Put your marriage before your kids

It's the key to raising a healthy family.

American parents shoot ourselves in the foot by making our children the center of our universe. And we certainly don't help our kids, either.

Child-centered families create anxious, exhausted parents and demanding, entitled kids who act out. Schools are overwhelmed by children's special needs and a spirit of community is draining from our neighborhoods. As these self-absorbed kids enter the workplace, America's global leadership and ability to compete will be seriously compromised.

But we can create healthy families and raise tomorrow's leaders – if we focus on our marriages instead of our children.

In my pastoral counseling as an Episcopal minister, I share people's joy at their weddings and baptisms, as well as the agony of their divorces. Today I see more kids acting out, more parents turning to medication, and more single parents in serious financial difficulty.

The intact family is an endangered species. The odds a marriage will eventually end in divorce, according to studies at the John Gottman Institute, are cause for concern. For example, a couple married in 1950 had only a 30 percent chance of divorce, and couples married in 1970 had about a 50 percent chance of splitting. But a 1990 marriage has a 67 percent likelihood of ending, and the divorce rate continues to climb. People are losing faith in love.

As I visit so many households full of misery, I see good, committed couples with the best of intentions end up either fighting or fleeing each other, like wild animals. That flight-response seems to control much more of our behavior than we realize.

There are many subtle ways we avoid our spouses every day. Our distancing behaviors may include staying at work late, or switching on the TV, or making our children the center of our universe.

Most of us would never dream that putting our children before our marriage could be a flight response. We often believe we just don't have time for our spouse. But the truth is, we often feel more love for our kids than for our spouse. When two parents drift apart from each other, often one parent will drift closer to the kids.

We parents convince ourselves that putting our kids first is child-friendly, but we make two main mistakes by doing so.

First, it becomes harder to respect and enforce the boundaries that shape a child's character, so he simply badgers his parents until he gets his way. Future bosses and spouses may not be so patient with this behavior.

Second, we put tremendous pressure on our children to fulfill our emotional needs, which may lead to the child acting out. This draws even more attention to the problem, as parents anxiously seek a diagnosis and physicians increasingly rely on medicating children. What had been a molehill suddenly becomes a mountain, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that can cripple the child's development and the future of our citizenry.

So here's the solution: To raise great kids, focus on your marriage. There are three keys to a successful marriage and family:

1) Recognize that we've already chosen the perfect spouse. No, we would NOT choose better next time;

2) Recognize how often our fight-or-flight instinct overrides our passion in marriage. To create a happy marriage, we need to go from the fantasy, "It's his/her fault that I'm unhappy" to the truth, "I wouldn't do any better in my next marriage, so I might as well give 100 percent to this one;" and

3) Recognize that if we build a great marriage, we create a great role model for our kids, and they learn self-reliance and cooperation in the process.

As long as you believe your life is your spouse's fault, a new partner will always seem attractive. But once you begin to see your role in the ongoing, lifelong problems of your marriage, you'll recognize that if you started over with a new partner tomorrow, you'd still be carrying all your personal baggage into that relationship.

And that's where accepting our spouse creates a positive chain reaction. Commitment forces us to be more forgiving because we have given ourselves no choice but to work things out. It also forces us to be more outspoken and negotiate a relationship we can live with.

Thus, we can accept arguments as the natural storms they are, rather than as a harbinger of divorce. A nun once told me that marriage is like tying two donkeys together at the neck: All that rubbing together irritates the burrs on their flanks; but over the years, those burrs eventually rub off.

In the end, the greatest gift we can give our kids (and ourselves) is to become citizens of honor and loyalty in our own marriages. That way, our kids can grow up with a model of what marriage can be. The second bonus is that when kids are no longer the center of the family, they can learn self-reliance and cooperation, and become citizens instead of consumers.

Instead of trying to create perfect childhoods for our kids by making them the center of our universe, we should focus on creating a good marriage. Then the rest falls into place.

David Code is an Episcopal minister, family coach, and founder of the Center for Staying Married & Raising Great Kids.

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