Who comes first-your marriage or your kids? It's a hotly debated issue that gained more traction in March 2013 after E! News host Giuliana Rancic told reporters where she and her husband Bill Rancic stood on the topic: "For us, I find, we put our marriage first and our child second, because the best thing we can do for him is have a strong marriage," she said.
Her comment triggered backlash that continues on today. Proponents of Rancic's theory are accused of being selfish parents, while those who believe children take priority are deemed overbearing helicopters-so, who is right?
"Generally, the marriage should take priority," says Laurie Puhn, creator of the "Fight Less, Love More" course based on her bestselling book. "However, the issue is controversial because people aren't really clear about what that means. Putting your marriage first doesn't mean neglecting your kids-it means investing in the fundamental glue that holds your family together."
The Internal Struggle
"In a perfect world, women could balance motherhood and marriage equally, but the pressure to be the ideal parent can be intense," says Puhn. More women are working than ever before and dealing with longer hours and inflexible schedules. "That makes many feel guilty, so to compensate, some women devote all of their free time to their kids," she says.
In addition, the pressure to succeed has a trickle-down effect on children. We all know kids who are overscheduled with piano lessons, soccer games and gymnastics. According to Puhn, these parents tend to be so anxious about their children's future successes that life at home becomes child-centric. And finally, there's a social stigma to focusing first on the marriage. "Since baby boomers didn't really contend with this question-many were stay-at-home mothers while their husbands worked-it's ingrained in our psyche that the kids are the most important people in the family," she says. "Thinking differently is taboo."
The Case for Marriage
Let's be clear: With a full-time job, partner, kids and an endless to-do list, it's only natural that things like date night can fall by the wayside. "But your marriage is an entity that blossoms or dies depending on how you treat it," says Puhn. "Both people need to feel respected, loved and valued. Without those elements, you won't be spouses, only roommates and parents. Neglect each other long enough and you'll also be strangers."
What's more, having a tense partner dynamic, especially one with frequent arguing, is unhealthy for children. Research conducted by Gordon Harold, an expert in child development in the U.K., shows that parents who have poorly resolved, nasty fights have anxious and depressed children.
Change Your Mindset
One reason women balk at the idea is because they feel overloaded with all of the responsibilities on their plate or they think, 'My husband is a grown man. My toddler needs me more,' but Puhn makes an important distinction between prioritizing the marriage and the spouse. "You're not a slave to each other, but the relationship itself-the hub of your household-may require certain ingredients to function smoothly," she says. For example, maybe you're an outgoing couple that feels stifled when you don't socialize with friends once a week, or your bond is stronger when you both nurture separate hobbies. In other words, nurturing your marriage doesn't mean you have to be glued to each other's side. "Making an effort to feed the marriage as a whole is vital for the health of the home," she says.
Here are four ways you can make marriage your top priority-and have happier kids as a result:
Set a family schedule. If you have small children, putting the marriage first may seem unrealistic, but according to Puhn, the early years of parenthood are the best time to get in the habit-and that starts with setting a family routine. "Determine what 'morning' means in your home-and it's not when your kid decides to wake up," she says. Maybe the rule is that mom and dad can't be disturbed until 8 a.m. or that after dinner is reading time for the kids and movie time for the adults. "The idea is to create a space for you and your husband to bond without distractions," says Puhn.
Rejigger your weekends. "Many people view the weekends as a chance to catch up on errands, not to relax and replenish for the week ahead," says Puhn. "But thoughtfully planning activities that encourage quality time may eliminate the feeling that you're choosing one family member over another." So, if your child wants to participate in sports (especially on a traveling team), you'll need to determine how that affects the rest of the family-will you be indisposed for five hours every Saturday driving to games at the expense of your other children or husband? Or is the parent of another child on the team willing to share the responsibility or alternate games with you? If your kid's schedule isn't flexible, try to blend kid and grownup activities so the entire family is together. Some ideas: Invite couples with kids over for a backyard BBQ, take a walk in the park, grab dinner at a family-friendly restaurant, or take a weekend away to a kid- (and adult-) friendly destination. "That way, both parents and children feel fulfilled," says Puhn.
Do the little things. Although putting each other first takes work, it doesn't have to take loads of time. "When one of you gets home from work, taking two minutes from the computer to hug and kiss is a small gesture that makes the other person feel valued," says Puhn. Sneak in affection whenever you can-hold hands on the playground, cuddle on the couch or smooch. If the kids see you, that's a good thing. "Children should witness how much their parents love each other so they have a blueprint for how marriage should look," says Puhn. When you can, arrange an impromptu getaway for just the two of you. "Have a babysitter [or grandparent] come when the kids are going to bed, drive to a B&B 20 minutes away, and be home by 10 the next morning," she suggests.
Moderation is key. Like anything else in life, parenting and marriage is a juggling act and both require attention, love and time. So make sure that neither party feels neglected and use your best judgment. Let's say both your kid and partner have an event on the same night. Ask yourself: Is your kid winning an award? Is he the star of the school play? If so, it's important that you're there. However, if your husband's boss is throwing a dinner party and your absence may be viewed as a slight, hire a babysitter. "Kids are more resilient than you think, and in most cases, they'll be fine with the decisions you make as a couple," says Puhn.
- by Sarah Speiser