Putting your children second might seem counterintuitive, but science says your marriage should come first. Here's why.

By Stephanie Montes
April 24, 2019
Emma Darvick

Two years ago, my husband Jerry and I honeymooned in Italy with a tour group made up of 20 strangers, all of whom were decades older than us (some upwards of 65 years old). We met an older couple who shared some unsolicited but appreciated firsthand marriage advice—they urged us to put each other above everyone else in our lives. Good advice! But then, the older man clarified: "Even after you have kids, you two come first."

I was a young newlywed enjoying the perks of vacationing in a beautiful country without children, and even then, I raised a brow and cocked my head to the side in disbelief. Didn't that go against all the rules of parenthood?

His wife added, "Someday, your kids will go off and start their own families. The only one left by your side will be your significant other." When she put it that way, it didn't seem so selfish.

Had this couple figured it all out? Is putting your children second—only to your marriage—the secret to familial success? I admit it didn't take much convincing for me to put my future children second.

Two years later, the topic of putting your kids second went mainstream. Ayesha Curry, mom of three and wife of Golden State Warriors star player Stephen Curry, made headlines when she told HelloGiggles.com that the secret to her successful marriage "is just making sure that we put each other first, even before the kids, as tough as that sounds." I took comfort in knowing that there was another couple (a young couple, at that) validating my decision to put my husband first. But her comment sparked some serious debate on social media about whether putting your significant other before your little ones makes you a bad parent.

Relationship and family experts will tell you it doesn't. And it's not such a bad idea to pay a little extra attention to your spouse, especially since "multiple researchers have shown a precipitous drop in the level of marital satisfaction in the first three years of a new baby," says Liz Colizza, a licensed professional counselor and head of research at Lasting, a relationship counseling app. In fact, 67 percent of all couples experience a drop, while only 33 percent maintain their level of satisfaction, according to research published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Financial worries, lack of sleep, postpartum depression, and sometimes even jealousy over the baby's attention are all common factors that contribute to a rocky relationship for new parents. But the bond between them is critical, and the marital health of parents can affect kids. Colizza, who is based in Saint Louis, Missouri, explains, "the single largest factor in determining a child's social, emotional, and cognitive development is the emotional connection between the parents."

And while it might seem counterintuitive to prioritize your spouse when you have children, you will inadvertently also be teaching them a valuable lesson. "You are [your child's] biggest example and modeling how to take care of yourself is one of the best ways you can encourage them to develop great skills of self-care as well," says Alisha Powell, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Atlanta, Georgia.

But I'm not saying prioritizing a marriage gives parents the permission to neglect their kids—it's not about that. You are (and always will be) responsible for the well-being of your child. The goal here is to preserve your mental health, maintain a healthy romantic relationship, and not lose sense of the reason you and your spouse got together in the first place. When mom and dad are happy, the children will be, too.

That's why Jerry and I have vowed to keep up with regular date nights and try to continue taking our annual wedding anniversary trips (even if it's just an overnight staycation). Plus, this gives the kids an opportunity to spend some quality time with their grandparents—they're already calling babysitting dibs anyway.

Happy parents, happy family? I really do think so.

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