Which is More Important, Your Marriage or Your Children?

The answer is your marriage, and the answer is your children. The answer is neither. The answer is both. The answer, actually, is to begin asking a different question altogether…

marriage and children

Photo Credit: chrisjtse via Compfight cc

Two months ago, one of my posts about marriage was picked up by the Huffington Post and went viral. In it, I wrote, “Our kids should never be more important than our marriage, and they should never be less important…Family is about the constant on-going work of finding the balance.”

I expected it to be an unpopular statement.

But as the conversation unfolded some people said, “He’s right, your marriage is more important.” And others said, “He’s right, your children are more important.” My statement had become like a Rorschach inkblot test: everybody projected their own beliefs onto it.

Or, rather, everybody projected their way of thinking onto it.

The Way We Think

We are trained to think dualistically.

We are trained to think in black-and-white.

We are trained to think in either-or categories.

As children, we are taught to think of good guys versus bad guys, friends versus enemies, jocks versus nerds. As we grow older, our either-or thinking usually grows bigger, and it usually grows into political and religious dualism—we separate people into groups and then separate ourselves from them. Over the centuries, our either-or thinking has served a survival function: when we think dualistically, we can make quick judgments and snap decisions. We can rank people to decide who is safe and who isn’t. We can prioritize who is most important, and who is less so. We can decide who matters and who doesn’t

About six weeks after the marriage post went viral, I was at the gym, and three different televisions were broadcasting the inevitable consequences of our either-or thinking. Screen One: Ferguson, Missouri—the dualism of White skin and Black skin, powerful and powerless, dead kids and businesses burning to the ground. Screen Two: ISIS on a rampage—religious dualism taken to a level of rage and terror that is almost unimaginable. Screen Three: one of my childhood good guys now turned bad guy—the dualism of predator and prey played out over decades.

I looked at the screens and thought, “This world is in big trouble.” And then I thought, “We need a place where we can be trained in non-dualism, where we can learn to exchange either-or for both-and.” And finally I thought, “We already have such a place.

It’s called marriage.

It’s called family.”

The Way We Might See

As my wife and I approached our wedding altar, two small candles were burning and, as the ceremony progressed, we took part in an ancient ritual—the unity candle. We each took one of the individual candles and, together, we lit the unity candle, symbolizing two becoming one. However, instead of blowing out the individual candles, we placed them back in their stands, and they continued to burn next to the unity candle. We wanted to symbolize that in marriage, two become one, yet also remain two. Not either-or. Both-and.

Marriage is meant to disrupt our dualism.

Two souls come together in a mysterious joining—two people pledge themselves to one love and one purpose, yet remain separate people with their own thoughts, beliefs, dreams, and desires. One but not one. Unified but separate. The same but different. It kind of messes with your head, doesn’t it?

It’s supposed to.

It’s supposed to mess with your head and open up your heart, because our minds tend to think in either-or, while our hearts tend to see in both-and. In marriage, our hearts are given the freedom to stop choosing and start including. Am I most important? Yes. Is she most important? Yes. Are we most important? Yes. People say marriage is hard work, and they’re right. It is hard work to quiet our dualistic minds and to let our hearts reveal, over many spinning years, the truth of this radical inclusiveness.

It is a hard work that prepares us for welcoming our children into the same kind of both-and unity. What if we had a unity candle ceremony for our families, too? Each child would have their own individual candle and, as every member dipped his or her flame into the unity wick, the message would be sent: you are an integral part of this wild adventure we call family. You are not more, not less.

You are equal, and you are equally loved.

The Way This World Might Heal

I don’t think we’ve fully embraced the radical, transformative power of families who are learning to live in the both-and, who are striving to love everybody first. Can you imagine a world in which an entire generation of children, when asked “Who mattered the most in your family?” could sincerely answer, “We all did.” Can you imagine a generation of kids growing into a generation of adults who, when asked, “And who matters the most in the world?” could answer, “We all do.”

I do. You do. We all do.

Ferguson. ISIS. Cosby. This stuff doesn’t get better overnight. It gets better one generation at a time, as one generation after another learns through the family experience that we are all worthy of love and belonging, that we are all important enough to warrant the hard but essential work of valuing everybody with hearts of unity, rather than minds of duality.

“Which is more important, your marriage or your children?”

It’s the wrong question.

