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Do you put your children or your marriage first?

I was scanning my google reader the other day and I saw Dumb Little Man had a blog post called Five Surefire Ways to Kill Your Marriage.

It’s hard to live up to a killer title like that. The article itself was predictable: Date night, sex, mind-reading, negativity, blah blah blah.

Except for #5!

5. Putting your children before your spouse
This one is a big one. In today’s world, children are everything. They need to be catered to, given a ride to different activities, helped with homework, formed into perfect little creatures that will eventually take over the world. By doing that, your spouse can become invisible and your marriage will ultimately fall apart.

Children are important, don’t get me wrong. But your marriage is the most important part of your family. You need to pay attention to your partner, give him your full attention and spend time with each other. Children will survive if they play second role, but your marriage might not.

Based on a quick scan of the comments, it appears many people agreed with #5. But, as one commenter said, “I guess everyone supports point no. 5 except children of parents who put their spouses first.”


When I was growing up, adults came before children. This was true in general, but seemed particularly true in my family.

I haven’t forgotten my mother taking my big sister and I aside on the eve of her marriage, and warning us “Don’t ever make me choose between him and you, because I’ll choose him.”

She went on to tell us that marriage is forever, whereas children are not. (Which is pretty funny, when you think about it, since our family has such a long and colourful history of divorce, going back generations, long before divorce was common or considered respectable.)

This menacing little heart-to-heart talk came out of nowhere. I was 10 years old, and I was startled and confused by it. At the time, I got along okay with the man she was marrying. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to make her choose. And of course I never did make her choose. I just left home when I was 15, and, a few years later, when her marriage ended, she looked me up.

This question of the relative position of children in the family hierarchy has come up more than once in my family. And maybe that’s a pivotal point – whereas my mother (and perhaps others of her generation) viewed family relationships as hierarchical, my siblings and I never saw our children as being beneath us. (This post, written by little sister, provides a particularly compelling example.)

Frankly, I don’t think children must always come first. Other people’s wants and needs matter too. But kids have a right to have their needs met before the marriage gets nurtured and before the spouse gets their share of undivided attention. And by needs, I mean more than food and shelter. I include the emotional needs of feeling loved, cared for, valued, respected, protected and wanted. If you’re generally meeting those needs along with the core physical needs like food, shelter and medical care, then by all means put the kids on the back burner for awhile.

What do you think?

31 comments to Do you put your children or your marriage first?

  • Perhaps I’m naive, but I always assumed that spouses who have children would work together to ensure their children’s health and happiness. The post you quoted makes it seem like it is inevitable that one spouse chooses between the children and the other spouse. But maybe I’ll feel differently in six months or so!

    I was lucky growing up, my parents balanced this well. We were important and valued and well cared for, but they still spent lots of time together, including taking holidays together while we stayed with our (very caring) grandparents.

    • That does sound like a well-balanced approach, Jennifer. And yeah, I would think that ideally parents would jointly put their kids’ needs first rather than competing with their kids for each other’s attention. :)

  • My parents were like a unit unto themselves. I always felt like a little satellite orbiting them.

    The relationship between my husband and I is the most important (because without that relationship, the family would have been short lived). I think I did a fairly good job making my children feel cherished and wanted and making sure their needs both emotional and otherwise were met. They’ve grown into wonderful, loving adults so I think that whatever I did, I didn’t do any long term damage.

    There do seem to be an awful lot of people who place the children first above all else in the family. I think this is where a lot of the “entitled” behaviors we are seeing is coming from.

    • Yeah, I see what you mean. It’s easy for people to go overboard when it comes to putting children first. That’s why I distinguish between needs and wants. I don’t think parents are doing their children any favours when they cater to their every whim, either.

  • Deb

    There seems to be a problem with the link.

  • In a family, EVERYONE comes first, just not always at the same time. If my husband had put me first (or second or third) even once in a while, we would probably still be married.

