Passing the Love On

When two people sign their name to a marriage license they create a sacred union, and a social structure for bringing children into the world.  It’s not something to be taken lightly, although the divorce rate of almost 60% may say otherwise.  How many other things in life can you think of that have the words “til death do us part” associated with them?  These words alone make the marriage contract sacred, yet we so easily take for granted the sanctity of marriage once the wedding is over.  It’s not uncommon that one of the primary reasons for marriage, to provide a legitimate structure to raise children within, also contributes to its neglect.

As our marriage transforms into a family, what was once a union that provided time, energy, security and love to the spouses quickly becomes a framework to provide these things to the children.  This natural transformation gives the marriage a greater sense of purpose, but it comes at an exacting cost.  Good parents will do almost anything for their children, including sacrificing sleep, sharing money, filling the house with all sorts of baby stuff, and unfortunately neglecting the marriage in service to their children.

The marriage gets neglected with the birth of the first child because the family, as might be expected, takes precedence.  What was once a union of two is now a family of three.  You can say it is the original love triangle.  Energy that was initially passed from one spouse to another is now passed by both spouses directly to the child.  In this triangle the spouses are no longer exclusive to each other.  Their friends change.  The things they used to do in their spare time changes.  Their routine changes.  In fact, over time, the life that they had before the birth of their first child becomes a vague and distant memory.  Yet, it’s all worth it for the indescribable love we feel for our children.  If we didn’t experience such a tremendous attachment, and such a complete devotion to our children, the human race would become extinct due to a lack of interest.

In the chaos of creating a family, and in the sheer joy of childbirth, we love our children in ways that we never knew we were capable of before.  We kiss, pinch, squeeze, hug, cuddle, hold, coo, sing, dance, carry, nuzzle, blow raspberries, tickle, bite, lick, and make baby sounds to them all day long, and sometimes, unabashedly, in public.  We have no shame.  No self-consciousness.  We sleep with our children, make excuses for them, love them unconditionally, and defend them in odd, and sometimes unintelligent ways.  It’s no wonder children are so egocentric.  As far as they’re concerned the world revolves completely around them.  And as far as we’re concerned, they are the center of our universe.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  It wasn’t so long ago that the spouses were the centers of each others universe.  Where did the love and affection between them go?  The answer is obvious, to their children.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just unconsciously happens at the expense of the marriage.  As families thrive, the marital relationship is relegated to the backseat.  It is such a subtle shift, in light of the bigger picture of raising a family, that it goes virtually unnoticed.  Perhaps there’s a whimper from the husband that his needs for affection are not being met, or a whimper from the wife that she is overwhelmed or exhausted, but for the most part, they are both far too busy to focus on these complaints.  And, if all of these changes weren’t enough, with the birth of the second child the pattern of sacrificing the marriage to the family becomes even more accentuated.  It may take years – sometimes not until the children leave the house – for couples to begin to respond to each other in their customary way.  By then, animosity usually creeps into the relationship causing it to fragment.  The family may stay intact, and even thrive, but the relationship often faces serious pitfalls and challenges along the way.

The best remedy for this situation is one that uses the natural love that parents have for their children as a vehicle for keeping their own relationship fresh and viable.  Since love naturally flows from parent to child in a way that once flowed from one spouse to the other, by showing your child love by directly expressing your love for your mate allows everyone to benefit.  That is, when couples make a conscious effort to show each other love and affection in front of their child it reaffirms the marriage as the essential component in the family, and it gives the child a good mental model for the positive exchange of complementary energy.  Although this may sound simplistic, it is very difficult to find the right balance between showering your child with affection, and making sure that the love between you and your spouse flows down to your child through your marriage, rather than directly to your child.

This approach does not forsake the love you feel for your child.  You will have plenty of time and opportunity to indulge yourself and your child in the warmth of parenthood.  What this approach does is make conscious the fact that the marriage is the context from which the birth occurred.  Since the marriage precedes the family, it needs to be honored as the sacred union that it is, otherwise your child will believe that he or she is the center of the universe and will not have an adequate mental model for what a good relationship looks like.

It’s not a stretch to think that one of the variables contributing to our high divorce rate is that our children only know how to have what they want, and they do not know how to give what other people need in order to create reciprocal relationships.  The expectation that they are the center of the family undermines the fact that they need to be able to see how healthy relationships work.  For parents to model that for them increases the strength of their marital bond and may also increase the likelihood that their children will experience a strong marital bond themselves when they are adults.  So, the next time you think about smooching up your child, make sure you smooch up your spouse first.

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