they don’t stifle that love. In a healthy marriage, it’s actually the opposite. Raising children together, even when it’s mundane, messy, and exhausting, can be one of the biggest ways that spouses fall daily in love with each other, and sustain that love.

If the warning was, “Don’t get so invested in your career or hobbies that you never make time for the person you married,” I’d be all for it. You obviously can’t spend all your emotional energy on something your spouse doesn’t share in, and expect your spouse not to feel neglected. But children aren’t a hobby. When you have kids, they’re not an accessory; they’re fundamental to your marriage.

Talking about children as though they will — if you don’t guard against it — detract from your relationship, puts you in a perpetual power-struggle with them. Which, I guarantee, is a great way to foster exactly the kind of resentment that will make your whole family miserable.

When I was a kid, my parents always took all seven of us along with them for their anniversary celebration. (I have vivid memories of crawling under the tables of a nice Chinese food place when I was old enough to know better, actually). Although she may have regretted it that year, my mother always made a point to tell us why we got to come along: “You are the fruit of our marriage, and we’re so grateful for our family. It just makes sense that we all celebrate this marriage together.”

At the time, we were just excited for an excuse to get some really good Chinese food. Now, I see what they were trying to show us — that children exist in the heart of a marriage. They don’t tear it apart from without, but nourishing it from within.

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