Marriage advice. We all hear it. There’s advice that immediately feels wrong, advice that sounds great until tried, and advice that proves true throughout the test of time. From this last category is one gem I wish I had heeded earlier: to raise happy kids, put your marriage first.
I heard various versions of that idea repeatedly during my life, even before I started dating. It was clearly important, but it seemed so obvious and natural I brushed it aside. However, in practice, it proved to not be as effortless as I thought. Just one week after our wedding my husband started medical school. He’d leave before I was awake, come home for an hour to eat dinner, then leave again until midnight or later. Even Saturdays were often used for studying. Our time together was extremely limited, but we used the few moments we had building our relationship. For those few precious hours, I was his and he was mine.
But, then we had kids and my husband started residency. Our focus shifted: his to providing for our rapidly growing family and surviving 80-hour work weeks, and mine to keeping those little humans thriving while simultaneously juggling schedules, managing our home, and battling postpartum depression. Consequently, as our to-do lists grew longer, our marriage priority sunk lower. It wasn’t until a couple months ago, shortly after our ten year anniversary, that it hit me. We let our relationship slip and our entire family was suffering because of it.
Our story is not uncommon. In fact, it is prevalent. Numerous studies have been conducted and national policies put in place to combat the issue. How much does marriage affect children? As it turns out, quite a lot.
These are seven big reasons why your marriage matters to your kids:
1. Children develop stronger emotional bonds to both parents
Bonds develop in daily rituals, in little moments, like morning and bedtime routines, extracurricular activities, transitions to and from school, and family meals. These each provide a context and climate for the continuation or development of high quality parent-child relationships (Kruk). When parents work together as one unit to raise their children, both “remain authoritative, responsible, involved, attached, emotionally available, supportive, and focused on children’s day-to-day lives. (Kruk)”
2. Children form better outside relationships
According to developmental psychologist E. Mark Cummings, kids are actually happier after watching their parents resolve a fight than they were before witnessing the disagreement (Gillet). When you work well as a team, even through conflict, your children learn how to form healthy relationships outside of your home. Your marriage models interpersonal skills such as how to show respect, communicate clearly, and resolve conflicts through negotiation and compromise. “Children who learn these skills observing their parents have positive relationships with peers, and later, with intimate partners. (Amato)”
3. Children are less likely to experience mental health problems
Children who are aware of their parents’ connection experience less anxiety, depression, and hopelessness than those in a divorced or contentious home. In the words of Dr. Lisa Firestone, “when parents feel happy and fulfilled in themselves and in their adult relationships… they offer their children a sense of stability and security from which to experience the world. A parent’s happiness allows children to feel happy… (Firestone)”
4. Children learn how to regulate their emotions
Showing affection to your spouse supports your child’s emotional health. It provides safety, security, and stability, while allowing them to explore and identify their own emotions. Additionally, when children grow up seeing love modeled in various ways (such as physical touch, service, or words of affirmation), they instinctively seek those same traits in their own future partner. In short, “it will become the child’s barometer for what a spouse should be because it is what [they] know (Gillet).”
5. Children have higher self-esteem
Children in conflicted or single-parent homes often have feelings of inadequacy and negative perceptions of self-efficacy (Amato). Contrarily, foundations of emotional safety which come from a stable home generally give kids greater confidence and self-esteem. Such emotional safety provides them the tools they need to manage those other parts of their world which parents can’t control (Edlynn).
6. Children do better in school
Researchers have repeatedly found that marriage has profound causal impacts on children’s schooling (Ribar). Stability at home improves stability in the classroom. This shows in their grades as well as in their scores on standardized achievement tests (Amato).
7. Children will be healthier adults
Healthy homes promote a healthy future. A wide body of research definitively show that “children growing up with two continuously married parents are less likely than other children to experience a wide range of cognitive, emotional, and social problems, not only during childhood, but also into adulthood…” Further, the quality of the healthy home correlates with the magnitude of this effect, making it “even stronger if we focus on children growing up with two happily married biological parents. (Amato)”
Your Marriage Matters
The statistics are clear; children are far more likely to thrive in a healthy two-parent home. The best thing we can do for our children is to give them an hourly example of a happy marriage. If you find that your relationship isn’t where it needs to be, do not despair! There is hope for you. “It’s never too early or too late to put your marriage first! (Bloom)” In just a few short months of concentrated effort, I’ve seen my marriage start to return to something I wasn’t sure it could ever be again. While we still have so much work to do, by focusing more diligently on our relationship, my husband and I are closer than ever, and our kids have noticed. I’ll write more about our efforts in coming posts. Stick with me, and I’ll tell you how you can do the same.
Bloom, L., & Bloom, C. (2011, November 18). Who Comes First, the Kids or the Marriage? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stronger-the-broken-places/201111/who-comes-first-the-kids-or-the-marriage
Amato, P. (2005). The impact of family formation change on the cognitive, social, and emotional well-being of the next generation. The Future of Children, 15(2), 75-96.
Brown, S. L. (2010, October 1). Marriage and Child Well-Being: Research and Policy Perspectives. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091824/
Edlynn, E. (2019, November 19). How Do I Help My Child Build Confidence and Self-Esteem at an Early Age? Retrieved from https://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/advice/confidence-and-self-esteem-at-an-early-age/
Firestone, L. (2010, October 1). How Your Relationship Impacts Your Kids. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201010/how-your-relationship-impacts-your-kids
Gillet, R. (2016, August 31). 11 Ways Your Marriage Could Be Affecting Your Kids’ Success. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/how-your-marriage-influences-your-childs-success-2016-8
Kruk, E. (2013, March 9). Equal Parenting and the Quality of Parent-Child Attachments. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201303/equal-parenting-and-the-quality-parent-child-attachments
Ribar, D. C. (2015). Why Marriage Matters for Child Wellbeing. Future of Children, 25(2), 11–27. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1079374.pdf
The National Marriage Project . (n.d.). The State of Our Union: Marriage in America 2012. Retrieved from http://stateofourunions.org/2012/SOOU2012.php