Which is More Important, Your Marriage or Your Children?

Recently, 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.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.