Last month, we discussed why self-care is an important foundation for a strong family. This month we’ll discuss why our next most important priority needs to be our marriages. Those of us with foster and bonus children need to make having a successful marriage a top priority, even ahead of our children. This principle goes against our instincts and our current child-centered culture, but it is the right thing for our families on many levels.
Why Prioritize Our Marriages
There’s no doubt that blending a family that includes non-biological children is hard work. We all start (or should start) parenting knowing that it requires a lot of sacrificial love for our children. On top of that, stepparents have to face the natural tendency of children to expect their biological parent to “side with” them instead of the stepparent. Biological parents also have almost primal protective instincts to agree with their children, particularly young children, over adults, including spouses. Moreover, foster and bonus children will instinctively recognize and exploit disagreements between parents. All of these dynamics make it very important that we recognize our instincts and actively avoid the trap of child-centered marriages. Sacrificing for our children is a good thing, but it does not help them if we let them become the center of the universe, either their universe or ours.
Giving your marriage higher priority doesn’t mean that you always pick regular date nights over your child’s band concert or sports game. On any given day, you’ll have to put your needs on the back burner to care for your kids. But at the end of the day, all of your choices about little things need to add up to your marriage being your first priority. As explained below, there are some very important caveats and reasons for that principle.
Caveat: Only Safe Relationships are Worth Protecting
An important condition, of course, is that I am talking about a healthy and safe marriage. People in social services fields hear far too many stories of people who stayed with abusive spouses and left their children at risk. Safety is not optional. If any of your relationships leaves anyone in your life physically or emotionally unsafe, then you need to find a way to leave it. No relationship, including marriage, is worth any compromise of safety.
In the vast majority of cases, though, we are talking about physically and emotionally safe relationships grappling with the common and unavoidable problems of trying to blend people with different histories into a solid family. Keeping that marriage strong is the only hope for a healthy and functioning family.
Four Reasons A Happy Marriage Is Important For Your Family
The first two reasons you should prioritize your marriage relate to the benefits to the adults. The next two are the ways that your children benefit. In other words, you are not shortchanging your children by putting your marriage ahead of them. You actually are doing exactly what you need to do to meet your needs, your spouse’s needs, and your children’s needs.
1. A Strong Marriage is Part of Self-Care. Being disconnected from your spouse takes up far too many of your resources. You simply cannot be at your best when you don’t have support from the other parent in the family. You will end up feeling overwhelmed, lonely, and resentful while trying to take care of everyone. Marital conflict ends up harming the whole family.
By contrast, when you are part of a healthy marriage, you have a partner and best friend in the craziness of parenting. A connected loving relationship gives you more emotional energy to deal with your children and the rest of the world. In that sense, strengthening your marriage is one of the best things you can do for self-care. It also makes both of you better parents, contributing to your personal growth and your kids’ security. Meeting the needs of the marriage is an essential first step to meeting both our and our children’s emotional needs.
2. A Strong Marriage Lasts Longer Than Parenting. A second reason is the simple calculus that your spouse will be a central part of your life longer than your children will. Our entire job as parents is to help our children become independent, functioning adults with their own separate lives. To quote one writer, “If you’ve done your job as parents, one day your home is mostly going to hold you, your partner and devices for sending your kids messages that they then ignore.”
While we all want to maintain loving relationships with our kids, they eventually will be living on their own and making their own decisions. When we become empty nesters, we want our spouses to still be part of our lives. To still have that committed and loving marriage when our kids are living their own separate lives, we have to care for and protect our marriage now.
3. A Strong Marriage Gives Your Kids An Important Anchor. A strong marriage also helps meet your kids’ needs. Long-standing research is clear that children function best when their parents have a loving and stable marriage. Our relationship is one of the anchors of our children’s lives — if our marriage is solid, then that anchor is solid. If not, then they have that much less structure in their already chaotic lives.
Now, our kids may not want us to have a strong marriage. Sometimes children reject a stepparent, whether out of loyalty to a biological parent, unresolved grief, or simple personality conflicts. Foster children also may not want anyone in the place of their biological families. Children may test your commitment to your marriage just as they will test your commitment to them. Some will do it deliberately; others will do it instinctively. They may explicitly demand that you put them first, or they may just create crises that make them the temporary center of attention.
Nevertheless, like most structures in their lives, children need more than they want. They need to know that the family has a strong and stable foundation. It is our job to give our children what they need, not what they want. A strong marriage relationship that presents a united front is an important way to make our kids’ lives better.
4. A Strong Marriage Shows Our Kids How It’s Done. Another final reason that our kids will benefit if we prioritize our marriages is that they need to see how loving adults work through a crisis and keep a marriage together. They already have seen far too many adult relationships fall apart. If we cannot show them what a healthy romantic relationship looks like from the inside, they may never see one. It is our job to model for them how to forge strong, stable, and healthy relationships. By watching us, they can learn practical ways to build emotional connections and keep marriages strong even in the middle of chaos. More importantly, they will learn that great marriages are not just the stuff of fairy tales.
Parenting always is a challenging task, but parenting children who have experienced trauma is a whole new dimension. The only way to do it well is to start with being sure your marriage is more of a priority than your children. That principle goes against our instincts, and certainly against our current child-centered culture. But it’s really the best way to give ourselves the emotional resources we need, give our children the secure foundation they need for their lives, and show them how to work through problems to keep adult relationships strong. We may be the only people in their lives who can do that for them.