How to Raise Children and Keep Love in Your Marriage

Letter #1


Introduction: This week I will address the problem of raising children. But instead of dealing with how to get kids to turn out okay, I will focus my attention on how to raise them in a way that keeps parents loving each other. The first letter is written by a young mother who feels abandoned by her husband. The second is written by a step-father who's wife has a son with ADHD (Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder). In both cases, the parents want their children to flourish. But in the end, they will tend to turn out okay only if their parents love each other.

Dear Dr Harley,

I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl last month. We already have a three year-old son. My husband was never the world's-best-father with our first child, but he was very excited while I was pregnant, and pitched in every once in a while when John was an infant. Now that he's three he usually spends a few hours on Sundays with him. However, he has been extremely uninterested in our daughter. He never could get "UP" during the pregnancy and barely has any time for her now that she's with us (he didn't even want to be in the delivery room, he was for our son).

This is causing a lot of stress in our relationship. I can't deal with the fact that he has such little interest in his new child. This lack of interest has also been transferred to me. My priorities right now are my children, especially my daughter who needs ALL of me, but my husband's lack of support is driving me crazy. It's gotten so bad that I'm considering moving in with my parents for a while. At least they'll be willing to help out. I've tried talking to him about it, but as far as he's concerned raising children is a woman's job. I'm at a loss. HELP!

B.K.

Dear B.K.,

The feeling of love is essential for a happy marriage, but it is very fragile. Most couples lose it within a few years of marriage, especially after children arrive. It's created before marriage when a man and woman are successful in meeting each other's most important emotional needs. But after marriage, those needs often go unmet, and when they do, couples fall out of love for each other.

Sometimes, after marriage, spouses are simply lazy about the way they try to meet each other's needs. More often, though, it's not laziness that gets them in trouble -- it's ignorance. After marriage, new emotional needs are created that come very unexpectedly. Most spouses are not only ignorant of their importance, but also unprepared to meet them.

If our needs stayed the same before and after marriage, the problem would be easy to fix -- go back to what you were doing before marriage. But emotional needs change throughout life. The emotional needs for recreational companionship, sexual fulfillment and physical attractiveness that are important when people are young, often yield to the needs of conversation, affection and admiration as we mature. It's not that we don't have all of those needs when we're young, it's just that the way we prioritize them changes dramatically as we grow older.

However, one of those new emotional needs that is often the biggest surprise to couples, particularly men, is what I have called the need for family commitment. I have defined this need as a craving to have your spouse put time and energy into the care and development of your children. Using my theoretical terminology, every time your husband takes time to be with your children and contribute to their care, he "deposits love units into his account in your Love Bank," because he is meeting a very important emotional need. Since you feel so good whenever it's met, he deposits carloads full of love units.

Conversely, when he does not meet that need for you, and your craving goes unfulfilled, he inadvertently withdraws love units from his account. The frustration and anger you are experiencing is a reflection of your unfulfilled emotional need and his loss of love units from your Love Bank. You probably don't like him as much as you used to. Before long, your love for him may be gone entirely. All over one issue: His failure to meet your emotional need for family commitment.

Since he is not meeting your emotional need for family commitment, you are not very encouraged to meet his emotional needs either. So you are probably not meeting them, or at least not very often. He may be confused as to what it was he did to deserve your cold shoulder. Where is the woman that couldn't get enough of him just a few years ago? As soon as she became a mother, her interest seemed to be so focused on her children that he was completely ignored. Now he's simply around for money and chores around the house. Not exactly what he had in mind when he got married.

He may really believe that raising children is "a woman's job," and he is doing his part by earning a living to support you both. He may think that what you are asking of him goes beyond the call of duty, something he never bargained for. He is not only ignorant that you have an emotional need for family commitment, but he also does not know how to meet it (you mentioned that he wasn't the "worlds-best-father when you had your first child).

Ironically, it is your emotional need for his support in raising your children that may cause your loss of love for him and, ultimately, your divorce. The very thing that will secure the most happiness for your children, parents in love with each other, is being threatened by your need for them to be happy.

There is a very good solution to your problem, however, and if you and your husband will implement it soon, your marriage, and the happiness of your children, will be secure.

