This week before Valentine’s Day is a good time to remember why those of us with bonus children need to make our marriages our top priority -- even more of a priority than our children. As parents, we know that we need to put our children’s needs ahead of our own. We should not put them ahead of our marriages.
An important caveat, 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 unsafe, then you should exit. No relationship is worth any compromise of safety.
In the vast majority of cases, though, we are talking about physically and emotionally safe relationships with the common and unavoidable problems of two people trying to build a family. That marriage is the foundation of a healthy and functioning family. Your children need many of the things that you can offer, but their most critical need is to see how you keep your marriage together. They already have seen far too many adult relationships fall apart. If you cannot show them what a functioning marriage looks like from the inside, they may never see one.
I know that making your marriage a priority can be hard, even agonizing. My husband and I had few problems the first few years of our marriage. His sons and I bonded, he and I agreed on how to respond to most things, and we had relatively few conflicts. Our commitments were all in balance and working well together.
All of that changed when a teenager joined us whose trauma was deep and overwhelming. My husband had never seen anything like it. I had seen that sort of trauma before, but I had never had to coordinate my responses with another adult. I also had internalized so many of my responses that I had forgotten why I knew much of what I knew. We couldn’t agree on how to respond to the teen’s issues, and eventually it seemed that we spent most of our time arguing.
We managed to survive that time with our marriage intact, but I learned firsthand how difficult the process can be. I do not judge those whose marriages cannot weather family crises. But I also know that our children desperately need us to model for them how to build a healthy and lasting marriage.
Your children probably will 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. Find parenting guides that will help you know how to respond to those incidents (or just keep following this blog). For now, just know that you need to be prepared with a response that keeps your marriage as your first priority.