Put a lock on your bedroom door. Never let a child interrupt. Kiss your partner first. Andrew G Marshall’s book, I Love You But You Always Put Me Last, argues that parents need to childproof their relationships, or lose them. Time for some expert survival advice
It is any given breakfast time in my house. Marlene, four, is due at school in 40 minutes and is in a rage because she asked for Shreddies and Special K but now just wants Special K. Max, two, is cross because I put milk on his cereal. Marlene has chosen a tiny summer dress but my wife Alice thinks she needs leggings, too – it’s not all that warm – and she’s refusing to put them on.
My wife starts to bargain with the sticker chart I’ve been using to persuade Marlene to go to bed at night without needing “one more wee” 40 times, and I pettily rebuke her that the chart is a bedtime bribe and not for general use. Alice is cross because all this is making her late for work. I’m cross because I’ve been up for an hour and a half and nobody has stopped wanting something or complaining about something for 30 seconds. We use the word “darling” with each other, but it doesn’t always sound like a term of endearment.
If Alice and I argued before we had children, I can’t remember it. The truth is, I can’t remember much because my brain these days has the texture of a sodden nappy, but I’m fairly sure it was a sunlit upland of laughter, kissing and skipping through bluebells. Certainly there was a lack of Diprobase, estate cars and dodging dogshit with a buggy; there were holidays in Istanbul and Marrakech (this summer I hid in the windowless loo of a French motel, waiting for the kids to go to sleep).
We were together for a couple of years before we decided to have children, and married three years after that. There isn’t a moment we regret what our children have done to our lives, and our relationship is strong. But God, it’s hard work. I am aware that moaning seems graceless; but even in a position of privilege (we love each other, we enjoy our work, we get to spend more time with our children than many parents), I have to admit the relentlessness of it is impacting on our relationship. I don’t think we can be alone in that. You can adore your job – because raising children is nothing if not a job – and still find it overwhelming. And it doesn’t feel appropriate to complain at small children themselves, so you tend to unload on each other.
So, here we are: living the dream. We have two beautiful children, as the cliche has it, a third on the way, and yet we struggle. That’s fine: we’re front-loading the hard bit, is how I see it. We will spend a decade in the baby tunnel of doom, and come up smiling in about 2018. But at least we are doing what society and our own consciences tell us to do: we are Putting The Children First.
Is it possible, though, that we are doing it all wrong? That’s the thesis advanced in a new book by the relationship therapist turned self-help author Andrew G Marshall. And that’s why we’ve arranged to have – in the interests of long-term happiness as well as journalistic inquiry – a session with the author. In I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How To Childproof Your Marriage, Marshall sets out what he describes as a “revolutionary idea”. It’s so revolutionary he puts it in italics: you should put your children second. He later tells me it would be easier to ask people to eat cat sick than follow his precepts.
On one level, it’s no more than common sense. If your marriage goes tits-up, your children are unlikely to benefit, so tending your relationship is, indirectly, a way of tending your children. On the other hand, there are some serious taboos in this area. In 2005 the American writer Ayelet Waldman wrote an essay called Motherlove in which she declared that she loved her husband (novelist Michael Chabon) more than her children. “He and I are the core,” she wrote, “the children are satellites, beloved but tangential.” Waldman’s essay prompted a meltdown: various loons threatened to report her to social services and she was hauled on to Oprah to explain herself. It will be interesting to see whether Marshall is similarly tarred and feathered. As he is a man, I suspect not, though he may attract different sorts of opprobrium.
As a culture, we tend to associate romantic love with self-gratification or self-actualisation, and parental love with selflessness and sacrifice. Anyone who has ever watched a helicopter parent deliver their bewildered three-year-old to piano lessons will know it’s a little more complicated than that. But that polarity – romantic love selfish; parental love selfless – makes it hard to say that your partner is more important to you than your children. It sounds, well, selfish.
Marshall rings our doorbell at 5pm on a Tuesday, just as I am trying to feed the kids. I have been looking after both of them all day every day while Alice, who works short and intense contracts as a producer/director of TV documentaries, is out. With his angular face and dandyish straw trilby, Marshall has something of the celebrity anatomist Gunther von Hagens about him. Marlene is soon busy with an unflattering portrait of our guest in poster paints.
An entrepreneurial sort, Marshall now spends more time writing self-help books than doing clinical work. Even so, he has a huge waiting list for his personal practice, and runs three “associate therapists” specialising in what he calls the “Marshall Method”. (One imagines him copyrighting the name, but it turns out there’s already a Marshall Method for compacting asphalt.)
“Sorry about the chaos,” I say while wheeling and ducking and slinging plates and filling glasses and mopping spills and generally engaging in the improvisational ballet that takes place between the kitchen and the dining table.
