I don’t know how to type out the sound that the “You’re wrong!” buzzer makes on a game show (your creative suggestions are welcome in the comments below), but if I did, I would have started out this blog with that sound.
If I could go to every wedding in the country and whisper one piece of advice in the ear of everyone about to take their vows, I would say this thing: “take care of yourself first.”
I know, I know. This seems counterintuitive. Or selfish. Or just plain wrong. Aren’t we supposed to put our partners first? And when our children are born, aren’t we supposed to look after their needs before our own?
In a word . . . NO.
Hear me out.
Although the idea sounds really commendable at first glance, I’ve found that when someone routinely “puts the kids first” it usually results in one of two potentially disastrous consequences in their marriage.
1. Their Well Dries Up
Many of my clients enter therapy completely exhausted and depleted. This is often because they’ve given too much of themselves to the world without minding their own shop. They’ve given too much to their partner, their boss, their coworkers, their friends and, yes, too much to their children. They’ve given away so much time and energy that they don’t have enough of either to care for themselves, and they are spent.
And unfortunately, when someone has sacrificed for others for so long without filling their own well, they have usually built up a HUGE wall of resentment toward the people they have been serving. So these exhausted and depleted clients are also often REALLY ANGRY as well.
But isn’t it important for us to be willing to sacrifice for, and compromise with, others? Especially those closest to us? Sure, I’ll give you that, and I’ll also give you an extra point for paying attention to one my previous relationship posts.
I just have two important caveats:
- If we don’t make a point of filling our own well first, we run the risk of not having enough inside to give to others. (Cue the familiar example of the airlines’ instruction to put on our own oxygen mask before helping our children with theirs.)
- Sacrifice isn’t really all that great unless it’s given willingly, without regret or resentment. If we hold a grudge for all the ways in which we’ve given to another person, or expect a quid pro quo arrangement, then we’re not giving freely of ourselves. Our “gift” comes with a price.
To be able to truly give without resentment or expecting something in return, we have to fill our own well first (with good self care), and then give from the well with a true spirit of goodwill.
2. Their Partner Is A Stranger To Them
Many couples come to my office emotionally disengaged, virtual strangers to each other because haven’t kept up. They haven’t kept up because they’ve put all their focus, time and energy on their children.
As a mom of two now grown children, I actually COMPLETELY understand how this happens. We rightly feel a responsibility to and for our children, these creatures that are born completely helpless and dependent on us to survive. And are they demanding or what?
So it’s easy to see how, at the end of a day of chasing around a toddler, driving around a teenager and/or helping a school age child with new math (or some combination of the above), we often find we don’t have any time or energy left for ourselves, much less our partners.
But this situation is deadly for our marriage and, ultimately, for our children. Because it takes time and attention, and intention, to keep a marriage vital, all things we can’t give if we’re constantly putting our marriage relationship on the back burner. And if we let our partnership deteriorate, how can it support the incredible amount of work necessary to raise our children well?
A strong, intimate partnership grows strong, emotionally healthy children.
So, what to do? I suggest THIS . . .
First, take care of YOU
Personal self care must come first. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? And whose responsibility is this anyway? Not your children’s, that’s for sure. And definitely not your partner’s. So tag, you’re it.
There’s a difference between selfish and self care. It’s not selfish to put yourself first. On the contrary, it’s the responsible thing to do. It’s actually more selfish to let your well dry up and not have enough for yourself or your family.
And it’s really selfish to sacrifice so often and completely that you build up resentment toward others.
So sign up for that yoga class, schedule a massage or just go for a walk in the park while the rest of the family does the dishes. It doesn’t so much matter what you do, as long as it fills your well in some way.
Then, once your well is full, you’ll have plenty to give to your loved ones.
Second, take care of YOUR PARTNER
Care for the relationship must come next, because only a healthy relationship can fully support all of its members, including the kiddos.
“The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, ‘If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.’”
Jim Rohn, Business Philosopher
(I have no idea what a “business philosopher” is, but Jim can call himself whatever he likes if he keeps this kind of wisdom coming.)
So make time for your partner. Touch base meaningfully at the beginning and end of your workday. Enforce a strict bedtime for the kids so that you have some couple time in the evening. Engage a sitter for a weekly date night so that the two of you can get out into the world and talk about it. Keep your love maps (the understanding you have of your partner’s inner world) updated.
If you’re relationship is strong, you will both be a great position to support your children’s growth and wellbeing. And it’s not just me saying this; so does the research on healthy marriages.
Finally, take care of YOUR CHILDREN
Once we have taken care of our own business, we are in a much better place to care for children. We will take more joy from our interactions with them; we will have much more patience when they are challenging, and we will have much more energy to keep up with their joys and needs.
Moreover, when our relationship is in good shape, we are offering our children the gift of a household in which the adults work and play well together, a household of relative calm and moments of clear joy at being together. We are modeling what a strong, joyful relationship looks like.
And – a parenting bonus! – when we engage in good, responsible self care habits for ourselves, we are modeling these same habits for them as well. And so, hopefully, the healthy cycle continues . . .
Now, what are your challenges in taking care of yourself, taking care of each other? And what have you done in these areas that has worked for you and that you could share with the rest of us? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Our challenge is that we don’t seem to have time to take care of ourselves and our relationship. I fully acknowledge that this may not be true in reality, but it seems that way. I recently switched to working part time, because before I was working full time nights (as a crisis counselor) and staying home with our youngest during the day (we can’t afford daycare/I used to work in early childhood development and don’t feel comfortable with daycare). My husband works daytime hours and we were struggling, so I work 3 10 hr shifts now. Though we did this with the intention to spend more time together, my husbands work extends past office hours into family and after bedtime couple time. Though we intended to start having weekly date nights, it doesn’t seem to work out. We have two older daughters that are mine from my previous marriage, who we have 50% of the time now, who for most of their lives were with me most of the time until 2 years ago when their dad decided he wanted 50% time. The older girls still usually feel that they don’t have enough time with me, which means that I feel it’s necessary for us to have family time when they’re here. We also have a 2 yr old daughter together who needs babysat if we’re to go out together, which isn’t often practical. Life seems to rush by, and before we know it, it’s been another week of either little time together, or arguments that eat up our time together, because I am upset that he has to work so much, or because I feel overwhelmed at handling so much of the tedium of running the household. I am literally working or parenting 100% of the time, and can’t even fathom when I would have time for self- care. My current focus seems to be just finding time for actual family time, as my husband is often on the phone, working in some capacity. There are many good intentions, that just aren’t carried out. The feeling of being overwhelmed most of the time makes caring for one another feel overwhelming, and because we can’t take care of ourselves, we seek one another for care, and often don’t find it, because the other doesn’t have anything left to give, or very little.
Oh, Shannon, I so feel for you. What you describe here – the ongoing effort of trying to achieve a balance between work, family, self and relationship – is a totally real issue that many couples face. And the scheduling and energy walls you note are so soul-sucking, aren’t they? Argghh!
I won’t presume to offer you a quick fix for this problem. I don’t know you or your challenges personally, so I honor that your dilemma is a significant one. I would, however, encourage you to head to your nearest good couples therapist. I know, I know – I’m asking you to put one more thing on your schedule! But I do believe you might get some real help with this issue from a good therapist, so it could be time well spent.
And in the meantime, don’t knock yourself out trying for big moments like weekend dates or self-care getaways. Instead, see if you can carve out some small moments – a 5-minute mediation here, a 6-second kiss there, a 10-minute catch up conversation tomorrow – and see if that doesn’t relieve the stress a bit.
No easy answers here, but maybe some small moments of relief are possible while you continue to problem-solve the larger issues.