Josh and his wife, Judy, brought their baby home from the hospital five months ago. Everybody adores the little guy, especially Judy. She constantly makes sweet sounds to the baby and carries on conversation as if he understands her every word. Josh seethes with resentment because the connection between his wife and son is tight 24/7. He feels he is in a child driven marriage. Judy rarely talks with Josh — and she never makes sweet sounds with him anymore.
Randy was named “Coach of the Year” for leading his son Kyle’s little league team. Randy sponsors the team, lines the bases for the games, teaches the players fundamentals, and scouts the competition. Kyle, the league’s most outstanding pitcher, is always throwing pitches with his dad in their back yard. Randy eats, sleeps, and dreams baseball. The amazing thing is he also works 55 hours a week. His wife, Lanie, rarely sees him and constantly feels like the kid perpetually chosen last for the team. She used to like baseball, but now feels she constantly competes with the game for attention — and consistently loses. When she sits alone on the hard bleachers, she’s acutely aware that she doesn’t connect with anybody on Kyle’s team — including her husband.
What’s Wrong with this Picture?
Too often these days, busy parents lose sight of what a healthy family looks like. Many parents place too much emphasis on the needs of the child at the expense of the marital relationship. Often, a child-driven marriage emerges when:
• The child makes the calls, and the parents don’t realize it. The child demands that his needs are paramount. (And parents are gullible enough to fall for it.)
• The child aligns with one parent and, as a dynamic duo, they isolate the other parent, intentionally and unintentionally.
• Both parents agree the child is the boss, and yet they still allow it because they’re too worried about setting limits.
How Did It Happen That Our Marriage Is Now Child Driven?
What are the root causes of a family in which Junior is virtually king of the hill?
Over-absorption in a child’s life is sometimes a dreaded gift from the parent’s childhood. Parents mimic what they experienced.
Many parents feel pressured to qualify for their role. They often seek to be the most authentic, energized, specialized, focused, and creative in their circle of friends. The pressure is self-induced but is urged on by other overzealous caregivers.
Most couples make a joint decision to create the very gift that can separate them. Together they plan and dream about the child and his future. But the mother physically carries the unborn baby for nine months, and the father can easily detach emotionally. From birth, the mother makes the most natural connection, and the father takes the role of spectator. Both parents can easily display a short-term memory of who helped plan, conceive, and dream about the child.
Unfortunately, a child can become a human shield. Pregnancy rewires many marital relationships. Hormones change, bodies alter, conversations shift, and schedules escalate. The father may desire a quicker restoration to the previous way of life than the mother desires to fulfill. Using the baby as a safe deflection from the intimacy of the marital relationship can be the protection of choice.
An overly attached parent spends an exorbitant amount of time with a child, and the reasons may not be parent-based. A child can offer immediate pleasure to the closest caregiver. The over-absorption may be for personal gratification and the indirect benefits that come from pacifying a demanding son or daughter.
Many parents simply don’t realize the damage a child-driven marriage can inflict. Every child needs clear direction and boundaries. When these are absent, the child learns selfish tactics, manipulative ways, and ineffective relational and coping skills. These habits are hard to break later in life, thus the dysfunctional lineage begins or continues.
Where Do We Go From Here?
How do you realign a family that’s woefully out of order?
Love your spouse more and differently than you do your child.
Think about the instructions a flight attendant gives before take off. She reminds you to place an oxygen mask on your face before you place one on your child. You are of little benefit to your child if you’re not vibrant and full of life. The same is true of your child and his relationship to your marriage. Your parenting will be more desirable and immensely more effective if you first (and continually) breathe vibrancy into your marriage relationship.
Date each other.
Marriages don’t remain close because a couple shares the same bed and last name. Remember how enamored you were with the person you married? Don’t allow that to change. Set regular times for you and your mate to have fun —without your offspring.
Teach your child age-appropriate independence.
If you want to emotionally stunt your child, teach him you’re available 24/7. Your job is to help love, raise, and launch your child. Helping him face reality sooner rather than later will better equip him to develop into a healthy, well-balanced adult. Making yourself available at every little wiggle, whimper, or whine teaches your child a learned-helplessness.
Instead, teach him how to communicate, to state his needs, to interact wisely with others, and to respectfully deal with disappointments.
Listen to the experts.
Many parents have emerged victorious from the child-driven marriage trap. They will have gleaned insights from the trenches about making changes before they become problematic. If you need to speak with a professional counselor, find a Christian therapist who has expertise in marital relationships and raising children.
Give time equity.
Having a child in your life (whether he’s 10 days old or 10 years old) changes the routine and structure of your family. Talk openly with your spouse about the changes and adjustments a child creates. If you need help from your spouse, ask for it! Volunteer to help. (You can rarely go wrong with a volunteer spirit.) Become aware of when you take time from your spouse, and find ways to give it back. Doing time equity will go a long way toward showing your spouse love and attention.
Dump the super-parent gig.
Unfortunately, many parents are trying to prove something to the world (and themselves) when they overdo life with a child. Trying to outdo what your parents did for you, competing with other parents, or attempting to one-up your spouse are volatile super-parent minefields. Don’t go there!
And now for some final words. Resentment. Rejection. Self-absorption. Replace these child-driven marriage words with these healthy family words: Listen. Love. Respond — to God, to your spouse, and then to your child. That’s the correct order for a growing marriage and a healthy, happy parenting experience.
This article was written by Tony Rankin, who is a clinical therapist. He’s married to Amber, and they have three children: Drew, Caleb, and Katelin. This article is shared with us courtesy of HomeLife Magazine and was originally posted on the Internet on the web site of Lifeway.com.