Chapter OneMaking Marriage a Priority
There comes a time in most marriages when two become three. Sometimes, two become four or five or six or more! This is the design initiated by God in the Garden of Eden when he said to Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it." Both Scripture and modern sociological research indicate that the best environment for children is the environment created by a loving father and mother who are committed to each other for a lifetime. The Scriptures also indicate that in marriage the husband and wife are to become "one flesh." The term one flesh speaks of deep intimacy. Modern research also affirms this concept: Most couples who get married do so because they want to have an intimate, exclusive relationship with each other. If an intimate marriage and parenting are both a part of God's design, then surely there is a way to do both successfully.
Let's freely admit that when children arrive, they greatly affect the marital relationship. There is a new person in the house, and he or she will be there for a long time. That first child may be joined by siblings over the next few years. Each child creates a new dynamic in the household. Someone has said, "The decision to have a child-it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." Parents can identify with that statement. The child is a part of them, and their hearts are linked to the child's well-being. However, in their love for the child, they must never forget that the child is the offspring of their love for each other. Therefore, they must continue to cultivate that love relationship, not only for their own well-being but for the well-being of the child as well.
When a couple neglect their own love relationship, either intentionally or unintentionally, they do so to the detriment of their children. Research clearly shows that the effect of divorce upon a child is devastating. Divorces typically do not occur on the spur of the moment. They are preceded by months and sometimes years of neglecting the marital relationship. Therefore, for the conscientious parent, there is nothing more important than rekindling or keeping alive an intimate relationship with his or her spouse. The antidote to divorce is to stop the process of drifting apart. Choose to paddle your canoes toward each other rather than away from each other. In the last chapter of this book, I will tell you how to do that. But first you must commit yourselves to the process by making marriage a priority.
What does it mean to make marriage a priority? It means, first, that we pause long enough to assess the quality of our marriage. Then we must make a conscious choice that, for the benefit of our children, for ourselves, and (if we are Christians) for the glory of God, we will commit ourselves to each other and acknowledge that our marriage is important to us. Finally, we must agree that with God's help we will find a way to strengthen our intimacy. Making marriage a priority is a conscious choice to make things better.
There is a song that says, "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage." I would like to change part of that analogy and say that marriage and parenting go together like a horse and carriage. The horse and the carriage exist as separate entities; they can be separated from each other. When the horse is separated from the carriage, it is free to roam and frolic as it likes. In a similar manner, marriage and parenting are separate endeavors, but parenting is at its best only when it is linked with marriage.
When the horse is harnessed to the carriage, its freedom is limited, but its energy can be used for positive purposes. The carriage cannot fulfill its created function without the horse. Before children, a husband and wife are able to roam and frolic as they choose. Once children come, parents' freedom is limited. But their choice to be connected with their children is for the good of both parents and the children.
However, limited freedom does not equal no freedom. The horse is often uncoupled from the carriage and returns to the pasture-a horse that stayed harnessed to the carriage day and night would soon become a frustrated horse. Nor would this be good for the carriage and its passengers. Similarly, a couple who are so attached to their child or children that they have no time for themselves will become a frustrated couple. This is not good for the children or the parents.
Like the horse apart from its carriage, parents have an existence apart from their children. This existence is called marriage, which at its best provides parents time to frolic and enjoy each other so that they are renewed for their task of parenting.
Please note that the title of this chapter is "Making Marriage a Priority." Notice I say a priority. I often encounter couples who argue over whether the child should be their priority or marriage should be their priority. That's like arguing over whether water or food should be the priority for the human body. The truth is they are both priorities. Parents who do not seek to be good parents are delinquent in their responsibilities. On the other hand, couples who do not give priority to their marriage are also delinquent.
A couple who neglect their children in pursuit of their own happiness will live to regret their decision. On the other hand, a couple who neglect their marriage while focusing all their energy on their children will also live to regret their choice.
Keeping your marriage vibrant and alive is one of the best things you can do for the health of your children, who will also likely one day be married. They desperately need a model of what a healthy marriage looks like. If you neglect your marital relationship, you may meet the children's physical needs but realize in time that you have failed to teach them relational skills. Marriage is a priority; parenting is a priority-the choice is not either/or. To neglect either is detrimental to the other.
In my book The Four Seasons of Marriage, I used the seasons to describe the various stages of a marriage:
* Springtime in marriage is a time of new beginnings, new patterns of life, new ways of listening, and new ways of loving. Feelings we experience during this season include excitement, love, trust, hope, and joy.
* Summer couples share deep commitment, satisfaction, and security in each other's love. They are connected and supportive of each other.
* Fall brings a sense of unwanted change, and nagging emptiness appears. We might feel apprehensive, concerned, sad, discouraged, and uncertain.
* Winter means difficulty. Marriage is harder in this season of cold silence and bitter winds. Couples experiencing a winter season in their marriage will act and feel harsh, angry, disappointed, and detached.
You may want to ask, "What season was our marriage in before the children came? What season is our marriage in now?" If you are not happy with your present season, Now What? is definitely for you. In the next four chapters, I will share practical ways of restoring and maintaining a healthy marriage while at the same time being successful parents.
PUTTING THE PRINCIPLES INTO PRACTICE
1. Using the idea of the four seasons, assess the quality of your marriage by underlining the words in each description that best describe your current feelings about your marriage. Then ask your spouse to read this chapter and make an assessment as well.
2. If you discover that your marriage is in the unsettledness of fall or the coldness of winter, you need not remain there. You and your spouse can return to the spring or summer seasons of marriage by confessing your failures to each other and asking forgiveness.
3. Can you both agree to make your marriage a priority? Your motivation may be for the children, for yourselves, or for God. But whatever your motivation, when you make marriage a priority, you are moving in the right direction.