Understanding Relationships – Spouse or Child: Who’s First in Your Heart?

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By Gary Moore 

When you think about having children, words like sacrifice and love come to mind. When you welcome a child into your relationship, you experience selflessness and a love that is profound. There aren’t adequate words to describe falling in love with your child. Falling in love with your partner is one thing, but the kind of falling in love that happens the first time you hold your newborn baby is like being hit with a meteor. There’s no doubt that children need, demand, and deserve your love, time, and attention, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of your primary relationship with each other. 

So let me ask you. Do you put your marriage first? 

In 2005 Ayelet Waldman wrote an essay that appeared in the New York Times. The title was “Truly, Madly, Guiltily.” In it she confessed that she loved her husband more than her children. It caused an uproar that continues today. She still stands by it and says, “If you focus all your emotional passion on your children and you neglect the relationship that brought that family into existence…eventually, things can go really, really wrong. I have not been a perfect mother, but giving my children a sense of security in their parents’ relationship is something that I feel really proud of.” 

Eventually, if everything goes according to plan, your children will leave the house. And when it’s just the two of you once again, your relationship is going to be lacking if you haven’t maintained your intimacy or your connection. 

Sociologist Ernest Burgess was one of the first people to study married couples. In the 1930s he wanted to develop a scientific measure to predict the success rate of marriages. His studies showed that beginning with newlyweds, and as you went further along the married life spectrum, marital satisfaction was a U-shaped curve. Marital satisfaction began plummeting after the wedding and then took a big downward dive when the first child arrived – taking bigger nosedives with every subsequent child. If the couple didn’t divorce while at the bottom, then marital satisfaction began increasing when the youngest child left home. This wasn’t just true for the early part of the 20th century. According to Dr. John Gottman, this is currently the norm. 

Dr. Gottman’s own newlywed study found that for those couples who have a child within an average of four years after getting married, 67 percent have a precipitous drop in marital happiness in the first three years of the baby’s life. But a third of all couples who became parents didn’t have a drop in relationship happiness. So, Dr. Gottman chose to look closely at both sets of couples three months after the wedding to see if there were some differences he could see. Were there pre-baby birth differences that would predict which group the couple would be in post-baby? What he found was that the men who were more respectful to their wives, and more accepting of their wife’s influence or opinions, were more likely not to have a drop in marital satisfaction after children are born. 

These same men were also dramatically different while their wives were pregnant. They were involved. They talked to the baby and they also complimented their partner, telling her she’s beautiful and wise about how she’s caring for their baby in utero. 

In the “MUM’s the Word” weekend seminars I do, one of the handouts is two-sided and titled Circles of Life. The circle on one side represents your Relationship and the circle on the other side represents your Emotional Energy. The circles each represent a 24-hour day. I instruct the attendees to take the Relationship circle and draw figures representing the husband and wife. When first married, this is your relationship. You establish a way of interacting and reacting to each other. Anytime anything new comes into or goes out of the Relationship circle, all the relationships within the circle change whether you recognize it or not. They have to because the circle is a constant (24 hours). 

I then instruct the attendees to draw a child in the circle. This one event probably causes the most change in the husband-wife relationship. You can’t expect the husband-wife relationship to stay the same. It won’t. The problem comes when we expect it to and don’t recognize that it has changed. Also, in the beginning, there are only some things a mom can do – e.g., nurse the child. And, it’s during this time that many men feel the added pressure of adequately providing for the family. He thus begins to spend more time and emotional energy on his job and career. If you aren’t aware of this dynamic, you will begin silently drifting apart and you will end up in Dr. Gottman’s 67 percent group. 

Carve out special time to focus on each other. Continue to have a satisfying sex life and continue to build rituals for connection and intimacy. 

One of the greatest gifts for a child is a loving relationship between parents. This is the foundation that he or she will build on for a lifetime. 

 

Gary Moore served as associate pastor at Cloverdale Church of God for 15 years. He does couples’ coaching and leads couples’ workshops and retreats called MUM’s the Word. He does a weekly radio program called Life Point Plus on KBXL 94.1FM at 8:45 a.m. on Fridays. Monday mornings at 10 a.m. he does live relationship teaching called MUM Live on his Facebook page Mutual Understanding Method. He may be contacted at [email protected]. 

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