I'll never forget the day I called my mother to share the weekend plans I'd made with my 5-year-old son, Aidan. "It's going to be great!" I chirped. "The two of us are taking a hike, and then we'll hit the science museum. There's also a new restaurant we want to try."
A long silence followed.
"What?" I prodded.
"I was just wondering what your poor husband's going to do while you're off having fun," Mom said.
"How should I know?" I asked, irritated that she'd question my special plans with my son. She clearly didn't realize how much times had changed. After all, when I was Aidan's age, family life wasn't focused on the kids. We used to play outside by ourselves all day and go to bed early. My parents would routinely trot off to cocktail parties, and my husband's parents took weeklong, child-free golf vacations.
The more I thought about it, though, I realized I couldn't remember the last time Dan and I had gone out alone on a Saturday night (never mind escaping the domestic doldrums for a whole week), because Aidan would scream every time a babysitter arrived. Dan and I weren't unhappy, but parenthood had more or less reduced us to a business partnership, complete with tax forms. We both worked, and we were like runners in a relay race, passing Aidan between us like a baton. We'd comforted ourselves with the fact that we were doing everything in our power to make our son's life educational and fun. We figured we had to: Aidan was a troubled sleeper and prone to acting out. We worried that if we didn't devote what little free time we had to him, he'd be even more difficult.
But I think my mom was right -- we were shortchanging our marriage, and even encouraging Aidan's attention-getting misbehavior. "Making your kids the center of your life may seem child-friendly, but it can create long-term unhappiness for everyone in the family," says David Code, an Episcopal minister and author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First (forthcoming in September from Crossroads). "Many couples believe their marriage is strong because they rarely argue," he says. "But the real marriage killer is when we distance ourselves from our spouse to keep the peace: We throw ourselves into parenting or work to avoid dealing with issues that cause conflict." And if you and your spouse become distant, it places pressure on your kids to fulfill your emotional needs.
After all, when you put your marriage on the back burner, your kids can sense the lack of closeness between you. "Kids whose parents' relationship has cooled are more likely to have behavioral or academic problems than kids of happy couples," says Philip Cowan, PhD, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied families for decades with his wife, psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD. Think of your relationship as the emotional environment in which your kids live. Just as you want them to breathe clean air and drink pure water, you want them to grow up in a loving atmosphere. "Even if you can't see yourself going out on a date for yourselves, do it for your kids," says Dr. Cowan. Consider the following ways to make your marriage more of a priority.