If parenthood has taken center stage in your life, you may wonder: will my marriage survive after my children leave the nest? As divorce statistics among adults over 50 continue to climb many people question whether they’ll fall into the trap of staying together for the sake of the kids. In fact, the divorce rate for Americans over 50 has doubled in the last two decades. In my opinion, these sobering statistics are a good wake up call.
In his thought provoking article in The New York Times “I Think About divorce a Lot, but Not Because I Want One” author Clint Edwards asks: which comes first – the kids or the marriage? He considers the complications of raising young children, the fact that he and his wife have very different interests but are still in love, and he worries about passing on the legacy of divorce to his children. I find his honesty refreshing and worthy of a response since I’m both an adult child of divorce and a writer who covers divorce related themes – and has similar worries.
Over the last several decades, we’ve seen a trend to put the needs of children first – before a marital partner. Child development experts agree that there are many repercussions to this parenting style. Children thrive when they have lots of love but they also need firm limits. Some parents have taken to indulgent parenting and place few demands on their children because they feel they will be more confident and creative if given more freedom. However, studies show that children who have parents who are permissive or indulgent are more likely to end up immature, irresponsible, and have problems controlling their impulses.
In fact, in her landmark research on parenting styles, psychologist Diana Baumrind found that children raised by parents who are nurturant and warm, yet set firm limits raised children who were most likely to be both socially competent and self-reliant. Baumrind also found that outcomes for children raised by permissive or indulgent parents (who didn’t place enough demands on them), lacked self-control and a lack of respect for others.
According to author and therapist Andrew G. Marshall, we are doing our children more harm than good and ruining our marriages in the process when we put our kid’s needs first. He posits that what we will end up with is demanding, insecure children, and detached, resentful parents. While Marshall’s ideas may seem radical, I agree with him regarding his perspective that couples need to put their marriage first and those of their children second. Marshall writes: “A happy marriage means happy children. If you put your children first – as a matter of course, day in and day out – you will exhaust your marriage.”
In his popular book “I Love You But…You Always Put Me Last,” Marshall advises us to avoid raising “Red Carpet Kids” who we overprotect. According to Marshall, when parents worry about smoothing out the rough edges and protecting their children against adversity too often, they run the risk of spoiling their children. The reasons he gives for this phenomenon are stressed out parents (who take the easy way out), guilt, smaller families, and wanting to be liked by their children. For instance, Jenna and Kurt came to counseling complaining that they were on the brink of divorce because they had drifted apart.
Let’s look at Jenna and Kurt, both in their mid-thirties and raising two boys, ages six and eight. After discussing their marital problems with me, it became apparent that they had let their relationship slide and had been putting their two boys before each other for several years. Both working full-time and drained by the demands of parenting, they had fallen into a pattern of neglecting their relationship.
Kurt reflects, “Jenna thinks that I spend too much time with Kevin and Sam, but I feel guilty when I get home after 7pm some nights and they are already in their PJ’s. I see it as a priority to play with them but I am totally exhausted after they go to bed and I have to get up early to make it to the gym before work.” Jenna responds: “We haven’t been out together – without the boys – in months and when we do go out we usually end up talking about them.” Both Jenna and Kurt were questioning their commitment to each other but determined to work hard to get back on track since they didn’t want to see their marriage crumble.
Here are 4 ways to put your marriage first:
- Don’t neglect your relationship with your spouse or significant other. While it may be a challenge to carve out time together, make doing activities away from your children a priority.
- Spend quality time with your partner. Be sure to plan special events and some vacation time away from your children.
- Don’t buy into the guilt trip that your children will suffer if you don’t schedule play time with them daily. Kids are incredibly resilient and they will become self-reliant if they have down time to play alone, with siblings, or peers.
- Let your children know that your relationship with their other parent is important. This may sound simplistic but you can convey this through warmth, affection, and spending time away from them with your partner.
Another factor that may cause you to fear divorce and focus too much on your children is being an adult child of divorce. The generational aspect of divorce is one of the many topics examined in “The Longevity Project” conducted by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. This study started in 1921 and tracked some 1,500 boys and girls throughout their lives. Their findings support Paul Amato’s research , showing that being an ACOD approximately doubles your risk of getting a divorce, compared to counterparts from intact homes. However, it’s important to note the silver lining here – many adult children of divorce work hard at marriage and don’t want to expose their children to the pain and anguish they experienced. Crafting a new story for your life means not allowing your parents’ divorce or unhappiness to define who you are as a person.
In closing, making your marriage a priority will pay off for you, your partner, and your children. It’s actually possible to have it all – socially competent and well-adjusted children, and a successful marriage. Even if you are an ACOD who has an increased risk of divorce, you can examine your own family background from an adult perspective and learn ways to have a healthy marriage or partnership.
More From Terry: