More than a few men joke that they fall third or fourth in their wives’ pecking order, after the kids and the dog. But for a lot of guys (and moms), it’s not really a joke. Many assume that’s the way it should be — after all, being a good parent means putting the kids’ needs first, no matter what. And because in this day and age parents are expected to be more attentive and accommodating to children than ever before, that’s a pretty all-consuming job.
But many psychologists and relationship experts push back on that idea, arguing that your spouse should come before your children. The theory is that without a strong marriage and loving home, kids won’t thrive, so you’re doing them a disservice by putting your spouse on the back burner, which can lead to marital trouble and even divorce. The question of who should come first is further complicated for religious couples, who also have to figure out where God fits into the hierarchy.
That you shouldn’t ruin your marriage for the sake of your children sounds like a no-brainer. And it’s unlikely anyone sets out to do so. But it happens a lot regardless. Many couples have trouble putting the theory into practice, or they think they need to focus solely on the kids while they’re small and can tend to the marriage later when the kids are more independent, a shift that can come too late to save the relationship.
But what does “putting your wife first” actually mean and look like in real life? How do you set boundaries with your kids while being a caring parent and husband? For that, we spoke to Linda and Charlie Bloom. They are licensed marriage and family therapists who have been married since the 1970s, as well as parents and authors of 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love Last, to add context to the conversation.
Where did this idea come from that kids should always be the top priority, and how might that be harmful?
Charlie Bloom: There’s definitely a strong cultural bias toward favoring or prioritizing the needs of children over the parents. I’m not sure exactly what the source of that is, but it might be a reaction from previous generations where the opposite was the case, where kids’ needs were put on the back burner and they were better being seen and not heard.
It’s gotten to the point now where parents are judged and ostracized if they don’t accommodate and even anticipate and provide for kids’ needs over the needs of their relationships. The danger of that is that not only will the couple’s relationship be neglected, which in most of these cases where there’s a lot of helicopter parenting going on, that’s the case. But the other thing is that children grow up with the expectation that the world is going to indulge them, which creates a sense of entitlement. We deal with this quite a bit because parents pick up this cultural bias toward favoring the needs of children above everyone else.
It’s gotten to the point now where parents are judged and ostracized if they don’t accommodate and even anticipate and provide for kids’ needs over the needs of their relationships.
What’s a good example of how parents subtly neglect their partners in favor of the children?
Linda Bloom: Weeks can go by with parents not checking in with each other, but they’ll check in with their kids every day, asking what they need, how they’re doing in school, chauffeuring them to ballet and piano lessons. They think that because adults are adults that they don’t have needs. Certainly, children’s needs shouldn’t be neglected, but devote some time during the week to nourish the romantic relationship, too. I’m a big believer in regular date nights and romantic getaways; you can also trade childcare with another family and take care of friends’ kids so they can go on a romantic getaway [and vice versa]. Those are some real, tangible things couples can do.
Do you think there’s a tendency for some parents to say, “I need to focus on my kids when they’re small and can get back to tending to my marriage later?”
LB: I have strong feelings about this, because there was a segment of time when Charlie and I were in our thirties when our careers got the lion’s share of our time and energy, and our children got the remainder. Our romantic partnership got the leftover crumbs; we subsisted on starvation rations for years, and it almost broke our family up, which would not have been good for our kids. That’s why I feel so strongly that people are playing with fire when they put careers and kids first and don’t pay attention to their romantic partnerships.
You spend 25 years raising your kids — it could be a long haul, especially with multiple children. And if you’ve neglected your domestic partnership during the time you spent so devoted to your children, you might end up being virtual strangers at the end of the two decades and might not even know each other very well. You may have accumulated resentments, sometimes on both sides, by not having your adult needs met. And in the end, you didn’t do your kids much of a favor, because you didn’t give them a model of a good partnership. That leads to them feeling nervous and confused and frightened about creating committed, fulfilling partnerships when they become adults.
People are playing with fire when they put careers and kids first and don’t pay attention to their romantic partnerships.
What, exactly, does “putting your spouse in front of the kids” actually look like?
CB: I’m not comfortable with that term, and I certainly hear it a lot: ‘Who do you put first?’ It’s a generic question, as if there’s one answer that applies to all situations. Ultimately, it’s a case-by-case basis. But part of it is expressing your appreciation and gratitude for your partner. We often stroke kids and acknowledge their terrific poem or great game they played, but we don’t acknowledge what we appreciate about our partners. Not protecting kids from our arguments is also part of being emotionally honest with kids and with each other.
That reminds me of a recent study that found that arguing behind closed doors for the sake of the children might not be as beneficial to kids’ mental health as previously thought, because they pick up on the ill will between parents.
CB: I think there’s a lot of validity in that conclusion. One of the dangers inherent in being very careful not to express any differences in front of the children is that kids never learn how to deal with differences. There are people who have come from families in which that rule was followed religiously who came into adulthood relationships without a clue about how to deal with differences. They think, oh, if we have differences, something must be really wrong, because Mom and Dad never had ’em. Of course it’s not a good idea to have destructive, hurtful arguments in front of children, but it is important they observe the differences that all parents have with each other so they won’t be afraid of them and won’t judge themselves in adult relationships when they have them.
