Is it better to put more energy into your marriage, or should raising your kids properly be your first concern? If you think pouring your everything into your little munchkins is the best way to do things, then this episode may be a bit of an eye-opener for you. We’re going to unpack the relationship between happy marriages and happy parenting and happy kids. And it may not be what you expect to hear.
Think of Your Family as a System
Let me start with a little bit of psychobabble here but I’ll keep it simple. I want you to think of your little family unit as a system. In other words, it is made up of some moving parts and some groups of parts. The whole family, dad, mom, and children, are one system. But there are subsystems within it. And these subsystems interact and influence one another and the family as a whole. For example, your marriage is a subsystem of your family system. The mother-son relationship is a subsystem.
The reason why we need to talk about systems is because it helps us understand that one system can affect another, as well as the family as a whole. For example, the marital relationship can affect parenting relationships, and vice versa[i].
Since the whole family is one system, emotions and actions displayed in one of its subsystems can spill over into the others. For example, a husband who is good at attending to his wife’s needs will naturally be better at looking after his kids too, since similar traits and actions are involved. Equally, a husband who dislikes spending time with his wife and is hostile towards her will tend to be more hostile to his children too since the anger and resentment spill over[ii]
For that reason, it’s impossible to think about looking after your kids without also making your marriage a priority.
Marital Satisfaction = Parenting Satisfaction
Here’s a quote from one study: “A satisfying marital relationship is the cornerstone of happy family life, leading to more positive parent-child relationships and more congenial sibling relationships.[iii]“.
Another study confirmed a strong link between marital satisfaction and “sensitive, warm and responsive parenting”[iv] (Pedro et al, 2012). This link is one way: marital satisfaction causes good parenting and good parent-child relationships, not the other way around.
In other words, you cannot improve your marriage by improving your parenting. But you can improve your parenting by improving your marriage.
I really think this is countercultural to a lot of what we see today where there is so much emphasis on pouring all the effort and investment into the children. What this research is showing, and we’ll learn more about this as we proceed, is that pouring effort into the marriage results in real benefits to the children.
The reverse is also true: low marital satisfaction leads to poor parenting. Emotionally distant spouses are often less supportive of their children and display less warmth, while marriages high in conflict often lead to more anger directed at the children[v].
Where this is particularly tricky is if you kind of give up on your spouse and pour effort into your children hoping you can redeem things there. I get why folks do that but if it is at all possible, the marriage is what needs your attention.
Stepfamilies Are a Slight Exception
There is one exception here. Yes, normally good parenting flows from a well-functioning marriage. But in step-families, the relationship actually runs both ways: marital satisfaction leads to better parenting of step-children but forming a healthy relationship with the step-children also creates a healthier marriage.
This is because in stepfamilies the step-parent typically does not have a pre-existing relationship with the children. Consequently, she or he has to work at developing a workable relationship with those children in the first stages of the marriage in order to create a stable household. We did a full episode on blended families a while back but it’s worth pointing out here as well.
Why Does Focusing On a Good Marriage Lead to Good Parenting?
It really comes down to three things: spillover, resources, and modeling.
Spillover: as mentioned above, positive mood, emotions, traits, and behavior from the marriage will naturally spill over into the parenting relationships. The family is a system, remember. So one aspect functioning well naturally improves things in the others.
Resources: an unhappy or conflict-filled marriage will be a drain on both spouse’s emotional and mental resources. This will negatively impact the couple’s parenting ability as they will have less energy and willpower to properly look after their kids, and will react more negatively to bad behavior. Conversely, a happy marriage increases the emotional resources both spouses have, enhancing their ability to deal with parenting challenges.
Modeling: children observe how their parents behave and learn a lot about how to act based on this observation or “modeling”. Children who see their parents treat each other with respect and kindness will learn that this is the right way to interact with loved ones.
Putting Your Marriage First
Once again we’ve created some bonus training for our much-appreciated supporters. This week you will learn how to put your marriage first by coming together on parenting and figuring out how to navigate your biggest parenting challenges together. We don’t often talk about parenting but in this bonus training, we give you the essentials for helping your family move to a happier place. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Let’s just pivot slightly to look at how different styles of parenting lead to greater happiness for parents and children.
Your Parenting Style Matters
Co-Parenting Is Good for Couples and Children
Co-parenting is defined as:
- Showing agreement in how to raise the children, and
- Supporting each other when interacting with the children, especially when it comes to setting rules and discipline.
Co-parenting is linked to higher marital satisfaction in that one spouse’s co-parenting leads to feeling supported and higher marital satisfaction for the other spouse[vi]. Co-parenting is the best form of parenting with regards to the happiness of the parents, and it is also the best for the children as it creates a more stable and conflict-free household.
