What do you do in marriage when the rival for your spouse’s love and affection is one of your own children?
In fact, one of the biggest tests of a marriage occurs when kids start arriving. Raising kids can draw a couple together like nothing else or it can rip the two of you apart with fury. Here are two dynamics to watch out for.
“It’s an evolutionary thing”
One writer admitted, “The arrival of my son had completely altered my relationship with my husband. Though I certainly expected my marriage to change once we had children, I was not prepared for a complete loss of intimacy. We had been a tight-knit team…but now we were satellites in separate orbits, crossing paths only when it came to our child. My friends with kids assured me that the situation was natural and would right itself over time, after the shock of our new addition wore off. One friend, a mom of three, went beyond that: ‘You can’t expect to feel the same way about your husband now. Your relationship needs to change so your son can be your focus. Our brains are wired so our kids can come first. It’s an evolutionary thing.’”
The “evolutionary thing” didn’t work out so well for the mother-author in question. She and her husband eventually got a divorce, which of course didn’t serve the kids whom she was counseled to focus on first and foremost.
I don’t mean to be uncharitable. I’m just pointing out that beliefs have consequences. If we engage in behavior that undercuts our marriages and they collapse accordingly, our children will pay a heavy price.
A little affair
Women often hate when their husbands make the charge that it feels like they’re having “affairs” with their firstborn children.
There is some neurological support for this behavior, however. When a mother is nursing her child, the chemical oxytocin is flooding her brain, causing feelings of warmth and affection, and she is bonding with her child in the most powerful of God-created ways. For some women, these feelings can be just as strong as those experienced in an infatuation.
This explains why some wives, weeks after the child is born, respond to the husband’s suggestion that they leave the baby with a sitter just to get away by saying something like, “Why would I leave my baby to spend time alone with you?”
Hopefully, she doesn’t actually use those words, but the horror on her face when the idea is floated tells her husband all he needs to know about where he now stands.
Perhaps she’s felt slighted since the wedding. Before the wedding, her man was so into her, but soon after becoming a husband he pulled back. She tried and tried to regain his attention, to pull it back to premarital levels, and she failed. Now she has a baby, someone with whom she is experiencing that level of intimacy she has longed for all her life. This baby is so focused on her that he cries when someone else dares hold him. She’s been so thirsty for appreciation and intimacy that it’s somewhat understandable that she gives her attention to the child instead of her husband. She thinks the baby will always be this focused on her, because she is blissfully unaware of God’s divine remedy for baby infatuation (it’s called adolescence, but that’s still a decade away).
Meanwhile, the husband eventually realizes he’s “lost” his wife. She speaks tenderly to the baby in a way that she hasn’t spoken to him in months, if not years. If the baby cries, the husband ceases to exist. The wife can do a lot of harm to her marriage if, ruled by these strong maternal feelings, she succumbs to the trap of becoming a mom first and a wife second.
Of course, it’s not just women who get caught in this snare. When the men do it, the couple is set up to experience what I call “baby bouncing.”
In her book Listen for a Change, Annejet Campbell tells the true story of how Francine ultimately grieved when her husband Jacques fell madly in love with their firstborn child Eliane.
That might sound odd. Wouldn’t a mother love the fact that her husband so adored their daughter?
Well, we’re human. Francine explained it this way:
“I had loved and admired Jacques since I was 18. Our meeting had been providential and had changed our lives completely. The arrival of our baby … seemed to complicate things. Jacques only had eyes for her, she was his little angel. I was no longer the only one he loved. I felt frustrated, as if something had been taken away from me.”
The man Francine had loved all her adult life was now pouring his affection out on someone he seemed to love more. Even though that someone was her daughter, it still hurt. And when we hurt, we sometimes do hurtful things.
In this case, Francine eventually compensated by pouring out her love on second-born Suzanne, who arrived four years later. Jacques didn’t seem to love Suzanne as much as he did Eliane, so Francine felt justified in compensating by loving Suzanne more than Eliane. Now she had an ally in her war of hurt against Jacques. It seemed they had achieved a balance of power—two against two.
Without knowing why, Francine found herself constantly criticizing Eliane, making her feel as if she could do no right while Suzanne could do no wrong. The issue, of course, wasn’t Eliane or Suzanne. The issue was spurned love between husband and wife, and it was being played out through their kids. That’s baby bouncing—compensating for the favored status of one child by favoring another. The children had become pawns in a series of marital power shifts.
One fateful week, Jacques and Francine went on vacation and took the leisure time to listen to God. By inviting Him to speak into their lives, the couple sensed God pointing out the dark dynamics of why Francine felt bitter toward Eliane and why she favored Suzanne. Not only did the recognition and resulting confession restore Jacques and Francine’s love, but Francine took it a step further and apologized to Eliane, who said, “At last you’ve admitted it. You did love Suzanne more than me. I knew it!” Eliane gave her a big hug, and deep healing began.
This might seem like an awkward conversation but Eliane already knew what was happening whether Francine admitted it or not. Best to confess it, explain it, and use it as a pathway to grow and allow God’s redeeming work to take place.
When a marriage gets sick, the family gets sick
All of this is simply to point out that when a marriage gets sick, the family gets sick.
To stop building your marriage for the sake of your children is like leaving them out in the rain while you cook their dinner.
Don’t bounce marital dysfunction from child to child. If you believe you’ve lost your spouse’s heart, don’t think you can compensate by trying to gain control of your child’s heart. Don’t let the dynamics of your marriage cause you to enlist your children in a covert war against your spouse— It’s not just divorced spouses who pit their children against each other.
Make your spouse the priority
Our children aren’t pawns; they’re not to be used to soothe the aches in our marriages. Children are to be nurtured, trained, and launched into their own life of love. They’re to be given the biblical example of a husband favoring his wife over all others, and a wife favoring her husband over all others: “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (Song of Songs 6:9).
During these difficult years, don’t stop talking to each other. Listen to God. Seek counsel. Be wary of your own heart’s affections. Parental love can be so strong that it can mess up our priorities. Resolve together that the child-rearing years will create memories, partnership and shared purpose instead of bitterness, resentment, and alienation.
The best thing we can do for our children— even if they are disabled, troubled, or ill— is to make our spouse the priority. If you feel neglected, tell each other. If your spouse tells you he or she feels neglected, listen.
Not sure how to address it? Give your spouse a copy of this article and say, “Let’s talk about this.”
Jacques and Francine enjoy a renewed marriage. A couple can come back from this. If your priorities have seemed misplaced, take this occasion to bring the hurt out into the open and explore it before God and with your spouse. It’s the best thing you can do for your marriage and it’s also the best thing you can do for your children.
This post is adapted from Gary’s newly revised book A Lifelong Love: Discovering How Intimacy with God Breathes Passion into Your Marriage
Have you heard of the The 31-Day Pursuit Challenge?
Every marriage begins with passion, purpose, and pursuit, but few stay that way. That’s why we wrote Husband in Pursuit and Wife in Pursuit Together, they make what we’re calling the 31-Day Pursuit Challenge. Couples are encouraged take the challenge together. We’re already starting to hear stories of transformed marriages! Are you up for the challenge?