Monday, June 14, 2010

Putting your marriage first may be better for your kids

Many parents feel that they don't have time for their spouse because they're so busy taking care of their children -- and that's just the way it is once you have kids. But family coach and Episcopal minister David Code disagrees.

"Here's the biggest myth of parenting: The more attention we give our kids, the better they'll turn out," he says. "Where are the results? Studies show today’s parents spend more time with their kids, and yet today's kids don't seem happier, more independent or successful. They seem more troubled, entitled and needy."

The solution? It's the title of his new book: To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First.

"You might say that today's parents seem to be marrying their children instead of their spouses. The truth is, we often find it easier to be with our kids than our partners," Code points out. This seems child-friendly, but we don't realize we're using our kids as an escape from our spouses."

Code took the time to chat with me recently for a post at's In the Parenthood column. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two children, ages 10 and 8. "I've been a full-time writer since 2007, but at 3:08 when the kids get off the bus, I'm a full-time dad as well," he says. "I'm so glad this shift in roles has become socially acceptable, because it fits my career-oriented wife and me to a T."

Here's our entire Q & A; scroll down to the bottom for Code's four tips for making a good marriage even stronger.

What inspired you to write To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First?

Frustration. I felt powerless to help. As an Episcopal minister and family coach, I found that families came to me with their problems when it was already too late, and they were in crisis. Couples asked me to save their marriage when they already had one foot in the lawyer's office. Parents wanted me to fix their kid’s problem when it was obvious to me the child couldn’t help acting out because of the highly anxious household she was living in.

All of these families started out on the right track years ago, with the best of intentions. But they didn’t realize they were slowly drifting off-track, and they had been heading towards a crisis for years.

I wrote this book as preventive medicine. This book is for families who are doing fine, and want to stay that way. I point out the main pitfalls that can slowly pull parents away from a fulfilling marriage and successful parenting. What makes these pitfalls hard to spot is that they appear child-friendly at first, but in the long run, parents are actually shooting themselves and their children in the foot.

Many parents feel that they don't have time for their spouse because they're so busy taking care of their kids, and that it's just part of family life -- once you have kids, they come first. But you see it as a warning sign. Why?

A problem in your child could be a wake-up call for your marriage.

You might say that today's parents seem to be marrying their children instead of their spouses. The truth is, we often find it easier to be with our kids than our partners. This seems child-friendly, but we don't realize we're using our kids as an escape from our spouses.

So, we move our attention to our children, projecting our distress and neediness onto them. As the child psychologist and author Madeline Levine observes, "When a marriage is cold, a child's bed is a warm place to be."

Today’s favorite way to avoid our spouses may be to throw ourselves into overparenting. It may seem child-friendly to marry our kids instead of our partners, but we don’t realize that when a marriage grows distant, the household stress level goes up.

You can't hide the tension in a marriage, because kids pick up on everything. They absorb the tension in their family household until their fragile little nervous systems hit "overload," and then they act-out or get sick. Think of it as the mind-body connection between a parent's anxious mind and a child's sensitive body. Parents don't realize they are off-loading their anxiety onto their kids, and then kids act-out or develop symptoms.

Are you saying that your spouse's needs should be more important than those of your child? How so (or how not so)?

I don't see it as either/or. I see it as setting priorities that benefit everyone in the long run, even if they don't recognize it at present.

To raise healthy kids, simply put your marriage first and your children second. For many of today’s couples, the children are priority No. 1 one and marriage is priority No. 10 -- and few of us make it past the top three priorities on our daily to-do list.

Author Stephen Covey describes how we all have priorities that are "important but not urgent" and priorities that are "urgent but not important." Children demand that their desires be met with a high sense of urgency and emotion, so it's tempting to give in to the anxiety of the moment. We feel uncomfortable when our kids make a scene, so it's a relief just to give them what they want and justify it to ourselves afterward.

Our marriages are important, but not urgent. So we neglect to feed-and-water our marriages, which die so slowly and quietly that we don't even realize our mistake until it's too late. But not only do we lose our marriages; we set a poor example for our children's future marriages, and we also create highly-anxious households where our kids soak up that anxiety and then act out.

What are some of the things people do to inadvertently hurt their marriage while they're trying to help their kids?

They mistakenly believe that arguing is a problem, and they don't realize that "keeping the peace at any price" is the REAL problem.

Most couples believe that if they don’t fight much, then they don’t have relationship problems. But our silent flight-response is a silent killer in today's marriages and in family life, because we don’t even realize that “flight“ is just as harmful as “fight.“

We kid ourselves that all is well as we “flee” our spouses every day: We turn to our electronic screens, work long hours, shuttle our kids, co-sleep with our kids or we make up excellent reasons why we never have sex anymore.

