Our kids are constantly watching us, and how we treat our spouse is probably how our children will treat their own spouse someday. Your marriage is your child’s blueprint for intimacy and relationships.

How do you decide who to marry?

When someone asked that question to a group of kids, a 10-year-old girl offered an all-too-insightful answer:

“No person really decides before they grow up who they’re going to marry,” she said. “God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you’re stuck with.”

Kirsten’s response is hilarious on the surface. But after I stopped chuckling, I began to wonder what her parents’ marriage must be like. Does she believe that her parents are “stuck with” each other? How is her perception of love, intimacy and marriage being shaped by what sees at home every day?

Little eyes are constantly watching you — including what you do with your marriage. The way you treat your spouse is probably how your children will treat their own spouse someday. Your marriage isn’t just about you and your spouse; it’s your child’s blueprint for intimacy and relationships.

Marriage expert Lisa Firestone writes:

When it comes to the relationship between their parents, no irritated eye-roll goes unseen, and no whispered criticism goes unheard. No matter how hard we may try to conceal problems, children are sensitive to the tensions between their parents and are directly influenced by the way their parents interact. … [T]hey often go on to re-enact them in their own relationships when they reach adulthood.

Our kids are learning from us all the time. And you’ll never know where those lessons will show up.

For example, my wife, Erin, and I try to have regular date nights. But one evening several years ago, our youngest daughter, Annie, (4 at the time) didn’t want us to leave. She had executed a full body-wrap around Erin’s leg — begging us to stay home or take her with us.

I was sure that we wouldn’t be able to leave anytime soon unless I intervened. I was just about to pry Annie from Erin’s leg when our son, Garrison, who was 12 at the time, jumped in. He got down on his knee and looked Annie in the eyes. “It’s time to let go of Mum,” Garrison said tenderly. “We need to let them go out on their date. This is how they keep their marriage strong.”

I was dumbfounded. I didn’t think my pre-teenage son heard anything I ever said. Here he was doling out marriage advice like a seasoned expert.

Annie listened. She instantly let go of Erin’s leg. “What do they do on their date?” Annie asked Garrison.

You could tell her question stumped him. Apparently he had exhausted his dating expertise.

“I have no idea,” Garrison said. “But I think it ends with kissing.”

I started laughing and winked at Erin. “I really hope it does!”

How would your kids describe your marriage? What are they learning from it? Let me offer some advice on how you can make this incredibly important relationship one worth watching and imitating.

Love God first

We all know the teasing childhood rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” But the rhyme doesn’t mention who that “first love” should be: God. Show your children that God is your first love. It’s God, spouse and then children — in that order.

Honour your marriage

Hebrews 13:4 says, “Let marriage be held in honour among all.” Honouring marriage begins with a clear lifelong commitment. Don’t joke about divorce. In fact, remove the word divorce from your vocabulary. Have the attitude that says, “I will do whatever it takes to stay happily married.”

Another aspect of honouring your marriage is to prioritise it. Many couples get so caught up in “administrating” their marriage (talking about to-do lists, schedules, finances, etc.) that they don’t have meaningful conversations about what’s really important to them: their joys, fears, stresses, dreams, etc. Spend 10 minutes a day talking with your spouse about that inner life. And don’t forget to have fun together, too. Remember what it says in Ecclesiastes 9:9: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love.”

Treasure your spouse

Proverbs 18:22 (NLT) says, “The man who finds a wife finds a treasure.” So show your children how much you treasure their mother or father. Compliment your spouse: “Your mother is gorgeous!” you might say. Affirm who your spouse is as a person: “Your dad is an amazing provider.” And don’t just use words. Show your children how much you value your husband or wife: Kiss her. Hold his hand. Be affectionate, and when your kids squeal “gross!” let them know that all this affection is in their best interest. After all, everyone wins when Mum and Dad are affectionate.

Practice healthy conflict

You’re not going to feel lovey-dovey toward your spouse all the time, of course. Conflict is an unavoidable and important part of marriage. When you disagree, show your children how to best work through those issues. This teaches them that differences are OK and that you can work out problems in a way that feels good to both people.

Granted, this isn’t an easy thing to model: Watching Mum and Dad “fight,” no matter how constructively they do so, is hard on children. This is why children (especially younger children) try to referee the conflict. Annie would draw us pictures and physically make us hold hands during an argument. Respond by acknowledging their fear (“I know watching Mummy and Daddy argue is scary, but we love each other and we’ll be OK) and giving them something appropriate to do during the conflict. This helps kids feel safe and secure. Make sure that your children see you giving each other plenty of grace and forgiveness.

Children need to see that you can disagree and still love someone. They need a model of healthy conflict, and they need to see how you find a win-win solution.

Function as a team

Children need to understand that marriage is a team sport. And they need to be reminded of that when they inevitably try to pit one parent against the other. Show them that you can’t be divided and conquered.

Sometimes, Annie will come in and ask me if she can watch television.

“What did Mummy say?” I’ll respond.

“I want to know what you think,” she’ll say slyly.

“I support Mummy,” I reply. “Go ask her and that is my answer, as well.”

Functioning as a team goes beyond putting up a united front. Equally share child and household responsibilities. Do chores together. Pursue big dreams together, too. Erin and I teach marriage seminars together throughout the year.

Build community and a legacy

No marriage is an island. Every couple needs like-minded friends who are also pursing great marriages, ones who are willing to speak honestly and sometimes painfully. Show your children that you need couple friends.

Ask a child about relationships and marriage; their answers can be surprisingly revealing. So with that in mind, let me encourage you to ask a few difficult questions of your spouse — ones you should answer together:

  • What kind of legacy do we want to leave?
  • What marriage values do we want to pass on?
  • Is our marriage worthy enough that we’d want our children to replicate it?

Answering those questions honestly and honorably can give your children worthwhile answers that just might spill over from generation to generation.

How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family’s marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now.

© 2019 Focus on the Family. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

Dr Greg Smalley

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family.

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