The newest advice to build better marriages is "Put your marriage first." Pastors and counselors alike repeat this like a mantra with the intention of solidifying the "primary" relationship in the family unit because without it everyone, including the children, suffers. Divorce affects the children in a profound and negative way so to foster a strong marriage is to save the children, too. But just how and when to "put your marriage first" needs some clarification.
There are times when the children should come before your marriage. Your children's safety (emotional, physical, mental and financial well being) comes before your marriage. Once you bring a child into this world (or assume guardianship) you are morally and legally obligated to care for his needs until he can provide for himself. Mothers should always put a priority on their children's well-being instead of passively allowing their husbands to mistreat or abuse the kids. There is no good reason to put your marriage first when you have a marriage not worth holding onto in the first place.
I also dislike it when married couples use this as an excuse to neglect their children or indulge in selfishness. It also implies that you have to choose one over the other.
Let's examine just what this guideline really means:
This means that you do not neglect the health of your marital relationship.
Parenting roles change us and it is important not to forget that the two of you still are a romantic, loving couple. When you see yourselves as co-creators of your offspring which are the manifestation of your love, it is easy to parent together. Attending to the needs of your brood is a joint activity while you remember the two of you still need couple time, too. Nurture your identity as each other's mate. Parenting is only one part of who you are.
This means using a priority system to decide who or what comes first at the appropriate times.
Being there for your children and being there for your spouse needn't take you in opposite directions. If your children have an important event, both parents should want to be there to support them. Otherwise, weigh the importance according to need and choose who comes first at this particular time. My husband and I planned to go on our anniversary trip but on the day of departure, our son hurt his back and couldn't move or drive. He is an adult child but he still needed help. Others would have "put their marriage first" and gone on the trip. We opted to stay to see to his care. Once he was in a manageable situation, we went on our trip--sans worry and guilt. How could we have enjoyed ourselves worrying about our child? Adult or not, he needed help. Our priority for this situation was our child. It did not weaken our marriage but strengthened it as we cared for "our" precious offspring.
On the other hand, we take regular weekly Date Nights and I protect those fiercely! We may juggle the actual day due to illness, etc. but we have at least one Date Night a week. Our anniversary celebrations were always sans kids, and we did have kid-free social outings with friends, too.
This means parents are the final decision-makers.
Making decisions should be based upon the well-being of everyone in the family. Don't treat your children as the final decision-makers in the family. It gives them more influence and control over the entire family than they know how to handle, and it fosters a skewed perception of their personal power in this world. While their opinions and desires matter, they are only one vote in the democratic process of the family and the parents are the presidents with veto power. Yet, I never let my spouse become a dictator. We had our little minions to keep happy, too.
This does not mean that you love your husband more than your children.
It's impossible to compare the love one has for a spouse and the love for one's children. They are different types of love. "Eros" love (romantic) for a mate cannot be compared to the "Agape" (unconditional) or "Storge (family) love you feel for your offspring. There is a biological instinct that bonds a parent to a child. Don't even try to rank or compare your love. It's very confusing and damaging to your relationships.
This does not mean that you and your spouse can be selfish with your time and neglect the kids.
Children need a lot of attention, regardless of their age. They need to know that they are loved and that they come first to both parents. When a child believes he comes second in the lives of his parents, it leads to low esteem and insecurity. They also need to know that you enjoy a special relationship with the other parent. It is not an "either-or" situation. You have the capacity to love both immensely, one type of love not being above the other.
Putting your spouse first versus your marriage first
Marriage sadly has become synonymous with marital duty so to put the marriage first often means having to fulfill obligations. I believe that "Put your marriage first" would be better replaced by "Put your spouse first." This implies putting high priority on your spouse's happiness rather than calling each other to meet marital expectations.
I do not worry about my marriage because I put my husband first in many ways. His happiness is critical to my own. Yesterday, we were invited to a last-minute family gathering but he had been looking forward to taking photographs of the Sandcastle Festival. If we put our marriage first, he should have attended the family function with me. But I put HIM first and encouraged him to go on the photo excursion because I knew that he would be happier there.
If he had a work project on an anniversary weekend, there is no way I would insist that he "put our marriage first" and bail on a client. I would want to reduce the pressure on him. His relief and appreciation are rewarding.
A wise man once gave my husband financial advice that went: "If you pay attention to the nickels, the dollars take care of themselves." That can be said of marriages, too. Ensure the everyday little joys in your mate's life and the marriage will take care of itself. Those daily small but meaningful joys are what I put first.