“How are you and Aubrey doing?” my new mentor asked near the end of our appointment. We’d spent the last hour talking about various aspects of my story: transcontinental moves, cross-cultural stress, severe anxiety, and parenting two intense daughters through it all. I paused to consider my relationship with my spouse.
“Okay, I think?”
The truth was, the state of my marriage wasn’t something I thought about much. It didn’t feel like a crisis, so most of my mental energy went towards the more stressful, urgent aspects of our current life.
My response raised a flag. I explained something my husband and I have discussed several times: Our default way of relating to each other is low conflict. But it can also mean low connection.
We often slip into functioning more like healthy roommates sharing space, teammates working to tackle common goals and responsibilities, and co-parents raising our kids. These things certainly aren’t bad—we don’t take it for granted that, at least so far, these things have come relatively easy for us.
But what hasn’t been easy is prioritizing other aspects of our relationship as husband and wife: physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy.
If you’re a parent, you might relate. Who comes first, spouse or children?
Who gets your energy—spouse or children?
Intimacy takes time and energy—the very things we always feel a bit short on, especially since having children. There are certainly seasons and circumstances that drain time and energy (sickness, bereavement, moving, global pandemics, etc.) and make it difficult to make marriage a top priority.
But while some issues can’t help but feel all-consuming, my mentor helped me regain perspective: marriage needs and deserves my best time and energy … before it becomes its own crisis.
It’s good for marriage to take up mental energy
I’d made a habit of spending an enormous amount of mental energy and angst fussing over my role as mother—devouring countless books, podcasts, and blogs. Yet I spent little time checking in on my role as Aubrey’s wife. Even conversations with friends often touch on parenting but seldom on marriage.
Why does parenting naturally take so much more mental space than marriage?
As one friend said, parenting is newer, and the struggles constantly change. Like how I read (so many) parenting books because I need answers, advice, perspective, and encouragement. I’m afraid of doing something wrong, so I actively seek input.
Compared to parenting, our marriages may feel more stable and less subject to daily changes and challenges. And we may feel, in some seasons, that we have very little mental space not devoted to daily problem solving with children. All the more reason to make a point to actively seek input, perspective, and encouragement for marriage, too.
A daily devotional about how to love your spouse well, a new habit/action on your daily checklist, a group of friends to check in consistently with about marriage—these could all be ways to help keep your marriage a mental priority.
It’s good for marriage to take up physical energy
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that parents of young children must be in want of a nap.
Before I became a parent, I never imagined “ask permission before you jump on someone” would be one of our family’s most necessary rules. After spending the day as a human jungle gym, sometimes by dinner I just can’t tolerate the thought of being touched one more time. Or after repeating the same scripts all day, I’m simply tired of the sound of my own voice. After a long day of work, all I want to do is sit on the couch and play Sudoku.
But having no capacity left for a smile, kiss, or hug to greet my spouse or the strength to muster questions about his day, is definitely giving him the short end of the stick.
There are practical ways to restore my physical capacity—asking him to take over jungle-gym duty for a time, listening to an audiobook while cooking dinner, trading off bedtime routines. But ultimately, I need to recognize my husband deserves more than whatever scraps of physical energy I have left that day. I need to choose to make “reserving” energy for him a priority.
Deciding early in the day how I might like to serve him—his board game of choice, cleaning the kitchen, or retiring to the bedroom early (wink, wink)—informs how I choose to spend my time and energy that day.
Of course, sometimes things just don’t go as planned. But knowing I’d hoped to bless and serve him in some way communicates priority and care.
It’s good for marriage to take up spiritual energy
When our oldest started school, I found myself praying for her like never before. Truthfully, when we decided to even begin trying to have children, my prayer life got a super boost. Suddenly, there was another human being (or the hope for another human being) completely dependent upon me, which was at once thrilling and humbling (read: terrifying). There were so many factors out of my control, so I turned to the One who was.
I even spend time figuring out how to teach the gospel to my children through Disney movies and other stories. I’ve spent hours perusing suggestions for catechisms, children’s bibles, and other resources to help them understand God’s love for them and the beauty of the good news.
Do I spend as much time thinking about how I can encourage my spouse and “stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24)? Well …
A majority of that sort of spiritual energy goes into myself and my children. Granted, when I lead a “pure and reverent” life, it is an encouragement to my spouse (see 1 Peter 3:1-2, NLT); but how much further could a little intentionality go? A quick prayer of intercession for the Spirit’s presence with him before he leaves for the day, a whispered prayer of thanksgiving for who God made him to be before bed, a prayer for myself as his wife to love and serve him well—these are a few little ways to keep us connected spiritually.
Your children should see your marriage is a priority
A few years ago, our toddler asked her dad to stay with her in bed for a while. He responded that nighttime was his special time to be alone with mommy to which she responded with a matter-of-fact resignation, “That can’t happen.”
While we got a good kick out of her response, it does sort of illustrate that marriage as a priority needs to be taught and caught. If we let them, our children will happily take up the center space of our universe, the same way they would happily eat an entire carton of ice cream. Needless to say, that would not be good for them.
Common sense tells us it’s not healthy for anyone to think they’re the center of the universe. Research tells us children are more likely to thrive when surrounded by strong, secure relationships.
So while there may be some “mom guilt” (or “dad guilt”, though I’ve never heard that phrase before) about making sure your spouse gets more than sloppy seconds, it’s also an act of love for your children to love your spouse well. Not only will it help provide a more stable, healthy environment in which they can grow, it also helps them to grow—they can see affection, mutual respect, conflict resolution, and sacrificial love played out in their own home.
Asking for a friend: spouse or children?
There have been several movies depicting marriages that fall apart when the children leave the nest. They focus on the kids so much that, over the years, they don’t know how to relate as husband and wife anymore—just fellow parents.
In the movies, sometimes they find their way back to each other, sometimes they don’t. While I know it’s possible for that story to end well, I don’t want that to be my story.
And we don’t want it for our friends, either. How might we encourage each other to keep (or make) marriage a daily priority? It might be as simple as asking, “How are you and your husband doing?” Or when discussing another issue in their lives, asking, “What does your wife say?”
I‘m thankful my mentor made a point to ask me about my marriage. Just bringing it up helped me begin taking steps to prioritize my marriage more. In recognizing the ways I often invest in my children more than him, I’m able to assess and make a new “budget” (so to speak) of my investments.
As with many good endeavors, it will mean hard choices and sacrifices. Our marriages need and deserve our mental, physical, and spiritual energy. And the payoff has potential to bless you and your spouse, your children, and many others for generations to come.
Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Laura Way serves with FamilyLife as a writer and lives in Orlando, Florida with her high-school-teaching-husband, Aubrey, and their two vibrant young daughters. She and Aubrey lived in East Asia for seven years until relocating last year. She enjoys writing about becoming more fully human while sojourning through different places, seasons of life, and terrains of mental and spiritual health at hopeforthesojourn.com.