Andrew G. Marshall has spent almost thirty years helping couples to overcome their marriage difficulties. Most of the misery he encounters can be traced back to one single issue: how to stop your children from ruining your marriage.
“Although bringing up the next generation is possibly the most fulfilling and life-affirming thing anyone can do, babies and small children do seem to have a mission to destroy everything they come into contact with, from your clothes and furniture to your nerves, sex life and sometimes even your marriage … in the hurly-burly of bringing up a family … you drop down each other’s list of priorities until one or other of you complains: ‘You always put me last’” (p 5-6).
Marshall has distilled his insights into a book, called I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How to Childproof Your Marriage (Macmillan, London, 2013). The book is full of diagnostic quizzes, real-life examples, and practical tips to help you build a stronger marriage during the child-raising years. And with one in three Australian marriages currently ending in divorce, we would do well to pay attention.
The book starts with three “revolutionary” ideas that can save a marriage. The first idea is that you should put your children second, behind your spouse. Marshall argues that if you always put your children first in everything, you will have no energy left for your spouse, and end up taking them—and your relationship—for granted. This leaves your marriage vulnerable to resentment, affairs, midlife crises and ultimately, divorce. Marshall emphasises that building a strong and lasting marriage is actually what our kids need from us most: “a happy marriage means happy children” (p7).
Marshall does not write as a Christian, but the Bible affirms his vision: ideally, Christian family life will be built on the bedrock of a loving and faithful marriage.
Marshall’s second big idea is that you should aim simply to be a “good enough” parent. Perfectionism in parenting is destructive: we become driven by guilt about providing the “perfect” childhood, and our children miss the opportunity to practise coping with life in the real world.
The Bible affirms this understanding of parenting. Human children are born in the “image” of their imperfect, human parents (see Genesis 5:3). But our mistakes and imperfections become opportunities to show our children how to say sorry and seek forgiveness, and how to get back up and keep striving to do our best. As Christian parents, we know that there is one Perfect Father, who can take anything—even our mistakes—and use it for good in our children’s lives.
Marshall’s third big idea is that you should acknowledge that you have needs too. Marriages work best when each person can identify and communicate their own needs, while seeking to understand and respect the needs of their spouse.
Navigating the Normal Stages of a Relationship
Marshall goes on to outline the six normal stages of a relationship. It is a relief to realise that many of the tensions we experience are a normal part of moving into a new stage. Marshall describes marriage as U-shaped: “There is a high when we first get together, but older couples are often the most romantic. It’s the bit in the middle—rubbing the rough edges off each other and bringing up children—that’s hard going” (p45).
But Marshall is reassuring: “Happy marriages are built on good relationship skills. And that’s an optimistic message because those skills can be learnt” (p58).
The Basics of Parenting
The next chapter outlines some of the reasons why becoming a parent can be such a difficult transition. Parenthood challenges us physically and emotionally, and brings our own childhood and parents back into focus.
Marshall then describes what he believes are the two essential tasks of parenting: helping our children to regulate their emotions, and fostering their independence. As Christians, we would add to this list—our children also depend on us to teach them about God and his values. This chapter also considers how couples can overcome their parenting differences—by listening carefully, focussing on what we agree on, and working towards a solution, rather than criticising one another.
Marshall devotes two chapters to the thorny issue of how couples divide up the responsibilities of childcare and housework. Marshall’s main advice on this issue is to try to step into each other’s shoes. He notes that this can be particularly hard when the workload is split into “home maker” and “provider”.
Marshall encourages couples to stop using negative strategies, like defending yourself and nagging, criticising or caricaturing your spouse (“You always / never …”). Instead, we should use positive strategies, like simply asking for help, and showing appreciation for the other person’s contribution to the family. Importantly, Marshall advises us not to make assumptions about why our spouse did something—it’s better just to ask them. Each person is usually doing their best, even if their efforts are misunderstood.
Marshall then turns to the topic of sex. As Christians, we know that this is an integral part of God’s good design for marriage, but it is rare to find such practical tips on the subject.
“Red Carpet Kids”
Marshall’s next chapter critiques the way modern parenting tends to create “Red Carpet Kids”. Firstly, modern parents often treat their kids like little celebrities, who deserve constant praise and attention. Secondly, we tend to “carpet” the world for our children, rather than equip them with the “shoes” (i.e. resilience) needed for walking over rough terrain.
Marshall helpfully identifies why we do these things, and describes the negative impact that this kind of parenting has on our children and our marriage. Marshall then provides some strategies for changing our approach, such as dealing with hurts from your own childhood, replacing friendship with respect and trust, expecting your children to contribute around the house, and instilling discipline.
This approach to parenting is consistent with the Bible’s vision: God has given parents authority over our children, which we exercise in love for their long-term good. Our job is not to make our children permanently happy and successful, but to prepare them to live out their God-given purpose in the real world.
In conclusion, I highly recommend I Love You But You Always Put Me Last to anyone who wants to improve their marriage so that being “mum and dad” doesn’t overshadow their primary relationship as “husband and wife”.
This article originally appeared on Growing Faith.