by Guest Author

On Wednesday, June 13, 2012, I visited the Fox 25 studios in Dedham to discuss a recent Boston Globe article about marriage and parenting.

To watch the clip follow the link here:  Marriage scapegoats: Hiding behind your kids

The article profiles a recent book by David Code titled, To Raise Happy Kids Put Your Marriage First. Code suggests that there is a rising trend in parents avoiding marital conflict by focusing on parenting. I’d agree that it happens frequently, however I don’t know that it’s happening more often now than before. There are a number of ways in which parents can, and do, avoid marital stress; however, since channeling energy into caring for and raising children is a wholesome activity which is ostensibly good for the family, it can be regarded as a necessary and worthy undertaking, thereby relieving some of the guilt couples may feel about ignoring their relationship and any troubles that may be present there. Often it’s the case where a couple may be stuck with a marital issue, and not have the skills to handle conflict well in general. If they also happen to be parents, this is the perfect combination which will divert their attention into other areas of their lives where they believe they have more traction and success. For working people, the choice is often to dive farther into work and building a career, which can be viewed a family-friendly aim for working parents, but also takes energy and focus away from the marriage. For the stay-at-home parent, a solid option is always to turn a large chunk or time, energy, and attention over to daily tasks of parenting, as well as child-centered projects and activities such as PTA, coaching, or school committees.

The effect on parents is seen better in time-lapse. Gradually, the relationship drains of its intimacy due to the neglect of personal connection.  As the relationship is neglected, the marriage morphs, looking more and more like a roommate situation and less like a loving couple with solid connections, mutual reliance, and a commitment to grow together. The tragedy is, fear of the consequences of taking on a tough issue or a difficult relationship dynamic — such as increased argument, or even separation or divorce — can lead parents to avoid taking on their relationship issues at all, for the “sake of the children”, so they are not exposed to these unpleasant situations. However, it puts the family’s longer term happiness at a greater risk to avoid these issues than it does to address them as they occur. When avoiding relationship stress, or simply neglecting the marital relationship, parents may find replacement satisfaction in the children’s achievements they are helping to bring about. After a time, though, these kid-focused outcomes fail to fill the need for intimacy, and a parent’s gains from a child’s achievements aren’t as satisfying as a healthy, mutual adult connection. The pragmatic feeling of progress in checking off a child-centered to-do list can grow to feel hollow. The only cure for the problem is to address the parental disconnect and put time and effort into reconnecting with a spouse in the five main areas of relationship intimacy:

1) Emotional,
2) Physical
3) Sexual,
4) Intellectual
5) Spiritual.

By the way, this reconnecting need not be at the kids’ expense — it should be viewed as being in service to the long term success of the family, as well as strictly couple-focused too.

On the kids’ side of the dynamic, the effects can manifest in a couple of different ways. As a parent dives into parenting, the child may feel great about the extra attention in the short run, but the longer term effects are the ones to worry about. As separate parents independently tend to a child’s every need, then the child is deprived of the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to handle normal developmental and life stresses. With solid parent coaching, not hovering, a child will have the freedom, the opportunity, and the resources to encounter obstacles and engage in problem solving productively, in order to confront a conflict successfully. On the other hand, if a hyper-vigilant parent happens to be more critical in their extended focus on a child, the result can be a hen-pecked boy or girl needy for approval. If a parent is hovering, a child can, at least, be unprepared for life, and at worst, entitled, demanding, and spoiled. If a parent is more driven and perfectionist in nature, then a child could turn out to be a high performer with a high degree of their own self-worth tied to performance, who may even feel like a failure if their abilities do not match what a parent pushes them toward. The outcomes for each child are largely related to the nature of the extra attention.

Maintaining a solid marriage, with a good balance of attention to the 5 areas of intimacy, is a good strategy for establishing an emotionally safe and supportive environment where children can feel free to take on problems, try, fail, and learn from those failures. As well, under a marriage of strong and intimate connection, children will see solid modeling from parents who can  demonstrate the abilities needed to encounter and confront difficult topics in a  mutually supportive and mature manner, the ability to name a problem without  blaming, the ability to share feelings and thoughts, both happy and stressful, and, most importantly, the ability to request of the other what each needs in a manner befitting a marriage of mutual commitment and nurturing.

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