Chicken and Egg
You know that saying about the chicken and the egg, and which one comes first? I’m always reminded of it when I talk about the importance of putting your relationship first before your children. I believe this to be true for all relationships (nuclear or step), but we’ll focus on stepfamilies.
Before you call into question my parenting abilities, of course you always take care of children – their needs, their mental, physical, emotional well-being. Your kids are your number one responsibility. Your stepkids are your partners’ number one responsibility.
But your relationship? That is your number one priority.
To have a successful, long-lasting relationship, your put your marriage first, because eventually, your kids are going to grow up and live their own lives. And your partner is the one who will be left. Many stepfamily experts feel that putting the relationship first is essential (Martin, 2009, 2011; Newcomb Marine & Korf, 2013; Church, 2010). And with the divorce rate for second marriages (when children are involved) as high as 70%, this is clearly an important issue.
Let’s explore that for a second… 70% divorce rate for stepcouples. What does that mean? It means that forces outside of the relationship are being allowed to manipulate, influence, and damage the bond between you and your partner. Is it the ex? The in-laws? The kids? Not that children are intentionally damaging your relationship – the little sweethearts – but guilty parenting, loyalty binds, and jealousy can skew the amount of attention and control given to kids in stepfamilies.
Crucially, focusing all your attention on the children to the detriment of your relationship is actually damaging to the kids. They’ve already been through one failed adult relationship – their parents – and they need to see an example of a healthy, strong, loving dynamic.
What does it mean to put your relationship first?
Putting your marriage first means deliberately taking time to communicate, connect, and create a united front as the stepcouple. To live and act like a team, to support one another in all aspects of your lives, particularly as parents, to date, to be affectionate, and to make sure the kids see you taking care of each other.
Think of it as being a role model for the children, modeling what they should look for in a partner down the road. And by making it clear to them that time together as adults is essential, it shows them that the world doesn’t revolve around their every want and desire. (This is a good thing).
Daily life can be overwhelming and exhausting, particularly today in this unimaginable global pandemic, and so it can be very easy to take your partner for granted and to put all of your energy into other things – work, kids, meal planning, volunteering, caring for older parents, time with your friends, etc. So this isn’t meant to overwhelm you, but to remind you that you also need to set aside time to nurture that bond, that connection, with your partner. You can tackle life’s challenges much easier together, and in the end, that lightens the load for both of you.
How Do I Put My Marriage First?
It is deliberate, thoughtful action. It is a conscious decision and it is work. But it’s work that reaps huge rewards. And no, it doesn’t have to be nights in a hotel, dozens of roses, helicopter rides over the city (no, I’ve never done that either). It can be as simple as the following suggestions:
- One night a week, after the kids are in bed, have a long, relaxed dinner together (no phones at the table!)
- Choose a show you’re both into and curl up together to watch an episode at night before bed (snuggling and popcorn again preferred over phones in one hand)
- When you come home, greet each other with eye contact and a kiss. Take a couple of minutes to catch up with each other about your day before jumping into dinner, etc.
- Plan a date night monthly. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, you just need time together
- Turn chores into time to catch up. Fold the laundry together, wash and dry the dishes together – whatever the task, you can talk and connect over simple activities
- Talk to each other about all parenting decisions, and make sure the kids see you as a united front (unless this is something that has led to “stepping back” already)
- It’s the little things: sometimes I come home from the grocery store with my husbands’ favourite chocolate bar. It cost me a dollar, but it makes him smile.
The key is to put the effort in regularly, and set up boundaries around your marriage to protect it from negativity. It is a major challenge, but the more you can block negativity from damaging your bond (the ex, child support payments, custody arguments, kids’ bad behaviour), the better chance you have of long-term success in your relationship. Remember, the grass is greener where you water it.