For Kate Lamonica and her husband, David, the decision to put marriage before kids was made before they became parents. “Before we got married, we went to ‘marriage class’ at our church and one of the things they really stressed was this idea of being on the same page as parents and as people, and the importance of finding the time and energy to prioritize your relationship above all else,” the mom of two says. “For some reason, it really hit a nerve—it was one of those things that we had never really discussed, but we immediately realized it was exactly what we wanted to model in our relationship and as parents.”
For some couples, this is a strange notion—the idea of putting each other “above” their children feels uncomfortable, something Nicole McCance, a registered psychologist and relationship expert in Toronto, says is normal but unnecessary. “If, say, Mom and Dad are solid and respect each other, the whole family unit flows more smoothly.” In fact, putting your marriage before your kids just means, “making your partner feel like a priority and showing that you are committed to the partnership—and know that the strength of this bond will overflow onto the kids.” Read on to find out how making your partner your number one benefits not just your marriage but your brood.
Seems obvious, right? A strong bond absolutely has a positive impact on children. When the parental unit doesn’t function, well, like a unit, it puts stress on the whole family—including the wee ones. McCance sees it in her own practice, particularly when it comes to moms. “With my clients, the wives will often put the kids first. Then their partners often say that they feel like they’re on the bottom of her list… even after the dog! Eventually, they start to feel alone and as a result, they retreat. This causes tension in the relationship, which children almost always pick up on.”
That’s something Lamonica and her husband have largely avoided. “I think we model a well-balanced relationship,” she says. “We fight and we make up—completely transparently to our kids—but in the end, we’re always modelling a healthy and committed relationship.” And, she says, as her kids grow up (they’re now teens) they’re learning about what they should look for in partners of their own. “It’s my hope that they can learn from us what a real relationship looks like so that they too look forward to finding the significant other that they’ll head on this crazy journey called life with.”
Yashy Murphy agrees. A mom who runs a social media marketing company and blogs with her husband, Chris, about maintaining their pre-baby lives, she says prioritizing her marriage lays a great foundation for her kids’ relationships. “They have grown up to see us dedicate time and energy into our marriage, and they’ve seen the joy we have when we’re together.”
Here’s something you might not have considered—there’s actually plenty of research that suggests parenthood can have a negative impact on happiness and marital satisfaction. A 2015 headline in the Washington Post blared, “It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment—even the death of a partner.” (There were lots of similar headlines that summer; the source was a study in the journal Demography.) And last year, the Telegraph reported: “Parenthood leaves half of mothers and fathers feeling lonely.”
Much of that unhappiness can be explained by the new dynamic kids bring to a relationship. “The arrival of children changes how couples interact,” Matthew Johnson, a professor of psychology and the director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory at the State University of New York, explains in a 2016 editorial for Fortune. “Parents often become more distant and businesslike with each other
as they attend to the details of parenting… These changes can be profound. Fundamental identities may shift—from wife to mother, or, at a more intimate level, from lovers to parents. Even in same-sex couples, the arrival of children predicts less relationship satisfaction and sex.”
You’re in luck, says McCance—there’s lots of little things you can do to strengthen your relationship. “Try to reconnect with your partner. Try date nights on a weekly basis—it’s amazing how connected you can feel with alone time. Commit to hugging your partner every morning and as soon as you get home from work. Physical touch releases the hormone oxytocin, which is the attachment hormone.” And, adds McCance, if you need some extra help and feel like you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, it’s worth trying couples’ counselling.
For Lamonica and her husband, the little things are enough to keep their marriage strong. “We’re really crappy at making the big gestures, but we make tiny choices in our everyday that bring us together and give us the opportunity to get closer, to talk more, to unite more,” she says. For example, they’re a one-car family, which they use as an opportunity to spend time with one another. “We do a lot of things together—working out, groceries, errands—and that means we have lots of time to talk about the weather, our kids, politics and about our relationship.”
Parents of younger kids, take heart—Lamonica is quick to acknowledge that having older kids makes following this advice a bit easier. “I have the benefit of a perspective that so many young couples just don’t have yet. My kids are teenagers and they’re so much more self-sufficient than they were when they were younger. While our priorities never changed, those early years were hard.”
Murphy, whose kids are still young, says it isn’t easy—but it’s worth it. “My husband and I are in this parenting game together and I honestly could not do everything I do without his support,” she says. Focusing on our marriage is focusing on our family. It’s important for me that we support each other. It’s the reason we got together in the first place.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Spring/Summer 2018