LB: Kids need to see that you can come through an argument with some completion and resolution and also that people can get some of what they want but not everything they want, every time. [In addition] it can be scary for them to feel there’s something going on behind a door and not know what it is and imagine it’s something unspeakable.
Do you think when parents hear the “Who should come first?” question they think it means they have to choose whom they love more? Is that what “coming first” ultimately means?
CB: ‘Who comes first?’ is really asking, do you love me as much as the kids/mom? It’s kind of a setup of a question, and it might sound like a cop-out to say, ‘I love you all equally.’ What you’re really saying is, ‘I do love you both, but there are times when it looks to me like the best decision to make is this decision, and most of the time that decision is going to disappoint one of you. I hope you can understand when I do that it’s not because I love you any less or the other person deserves more, it’s because, in my judgment at that time, it felt like the right decision to make.’
Rather than try to answer that question that there isn’t a generic answer for, what we want to encourage parents to do is provide an example of discerning and recognizing the needs of kids and your partner when it appears that those needs are incongruent with each other. Kids should see that parents are considering both sets of needs and not assume that they will always win or the other parent will always win. Children are obviously much more dependent on their parents for help, but there are times when there’s a conflict between being responsive to the needs of the partner and the needs of the child. What’s important is that there isn’t a consistent pattern when this difference appears.
Kids should see that parents are considering both sets of needs and not assume that they will always win or the other parent will always win.
LB: There’s a couple we talk about in Secrets of Great Marriages who have a blended family, Jane and Michael, who both had girls around 5 or 6 years old by previous marriages. One of Michael’s girls was, even at that tender age, quite a pistol. And she didn’t like it that Michael married Jane and she was out to break them up. She was miserable to Jane, uncooperative and nasty, and at first, Michael was taking her side, and Jane was triangled out when she tried giving her feedback or disciplined her about how contrary she was being. So they had a very important showdown kind of a meeting and Jane told Michael, ‘You have to back me up more. I’m not being cruel or unnecessarily harsh with her, and she needs some feedback that this behavior is not acceptable.’
It was a major turning point in their relationship when they decided to put the marriage first, and they claimed they wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t made the decision to go on vacations together and come together in the daily parenting of the girls. And they didn’t neglect the children’s needs. They were both very devoted parents.
How do you set healthy boundaries with kids that help safeguard the marriage?
CB: Parents need to talk about where the boundaries are in their families and what the expectations are. Things like, ‘How often is it okay for the kids to share our bed with us? Do they have right to whenever they want?’ are questions parents should be talking about, because there is no definitive, generic answer for every family. The main factor is the degree to which the parents are both aligned and on the same page. Most kids want as much attention and influence as they can get, so parents are continually challenged and in a position where they feel like they have to make decisions about the needs of the child. And that requires parents to be continually in communication with each other about these things. To the degree that they’re not, the children can find ways to get in the cracks and widen the cracks and divide and conquer. So it’s important for parents to continually check in with each other, as Linda mentioned, to see where they stand.
You’re not going to be on the same page about everything, but kids should learn that they’re dealing with two people that they can’t necessarily split up by their coercive or manipulative efforts.
Most kids want as much attention and influence as they can get, so parents are continually challenged and in a position where they feel like they have to make decisions about the needs of the child. And that requires parents to be continually in communication with each other about these things.
LB: When our kids were infants, they spent a lot of time in our bed, and when they got bigger, I got a king-size bed to accommodate us all. Our kids would come into bed with us in the morning and they knew they would be welcome, but in the evenings, they learned that nighttime was adult time and they knew not to interrupt us unless it was something extreme. I could count on Charlie and I having that time together. But I’ve had clients where some parents, usually fathers, start to feel sexually deprived and like second-class citizens because his wife was so into the kids. These are the kinds of conversations you need to have [about expectations and boundaries that work for your family].
Have you found that some parents might throw all their energy and attention into their kids because — maybe subconsciously — they don’t want to face problems in their marriages?
CB: Unquestionably. It’s very common, and what’s connected to that in many cases is that one of the parents has transferred their need for intimacy from their partner to their children. And that partner is getting their emotional needs met, while the other partner is hung out to dry. So they are very much at risk for getting into bad behavior, such as an addiction, an affair, because there’s no one there. The other parent has usurped that relationship with the children and in some ways might have even demonized the other parent by saying bad things about him or her to kids. So the whole system can get totally out of whack and unbalanced.
You’ve said that you got some criticism for recommending that married couples put each other before their children. I wonder if it has something to do with sex, like putting your spouse first implies that your sex life is important and that offends people who think your sex life shouldn’t be as important as raising “God’s children” maybe?
CB: It’s interesting that you used the phrase ‘God’s children,’ because what we’ve found is that the people from whom we get the strongest blowback are people very identified with religion. A lot of the pushback comes from more traditionally oriented people who seem to just feel uncomfortable with the shifting roles we’ve seen in the last two decades. I think a lot of it is a strong attachment to the traditional model and resistance to expanding interpretations and understanding of how a family should operate.
LB: Being overly involved with the children can distract you from yours and your partners’ sexual and emotional needs, which a lot of people have fears and trepidations about. It’s easier to be involved with the children than with a peer; they’re playing in an arena in which they feel more comfortable. There are a lot of conversations that need to happen about that, and some people don’t want to touch it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.