On any given day, each of us wears a number of different hats, each with its own set of responsibilities, goals, and important tasks. As a parent, there’s nothing more important than raising a child, guiding them into the best human they can be. Parents with partners also strive to be supportive and caring companions to their significant others while tending to other relationships with friends, colleagues, and extended family members. It’s a lot. And it can be tough to know where your priorities should lie at any given time. Many of us might wonder whether there is one specific relationship we should prioritize over all else (after caring for our own wellbeing, of course)?
We knew we had to consult a relationship expert to receive an educated answer to this loaded question. We reached out to Dr. Laura Dabney, M.D., P.C., a psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience. She and her team specialize in a range of relationship problems including infidelity, blended family issues, parent-child strain, and more. We consulted Dr. Dabney to get to the bottom of the debate about which should be your number-one priority, your spouse or your children. For the sake of the debate, we worked under the assumption that the person in question is prioritizing their personal wellbeing first and foremost. Dr. Dabney’s sage insights have the ability to lead us all to healthier relationships going forward.
Is it Better to Prioritize Your Partner or Kids?
Who should be your number one priority?
It may seem obvious to some that due to their vulnerability and their dependence on their parents, children are the clear choice. On the other hand, when a couple is thriving because they prioritize one another first, the children in the picture also benefit from parental solidarity.
According to Dr. Dabney, neither viewpoint is incorrect. In fact, it’s the family as a whole that should always be at the top of a parental figure’s mind. In her professional opinion, your priorities should consistently be shifting based on the needs of the individuals in the household. Life is unpredictable, and there will be times when your partner will need more of your attention. And times when your children will need to be your main focus. Dr. Dabney said, “Being fluid in where you are spending the majority of your relational energy is a sign of great emotional/relational well-being.”
It’s the family as a whole that should always be at the top of a parental figure’s mind.
Dr. Dabney emphasized that there needs to be a balance between your priorities: For a healthy, happy household, one priority cannot consistently outshine the other. For many, it can be easy to place a spouse’s needs on the back-burner and focus your energy on your children. As mothers, this is as natural as it is understandable. Because your partner is an adult and your children are still very dependent on you.
However, Dr. Dabney spoke to the effects of consistently placing your children above your spouse: “When people prioritize their children (or friends, parents, work, etc.) consistently over their spouse, the marriage ends in failure. Spouses need to be prioritized and attended to regularly. And just like anything else, if that’s not done due to any other distraction, [the marriage] will falter.”
How to prioritize your partner
For any relationship to be successful, we must show our partner that their wants, needs, and desires are important to us. In a world where our focus is constantly being pulled in different directions, it can be difficult to remember—and may even seem daunting—to prioritize our romantic relationships. Dr. Dabney spoke of simple ways to show your partner that they and your relationship are a priority to you on a day-to-day basis.
It should come as no surprise that her answer involved open communication, specifically in the form of check-ins. The best way to know if your partner feels you do or do not prioritize them is to ask. She said, “I recommend to all my patients that they have a quick built-in ‘check in’ with their spouse. Ideally daily such as over breakfast or dessert, to ask if everything is good. Or if there’s any topic that needs attention or discussion.”
How to show your children they’re a priority to you
While it may come as second nature to put energy into your children’s needs, there are always ways to be more intentional in your relationship with your children. Like all good relationships, the one with your children can also be enhanced with open communication. And according to Dr. Dabney, conversations with your kids can be framed as check-ins as well.
She pointed out that not only will regular check-ins via conversations with your kids about their thoughts and feelings lead to better relationships with them, but it will also likely become a habit they take with them into their own partnerships one day. She believes that having routine one-on-one time with your kids, even just quick conversations about daily occurrences, will show them that you value what they have to say and that they’re a priority in your mind. This will also give you an understanding of the status of your relationship with them. And if there are any needs that aren’t being met or ways that your interactions can be enhanced.
Dr. Dabney recommended that parents not overthink this; check-ins can be quick and simple. She offered, “Something like: ‘Hey, it looks like you were upset that I cut off your TV time tonight, do we need to talk about this?’ or ‘You know I was proud of the way you handled that problem at school. Is there anything you wish I had done differently to support you?'” We all want our children to grow up to have healthy relationships. And according to Dr. Dabney, sincerely asking for their point of view as they’re growing is a great way to enhance their relationship skills.
How to model a healthy relationship with your partner for your kids
Perhaps the number-one way to ensure your children grow up to create healthy relationships is to model that very thing with your spouse while they’re young. We’re all human and this is often easier said than done. But Dr. Dabney offered some insight into the importance of modeling healthy relationships for your children:
- Kids want to know someone’s in charge of the entire family’s well-being. It’s soothing for children to see a parent caring about the inter-family relationships and dynamics.
- Modeling provides a “road map” for their own future relationships. When a child sees their parents make an effort to ensure the entire family is doing well, it provides a “template” the child can refer back to when they’re in a parent/partner role.
- It shows that each individual within a family (mom included) deserves to have their own needs met and their well-being prioritized. It’s vital for children to see their parents model a balanced method of prioritizing all immediate familial relationships.
“Keeping all the family relationships as healthy as possible without getting consumed or abandoning any of them is the balancing act we should be doing,” she said.
Based on the information Dr. Dabney shared, it’s clear that family units are just that: a unit. In order for the whole family to thrive, each individual must be taken care of. Each person’s needs will shift throughout their time together in the home. So it’s pivotal for the parental figures to be fluid with where they focus their energy. Being present and intentional with both your children and your partner allows you to recognize where those needs are at any given moment, and open communication allows everyone to understand one another better. While this may be no simple task, it may just be the most important one.