  • Lucy

    Wow, what kind of mother would say such a thing to her child! I don’t blame you for leaving home. I wonder if after her marraige ended she realized how near-sighted she had been. Your child will always be your child. Your spouse could choose not to be your spouse any more at any time regardless of whether you think you are putting them first or not. A spouse should be mature enough not to see children as competitors.

    It seems to me that the writer of that blog is equating “putting children first” with catering to all their wishes and spending an unreasonable amount of time getting them to do too many (generally unnecessary) activities while ignoring one’s spouse, which is of course unreasonable and could be damaging to a marriage. But if that is what “putting children first” means, then to be fair, “putting one’s spouse first” should also be taken to mean the extreme situation of catering to one’s spouse unreasaonably and ignoring one’s children, which could damage the children instead. In that extreme, although both situations would be bad, damaging one’s children is worse, because children don’t choose their parents and don’t have the option of walking away if they are being neglected (at least not until they are older).

    • If she realized how near-sighted she had been, she didn’t carry that lesson forward, as you can see from my sister’s post. (She describes a similar incident that took place about 10 years after my incident.)

      But I agree with you. I think in an ideal family, such extremes would be avoided. Children would matter and so would marriages. In many cases, the best thing parents can do for their kids is to ensure the marriage stays strong and healthy. (Assuming, of course, that a strong marriage does not come at the expense of meeting the kids’ needs.)

      • lucy

        Yes, I know I read your sister’s post as well. So sad. I am glad to know that you and your sister(s) seem to have grown up into well-adjusted caring people, in spite of that. As someone who was lucky to have a very loving and attentive mother (she herself had lost her mother when she was 6-7 yrs old and grew up feeling that loss, so as an adult she was extremely conscious of how important it is to have a mother), I find it hard to wrap my head around the idea of a mother saying that to her kids.

        I agree with others who have commented that everyone comes first but at different times, but in the end, at least while kids are young, that generally does mean that kids will have to come first much of the time simply because their needs are greater than an adult in general (and I mean actual needs, not just catering to them and spoiling them).

  • Mikatana

    I think it is all about balance…sometimes you have to put yourself first, sometimes your mate and sometimes the kids, even more importantly one particular kid over another. It is all about who needs it the most at the time and that seems to change from minute to minute.

    I do think that there are a lot of kids out there that don’t know how to pick them selves up when things aren’t going their way, and that, my friend is the parents fault…not the kids!! It is a rude awakening for any one to discover that the universe does not revolve around them.

    • Mikatana, it sounds so reasonable, but complicated, too, balancing everybody’s needs, especially when they are all constantly in flux. I suppose I’d get better at making quick decisions if I were ever in that position. No more thinking things through when decisions have to be made on the fly!

      • lucy

        Zoom, I think you ARE already in that position of having to balance everybody’s needs, with so many “kids” to care for: a cat, a dog and so many high-maintenance birds. :-)

  • grace

    Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes before your child’s safety (physical and emotional).

  • I think if you meet your children’s needs in childhood they’re in a much better place as *adults* to delay gratification and not feel jealous of the attention their young children need and demand. I think giving kids that healthy level of attention they need, that sense of belonging, safety, love, and the *permanence* of that love and safety means they have a good chance of growing up emotionally healthy and with the independence (which requires that security) to make decisions that include their own needs. If anything that’s the thing I struggle most with as an adult.

    • That makes sense. It’s hard to keep giving something to others that you crave for yourself. And it’s hard to take something that you need if you feel you don’t deserve it.

  • Sheila

    I’ll never forget hearing my mother tell my sister that she would always put my father above us. Hearing that chilled me and I puzzled over it for years. I’m still puzzling over it.
    I think that the answer is that the family needs to work together. Parents work together to meet the needs of the children and each other and the children learn to be considerate of each other and of their parents as well.

    • Sheila, do you remember the context in which your mother said that?