The question we need to begin asking is, “How do our families become a training ground for mutuality and kinship and a love that elevates everyone to equal importance?” How do we trade in our dividing minds for our unifying hearts? How do we live from there so that, one day, we might become a people who can welcome everyone home.

With equal joy.

Question: What is your opinion? Marriage? Children? Both? Why? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Audio: Click here to hear an audio version of this post.

Next Post: Why We Should Let Our Kids Ask for Whatever They Want This Year

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Tanel

    Very thought-provoking piece. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about, since I’m becoming parent soon. Thanks!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m glad it arrived at the right time for you, Tanel, and congratulations on this big next chapter in your story!

      • Tanel

        I tried to search your site, but with no success – do you have any other relevant posts for me… in the beginning of this new chapter of life 🙂
        Thanks again!

        • drkellyflanagan

          Tanel, at the top of each post is a series of tabs for each of the blog categories. You could click on “parenting” and start reading away!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    You’ve got me at an unequivocal “Yes!”, Kelly.
    Marriage, parenting, and family are all important and it is a disservice to the joys and work in each to rank order them. And somewhat tangentially, this post had me thinking about the kids I’m working with at school — with their insistent need to be recognized for the wonderful, special, and varied people that they are — each important, and each with different talents and trials. Their need is often expressed as a competition, vying for rank. And as much as the job is teaching math, reading, and academic skills, it is in equal part letting them know that they are seen for the ways that they are special, shining, and doing awesome things.
    That there are these things to know about each of them does not diminish the importance of any of them.

    • drkellyflanagan

      An unequivocal “yes!” from me, too, Shel! My two youngest tonight got into a competition over who could accurately throw an empty jelly bean box from the dinner table to the counter. They almost came to blows. May our children learn from the way we love them that the games are over and they can’t earn love, they can only receive it.

  • Kathi

    As a believer, I am reminded that God Himself is three in one – equally important and necessary, and with this example we are to try and understand that relationship a most important aspect of life and communication – with Him and with others. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Your message is equally necessary and challenging to the way we all have come and now the way we should go. Thank you.

  • MofE

    Interesting. Thank you for this. It makes me think of the Twelve Step principle of anonymity, the goal of which is to leave our outside accolades outside for a while and enter a space where all are equally a part.

  • Hello Kelly. I am from Germany and I say “Großartig”. Few days ago I heard the song “One” and I kept the refrain “we are one but we are not the same” in my mind. Buddha said “no sameness no otherness”. One day I read the metaphor “We are like the air of a house. Every room is smelling different, the kitchen air different from the bathroom, the sleeping room different from the living room, but every room is important, we would not want to miss one and all together we are the air of the house”. And I think family is the smallest cell where we can practise tolerance regarding multiplicity in a unit. We are one but we are not the same and its all about “finding the balance”. Hope my English is good enough to get my idea across. I like your ideas a lot. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Your English is excellent, and I love the metaphor. I’m also struck by the fact that in the post I refer to how religious dualism is often a natural conclusion of our either-or thinking, but the post evoked three consecutive comments about three different spiritual traditions that promote non-dualism: Christianity, the Twelve Steps, and Buddhism. It’s interesting to think that, perhaps, one of the trademarks of spirituality is disruption of our dualistic thinking, though we often turn it into another opportunity to think dualistically. Thoughts about that? Anyone, anyone? (In my best teacher-from-Ferris-Bueller’s-Day-Off-voice.)

      • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

        (Aha! This is why people wait to post online until AFTER coffee. Clever people, those.
        I meant to reply here. Instead, if you care to, you may find my thoughts in response to your Ben Stein impersonation tucked among the other replies. Where it doesn’t belong. How delightfully messy.)

        • drkellyflanagan

          Delightfully messy, indeed; and I’ll take your comments wherever I can get them, Shel!

  • Guest

    I commend you, Kelly. Each post seems to just get better and better

  • David K

    I commend you, Kelly. Each post just seems to get better and better! Add to that, your thoughts seem to go to a deeper and deeper place. It’s hard to know whether in this particular time in our human history this is more relevant and needed… I guess we are evolving to some degree, or maybe just that consciousness-raising is a painfully slow process that constantly has to fight our forgotten history. And as Huff Post and we all share (and hopefully and more importantly begin to practice beyond the words), the message spreads: Life is complicated a lot of times, and yes, we can strive to make it less messy (as you’ve said). We just have to admit that and keep moving forward, step-by-step.