In simple terms, this is just about having each other’s back. Standing together as a couple. And kids can sure figure out if you guys are not on the same page and they’ll exploit that. When you’re united on issues, it actually creates a safer more stable environment for them. But to do this, you need to work on creating a strong marriage.
See, couples who are high in marital satisfaction are naturally better at co-parenting. “Happy couples feel positive feelings for each other, and this affection prompts them to support each other as parents and to work cooperatively in child rearing[vii]“. So having a happy marriage typically leads to good parenting.
Parenting Styles That Don’t Work
On the other hand, low marital satisfaction leads to poor co-parenting and creates less effective parenting styles, such as[viii]:
Conflicted parenting: parents disagreeing with each other on how to raise/discipline the children, leading to further unhappiness between the couple and tension between the children and parents.
Triangulation: drawing the child into the marital conflict, for example by trying to get the child to side with you against your spouse. This again leads to worsening marital satisfaction and distrustful, unstable parent-child relationships.
Over-Parenting Is a Problem
This is one style that I wanted to break out and talk about on its own. Putting the children first in your marriage can have negative consequences for the whole family system.
Being overly-involved in your child’s life, over-protecting and investing all your time into looking after them is sometimes called “helicopter parenting” due to the idea of always hovering over your children. This style of parenting reduces the time and emotional resources you have available for your spouse, which will lower your marital satisfaction- therefore hindering your co-parenting ability and affecting the whole family. So ironically, by having your children’s best interest at heart you end up draining yourself and your marriage, which can only be bad for the kids.
But even more eye-opening is the fact that this style of helicopter parenting also has negative effects on the children. Research shows that being too protective and intrusive into your child’s life, despite the good intentions behind it, has negative consequences for them as a child and in their transition to adulthood. These include[ix]:
- Reduced overall wellbeing
- Higher use of medication for anxiety and depression
- Less self-confidence and higher dependency on others
- Poorer coping skills and less ability to deal with challenges
- Reduced engagement with school and college, leading to lower academic achievement
If this is happening it is worth just taking a step back to really think about why.
I think this could easily become a downward spiral: maybe your marriage hit some rough patches or you found yourself unhappy, you decided to pursue joy in your children. As you became more and more invested in them, they at first responded with joy and that was very rewarding. However, as time goes on, they need more and more from you because they become increasingly insecure and anxious because of the cues they are picking up from the distress in your marriage. Your spouse becomes less and less happy. You invest more and more in the children, things get worse in the marriage, the children are more and more aware of and upset by this…etc.
If this is the situation you find yourself in, it may be best to redirect. Stop and work on your marriage. Sometimes what appears to be a set of parenting problems is really just evidence of a marriage problem that needs to be addressed. Well, think about what a gift you could give your children by doing the hard work and really making the effort of investing in your marriage.
[i] Martha J. Cox and Blair Paley, “Understanding Families as Systems,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12, no. 5 (2003): 193–96.
[ii] Marta F. Pedro, Teresa Ribeiro, and Katherine H. Shelton, “Marital Satisfaction and Partners’ Parenting Practices: The Mediating Role of Coparenting Behavior.,” Journal of Family Psychology 26, no. 4 (2012): 509.
[iii] E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better Or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (W.W. Norton, 2003).
[iv] Pedro, Ribeiro, and Shelton, “Marital Satisfaction and Partners’ Parenting Practices: The Mediating Role of Coparenting Behavior.”
[v] Pedro, Ribeiro, and Shelton.
[vi] Pedro, Ribeiro, and Shelton.
[vii] Pedro, Ribeiro, and Shelton.
[viii] Pedro, Ribeiro, and Shelton.
[ix] Laura M. Padilla-Walker and Larry J. Nelson, “Black Hawk down?: Establishing Helicopter Parenting as a Distinct Construct from Other Forms of Parental Control during Emerging Adulthood,” Journal of Adolescence 35, no. 5 (October 1, 2012): 1177–90, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.03.007; Kelly G. Odenweller, Melanie Booth-Butterfield, and Keith Weber, “Investigating Helicopter Parenting, Family Environments, and Relational Outcomes for Millennials,” Communication Studies 65, no. 4 (September 1, 2014): 407–25, https://doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2013.811434; Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan, “Does ‘Hovering’ Matter? Helicopter Parenting and Its Effect on Well-Being,” Sociological Spectrum 31, no. 4 (July 1, 2011): 399–418, https://doi.org/10.1080/02732173.2011.574038.
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