As I explain in my book, His Needs, Her Needs, most spouses start their marriages out wanting to meet each other's most important emotional needs. But, tragically, emotional needs often change, and spouses don't know when they do. Each spouse ends up meeting needs that he or she thinks are important. For example, your husband probably feels he is doing a good job caring for you by earning a living, or by being affectionate. He tries to meet the needs that are important to him, or that may have been important to you a few years ago.

But if he is to hit the mark right in the center, he must ask you what he can do that would make you the happiest now: What is your most important emotional need? You would tell him that, at this moment, it would be his commitment to care for your children.

Then he tells you what his most important emotional need is: What you could do for him that would make him the happiest. For most men it's sexual fulfillment, but we don't know for sure until we let him decide. I'm sure that with all of the added responsibilities of motherhood, your ability and willingness to meet his needs has suffered. It may be much more difficult to meet needs that, prior to the arrival of your children, were a snap. Yet, if your marriage is to survive, you need to meet his needs as much as he needs to meet yours.

After each of you have identified your most important emotional needs, you make a swap. You'll meet his most important emotional need if he meets yours. If both of you do it, you will be depositing the most love units for the least amount of effort, because you will be hitting each other's targets at dead center. Both of you will feel much better about the way your marriage is turning out. And the better you feel, the easier it is to meet each other's needs. Not only will you be happy, but your children will be the ultimate benefactors of your renewed relationship.

But there is one hurdle you will need to overcome before any of this will work. You must learn to meet each other's needs in a way that follows my Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). That means that whatever your husband does for your children must be done with his enthusiastic agreement. And whatever you do for him must be with your enthusiastic agreement. To be honest, that is the only way that you and he will ever get into the habit of meeting each other's needs -- to do it in ways that you both find enjoyable.

So you can't ask each other to sacrifice as you're learning to meet these needs. Instead, you must create a way of meeting each other's needs that not only does the job, but also fits your predispositions. This may take both of you a while to figure out, but in the end, you'll have a formula that may last for life.

What could your husband do for your children that would mean the most to you, that would make you the happiest? Describe it as clearly as you can so that he understands what you need. Make a list of the ways he could care for your children that would mean a lot to you. You may even give each item a number from 1 to 10 indicating how important each item is to you. Then he could break the list down into three parts: 1) items he can check off that he would have no trouble doing, 2) items that may take a little effort to learn to enjoy, and 3) items that he thinks would be unpleasant no matter how long he worked at it.

He could tackle the easy items first, proving to you and himself that they are already enjoyable for him, and he has no problem doing them to meet your need. Then, he might take three from the second group, items that will take some effort to learn to enjoy. He could start with the three with your highest rating, so that his effort brings you the greatest satisfaction. After he learns to enjoy doing the first three items, he can then continue until all of them are learned. By then, you may find that those in the third group, those he cannot imagine ever being pleasant, are not that important to you, as long as he is doing all of the rest.

I'm sure that your husband loves your children just as you do, and wants to play an active role in their development. Once he has learned to meet your need for family commitment, he will find his new skills to be fulfilling for him too. You're actually doing him a favor to encourage him to become a good father, even though at this time he doesn't think it's that important.

You probably feel the same way about having sex with him. I'm sure you don't want to be celibate the rest of your life, and you would like to have a fulfilling sexual relationship with him. You may, however, feel that with the pressures of children, sex isn't that important. Yet it's as important to him as his help raising your children is important to you.

So he should explain to you how you could meet his need for sex, or whatever his need happens to be, just as you should explain how he could meet your need for family commitment, without either of you sacrificing to do it. You had your baby just one month ago, so sex at this time will need to take your physical condition into account. Remember, don't ever try to meet his need for sex in a way that is at all uncomfortable for you. That would violate the Policy of Joint Agreement.

Right now he probably feels that whatever it is you want from him is more than he can give. And you may feel that his emotional needs will have to wait a while. Neither of those are true. He can meet your need for family commitment in a way that fits his emotional predispositions, and you can meet his needs in a way that fits you. The sooner you get started, the sooner you will be depositing love units again.

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