Marriage Cancer: Children

couple fighting

When asking the question—what kills marriages—there are some obvious answers. Clearly physical abuse is a marriage killer as is adultery. Secret addictions are marriage killers too. When a wife has an out of control spending addiction, for instance, and is hiding $50,000 of credit card debt, well that’s a betrayal isn’t it? Addiction to porn or physical sexual relationships outside of the marriage, drug and alcohol addiction, physical abuse, these things will all kill a marriage for sure. So yes, these things are great big, terrible marriage killers.
While a lot of marriages fail because of great big, heinous problems, I would say most fail because of more subtle marriage killers. Things we tend not to think of as that much of a big deal and therefore do not guard diligently against. But they are no less dangerous to a marriage. They are a cancer that eats the marriage from the inside, unseen and unknown until the marriage is already on the precipice of death. A frequent and very difficult to diagnose form of marriage cancer comes from the children that are a result of the marriage. Everyone is excited about a new baby, but if mom and dad don’t agree on how to raise the kids, it will become a real source of contention.
There is no doubt that children need discipline. I mean, have you met any of them? Not only is it evident by their behavior and sheer lack of knowledge of what is dangerous both physically and emotionally, the Bible tells us that parents who do not discipline their children might as well hate them. Proverbs 19:18 tells us, “Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.” (NIV).
The honest truth here, sadly, is that sometimes parents cannot even come to an agreement over the fact that a child needs discipline much less what kind is appropriate to administer. Every person must understand that they bring to the marriage a set of preconceived notions. Now these notions may be really good, healthy ones. They may also be very dysfunctional ones. Everyone simply comes into the marriage with an idea of how marriage works, how child-rearing works and it does not always align with what the partner thinks. Some families are loud talkers, some are yellers, some stew quietly in anger. Some families spank, some are very controlling, some are very permissive.
Whatever the case may be, each person will come with these deeply held beliefs. You often are not even aware you have these beliefs. They are not necessarily things you think about. Suppose a woman’s dad always kept her mom’s gas tank filled. Subsequently when she got her license, he did the same with her car. It’s not something she really ever thought about, until she runs out of gas on the side of the road. Now this is an issue because her husband isn’t caring for her as she expected. Well, his mom worked odd hours and was very independent anyway. His family just worked that way. Neither is a superior way of being. Just different. These two did not even know about the expectation until it went unmet. This is also true regarding the question of how to raise children.
Let’s take Mr. and Mrs. John and Jane Smith. (I would love to know if that is your actual name-that would be really great, but if it is I am not talking about you!) John and Jane have been married four years and they have a two year old, Junior. The proud mom and dad take Junior out to dinner with them—a family outing! Junior has learned that he can get a rise out of momma by throwing the salt and pepper shakers on the ground. Momma picks them back and gently says “no-no” but Junior likes this game. He does it again. Momma puts the shakers out of reach. Junior is smarter than that. There are plenty of things close enough to throw on the floor. He does so with all the force his little arms can muster, and does so while looking momma right in the face, In other words, Junior is being defiant on purpose. Dad believes Junior is old enough, and has seen evidence that, Junior can understand perfectly what is meant by “no.” When momma is gone, Junior obeys dad just fine. Dad has enough of the defiance and scoops Junior out of the high chair to take to the bathroom. Jane is upset that John would swat Junior’s butt. She exclaims that Junior is “just a baby” and insists that John put him down. John complies, Junior continues to throw everything within reach and Jane is mortified at his behavior and they leave the restaurant as quick as possible. Jane decides its best to not take Junior out in public for a long while.
The biggest issue here is not whether you believe in spanking or not. By far the biggest issue is Jane undermining John. Whatever your philosophy on child-rearing and discipline, a married couple must absolutely come to an agreement on these matters. While it is not always the mother undermining the father, it frequently is. I have seen too many mothers, believing (sometimes even subconsciously) that their husbands are incompetent or not as capable as they are. In doing so, they interfere with dad’s parenting and discipline, creating a frustrated and emasculated husband who then grows too discouraged to try any more. Dad leaves the child-rearing up to mom. This, in turn creates a mom who, in turn, feels overburdened by the task of child-rearing and then there is a rift between dad and kids, mom and dad and mom and kids.
Further, mom and dad need to discuss what sorts of activities they each think are appropriately safe or have an acceptable amount of risk associated with them. Take football for example. Perhaps the mom grew up with a football coach for a dad. Her brothers all played. She realizes there is risk but thinks the benefit of team sports and her son’s love of the game outweighs the risks. Dad is an academic. He sees no value in football and furthermore, the risks far outweigh the benefits in his mind. This can be a great source of contention within the family. What age is appropriate for children to date? Is the common way of dating even a thing you want for your children? When can kids play outside alone? There are many questions in this arena that can become a source of an argument and hurt feelings. Yet they are infrequently ever thought of, much less discussed before a couple gets married or has children. Suppose your son playing football is incredibly important to you. You really believe that if he wants to he should be allowed to pursue this interest? If you marry someone on the other side of the issue you find yourself having to give up your belief or flat out go against your spouse’s wishes.
Guard yourself against this by doing two things: first, before you get married, find a pastoral team that will conduct in-depth pre-marriage counseling. There are great exercises out there that ask these very sorts of questions to get a couple discussing and coming to a compromise both can feel good about before children ever come into the picture. Second, research some books on child discipline. Get a feel for the view of the author—does he promote spanking? Timeouts? Neither? Perhaps choose one or two and read that book together. Discuss what feels right to each of you and then decide on the discipline standards in your home. Be open to your spouse’s or finance’s thoughts on the matter. Don’t necessarily insist on your own way. Come to a balance you can both live with that combines consequences and mercy, for doesn’t even our God himself display both discipline and mercy? Isn’t his discipline often the same thing as his mercy? Discipline, though it can hurt, is often a much softer consequence than allowing certain behaviors to go on.
These steps are vital. The final step once you have agreed to the methods, boundaries and standards of child-rearing is to avoid undermining one another at all costs! Children are happier, mom and dad are too, when there is unity between the parents. While paying consequences is never fun for anybody, children thrive in a home where mom and dad are at peace with one another and where they stand unified. The child knows what to expect.
The very best guard against this form of marriage cancer is preventative medicine. Get counseling and come into agreement before you ever get married. If you’re already married, but don’t yet have kids, dig up all the information you can child rearing and them come into agreement before they are ever born. If you are already married, have kids and find yourself in contention, don’t just throw your hands up and disengage. This will cause your marriage to disintegrate. Get help. Find a method for problem solving and utilize it. This will bring peace into a disorderly home. Remember though, that if the kids have been getting by with stuff because mom and dad have been at odds, you’re going to get some push back from them. Stay solid, stay united. Your home and your marriage will settle into a peaceful rhythm if you lock arms and stick up for each other.

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