You Come First, The Children Come Second: The Secret To Marital Harmony?

14/08/2014 16:53 | Updated 22 May 2015

You come first, the children come second: The secret to marital harmony?

Hands up who thinks becoming a parent is a challenge. And hands up who thinks becoming a parent puts a bit of a strain on your relationship with your partner.

Quite a big show of hands I reckon, if we're being honest that is.

Yet it's not something we really talk about openly, is it? We might complain that our partner doesn't do enough, quietly discuss with friends that they've become a bore or a nag, or that we have no time for ourselves any more – but to actually cite parenthood (or in other words, the children) as the reason for a dissatisfying relationship and home life, well, it's just not the done thing.

Resenting our children is, says best-selling author Andrew G Marshall, the crime that dare not speak its name. Yet, having been a relationship counsellor for almost 30 years, he thinks it's something that really does need to be talked about.

His new book I Love You But You Always Put Me Last is an in-depth discussion about how parenthood has the potential to wreak havoc on marriages – at least if both parties do not take some strides to put their relationship with their partner over and above their children.

"During my career, couples have consistently told me, when prioritising elements of their life, they always put their children first. It has taken me almost 30 years to have the courage to say: 'please don't!'"

Yes. That's right. The premise of Andrew's book is that children should come second.

As gasps go up around the country at the mere suggestion we should prioritise the needs and desires of our partners (and ourselves), I'll quickly point out that this book not a parenting guide. Rather, it's a guide to help you keep your relationship happy and healthy – while also being a parent.

"Making your children the centre of your world puts them under a great deal of pressure, because their successes become your successes, and their failures become your failures," Andrew says.

Importantly, he stresses that putting your partner first will not harm your children. On the contrary, it will ensure they grow up in a happy and loving environment.

"Something dramatic has happened concerning our attitude towards children and parenting in the last 100 years or so," Andrew says. "In Victorian times, children were 'seen and not heard'. And while that was absolutely wrong, because of course children should be respected and listened to, attitudes have completely turned around, to a 'drop everything' mentality."

It's partly to do with the change in lifestyle, and an increasingly competitive world. But it must also have something to do with what Andrew calls the 'mummy police'.

"Once you become a mother or a father, there is an unofficial governing force out there, telling you what to do and what to think.

"There is so much judgement going on, not just by other parents, but politicians, and child care experts... it encourages people strive to be 'perfect' parents when really there is no such thing. There is no right or wrong way of doing things – but parents are, nevertheless, terrified of getting anything 'wrong'. This puts all the focus on the needs of the children, above all else."

One chapter focuses on the shock of becoming a parent. And, however wonderful it feels, the amazing love one has for one's child, 'shock' really is the right word for the myriad ways in which life changes – often unexpectedly.

The risk of losing our sense of identity (which we have been sculpting for years!) plays a part. "The love of your children is so great, it's easy for you to let that identity as a parent swallow up all your other identities – you need to remember you are still an individual and you are still a partner," says Andrew.

And in the book, he succinctly describes why some parents find themselves a bit lost: '...before becoming a parent, we are encouraged to set goals for ourselves, focus on them and be ruthless in our determination to reach them. What is prized most is being autonomous and independent, having the ability to control the agenda. Going from standing up for yourself to self-sacrificing is a 180-degree turn and you're expected to achieve it on just 'unconditional love'. However, parents – and even more shockingly, mothers – still have needs too.'

Parenthood often means we consult more when it comes to decision making – and that's great when we're talking about our partners: "Parenting works better when you are a team. It's something you need to be able to collaborate on. If you have a black and white approach to parenting, that can make you 'right' and your partner 'wrong' – and then the potential for conflict is huge."

But, says Andrew, commonly when a baby is born, and two become three, it's not actually three at all – because a few more numbers tend to get thrown into the equation:

"Often, having a child brings your own parents centre stage again suddenly," he explains. "At a time when you might feel vulnerable, becoming a parent for the first time yourself, there's a danger of putting your parents' opinions over above those of your partner – and that can feel like a betrayal."

The book delves into the many, many pitfalls awaiting unsuspecting couples as they enter into parenthood. And it's full of examples and practical advice.

But as someone who had two children a year apart, I know only too well the physical and mental impact parenthood can have in the early days. It's hard! There so much to do! Can we really prioritise our partners during that time? Aren't we bound to make mistakes then, when we're knackered and stressed and absolutely absorbed by the very demanding needs of a tiny baby – mistakes we might never get round to fixing?

"I don't ask that couples do a lot at that time," Andrew says. "I don't suggest you should start going out on a weekly date night straight away. But maybe once in the first six months, going out with your partner, without the baby, would be a very good thing. Even if you're 10 minutes away.

"Talking is crucial, because parenthood is a shock to a relationship. You have to be able to communicate really well with each other – particularly when you are tired and stressed. You need to be able to tell each other that you miss lazy Sunday mornings, or you miss sex, or you feel the burden of responsibility.

"When those things become forbidden topics, that's when things can go toxic. If you suppress your negative feelings, they don't go away, they just go underground, meaning they can pop out again – often as anger directed towards your partner.

"And although many people find it very hard to criticise their own parents, it's essential in these early days you make it clear that your partner's opinion is the one that matters most."

Little things, perhaps, which add up to big things.

I Love You But You Always Put Me Last poses this important question: 'The kids are happy, but how are things really between you and your partner?' and as such I think it's a book that might shine a light on a few uncomfortable truths for many couples (both the men and the women).

While we might baulk at the idea that we need to 'childproof our marriage', quiet resentments, rolling of eyes, constant digs about niggling things – they all mean something. And it would seem to make sense that if we lift our gaze that little bit, take the focus off those cherubic faces for a moment, and have a good look at what's going on at our own eye level, we might see how to solve some issues that we'd been just, well, living with.

That might not be a bad thing.

I Love You But You Always Put Me Last, by Andrew G Marshall, is published by Pan Macmillan and costs £12.99.

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