You may remember Emily from her awesome NFP series called Life Abundantly: Real NFP Stories, where we shared our story. Today she’s sharing her ideas about how to keep your marriage a priority when your life is ruled by toddlers! Because we all know how hard it is to focus on your marriage with kids, especially the 3 and under crowd…
When I was about 10 years old, my parents got into an argument. I don’t remember what it was about, but for some reason it seemed serious to me—serious enough to make me think that my parents might get divorced. Just the thought alone made the world around me crumble.
Looking back, the thought that my parents would leave each other is almost laughable. Throughout their 36 years of marriage, they have always—always—made sure to put their relationship first, and invest the time and effort necessary to keep their marriage strong.
I learned something very important that day though. The greatest gift my parents gave me was indissolubility of their marriage. Because my parents made their marriage central, I knew even from a young age that it was the greatest gift I could give my own children. My parents taught me it would take work, and it would have to be the goal from the beginning.
Kids change everything
When my husband and I had our first child, our whole world turned on its head. Everything in our lives revolved around this baby—even our marriage. My husband and I realized early on that we needed to reclaim our marriage, and that at some point our children would learn to revolve around us.
This is no easy task when our little narcissistic dictators are largely dependent on us for most things. But it’s important to take the time now to build habits that we can adapt as our kids grow up.
A couple of caveats before we start: I have two children both under the age of 3, and my primary audience is parents with similar aged children. These are simple ideas that can evolve as your kids become more independent and their personalities develop.
It’s also important to know that these are first and foremost ideas, nothing more. These aren’t fail-safes or guarantees. Try out one or two at a time, and see how it goes. And as you do, avoid using words like “always” and “never” with regard to what you’ll do to make your marriage central. Flexibility and adaptability are indispensable virtues in family life.
7 ways to keep your marriage a priority
1. Be the first ones you greet when you get home.
Growing up, my parents had an interesting rule: when Dad got home, he and Mom had 30 minutes to themselves to recap their day. I loved this rule because it very easily keeps Mom and Dad’s relationship prioritized.
I quickly realized it’s totally impractical with the under-3 crowd, so I came up with an adapted version. Dad is the first one Mom kisses when he comes in the door. Even if the kids run up to him to welcome him home, Mom still gets first dibs.
2. Keep dinner time simple and about the two of you.
Dinner can be a nightmare when your little ones’ taste buds change daily. It can be utterly exhausting to get everything ready and settle in at the table, only to find out that the same food that was gobbled up yesterday is now flung across the room in disgust.
We adopted two rules to help keep dinner time chaos in check:
- Barring any dietary issues (i.e. allergies, weight gain/loss issues, or age restrictions on food), if the kids join you at dinner, they eat what you eat.
- If you make them something separate or special, they eat before you. And if they don’t eat, that’s ok! Don’t make a big deal if they refuse. They won’t starve themselves, I promise.
Dinner will ideally evolve into a wonderful time for family conversation and bonding. Break in the kids while they’re young: cook what you and your spouse will enjoy, and let the kids try it as they like. If the kids turn their noses up or if tantrums ensue, don’t sweat it. Just excuse them—to their room if necessary—and proceed with your meal. Bon appetit!
3. Sit next to each other in church.
There is some wisdom to having your acrobats nestled in between two solid adults. But while it may keep them from being disruptive, it could also be sending a subtle message of who’s the boss. (Hint: it’s not who it should be.)
When our daughter turned 2, she became an unholy terror in Mass. We made a plan to address the tantrums and communicate what was appropriate behavior while we were in God’s house (I forget how we have to teach kids literally everything). Once she understood the clear and consistent consequences, we implemented sitting next to each other. It shows her not only that Mom and Dad are central, but that the whole reason we’re all there is to re-center on Jesus, not to make our kid sit still.
4. Talk to each other and be affectionate to each other in front of the kids.
And I mean have a conversation with each other and let the kids be. No really. Kids can entertain themselves—even a 2-year old can reasonably be expected to play independently for 15-30 minutes, depending on the kid—though it may be a skill that needs to be taught first. Use that time to talk, hug, and give a random kiss or two. These are all important elements of maintaining a healthy marriage, as well as being a teaching opportunity for your kids.
Children need to see that conversations that Mom and Dad have are important, and that healthy communication is the backbone of a marriage (refer back to my anecdote in point 1). And if you think a 2-year old is too young to notice or care, just wait till they shout their first cuss word that they incidentally learned from you.
