Healthy Marriage, Happy Kids!

With Valentine’s Day two days away, I feel inspired to write about how marital relationships affect our kids.

John Gottman, one of the world’s leading researchers and experts on marriage said, “The greatest gift you can give your child is a strong relationship between the two of you.”

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By modeling a loving, healthy marriage, you not only nurture your relationship with your spouse, you also teach your children by example how a successful relationship works and what to expect in their own adult relationships.

From watching you, your children learn things like respect vs. disrespect, appreciation vs. ingratitude, compassion vs. insensitivity, trust vs. distrust, and companionship vs. hostility or aloofness. Fostering your marital relationship helps your children feel happy and secure. They feel comforted by witnessing the two of you treating each other with respect, showing affection, and working together as a team.  When kids pick up on marital tension, it causes them to feel insecure and anxious, which can lead to problems such as poor grades, aggressive behavior, low self-esteem, and depression.

I’ll be the first to admit (ashamedly), that after the birth of my first daughter, I let my marriage fall by the wayside. You would think that, with all of my training and education in Marriage and Family Therapy, I would know a thing or two about the subject. However, no amount of graduate-level classes or counseling hours could adequately prepare me for the reality of bringing my own child into the world. I, like so many others, naively assumed that because my husband and I loved each other, we would always be there for each other and we would always work things out between us. Y’know, til death do us part?

Well, after Marissa was born, I became an anxious control freak who criticized Gavin more than I showed him appreciation. I took our relationship for granted.  I prioritized being a mother over being a wife and we rarely spent time together doing the things we used to do…socializing with others, exercising together, cooking together, talking about our hopes and dreams. Everything became about Marissa.  Our day-to-day lives were consumed with everything we thought we should do for Marissa, rather than how we should be for Marissa. I was obsessed with making all of the “right” choices as a parent, while neglecting the most important choice of all: nurturing my relationship with my child’s father.

While I don’t take responsibility for every problem in my marriage, I do take full responsibility for my part in creating and maintaining at least some of them. And since the only person I can control is me, the only person I can change is me. The truth is that things got so off track, I need to make a daily effort to strengthen my marriage, and I firmly believe that my marriage, my children, and I are worth it.  And, if I can help even one couple appreciate each other more and avoid going down the same road that I did, it would be a great achievement.

As of now, there are more than 55,000 books about relationships on Amazon.com… I obviously can’t touch on all the issues out there that affect parents. So, in deciding what information to include in this post, I chose to focus on three really basic, but important principles that are fundamental to creating and maintaining a strong marriage.  I also realized that much of what I have already written with regard to connecting with your kids also applies to your relationship with your spouse, so go re-read my other posts!

Before I go any further, however, I want to make clear that if you are involved with someone who is physically, verbally, or emotionally abusive to you or your children, you must seek immediate professional help. The safety of you and your children takes priority over everything else, and the suggestions I make in this post, though helpful, are in no way intended to address those issues.

In addition, I realize that you may be divorced or a single parent by choice. All relationships we have as adults are important models for our children…but for the purpose of this post I am focusing on the relationships of parents who are still married, and may be struggling to make their marriage survive and thrive.

And the three basic principles are (drumroll)…

1. Be polite. This is so simple, yet often the first thing couples let slide. Think back to the times you were so excited to see your partner at the end of the day or talk to each other on the phone. Nowadays, do you even look up from the TV to notice when he walks into the room? Do you hang up the phone (or at least briefly put it down) to offer a kiss hello?  Are your language and tone of voice respectful?  Your children need to see you making these simple and courteous gestures. Greet each other when you walk in the house. Kiss and hug each other when coming and going. Smile at each other more. Say “please” and “thank you.”  Listen without interrupting.  Your children will notice.

2. Be your spouse's biggest fan. “To love and cherish.”  The word “cherish” is synonymous with “treasure,” “value,” and “appreciate.”  When you stop cherishing one another, it is only a matter of time before your relationship starts to decline.  Express gratitude to your spouse several times a day and point out his/her good qualities.  Don't wait for the other person to do it first and don't expect a “thank you” or a compliment in return.  One of you has to get the ball rolling and since you're the one reading this and you can't control your spouse, you're “it.”  Everyone likes to feel acknowledged and appreciated for what they do and who they are, and focusing on what you’re grateful for also helps you stay positive. When your children see you expressing gratitude, they learn to be appreciative, too.

3. Spend quality time together. In our fast-paced world, all couples seem starved for time. Add kids to the picture and if you don't make time as a couple a top priority, you can literally go days without seeing one another. In her book, The Weekend Marriage: Abundant Love in a Time-Starved World, Mira Kirshenbaum makes a great point. She says that when time with your spouse decreases, the good and bad interactions between you do not shrink in the same proportions. Conflict takes up the majority of time spent together and the good times get pushed out. In other words: less time = more problems.

The advice Kirshenbaum gives is to focus on quality, not quantity of time. Instead of just trying to spend as much time as possible together, spend time doing things that will bring you closer together. Spend the limited time you have together doing things you enjoy and that will make you look back on that time and think, “Wow.  That was fun!”

valentineYou may be thinking, “Ugh! Pam, I’m so exhausted at the end of the day and I don't have the energy.” Or, “I feel too much resentment towards my spouse.  I just don’t feel like doing any of these loving things.” That’s ok. Remember in this post I talked about love being an action as well as a feeling? You don’t actually need to feel loving in order to do loving things. In fact, the more you do loving things, the more loving you will feel! It’s like exercising. If most of us waited until we felt motivated to go to the gym, we would never go. But once we are there, we feel really good about ourselves and actually want to exercise more. (The same is true for lots of activities — from doing community service to having sex! Don’t wait until you’re in the mood, just do it.)

If your marriage is suffering, you may feel overwhelmed by how many issues there are to tackle.  You won't fix your relationship overnight, so start by taking these small steps.  If, on the other hand, you are thinking, “There's nothing wrong with my marriage.  My marriage is great!” then make sure you are incorporating these three things into your life so your marriage stays there.  Remember: When you work on your relationship, your kids benefit, too!

Now it's your turn to weigh in.  How did your marriage change after you had kids?  How do you think your relationship with your spouse affects your kids?  Are there other tips you want to share for keeping marriage healthy?  How are you celebrating Valentine's Day?  Thanks for reading…I look forward to your comments.

Showing 4 comments
  • Larry
    Reply

    I’m always delighted to read what you have to say. Your posts are always well written, insightful, and thought-provoking. The fact that you share so many of your own experiences makes your observations and suggestions believable so that I feel personally connected rather than being preached to. Your 2/12/13 post is an especially good example of that. Looking forward to more!

    • Pam Howard
      Reply

      Thanks, Larry! It’s nice to see a comment from a man on here…glad you’re finding the blog helpful. Keep reading!

  • Ami Stein
    Reply

    Yes, another good post…I just love reading your posts!! I always get something out of them…

  • Laura
    Reply

    Thank you, Pam for another great post!! This couldn’t have come at a better time with Vday just around the corner and romance seems to be a thing of the past. I agree that the only thing you can control is yourself… so thank you for reminding me of those three basic (and important) things to strengthen the marriage! I will be working on them tonight! 😉

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