The kids are alright: it’s your relationship that needs attention
A new book argues that child-proofing your marriage means putting your partner first
Unequal parenting and a ‘responsibility gap’ when it comes to household chores can have a toxic effect on the relationship.Photograph: Getty Images
Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall: Although Marshall says he ‘dreaded’ writing this book, because he anticipated the backlash, he felt compelled to share his insights from almost 30 years working as a therapist.
Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall knows it is a message most parents do not want to hear, so he is not surprised to have become a target of abuse and ridicule.
“You have to ask why people are so angry?” he says. “Because deep down they know I have something serious to say.”
The unpalatable argument that Marshall is making in his new book, I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How to childproof your marriage, is that you should prioritise your partner over your children.
Pouring all your time, energy and resources into trying to raise successful and happy children runs the danger of backfiring – not just on your marriage but, as a consequence, ironically, on your children.
He acknowledges that babies and toddlers need huge amounts of care and attention but questions why parents lavish resources on older children to the extent that they are raising a “red carpet generation”. Family life, he argues, has been turned on its head.
“We think parenting is for life and partners come and go, whereas I think that a relationship is for life and the children are just passing through.”
He acknowledges that when you are up to your eyes in nappies it is impossible to imagine that 20 years will fly past, your children will have gone off to university and will only be coming back once in a while.
“That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to love them any more – but it is just going to be you and your beloved and you don’t want to be strangers,” he stresses.
Although Marshall says he “dreaded” writing this book, because he anticipated the backlash, he felt compelled to share his insights from almost 30 years working as a therapist.
Not only has he seen countless couples for whom the unravelling of their relationship can be traced back to decisions made after the first baby arrived, but he has also had the “extraordinary privilege” of listening to thousands of people talk about their childhood and what went wrong.
He thought parents might like to hear his perspective, “so they can tell the difference between a moment of petulance – where children stick out their lower lip and say ‘I hate you’ and it’s all forgotten by the afternoon – and what they are going to talk about, in heart-breaking detail, to their therapist in 20 years’ time”.
But Marshall (54) is an easy target for critics because he does not have children. So what would he know about the emotional, messy, complex world of parenthood?
Suggesting couples put a lock on their bedroom door – “it will make your children think twice before demanding attention and help them realise that even parents need a private space” – is one bit of advice that seems abhorrent to many.
“I have been the person everybody loves to hate over the past couple of weeks,” he tells The Irish Times from his West Sussex home. Hours earlier, a TV appearance that was supposed to be a debate on the issues boiled down to little more than the presenters accusing him of being “unnatural”, he says.
“I wasn’t even allowed to explain that I am actually not trying to tell them how to bring up their children, I am telling them how to improve their marriage – I have 30 years of seeing where people go wrong.”
If, after hearing what he has to say, couples still want to put their children first, “that’s fine by me – but please do talk about it and communicate better. The thing I am trying to do is to get people to parent as a team so you don’t feel you’re on different pages all the time.”
You must take your partner’s opinions on child-rearing seriously, “even if they seem rather weird to you, because he or she will have had a different upbringing”, he points out. Finding a middle way can draw on the best from both of your approaches.
Couples these days generally enjoy a very equal relationship until a baby arrives. Then, the tendency is to go back to what their parents did even though they lived in very different times and are likely to have had very fixed roles.
“The thing people don’t realise is that having a child brings back your own childhood in technicolour – and that may be wonderful, but for a lot of people it is rather more complicated than that,” he suggests.
Your parents also arrive back centre stage in your lives because, now they are grandparents, they feel they have a role once more. Again, that may be wonderful but “if you have unresolved stuff – your mother is a bit of a control freak for example – you are back to square one”.