      • Sheila

        I don’t remember the context, exactly. I think my sister was hoping my father would intercede on her behalf. My sister was a more “difficult” child and she triggered terrible rages in my mother. I tried really hard to stay under her radar. I have a vague memory of my mother threatening to abandon my sister,as well. It’s hard to talk about because it’s all muddled; on one hand, there was love and on the other hand, there was fear. Most parents have to discipline their children and I’m sure they don’t always do it well but I’m 53 years old and I’m still afraid of my parents’ anger/disappointment and I still go through torment when I do things that displease/hurt them. And yet, I refuse to live my life for someone else.

  • Grownups have a responsibility to look after a lot of their own needs. Children are just not equipped to do that. Adults in a healthy relationship do need to make sure they nurture what they have but kids needs are much more immediate and must come first. My kids also need me to role model healthy, loving adult relationships with my friends and spouse. I hope I’m teaching my kids that love is not a hierarchical thing – it just manifests itself in different ways with different people.
    Does that make sense? Sooo tired today. My kid’s needs left me sleep deprived. :-)

    • It does make sense Laurie. Again, it’s about balancing everybody’s needs and wants as best you can under whatever circumstances prevail on a given day. Which sounds hard, and is probably even harder than it sounds. (The more I think about it, the more I think maybe I was lucky that I was a single parent with just one child.)

  • Kat

    Both of my parents grew up with the parents coming first and it carried through to my sister & I. In hind site I can tell that we did not get the support, love and nurturing to help us become all that we could. It’s something that I know, had it been there, I would likely not be the lost soul that I am now. I don’t blame my Mother, I was also abused as a child and I know this greatly affects me still, but I do wish I’d had a better foundation to build my life on. THAT is what all children should have – a solid foundation to build their lives on. So they can be all that they can.

  • Shortly after my first child was born, a friend asked both me and my husband who we’d save in an emergency, spouse or child. We both, separately, instantly chose our child, and I’d expect nothing less of him. When it comes to mental and physical health, I’d always put my children first. That doesn’t mean, as others have said, catering to their every whim. But my primary job is to protect my children and that comes first, no matter what.

    I’d never say what your mother said, particularly to your sister. You can never replace your children, but you can always find a new man (especially if the old one’s behaviour requires that you chose between him and the kids).

  • I’m trying hard to imagine in what type of situation I’d have to actually choose whether to put my children or hustband “first.” Adults are adults and only the scarily- emotionally-needy ones would begin to think that the children need to be put “behind” anything. Healthy families work together to meet everyone’s needs appropriately. Having said that, I know this dynamic exists. Your mother was extremely wrong to say such things Zoom. My husband who is not the father of my children, has the depth of understanding and maturity to completely understand the concept. Something their biological father still doesn’t.

  • Julia

    Boy, some of your posts just help me to see how grateful I am to have been raised by the parents I had! They sure didn’t smother us with overt affection but we never felt neglected or left out and all three of us were treated as equally as they could manage, which wasn’t easy given that we were so different from each other. My parents also did just adult stuff together without us. But never was it ever even mentioned that someone had a better position in the family than anyone else. They were the parents, so their position as adults was quite different from ours as kids. But we were all equally deserving of respect. And although we sometimes tried in the early days, to drive a wedge between the parents to get something we wanted, they were wise to that from the get-go. If we asked one for something, the other always said, “what did Mum (or Dad) say?” and we knew we were sunk. They even had parental conferences on how to deal with us (well, me) when “we” got difficult.

    Man, I was a lucky kid. Thanks for allowing me to see that again. I’m going to tell my parents I love them now.

  • Lo

    As a child not only did I (and siblings) never come first, we were mostly forgotten.
    With my family, we are a unit. My husband and I chose to have children to enhance our lives and we are a unit and everyone is equal and knows they are loved!

  • I’ve heard a similar sentiment before, but framed in that your children are meant to grow up and leave, and you are meant to grow old with your spouse. I hadn’t considered these relationships in this way, but it makes sense. I don’t think of it so much as ‘coming first’ but rather if you have to make a decision that is going to foster resentment it’s more acceptable to have your child feel this way than your spouse.