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”.
Unequal parenting and a “responsibility gap” when it comes to household chores can have a toxic effect on the relationship.
The only way to find a solution to that is first to explore and understand each other’s feelings and thoughts.
Marshall believes the two main reasons people fall out of love is because they ignore their partner or don’t take their partner’s feelings seriously. They are most likely to do that when they are too busy and it is inconvenient to listen . . . and, where there are demanding children around, that can be pretty much all the time.
He sees five common traps for people who put their children first: taking each other for granted; fusing personal interests with children’s interests; having a mid-life crisis; lack of sexual intimacy; and being vulnerable to having an affair. It takes self-awareness and conscious effort to avoid these pitfalls and that’s what Marshall wants to encourage.
Expectations of ourselves as parents have increased hugely and he believes social networking doesn’t help.
“It is full of mothers and fathers winding each other up. If you’re not giving your children baby yoga, you are neglecting them.”
Think through what really is important, he urges. “Don’t get to the point where you feel you are a bad parent because you’re tired and say ‘well, you can actually do the finger painting on your own’.”
The morning we speak, he says all the children in his village are dressed up in Victorian costume. “It’s ‘put your children up a chimney day’ or whatever.”
Can you imagine, he asks, the time and energy those costumes took the parents? If we spent less time on elaborate projects for our children and more time on our partners’ desires, he argues, we would be much better off in every sense of the word.
The current financial stress many people are under makes, he believes, what he is saying even more important.
“By putting your children first, you have got to give them everything and actually what they want more than anything else in the world is your attention – and that’s free.”
Despite the efforts of big business, romance doesn’t have to be costly either, he argues.
“The idea that romance has to be expensive is completely and utterly ludicrous. If you can’t afford a babysitter, you have a best friend who can babysit for you and you will babysit for them.
“Then if you went out and shared a bag of chips in the bus shelter and remembered what it was like when you were teenagers – that would do for me.
“You don’t need to go and have a trip on the Orient Express.”
It costs nothing to draw a card and leave it on the windscreen of your partner’s car. “What romance is saying is ‘I thought of you and I care about you’. Again, your partner would rather have your time and attention.”
While expectations of ourselves as parents have never been higher, it could be argued that expectations that marriage is for life have never been lower.
“I think we are so frightened that we can’t tell the difference between a routine spat and the end of the world,” agrees Marshall, who sees this result in couples “catastrophising”.
“They say, ‘if we can’t agree on who should clean the children’s shoes, then we can’t work as a couple and therefore our marriage is doomed’.”
He doesn’t want to demonise separated parents, he stresses, even though he sees the problems it can cause their offspring.
“I don’t think anybody separates lightly – it is done out of desperation. But what I am trying to do is to stop you getting to that point of desperation.”
Marshall’s advice, summed up in his 10 Golden Rules (see panel), is pitched at “every couple” but “each couple is different”, he adds, “and you are an expert on your relationship – so you take on the bits that are right for you”.
The Ten Golden Rules
1. Don’t neglect your marriage: it is the glue that keeps the family together.
2. Being a parent and a perfectionist don’t sit easily together. Instead, aim for good enough.
3. The main job of a parent is to take your children’s feelings seriously but this doesn’t mean giving into every whim, rather explaining why something is not possible or sensible.
4. Happy relationships need good communication skills as well as love and connection.
5. When it comes to disputes about how to raise your children, there are no right or wrong answers. Listen to each other, be assertive and negotiate.
6. Don’t draw children into adult issues or let them take sides.
7. Encourage your children to be self-sufficient and don’t become their servant. In this way, you will have more time to invest in your relationship.
8. You need to feel loved by your partner and not just a service provider. To this end, it is important to be romantic, have fun together and make sex a priority.
9. When there’s a problem, try not to label your partner or the children as the cause; look at your own contribution.
10. If something is good enough for your children, it is probably good enough for your partner too.
Taken from: I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How to childproof your marriage by Andrew G Marshall, and published by Macmillan, £12.99
‘Remember, we are people and not just parents’
Like many Irish couples, Hazel and her husband are raising their family against a backdrop of constant financial worries.
She was made redundant while on maternity leave after the birth of their second child. And now he is facing redundancy before the end of the year.
The financial struggle adds to the pressure of “full-on” family life with four children, ranging in age from eight to one. Although they do plenty together with the children, it is more difficult to find time for themselves as a couple.
“As we have no disposable income a meal out, or even a trip to the cinema, is a thing of the past,” she says.
“Our last night away was last October and we only managed that as we were given a hotel voucher. I can’t remember the last time we got out without our kids before that.”
However, they make a conscious effort to carve out time for each other. They have the children in good bedtime routines, which means most evenings they can cuddle up on the couch together.
“We get to recharge and discuss our relationship and family life. This means that we air any problems either of us is having, whether it’s stress from our financial situation or stress from the children.”
Some evenings they have a romantic dinner or watch a film. “We believe that spontaneity is the key to keeping things alive so will never plan or have a set date night.”
What’s essential for them, she says, is “to remember we are people and not just parents. Our children do not define us as a couple but they enhance the relationship we already have.”
But they don’t always see eye to eye on how to raise the children.
“As I’m around them all the time, I know what they are capable of so would be easier going with them.
“As a result, they tend to behave better for me,” she explains. Whereas, she thinks her husband lacks patience and can be quite negative in his approach.
“For example, he would say ‘no’ straight away before listening to what they are looking for.”
She has noticed that other married couples seem to neglect each other once the kids come along.
“The mother tends to be all consumed with her children and completely forgets about her husband.
“From what we see, they have become two people who co-habit and not the couple they were when they got married.
“I would hate,” Hazel adds, “to wake up one day and find a stranger in my house once my children have flown the nest.”
‘We have to be ruthless with our time’
He sees many sets of devoted parents who love their children but find themselves drifting apart.
In his experience, asking them to look at exactly how they each spend their 168 hours in a week is an excellent starting point for examining priorities. They usually end up with a deficit of at least five to eight hours.
“We have to be ruthless with our time,” he stresses and that should include a “reasonable” amount of time out for the individual. It may also mean turning down promotion at work, he suggests.
It is also important for parents to be flexible and “re-contract” as children go through the different stages of development.
“If you neglect your relationship early on, you will pay for it in later years,” he adds. “But it is never easy.”