What are the one or two most important things parents can do to shore up their marriage?

My wife and I are certain that we would be divorced by now if it were not for this insight: I am not superior to my spouse, and vice versa. We have the same level of anxiety, we just manifest it in different ways. Let me explain:

If you made every married person drink a truth serum, you would discover a secret belief many of us have that we've "outgrown" our mate, and we could be happy if we just started over with "the right person THIS time." But we're kidding ourselves, because the divorce rate for second marriages is 60 percent, and 73 percent for third marriages.

The key to building a solid marriage is to realize that the grass would NOT be greener with someone else, and here's why: We have to remember that humans are animals, with primal mating instincts. When we fall in love, that primal chemistry we feel is actually Mother Nature's way of scoping out our ideal mate. We instinctively search for a mate with the same level of anxiety. Anxiety is a survival instinct, because back in our cave man days, it helped us anticipate danger and trigger our fight-or-flight response.

For example, if you were a bit jumpy and overreacted to every noise you hear in the bushes, but your mate lounged in the sun even as the lion roared nearby, you wouldn't last long. Back then, you might say the couple who fights-or-flees together stays together—and reproduces.

So Mother Nature doesn't lie. The reason you felt chemistry for your mate in the first place is because you both have the same level of anxiety. So quit pining for utopia and create something beautiful here and now.

Your book tells several stories of parents who forced themselves not to comfort or attend to their child's needs immediately, saying that soothing a child is actually more about comforting ourselves, the parents, than helping the child. How so?

There's nothing child-friendly about over-parenting. The definition of overparenting is doing for your child what your child can, and should do for herself. We are depriving our children of the chance to learn a fundamental skill in life -- the ability to regulate their own emotions and self-soothe -- what psychologist and author Daniel Goleman refers to as our "emotional thermostat."

Here's the biggest myth of parenting: The more attention we give our kids, the better they'll turn out.

Where are the results? Studies show today’s parents spend more time with their kids, and yet today's kids don't seem happier, more independent or successful. They seem more troubled, entitled and needy.

The myth began with Freud. He was a great thinker, but we took his ideas too far. Freud believed that our unhappiness as adults stemmed from traumas we encountered as kids. So, today's parents are killing themselves to create perfect, trauma-free childhoods for their kids. We think this is child-friendly, but that couldn't be further from the truth. We over-protect and over-praise our little darlings until they believe they truly are the center of the universe. They learn no skills in teamwork or cooperation, and their future bosses and spouses won't be able to stand them.

There is no substitute for the hard knocks of the playground. It trains us for the office politics and the family squabbles of adult life. The setbacks we face as children are the ideal training ground for social resilience, because in childhood upsets, the stakes are low and children can experiment in how to handle themselves. It helps to prepare them for adulthood, where the stakes are much higher.

You also advocate making kids do things they don't enjoy -- like learn music or play a sport -- if the parents think it's in their best interest. Why?

Many parents tell me they would never force their child to do an activity he or she didn't like. I am reminded of how much I hated practicing piano when I was young. I grew up on a farm, and my mother sold eggs to pay for lessons. She forced me to go into that cold laundry room of our farmhouse, where our old upright was, and bang out lonely classical melodies until I could watch "Happy Days" on TV.

In college ten years later, I was tapped for an a cappella singing group that not only toured America, but over thirty-three countries around the world. When I lived in France, I was the only foreign male admitted to the Choir of the Sorbonne, and I made French friends through our shared love of music. I had the greatest adventures of my life because my mom forced me to practice piano, and music was one of my most cherished gifts she ever gave me.

Kids are too young to drink, vote, or drive, and they're definitely too young to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

Playing sports is about building a habit of daily exercise, so children can remain slim, healthy and energetic all their lives. Twenty years ago, kids played sports on their own. Today, we have to make them play sports or they will simply gain weight in front of their screens all day.

Music isn't about becoming a professional musician. It's about learning the discipline of daily practice that can take you, bit-by-bit, towards any goal you desire. If children don't learn the discipline of slow, incremental improvement to reach their goals, how will they succeed when they are adults?

Forcing your child to learn an instrument or play sports isn't about taking away their happiness. It's about giving them the skills and lifestyle they need to succeed and be happy as adults.

Is homework optional in your home? Of course not. So, why should a healthy body and the discipline to attain goals be optional?

