Early Childbearing Years are a Marriage's "Vulnerable Years"
- Thursday, May 24, 2007
Where are all the happy people? My social circle seems to be flooded with a glut of unhappy marriages of late. As a mental health professional, I can't seem to stop analyzing the data before me. I ask myself: What is this epidemic? Who are these people? Why is this happening now?
I examine each relationship, searching for common denominators, trying to crack the code in an attempt to discover the formula for marital bliss. Most of the profiles are unique, however, offering little by way of clues as to the common thread of failure.
There is, however, one glaring commonality that keeps coming back to me. It stares me in the face, daring me to acknowledge its presence: children. Our approach to parenting seems to be the true test of a marriage.
It appears that in the course of aspiring to be the perfect parent, many of us have ceased being -- or trying to be -- the perfect spouse.
In speaking with a friend the other day she informed me: "Child A's soccer game is at 9am, Child B has his soccer game immediately following at 10am, we have two birthday parties to go to this afternoon, and then I've started them in swimming lessons that begin tonight. I'm just too tired at the end of the day to do anything with my husband. We promised each other that that would never happen...but...it's just life, I guess."
Is it? Is it "just life" to have an entire Saturday booked from the moment one wakes up to the moment one retires for the evening? What has happened to lazy weekend mornings of staying in PJs until noon, watching Bugs Bunny cartoons? I remember the crazy feeling of freedom I experienced as a kid knowing that for just one day there were no expectations placed on me. For just one day I could do what I wanted to do and not what an adult told me I must do. I get delirious now just thinking of such liberation!
Such over-scheduling of our children's lives not only leads to exhausted, burned-out, over-stimulated kids...it leads to the neglect of our marriages. How does one maintain intimacy by proxy? And, no, I am not just talking about sex, although that is very important as well. I'm talking about connecting with one another: emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually. Intimacy cannot be attained if we spend too many hours at work, at the ball field, at dance class...yadda, yadda, yadda. Intimacy means two people. Together. Alone!
Now some couples may think that it's only non-Christian marriages that fall prey to such an imbalance of priorities. But let's look at the numbers.
According to numbers obtained from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center, the divorce rate in the Mountain State (my home state) for the year 2000 was 5.2 per 1000 population. This number, although slightly higher than the national average of 4.2, has been relatively stable over the last ten years. What this really means is an estimated 40-50% of all who marry will end up divorced. We are talking about divorce rates among non-Christian as well as Christian households. In fact, recent research indicates that the divorce rate among Christians may actually be higher than the national average (Barna Research Group). This possibility is hard for us to accept. After all, the Lord is on our side, right? How can we fall prey to the same traps as everyone else?
Answer: life is hard -- for everyone. Especially when we have a family to take care of. And we are only human after all. We get tired. We get grumpy. Sometimes we don't feel like putting forth the effort. Many times it's easier to go to a scheduled activity than to put forth the energy it takes to connect with our spouse (or our children) one-on-one.
And might I suggest that because we are Christians we are a target for greater temptation and "sifting" than the average person? Satan would love nothing more than for the general public to read a statistic about Christian marriages ending in divorce at a higher rate than others.
Most Vulnerable in the Early Years
Over-zealous parenting is not the only roadblock to intimacy between spouses. Even at our best, parenting exposes the soft underbelly of each married partner. At some point, neither spouse can live up to the other's expectations for family life, especially in the early years of parenting.
I was unable to find any statistics that clarified the average age of children involved in divorce, though I'm sure they are out there somewhere. I found a statistic on Divorcemagazine.com from 1997 citing the median duration of marriages that end up in divorce as 7.2 years. If this is still an accurate estimate, we can only assume that many children of divorce are younger than the age of seven years.
My friends who have made it to twenty-plus years of marriage tell me that when their children were toddlers and/or preschool age there were plenty of times when they almost gave up on their marriages. I recently read a survey done by Parenting magazine that indicated basically the same thing: couples who made it to the empty nest cited the time when their children were very young as the most stressful time in their marriage.
Apparently, this phenomenon is well documented among the body of research in family sociology. My curiosity led me to website after website that made frequent references to the "decrease in marital satisfaction during childrearing years". The good news? As equally well documented is the increase in marital satisfaction after the kids have all left home. Can we make it that long? Apparently 5.2 per 1000 pop. in West Virginia cannot.
Ask God for Protection During the Vulnerable Years
As Christians, we should prepare for spiritual warfare with regards to our marriages. Make it a priority to read scripture with your spouse that builds up your relationship. Pray together on a regular basis! I believe it was C.S. Lewis who posed the question, "Have you ever tried to stay angry at someone while praying with them?" And pray for your marriage. Never underestimate the importance of praying for a lasting relationship with your spouse.
If you have young children in your home, take heart! Things can only get better. As one who is finally emerging from those years of comas induced by attending to the needs of my offspring, I must say: rediscovering the person you married can be a joy!
Better yet, try not to lose that connection from the beginning. Make your spouse a priority in your life. If you find yourself bored or too exhausted to care, this is the time you need to make the most effort. You have the power to change some things about your relationship. Marriages need to be nurtured. They need to be treasured. They need to be fiercely protected. Just as God protects and nurtures us.
It is from their observations of our relationships that our children form the basis of their own relationship with God. They learn about true commitment from us. They learn about faith and strength in adversity. No relationship is perfect, but the lessons we learn as we work through life's challenges make us who we are.
Statistics show that enduring marriages are the minority now. Of all the things we give our children in the name of doing what is in their best interest...isn't staying married to their other parent pretty important?
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