5. Make time for date night.
I know this one is so tough. One of the biggest impediments to going out is finding someone who can stay with your kids. Jen and Logan have a great download for planning date nights, complete with ideas for babysitting swaps, so I’m just going to tell you about a twist I have on that idea.
While I don’t live near any family, I am blessed to have close friends who also have kids, and here’s what we do: Mom A babysits for Mom B’s kids, BUT Mom A doesn’t arrive till after Mom B’s kids are in bed. This means Mom A has a night to herself (at a different house), and Mom B has a worry-free date with the hubs. Then Mom A and B trade off. Pretty cool, right? It doesn’t cost a thing, and you both win every time. Pro tip: put the kids to bed a little early so you can have some extra time to get ready.
6. Discipline in unity.
It’s paramount that your kids see you as a united front. If you don’t agree with how your spouse handled a certain situation, DO NOT confront it in the moment or in front of your kids at all. Bring it up once they’ve gone to bed, which little ones mercifully do fairly early. Talk about your child’s behavior, appropriate discipline, and the thought behind how you approach it.
We typically model our own parenting on how we were parented, but even good things from your childhood may not make sense in your own family. It’s important to understand where you’re each coming from and think through what makes sense for your family. Children need to know that Mom and Dad are in it together, especially when it comes to the behavior that is expected from them.
7. Have fun together as a family.
What’s the common element of your favorite childhood memories? Having fun together as a family! We love music and dancing, so most evenings before and/or after dinner, we have a family dance party. It’s also a great way to diffuse the tension of a tantrum or let out some pent up energy on a rainy day.
Find a few activities that you enjoy as a family and do them regularly. These don’t have to be elaborate! The simpler and more spontaneous, the better.
It’s worth the effort
After all of that, you may still be wondering…why is it so important to make my marriage central right now?
You’re teaching your children about marriage through your marriage, and you’re building the foundation of that education right now. Any builder will tell you if the foundation isn’t right, the whole project will be moot. Building a family takes time, patience, perseverance, a ton of humor, and most importantly, love.
You aren’t going to get it right everyday, and that’s ok. Most building projects take double the time and double the budget, but it’s always worth it. It is never a bad idea to work on keeping your marriage a priority. I can promise your kids will thank you for it.
Emily is a south Louisiana native living outside DC with her husband Nick and two cherubs. After five years working in the political arena, she left to run her own rat race at home and was amazed at how well working with politicians prepared her for toddlers. Her background is in architecture and she finds the principles of building incredibly well-suited to the job of molding little humans and designing her blog. You can connect with her here: Total W(h)ine Blog | Instagram | Facebook
9 thoughts on “7 ways to keep your marriage central (when you have toddlers)”
Emily, I just thoroughly enjoy your writing! More than the message & your eloquent expression of what you want to share… I enjoy nestling in your Heart! What a Gift you are! I am certain that God smiles each day that He gives you! He knows that you will be that “Jesus person” to ALL who you encounter according to His Will!
Mrs. Carol, I’m beyond words! I pray that I will always live up to what you’ve said! 😊♥️
These are great tips Emily. My husband and I are in that phase too where we are constantly fighting for each other’s attention, all along the day, owing to our toddlers unpredictable nature. My toddler keeps getting in between our conversations too and I try to nicely remind him that he has to wait till we finish. But it doesn’t work. Any tips for that?
Hi Rubitah! I completely understand! One of the things I did first was to reduce the number of toys my kids had to ones that were well-suited to their age for independent play, aka all the things they can take apart and put back together (blocks, trains, dolls and blankets, play cups and utensils, etc). I found that my daughter actually wanted to play in her room by herself after that for at least 15-30 minutes at a time. I did have to teach her how to get to everything, but once she learned, it was a lot more manageable for my husband and I to get a minute to ourselves. Remember too that your kids are human beings with free will. Even when they know the right thing to do, they have the ability to do the opposite, just like us. It’s important in those moments to treat our kids with the same love God gives us. There will still be good and bad days, but again, this is about forming habits which take time, patience, a lot of humor and a lot of love!
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This is just what I need Emily, as it looks like my husband and I are finally starting a family (we’re approved for adoption!). Thank you so much!
Adalee, CONGRATULATIONS!!! That is amazing news!
Thanks for this! As you’ve written, our kids are watching our every move, and making mental notes on how to do marriage. Parenting is a huge privilege, but keeping your marriage a higher priority is key to their futures.