By the early ’80s, when I was in high school, divorce was so prevalent in my community that I’d ask new acquaintances, "Which parent do you live with?" The first great American wave of divorce that began in the ‘70s has now become as common as a high tide. A recent statistic shows that, in the U.S., 43 percent of first marriages end within 15 years. And, according to a 1998 University of Chicago national survey, nuclear families—which are married couples with children—make up only 26 percent of households, down from 45 percent in 1972.
Many of my contemporaries truly did not know what a good marriage was, though a bunch of us benefited from seeing good second marriages (showing that some parents learned from their mistakes). We witnessed such a potent whirlpool of discord in our homes, it often seemed that we were living one of the painful divorce movies of our era. We saw emotional coldness (remember Ordinary People?) to household-object throwing (The War of the Roses) and lost love (Kramer vs. Kramer) to selfishness (check out the rather bad but oddly true Irreconcilable Differences)—that a lot of us had a hard time getting married for the first time.
On the other hand, a fair portion of my current crowd seems to have found a groove in their marriages. Issues of disagreement and strife remain, but a lot of us seem to be headed for keeping those vows many of us pledged years ago. This bodes well for our children as they see two adults working at a relationship that can anchor a family. While there are enough recipes for maintaining a good marriage to feed the world, here is a list of five vital ingredients that will help show kids what it means to live happily ever after.
1. Constructive Disagreement
The most important thing about bickering—or even yelling with your spouse—in front of the kids is that it ends in calm resolution. My wife can have a short fuse and I can simmer so long that, on occasion, I explode. But we always conclude with a hug and a kiss. Often, we tell the kids, "Mommy and Daddy are sorry we got so upset, but we love each other and have fixed our problem." While it’d be nice if we didn’t argue in full view of the kids, our emotions do get the best of us. By showing the resolution for our kids, we model for them that people who love each other can disagree without bad feelings lasting forever. We are also showing them that disagreement can be handled verbally and not physically. Now, when our kids see us fight, they either ignore us or ask us to stop. When they do ask us for a ceasefire, we halt the argument—until they go to bed.
2. Love and Affection
Although you should probably think twice about making out or copping a feel with your spouse while the kids look on, hugging, kissing, and holding hands is highly recommended. The advice about being affectionate with your children is well documented, but many people shy away from being tastefully physical with their partner because they’re embarrassed or are just plumb too busy to put their arm around their spouse or kiss him or her on the cheek. Random acts of touch help keep a marriage alive and show kids the importance of contact in a healthy relationship. It will not dawn on kids until they’re older, but it also conveys that affection need not always be overtly sexual. Parents who hug and kiss hello and goodbye, as well as cuddle on the couch during family movie night, model a closeness that will inform the relationships their children have when it’s their turn to get a little closer to someone they like.
3. Lots to Talk About
Studies reveal that the more parents talk to their children from birth (even before birth), the more likely that the kids will be verbally proficient. The same applies to marriages. Talking a lot to your partner not only helps keep you both in the know about each other’s thoughts, it exhibits to the children one of the most significant qualities of a good relationship. Communicating with your significant other over breakfast, lunch, dinner, in the car, and on the phone lets the kids see that talking creates harmony. Silence is golden on occasion, to show the young ones that you don’t always have to talk to be at-one with your partner, but offering a daily example of how to verbalize emotions and information will help your children in any relationship. Key topics to present in front of your kids involve asking each other about the day, inquiring about future plans, discussing the news and culture, and seeking input on everyday decisions. This last topic is a good one to show the value of interdependence and the respect two people have for each other’s opinion.
4. Alone Time
Being a good parent is certainly about spending a lot of interactive time as a family unit. It’s also about getting quality moments with your husband or wife. Children need to know that Mom and Dad have a relationship with one another, not just with them. They should see that it’s okay for parents to be apart from the kids on a consistent basis so they know for themselves that, at the center of many successful families, is a successful partnership. Plan on weekly (at minimum biweekly) date nights to let kids know grown-ups need time alone. Doing this regularly helps children be more comfortable with parents going out. When you do go out, you should be sure to have a good time—seeing a grown-up movie, eating leisurely, being out with other adults, whatever it takes to feel like a couple, not just parental units. It’s also wise to enforce bedtimes so Mommy and Daddy can have alone time.
You don’t always have to go out of the house to show your kids that you’re having a good time. Laughing with each other displays how much fun you have with your partner. Let the children see you tickle each other, crack (G-rated) adult jokes, play checkers, even wrestle so they can see playfulness as one of the significant facets to a relationship. Don’t be afraid to have the kids see you being silly. In fact, next time you’re at a party with a karaoke machine, perform a duet with your partner. You’ll laugh and embarrass the kids more than yourselves. And your children will get a glimpse of the crazy-in-love people you once were—and hopefully always will be.
Gregory Keer is a syndicated columnist, educator, and on-air expert on fatherhood. As publisher of FamilyManOnline.com, he runs one of the most widely read resources for the modern father and the women who want to know about him. Keer’s award-winning Family Man column appears in publications across the country. He also contributes to the Fox News Channel, Washington Post Radio, USA Today, Newsday, Family.com, Parenthood.com, and StorkNet.com. As an educator, Keer is a high school teacher and dean in California. He and his wife, a professor of early-childhood education, are the proud and frequently outsmarted parents of three sons.