Who Comes First -- Your Spouse or Your Children?
Children will go on to forge lives of their own, but the relationship with your spouse is forever. It fosters growth like no other relationship can.
"Through the act of marriage, the husband and wife become the closest of relatives." -- Nachmanides, 12th century
I have often been told that the most important relationship you have in your life is with your spouse, not your children. I know this is true: I know it from my Torah learning; I know it from my work as a family therapist; I know it from my own marital experience. But the reality of it was brought home to me on our recent family vacation.
In moments of challenge and stress our connection to each other was what nourished me and gave me the strength to go on.
We packed our nine children, our food and clothing for the week, and anything else we thought we just might need, and headed off on an eight-hour-drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It was a great trip; we learned a lot, we laughed a lot, we cried a little, we had plenty of good times; but it was a tremendous amount of work. And I couldn't have done it alone.
I am not talking about the physical effort -- my spouse wasn't crucial because he is bigger or stronger than my children - but the emotional effort. There were so many moments of challenge and stress where our connection to each other was what nourished me and gave me the strength to go on, and gave our family the strength and confidence to keep going. Now, all that my children remember -- and all that they tell their friends about -- is the fun they had. That's the power of a solid marriage.
DEPENDING ON EACH OTHER
For example, one of the big tourist attractions in San Francisco is Alcatraz, the former federal penitentiary. (Why this should be a tourist attraction is an interesting question but that's for another time.) Once we made the mistake of going there, finding activities that entertain both teenagers and toddlers proved a daunting task. My oldest especially enjoyed the boat ride to Alcatraz while my youngest screamed in terror the whole way. Once on the island, the wheel on my three-year-old's stroller broke, and pushing him uphill to the prison was no easy feat.
As we began our tour of the facilities the three-year-old's newly acquired skills surfaced, and he announced that he "had to make." This required navigating our way against the crowd of tourists and back out the front door. His bathroom ritual involved completely undressing and, of course, having to be redressed; this took time and, under the circumstances of the location, enormous patience.
How do you rise above the clamor of nine voices demanding your immediate attention without screaming your head off? I found unknown reserves of equanimity within myself because my husband was there supporting me. We'd turn to each other. Our eyes would mirror our frustrations to each other and the burden would disappear. We'd find the humor in our children's foibles and we'd laugh together. We'd give each other strength and perspective. We'd emerge at the end of the day, better, calmer parents for it, having demonstrated the healing and nurturing power of marriage.
MARRIAGE IS FOREVER
The Torah teaches us that "a man doesn't die except to his wife." If we are successful parents, our children will go on to forge lives of their own, but the marriage relationship is ours forever. It fosters a depth and a growth that no other relationship can.
While parenting definitely requires that we discover physical and emotional resources that we never thought we had, the giving is nevertheless a very natural and instinctive response. But to give to a fully grown adult, whom you have not nurtured from infancy, to give to someone who is so different from oneself, and of the opposite sex to boot, that is a real challenge. It provides us with the opportunity to scale heights we didn't know existed, and unfortunately to descend to depths we didn't know existed. The kind of self-awareness and self-mastery necessary to create a truly giving and supportive marriage is unparalleled in any other relationship. And there is no more powerful gift that you could give to your children.
The Talmud states that: "A man who is without a wife lives without blessing, without joy ... without life."
The Talmud states that: "A man who is without a wife lives without blessing, without joy, without help, without goodness, without peace, without life... " In other words, the Sages teach us that marriage completes each one of us as a person and through this oneness we create a model of stability and security for our children. No words, ideas or parenting techniques can replace a solid, committed, loving marriage.
Many people make the mistake of giving to their children at the expense of the marriage. The real answer is to give to the marriage. Ultimately this is what will benefit our children the most.