Where do you think you fall on the "Free Range Parent" to "Helicopter Parent" spectrum?

I'm so glad you asked me this question, because many people assume I'm a parenting guru.

It doesn't matter where you are on the spectrum; what matters is how much progress you make. If I hadn't done all this research and walked my talk, I would have been divorced by now, and my kids would have been more troubled and less self-reliant than they are. There are plenty of folks who are better parents than I am, but I'm very proud of the progress I have made.

Before, I was not even aware of how much helicopter parenting I was doing, or the damage it was doing to my kids. Today, I am more self-aware. I still do plenty of helicoptering, but I catch myself sooner and do less harm to my kids. It's not about going from chaos to perfection. It's about just 5 percent improvement. Over a lifetime, that 5 percent improvement could make the difference between your child graduating from college, getting divorced, or raising a child with mental illness.

What advice would you give to a brand new parent?

Buy my book before you get pregnant, because parenting begins from conception. Just because we can't see the baby yet doesn't mean we don't have a huge impact on the child, even in utero. Here are some practical tips to keep a good marriage from going bad, and to give your children the best start possible in life:

SOLUTION A: To raise happy kids, put your marriage first. Knowledge is power, and once we become aware how we are distancing from our spouses, it's win-win for the family. We can improve our marriages, pass less baggage onto our kids, and set a great example for their future relationships!

SOLUTION B: Walk and talk. The greatest gift to modern marriage is a walkie-talkie with a voice-activated switch, because it works like a high-tech baby monitor. After the kids fall asleep, set the monitor beside them and then take a stroll around your yard with your spouse, sharing your thoughts, feelings and dreams for the future. Some people may be afraid to leave the kids sleeping, but you can probably hear more through this walkie-talkie than a parent who's watching TV downstairs.

SOLUTION C: Highlight and lowlight. When you both get home, while changing out of your work clothes or preparing dinner, share your highlight and "lowlight" of the day with your spouse. It may sound simple, but it can instantly create a space for being fully present to each other. This sense of shared intimacy makes the rest of the evening go smoother.

SOLUTION D: Make a weekly appointment for sex. Some parents in sexless marriages say they don't miss sex that much, but they don't realize what they've lost. Many parents believe co-sleeping with their kids is more important to the child's future. Or they say they are "simply too exhausted after giving all to their kids all day." Five years later, they look across the pillow at their spouse and realize the flame has died, and then they have an affair or file for divorce.

Wake up NOW, before it's too late! The most important thing to your kids' well-being is two parents who share a bond that keeps them together, as intimate friends for life.

Once humans have sex with a partner, we instinctively want to have more sex with that partner. Just like other animals, sex releases our "bonding" hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin. So, even if initially you don't "feel" like having sex with your spouse, you may find that, after a couple of times, the desire returns. This primal bond can smooth the waters of many marriages. That's why "make-up sex" evolved in the first place!


Anonymous said...

I am a marriage/relationship educator in Boston and Rev. Code's words are sound ones, synthesizing a lot of the best of the current research and thinkers out there today. Great piece and this message is SO necessary... Keep writing these pieces for the Globe! Thanks... Wendy W.

Anonymous said...

Forcing a kid to do something they hate because "it's in their best interest" is a good way to kill any love for the activity.

The writer says that playing piano, which he hated, developed a love of music. I noticed that, he doesn't play the piano now. He sang in a lot of choirs.

I know plenty of people who hate sports because their parents forced hem to play sports as kids.

Anonymous said...

Interesting idea, but I remain skeptical. A man (the sex not generally thought of as the caretaker sex) writes that he is not great at it, but this is the way to go.

When my children were his children's ages, I might have agreed. But stuff comes up over the course of a marriage (say, children's long-term illnesses, parental illness) that change all that.

Anonymous said...

It's true about the kids feeling the tension and that it affects them - and their future, particularly their relationships. You are setting the pattern for your kids' future - do you really want them to spend a lifetime in first, a loveless home, and then, their own loveless marriage? Is that what people mean when they say they are "staying together for the kids"? I know so many people that hated their parents' loveless marriages, but then acted the same way until they had the same kind of loveless marriage.

Anonymous said...

I love this man for stating that physical and artistic activities should be required parts of children's lives! Can anyone imagine saying "Would you like to go to school today, honey?" "No? okay, then." Heck no! Why should experience and education in the arts and atheletics be any different?

Anonymous said...

I believe in exposing children to various things but not forcing them. In today's competitive environment, many children face rejection from coaches and peers if they don't have the skills. The trick is to find something the child is good at and then you don't have to force them to do it.