When children enter the picture, the greatest marital challenge often begins. Our children are totally dependent on us. It's easy to fall into the trap of putting every other part of life on hold and focusing all of our energy, physical and emotional, on caring for and supporting them. Too many couples can even pinpoint the moment of childbirth as the time when their marital problems intensified.
Parenting is a full-time job, but too many parents decide that they don't need to focus on their marriage because their kids need them. There is the big mistake. I'm not implying that you need to spend the same amount of time alone with your spouse as you do with your kids, but your marriage is far more important than so many things you do for your children, even though you are expending the energy only because you think it benefits them. So, if you just spent three hours making sure your kid was placed on just the right team for Little League, think about the last time you spent three hours focused on your marriage. If you haven't, you are placing your marriage and children in danger.
Your marriage is far more important than so many things you do for your children.
All parents must realize they can't do it all without it coming at the expense of something else that is equally or more important (which means they haven't done it all anyway). The focus on children's extracurricular activities often comes at the expense of your marriage, either directly or by zapping energy that could later be used for your marriage. I had to face the fact long ago that my child was not going to be a violin prodigy (even though my grandfather was and I figured it's in our blood). But more important, he'll be surrounded by parents who really love each other.
The amount of strength and love that children draw on a daily basis from their parents' loving marriage is enormous. If you want to put a huge smile on your young child's face, give your spouse a big hug and kiss right in front of her. She'll explode with delight and then try to squeeze her way in to be a part of the loving gesture.
Kids need to be surrounded by their parents' love. I remember a wise twelve-year-old who, while struggling with his parents' divorce, told me, "I feel I was created from my parents because of their love for each other. Now that they don't love each other, I feel as though I don't exist on some level." This young man taught me how deeply children identify their own creation and existence with the love between their parents.
Children need to feel secure, and nothing offers stability as much as your loving marriage. Children can deal with any number of changes when they feel that their core family is unquestionably intact and full of love. It's not enough to stay together for the sake of the kids. Your children deserve to be cloaked in love.
The Guilty Answer
As parents, we feel obligated to give our kids the most life has to offer. If we give less, we feel guilty. Often that guilt is a strong motivator for parents to place their children ahead of their marriage. When this guilt overwhelms you, remind yourself of the young child who receives the fabulous new high-tech toy and is far more interested in the box than the toy. It's a metaphor for your child's outlook on life. Sometimes as parents we're searching for the new incredible gadget that will offer our children great hope while forgetting that the most important things to children are the old standbys: a loving family and parents who have a great marriage. Your marriage is the basis for love in your child's life.
Without attention and focus, your marriage will die.
It is the cavalier attitude of parents about their marriage that can use improvement. Don't think your marriage can wait. It can't. Sure, you can coast for a period of time, spending less time together ... but without attention and focus, your marriage will die. If you want to get away alone and have a nursing baby, you'll have to wait. But you'll want to talk about how much you look forward to getting away, how you can take that newborn out with you on a date, and what little extra time you can squeeze out today to connect even amidst a newborn's needs. Don't let your marriage slip to a distant second on your priority list. Being in love with your spouse will bring great joy and peace to your child, from newborn to adulthood.
Redefining Your Marriage
Our children hold a special ability to bring a powerful love into our marriage far beyond what we could ever have developed without them. Our children become a symbolic part of the love we've created in our marriage instead of something outside of our private love. Consider the following ways to help make your kids a vital part of your marital life:
1) Experience life together. Find activities that offer togetherness, Take time regularly to read together with your children. More often than not, parents feel this is a chore that should be split; sometimes Mom and sometimes Dad reads with the children. Try taking a tag team approach in which you begin to tell a story (perhaps a familiar fairy tale or one you're making up as you go along) and your spouse continues it when you give the signal. As your kids get older, they can become part of the creative fun. These are the moments that make us a family, the times that we work together with our loving spouse on something so special we can't help but feel closer because of it.
Consider other creative activities like dancing together, singing together, or teaching the kids a favorite song. You and your spouse together can teach your kids to swim and bicycle. Family bicycling is a wonderful way to spend time together. Try to do as much with your kids together as possible. It produces the rich history every marriage needs.
2) Compliment each other in front of your kids. Say to your children things like, "Isn't your mother/father the most beautiful/handsome woman/man in the world, inside and out?" Show your children how in love you are with your spouse. It's heartwarming for children to see their parents in love and willing to show it.
3) Cook together. Cook with your spouse and kids once a week. We create a dinner once a week that revolves around a different country. Each of us does different things to prepare, from cooking to getting information about the country from the encyclopedia to drawing its flag to finding music from that country that we can play at dinner.
You'd be surprised at how much kids love to do anything, even chores, when it's done as a family. Kids as young as four love to wash dishes as long as there is other loving activity going on simultaneously.
4) Have dinner together. A consistent dinner together as a family focuses attention on our family, and on the importance of knowing what's going on with each family member. It's during dinner that we talk, share, and wonder about what will be tomorrow. Dinner won't necessarily be a quiet, peaceful time.
Make dinner time more about family than about nightly lessons in manners. Make it the time that the kids look forward to because they'll get attention and hear everything that's going on in their family. You and your spouse should make sure to catch each other's eye often during dinner as if to say, "Look how special we made it. Look what we've done together."
5) Plant a garden together. It's a miraculous activity to make things grow and create actual life. Caring for a garden is microcosm of caring for your own family and teaches everyone to work together to keep living things healthy and happy.
6) Find activities that everyone likes, including the adults. Granted, there will be plenty of times when most of the fun will be seeing your kids smiling. But don't underestimate how many places and activities there are that the entire family can enjoy. Check out the beach, bookstores, libraries, bowling, ball-games, and so many other places that offer fun for adults as well as for children. The idea is to find a place where you can have adult fun and keep the kids happy.
Plan ahead to keep the kids occupied and contented. Keep your backyard stocked with bubbles, bikes, sandwiches, and drinks so you and your spouse can sit down and relax with your children instead of jumping up every ten seconds to help a little one. On family trips, be prepared. Take along enough food, books and treats.
7) Laugh together. Tell jokes together, make funny faces, tickle each other. Do whatever it takes to keep your family smiling.
Privacy of Marriage
There is also a crucial need for couples to have private time. We need consistent time to relate to each other solely as lovers and adults without any interruption.
Parents often worry that their children will feel left out if they spend private time together. Naturally, your children want your attention every second of every day. But as long as they receive healthy love and attention from you, they will not suffer because you choose to spend time alone. In fact, it is a healthy message to send: you are in love and need time alone to work on your marriage.
It's a healthy message to send to your kids: you are in love and need time alone to work on your marriage.
Unfortunately, too many of us know the feeling of finally sitting with our spouse for a private moment, then staring at each other blankly, feeling out of practice in the art of romance, love, and simple chitchat. Your marriage can't afford to be "out of practice." You need time to bond and just "be" with each other, to remind each other what you love about each other, to smell the pleasant aura of your soul mate. Your kids will understand – if not now, then when they are older. They will appreciate what you've done for them: given them parents who dearly love each other and offered their kids a feeling of stability and a model for a strong marriage. By putting your marriage first, you've developed an intense love with your spouse that will overflow and extend into the loving relationship between parent and child and the entire family.
Excerpted from Emotional Infidelity, by M Gary Neuman. Visit Gary's site at www.mgaryneuman.com