Why you should put your partner first
In the popular literature and on social media I have regularly come across the debate whether it is a good or bad idea to prioritise your spouse/partner before the children in relation to healthy child development. There seems to be a divide between the generations, with older generations arguing that the spouse comes first, that making the children the ‘centrepiece’ makes the child develop a sense of entitlement and prolonged dependency. The younger generations who are having their children now are arguing the opposite, that often bring up arguments like ‘it is our nature to care for our children first’, the idea that because children are helpless and need you more the other adult in the equation can take care of him/herself. However, most experts argue that the former is healthier for a child’s emotional and social development, and below I will discuss some reasons why this is.
Intuitively when we have a baby our natural instinct and overwhelming feeling is to physically and emotionally focus most, if not all of our resources on that child. For the first few months that makes sense from an evolutionary point of view; it is a very natural and healthy protective instinct towards a helpless and physically very vulnerable child. It is also very important for our getting to know each other and for forming that strong emotional bond.
As our child grows, however, and importantly starts to develop a need for individuality (remebering my kids being 2 years old and frequently yelling ‘mine!’ and ‘go away!’) it is important that we guide them throug this new and scary found natural need to ‘break away’, to practice their own autonomy and personal ambition and interests, through a balance between loving attention and distance, by role-modelling healthy and supportive relationship behaviours and nurturing their budding independence.
The development of the emotional and supportive bond through our responding to their ever-changing emotional, physical and social needs, together with giving them freedom to explore their own options and temperament, is what forms the secure attachment between a parent and the child. I argue that it is this learning which takes place during the interplay between two or more people (originally between parent and child, but also through other social relationships that the child forms, e.g., with siblings, primary caregivers, grandparent’s etc.) that will promote healthy self-esteem, nurture their character and ability to set healthy boundaries, and ultimately encourage confidence and self-sufficient behaviours, all crucial for health emotional development. The active role-modelling of ‘give and take’, the dyadic nature of love and support between two parents as well as between parent and child encourages psychosocial well-being, rather than an over-focus via a unidirectional model that ‘the child’s happiness comes first’, which very likely create unrealistic expectations and indirect pressure on the child to fulfil their parent’s needs and expectations as a centrepiece in the parent’s life.
Recent scientific research by psychologists Dr Bahrami, Drs Givertz and Segrin, and others, have shown that the overinvolved parenting style encourages dependency in the child often resulting in entitlement issues whereby an adult child continues to be emotionally and financially dependent on his/her parents. Furthermore, several recent studies have demonstrated that children develop the best sense of emotional security, and healthy emotion regulation, e.g., a healthy self-soothing ability, in families where parents prioritise their relationship in terms of frequent display of affection and togetherness, open and non-judgemental communication styles, and a strong independent marital relationship of their own on the side of their relationship as parent’s.
In addition, there is a risk to their healthy emotional and social development in undermining the importance of other social and supportive primary relationships that the child is forming.
When parents either consciously or unconsciously put the love for the child above the love for the spouse/partner, it may create an experienced split between the parents, which may foster feelings of resentment, isolation, and neglect in the other parent. Indeed, being overinvolved emotionally with the child is often a sign of a parent trying to mend something gone missing in their own lives, feelings that will be transferred onto the child. By having needs unfulfilled, the other parent starts looking elsewhere than in their partner for these to be met, sometimes turning to the child/children for comfort, which will result in the child experiencing confusion, insecurity and acting out. If you do not put your relationship to your spouse/partner first, marriage/parenting can come across to the child as something ‘bad’, difficult to handle and even scary. David Code, psychologist and therapist, discuss cases that have shown that having an over-indulged parent makes the child three times more like to suffer from anxiety and depression as children and later also as adults.
The take-away message here after this brief introduction, I believe, is to love the child not just directly, but indirectly by nurturing and demonstrating love, affection and reciprocity in your relationship with your spouse/partner. This is the best thing you can do for your child in order to support them in becoming emotionally strong and healthy human beings. We should seek to be the best role-models for our children, not their best friends. Your best friend is your spouse/partner. I believe that the partnership between parent’s is the foundation of the family, and if you are lucky to have a spouse/partner that you love and treasure, let yourself be the solid ground where your children develop the confidence to stand on their own two feet, to explore their surroundings, and from where they later on will have the courage to take off and fly.