    We have to embrace our imperfection because all the great wisdom traditions, in one form or another, clearly say that perfection is a ruse…we are human and we’re just bound to make mistakes. That’s not to say it’s an excuse for not taking personal responsibility. So, as you said, some posts ago…Marriage is about one thing: forgiveness. As is it is key in any relationship. That’s not being a doormat, but for our own sanity, we have to let go…and sometimes it’s hard…really hard.

    Your post, as always is always seemingly in some synergistic alignment with various things of the Universe (if there is such a thing…being an abstract-random guy), and so this past week’s episode of This American Life seems particularly applicable about the struggles and choices we make. If you’ve not already listened to it (WBEZ being in your backyard!), the whole episode is fantastic, but I was torn apart by the story at the 30:00 mark…

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/541/regrets-ive-had-a-few?act=2#play

    In gratitude….

    • drkellyflanagan

      David, thank you for your kind words. And for your reflection on the slow evolution of our thinking. I am hopeful that we are, generally, beginning to embrace the wisdom and necessity of non-dualism. And finally, thank you for the link to This American Life. I’ll go listen now!

  • Mike

    Great article! There seems to be some truth in every argument. It depends on what magnifying glass you are looking through. We must consider all sides, all loved ones. Sometimes choices still need to be made and priorities are necessary. What’s best for whom at the time. Therefore, dualism has to come into play at times. But the overall “tied for first” philosophy is good when it works for all.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good point, Mike. How many times tonight did I say, “Not yet, I’m talking your sister [or brother] right now”? Those moments of choice are, I suppose, experienced with the most love when they are part of a larger non-dualistic culture in the family.

  • LaShawn

    Dr. Kelly you are brilliant as usual yet I didn’t know that others had misread your point of view which was more than a point. Yes you are absolutely right that westerners need help with rising above duality. In my opinion it is manufactured from the powers that be to keep us all at odds with one another. Meanwhile what most people fail to understand is that many times more than not we are looking at two sides of the same coin. Dr. Kelly was merely taking on the full perspective of a two sided equation. So sad you had to reinstate your true intentions with the article but hey sometimes progressive thinking goes over many people’s heads. I just hope to become as patient as you are with reexplaining myself. Keep up the good work.

    • drkellyflanagan

      LaShawn, thanks for this. I didn’t mind the opportunity to think about that point in greater depth. I often joke, “What would I write about if people didn’t push back on what I’d already written?” : )

  • Mike Gates

    Yay! A vote for living sincerely! Shedding dualism is difficult. The very words we use to speak (and think) about it are founded in dualism. It is inherent.

    So, less thought, more feels?

    Actually, I don’t know that anyone can “shed” it. That would imply some is to be “done” by a “do-er”, which is inaccurate. Too much “do-ing” is what got me in this mess in the 1st place. The best I’ve been able to muster is willingness and to enjoy it when it comes.

    That said, there are some things I can practice to aid the process. Stop listening to the blare of the world. Unlearn most of what I know. Learn to get quiet, so I can focus on my instincts. So I can hear that still small voice when it comes to show me the way.

    Man, I’m getting esoteric. simpler: Don’t believe everything you think. Meditate. Slow down. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Mike. Let’s not pressure ourselves to shed it. That would be superhuman. We’d do well just to be aware of it and call it what it is when it happens. Slowing down sure helps with that, doesn’t it?

      • Mike Gates

        It does indeed.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    I loved seeing how people connected these ideas to the spirituality that resonated with them — and, Kelly, I’ve long enjoyed how easily applicable your ideas are to people from a broad range of religious or unaffiliated perspectives, because they do speak to a more basic and underlying spirituality that transcends those delineations.
    I do agree that we often turn to spiritual traditions in hopes of more dualistic structure that will help us make sense of the messiness of our actions and interactions and feelings as we move through the world only partially in control of our lives. Forces larger than us and people around us may benevolently exert their influence or more negatively impact not only how we feel but how well we can accomplish the things we intend. And because spiritual traditions serve so many so well, they must respond to those realities, not in stark black and white, but with all the colors of the spectrum.
    Dualism feels like it will be more satisfying than it turns out to be. And the messy, tricky balancing we do in life calls for spiritual traditions that are more rich and complex than this-is-the-only-good and that-is-the-only-bad.
    Those are my thoughts, before coffee.