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7 Ways to Put Your Marriage First

The child-centered life is hard on a couple and not so great for the kids. Learn how focusing on your relationship can not only yield a healthier marriage but also happier children.
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Nothing, of course. But it's easy to forget when you live in Kiddie Nation, where gigantic stores dedicated to children's paraphernalia push countless can't-live-without-'em educational toys, and Web sites tout classes that create junior Einsteins. Nobody sets out to have a child-centered marriage; it happens when commercial and cultural pressures collide with your own best intentions — and your nagging doubts about whether you're doing enough for your offspring. Parents get caught up in making sure that their children have only the best, and that they rack up achievements. "It's almost as if you're failing your kids if you don't lavish endless attention on them," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of You're Not the Boss of Me. "Competitive parenting is a new national pastime. Unfortunately, kids can stress out from the pressure of living their parents' dreams, and parents may stress about keeping up."

On top of all that lavishing, there's a living to earn, a house to tend, errands to run, and still no more than 24 hours in a day because there isn't an app for that (yet). We're left with little time and energy for ourselves, let alone our relationships. Jocelyn Goldberg, 43, a corporate event planner in Boston, recalls a recent night when her 8-year-old had a sleepover at a friend's, and she and her husband had time to themselves. "And what did we do? We roamed around Target, came home, and watched TV in separate rooms," she recalls. "I woke up on the couch and thought, 'I've gone from having a husband to having a roommate. Something's got to change.'"

It doesn't help that wives tend to take on more of the household chores. "When women feel overwhelmed or resent that their husbands aren't doing their share, a desire for sexual intimacy can go out the window," notes Joy Davidson, Ph.D., a New York City sex therapist. Even among egalitarian couples, an exhausting kids-first agenda can leave men and women feeling decidedly unfrisky.

A less obvious effect of this emotional-intimacy deficit: anxious and unhappy kids. "Our studies show that how a couple's relationship is going has an impact on how the kids are doing," says Philip Cowan, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He's studied families for decades with his wife, psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D. When parents are so focused on their children that they don't have the time or energy to relate as a couple, he notes, they're more likely to grow discontented. Kids can pick up on the unhappiness and feel insecure about family unity; that anxiety could lead to problems such as depression or aggression. And when adults pour their attention into their children instead of their spouses, the balance of power is skewed. "Kids end up thinking they're the center of the universe," says Code, "and might act selfishly and manipulatively."

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