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Who comes first–your kids or your spouse?

fambackWho comes first–your kids or your spouse?

Ask any couple this question and odds are they’d insist hands-down, their spouse comes first. I mean, of course! It’s the right response. But just glance at your color-coded, crazy calendar crammed with Cub Scouts, T-ball, gymnastics, birthday parties, doctor appointments–not to mention the margin not penciled into your calendar, eaten up by cooking, cleaning, car pools, counseling your kids, homework, and so on. Can you honestly still declare…”My spouse comes first!”

When I married my husband, Jeff, seven years ago, I inherited two children from his first marriage. They were five and eight at the time. Jeff was…and still is…crazy in love with them, as any awesome dad would be. He shared a 50/50 custody schedule with his ex which meant time spent on weekdays AND weekends were split down the middle. School functions and homework shaped our weekdays and we became the Fun Factory on weekends. In theory, it worked well to provide equal time and continuity for the kids. In reality, I felt like a nut-case caught smack in the center of ping-ponging two kids between two homes.

But every time I voiced my needs as a wife, it was met by a chorus of voices crying out in defense of the kids: “They came first--they should always come first!” Or how ’bout: “You knew what you were getting into when you married a guy with kids!” And my personal favorite shaming statement of all: “It’s not about YOU! You should be glad your husband is such a committed father!”

Over time, I learned to swallow my needs. I believed the lie that my feelings were not valid, that my needs were not worthy of being met and that I had to surrender my true self for the “greater good” of the family unit. My resentment surfaced in cynicism and manifested itself in a feeling of hopeless resignation I couldn’t give voice to. I tried my best to keep it together for the “greater good” of the family but I totally lost my cool just a week before we picked up our baby girl from China. Now, I’d never recommend a meltdown coinciding with overseas travel to adopt a special needs child for goodness sake. But two days before take-off, my husband and I had a no-holds-barred throw-down about what we could and could not accept as we eased into being a Family of Six.

“I’M DONE TAKING A BACKSEAT TO THE KIDS!” I screamed. Years of stuffing gave way to this guttural cry to be heard. This time, my husband listened. He held me. He got it. For the first time in a long time…I felt truly listened to. And loved. Since that episode, we’ve been working really hard to reverse a cycle of dysfunction in which our priorities were totally out of whack. We sought counsel and discovered it’s very common in stepfamilies for the second wife to take a backseat to the kids in “the first family.” Does that make it right? No. But it’s a mistake a lot of well-meaning, loving parents make: Putting the Kids First.

So how do we stop this cycle once it’s infected family life?

1. Start consulting your spouse first and kids second in everything. Now whenever something comes up with the kids, whether it’s a school play, activities, money, birthdays, holidays, time with in-laws…my husband asks me how I feel about it before making an executive decision about what’s best. And if I feel uneasy about something costing our family excessive time or money, Jeff has been good about honoring my feelings and acting accordingly.

2. Quality time as a couple takes precedence over time spent as a family unit. If we only have money in our budget one month to choose between a date night or family outing, date night wins. For a while, our date nights went by the wayside as my stepkids expressed hurt feelings if Jeff and I went out to dinner or away for the weekend and didn’t take them with us. My husband admittedly let guilt guide his choice to put the brakes on the amount of time and money he and I spent investing in date nights alone and instead we pretty much spent exclusive family time as a unit. But now we realize if we don’t take time to invest in our marriage, there will be no foundation for any of these kids to have a family and what’s the good in that? Guilt-free date nights without kids is key to a healthy marriage.

3. When your spouse stops talking, it’s time to listen. The moment the conversation ends in a marriage, it’s game over. People grow and change at different paces in different ways and unless  you do a periodic check-in to evaluate whether your spouse feels heard, loved and listened to, there’s no way to guarantee your spouse feels heard, loved and listened to. Jeff and I decided to do check-ins with each other with the change of every season to refine our goals as individuals and as a couple. It’s a lot of work…but marriage is not a static state of being. It’s a changing, evolving, beautiful unfolding of two people trying to grow together. 

Have you made changes in your marriage to make your spouse a priority? I’d love to hear how so I can learn from you and we can learn from each other…

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