Caring for Children Means
Caring for Each Other
Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
Children desperately need parents who stay married to each other, and love each other. Their future depends on it. Yet, their parents are very likely to lose their love for each other after they arrive, because they forget why they married.
They didn't marry to raise children -- they married to meet each other's intimate emotional needs. And the presence of children tends to make them think that they don't have time and energy to meet those needs anymore. When that happens, they lose their primary motive to be married -- their love for each other.
A man and woman usually decide to marry because they have formed a very successful romantic relationship -- they are in love with each other and are meeting each other's intimate emotional needs. They want to make that romantic relationship last a lifetime, so they marry. At the time, they are optimistic about keeping their love for each other alive, and they don't expect anything to threaten that love -- least of all, children. But if they were to understand how their love was created, and how it is sustained, they would immediately see why children are such a risk.
The two essential ingredients of a romantic relationship -- being in love and meeting intimate emotional needs -- are inseparable. A man and woman love each other because they meet each other's intimate emotional needs, and they meet each other's intimate emotional needs because they love each other. If either one of those factors suffers, the other suffers as well. That's why it's relatively difficult to keep a romantic relationship on track -- it's very fragile.
If living conditions make the meeting of intimate emotional needs more difficult or even impossible to provide, the love a couple has for each other is at risk. They usually don't see their loss of love coming, because they think their love is based on chemistry (they are made for each other) or their willingness to be in love (their love for each other is a decision) -- factors they think guarantee a lifetime of love. But what really sustains love in marriage is neither of those. It is their effectiveness in meeting each other's intimate emotional needs.
Intimate emotional needs can only be met when a couple are able to give each other their undivided attention, and when children become part of their lives, they lose the privacy that undivided attention requires. Job requirements that are considered necessary to support children can also take undivided attention away from couples. The pressure of family life, with so many wants and limited available resources, is yet another factor that makes undivided attention elusive.
When opportunity for undivided attention is taken from a couple, the meeting of intimate emotional needs is no longer possible. And when the meeting of intimate emotional needs is no longer possible, the love a man and woman have for each other withers and dies. And when their love for each other is gone, the risk of divorce is extremely high.
Couples marry because they think their romantic relationship will continue throughout their lives. And it would, if they were to continue meeting each other's intimate emotional needs. But as soon as their children arrive, there is a very high likelihood that their romantic relationship will end, because they cannot find time to give each other undivided attention. And with the end of their romantic relationship, their marriage is at risk.
Children do not require parent's attention 24 hours a day. Nor do they suffer when parents are giving each other their undivided attention. It's not the child's fault that parents neglect each other when children arrive -- it's the parent's fault when they decide that their children need so much of their time, they have not time left for each other. But the truth is that couples have time for both their children and each other, if they schedule their time wisely.
The solution to this problem in marriage is remarkably simple. It doesn't require entirely new skills, or a remaking of a couple's ability to care for each other. All it takes is going back to what it was that created the love a couple has for each other in the first place -- heartfelt affection, intimate conversation, recreational companionship, and sexual fulfillment. These intimate emotional needs, above all else, must be met in marriage if a romantic relationship is to be sustained.
As long as a husband and wife take the time to meet these needs for each other every week of their lives, they will never lose the passion that they had the moment they were married. But it takes time to meet these needs, and it takes privacy. They cannot be met with children running around your feet. Couples rarely understand this important fact.
If I were to give you $1,000,000 to stay in love for 10 years after your children arrived, and I had a fool-proof way of determining if you were actually in love, how would you make sure you had the money at the end of the ten years?
Even if you had never read anything I've written on the subject, I'm sure you would begin by carving time out of every week to make sure you met each other's emotional needs. Because you already know that it would greatly increase the chances of your being in love with each other after 10 years. You already know how your love for each other was created -- you gave each other your undivided attention when you were dating. You were always affectionate with each other; you would talk to each other the way lovers talk, you would spend your recreational time together, and you were both sexually attracted to each other, and responded to that attraction.
If $1,000,000 was conditional on your being in love after 10 years with children, you would create a plan that would give you enough privacy, and enough time, to stay emotionally connected throughout those ten years.
Now let me tell you something that may not have occurred to you.
If you are not in love with each other after 10 years with children, you are very likely to lose $1,000,000 during the rest of your life in the form of costs incurred due to divorce. The cost of a lifetime of lost income, lost savings and investments, lost health, lost support from an extended family, and the cost of the divorce itself is just the beginning of the losses that can be enumerated by those who have figured these things out (Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage, pp 110-125).
In other words, you will have about $1,000,000 more to spend than you would have had, if you can simply stay married for the rest of your lives. And the only way to guarantee that your lives will be spent together is to guarantee your love for each other.
But the economic advantage of a lifelong marriage is not nearly as important as the positive effect it has on children. The greatest contribution that parents can make to their children's happiness and success is to love each other for life. If parents love their children, and want the best for their children, they must do everything possible to preserve their romantic relationship. That means caring for each other must be their highest priority -- they must meet each other's intimate emotional needs. It's not a choice between caring for each other and caring for children. The reality is that if you want to truly care for your children, you must care for each other.
For further information about what it takes to give each other the undivided attention you need in a romantic relationship, read my basic concept, The Policy of Undivided Attention