Spouse or Children: Who Comes First?

“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.

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