Eventually, our kids are going to leave. They’ll create their own homes, their own lives, leaving us alone with our spouse. And this can be a wonderful opportunity or, God forbid, a disaster. It depends on the prep work we did in advance.
Did we ignore our spouse to tend to our children or did we recognize that our relationship with our marital partner is the most important relationship we have? Marriage is a relationship that is eternal – in this world and even in the next. But it requires constant nurturing and nourishment, just like our children. In fact if we examine some of the classic parenting tips, we may discover that a lot of it can be applied to our marriages.
Let’s look at some of the wisdom we bring to parenting that we may overlook when it comes to our spouses.
1. Give them time – quality AND quantity – on a regular basis. We can’t wait for vacations and we certainly can’t wait for your children to grow up (especially in today’s world where that seems to take longer than ever!). We need to carve out some private time daily. It’s healthy for our kids – for them to see us make your marriage a priority and for them to feel that the world does not always revolve around them (at least try to pretend it doesn’t).
2. Listen carefully and attentively. If we are at work when they call, we should try to drop everything and give our spouse focused attention. If our children call, we are almost always available to them. If our grandchildren call or want to Skype, then we are definitely available. But if it’s our wife or our husband, how many times do we ask our secretary to tell them we’re busy and to please take a message? What business deal could possibly take priority over our marriage?
3. Don’t bear a grudge, don’t take revenge; forgive and let it go. Our children make plenty of mistakes yet it is completely unthinkable that we would keep score, bear a grudge. And however much they hurt us, we couldn’t even begin to contemplate “getting them back.” All we want is their love and their good. The same should be true for our husbands and wives.
We have a mitzvah to judge other human beings on the side of merit, to assume a favorable explanation for seemingly negative behavior. This comes naturally and easily to us with respect to our children. “They’re tired.” “They’re not feeling well.” “Someone hurt their feelings first.” Don’t our spouses also deserve the benefit of the doubt? Couldn’t they also be tired, under the weather or being picked on by their boss?
Forgive and move on. Holding on to anger and resentments hurts us both and accomplishes nothing. Our marriage is too precious to dwell on past misdeeds.
4. Give them emotional affirmation. Look for opportunities to praise them. Yes, even adults need praise and affection. Tell them you love them at least once a day. For some people that may come easy but others I know have been married for years without regular expressions of caring. Don’t make assumptions that your husband or wife “knows” you love them. Just like we regularly tell our children how much we love them, we need to do the same in our marriages.
Be interested in their lives. What are their hopes and dreams? Support their goals and aspirations. Be involved in their interests (at least ask about them) even if they don’t dovetail with yours. I was once organizing a social outing for women whose husbands all worked for the same company. One woman refused to come, “That’s his thing not mine,” she said. I was stunned. Yes, it’s his job but since he spends probably more time at it than he does with her, isn’t she a little interested in what goes on?
5. Apologize when wrong. Insisting on being right or never apologizing is the position of weakness and cowardice. The position of confidence, strength and caring is to say “I’m sorry” and say it first. If you can’t quite bring yourself to do that (yet!), you can try this gentler approach, “Are we friends again?”
6. Appreciate your spouse’s uniqueness. His/her differences from us aren’t wrong; they are opportunities for us to learn and grow and deepen our compassion. Areas of difference frequently lead to tension. If we can appreciate the differences, they can be a source of pleasure and excitement instead.
7. Avoid narcissism. Our spouses are not here to meet our needs and fulfill our dreams. Parents who use children to fulfill their own goals destroy their children and are still left unsatisfied. Marriage, like parenting, is not about getting. It is about giving and giving and giving. Our goal is to just give to him or her, just support him or her, just love him or her. Being married demands digging deep to give even when you’re tired, when you don’t feel like it, when you think “why don’t they just do it themselves?!” That’s what makes the giving meaningful.
We are so kind and compassionate and wise when it comes to our children. We take class after class, follow new theory after new theory in an effort to get it right. And then we are too tired to work on our marriages. We take them for granted, we can’t be bothered. And yet, our children will leave (barely looking back!) and we will be left, hopefully for many years, with this one relationship above all others.
If we nourish it while we are parenting, we will be able to reap all the benefits. I don’t want to even contemplate what will happen if we don’t.