“That’s all right,” he says amiably. “I’m not here to judge you.” This, of course, instantly makes me think that he is here to judge me. I can only hope he is true to his word. While I attempt to interview Marshall about his therapeutic experience and writing career, Marlene and Max sit with us at the kitchen table with brushes and paints. A section of transcript follows:
Andrew: “The thing is, you write a book on it and you suddenly become the go-to guy. People come literally from the four corners of the Earth. So you learn even more about the subject…”
Max: “My dragon going to have big teeth!”
Me: “So, do you ever see people and just think these are hopeless cases…?”
Marlene: “Dad, can you get me another bit of paper? I’m drawing a fairy for Alice!”
Max: “I’ve got green! I’ve got green!”
Andrew: “No, actually, because I’m an incredible optimist and I think you can change relationships. I believe that what you need is –”
Max: “I made you! I made you!”
Andrew: “– good relationship skills, and you can learn relationship skills… Brilliant, excellent, so are you going to draw us a dragon now? Is it going to be a friendly dragon or a fire-eating dragon?”
Max: “Ehm, a fendly dragon.”
Andrew: “That’s nice.”
Me: “Something I’m noticing now, and with children it happens all the time and it has relationship consequences, is that you’re always being interrupted and–”
And so on. If Marshall now publishes a yet more radical book titled, from Larkin, Get Out As Quickly As You Can And Don’t Have Any Kids Yourself, I would not entirely blame him.
“I’m 54,” he tells me, “and I was taught to stand up in a bus if an adult wanted a seat. And now… I was going up to Edinburgh recently in one of those trains where they’d messed up the allocated seating. And this woman was saying that the adults should stand up because her children needed a seat. In the space of a single generation we’ve turned that whole thing upside down.”
Marshall has a quiz you can do to find out how strong your relationship is: the more points you score the deeper in the shit you are. One thing you notice is that if you tick the statement “We have two children under five” it scores you an instant four points – the same as a midlife crisis or the death of a parent.
To relieve that pressure you need to do some things that many of us are not doing. Here, Marshall has a good deal of granular and interesting advice. Make sex a priority: treat your partner as a lover rather than just a co-parent. Acknowledge feelings of anger (“Half of my work is about teaching people how to argue”). Learn to properly talk, properly listen and properly apologise (there are various little exercises involving stopwatches that sound silly but make a certain amount of sense). Don’t obsess about being the perfect parent: learn to be at ease with “good enough”.
Marshall doesn’t have any children himself. When I ask him about this, he bristles a bit and says he prefers not to talk about that because it’s important for therapeutic reasons that he be a blank canvas. “I don’t want this piece to focus too much on the fact that I don’t have children,” he says when it arises a second time. “I’m not telling people how to bring up their children. What I’m interested in is helping people not ruin their marriage in the process. My expertise is in your relationship with each other.”
Fair enough, I think. Or fair enough-ish. His personal life is his own business, and in 30 years as a therapist he’ll have seen the inside of enough relationships to know a thing or two. But some of his recommendations might benefit from a hands-on encounter with the enemy. Not allowing your children to interrupt you when you’re talking to each other, say: well. In a book dedicated to “good enough” they sound a bit like counsels of perfection.
Decisions about priorities aren’t made in isolation, either. Children muscle in. In theory, you are mutually supportive team-workers, keeping the show on the road. In practice, you are fighting like Russian oligarchs after scarce natural resources: sleep, time to work, sleep, time to think, sleep and sleep.
You start by nobly volunteering to do the early morning or night feeds, tenderly padding upstairs to change a nappy or downstairs to sterilise a bottle. A year or so in, you’re keeping an encyclopaedic mental catalogue (though one that differs substantially from your wife’s encyclopaedic mental catalogue) of who had the 35-minute and who had the 40-minute lie-in on any given day over the last three weeks.
My fantasy, for example – one that retreats week by week, month by month, as the things that need to be done right now tumble into the in-tray – is of sitting in my study on a sunny morning with a clear day ahead of me, and embarking on the writing of a book. Alice, knowing that each new maternity leave yanks her out of the professional stream she’s swimming in, is anxious to work while she’s able. It’s fair that I should shoulder the kids during those periods and fit my own work into the interstices. But all that’s easier on paper than in practice. You what? You’re working from now till November?
Plus, you feel super-complicated about the children. The obvious thing to do would be to farm them out to baby-prison (aka nursery) for much more time. But because our work comes and goes that’s also not simple. Even when you’re looking after them, you feel complicated. Because though there are oceans of delight – really! – in building Duplo towers and reading Cinderella for the umpteenth time, and watching their little faces blossom with laughter etc, admitting to yourself that after a bit you find this stuff kinda tedious feels like saying you hate your children.
The idea, of course, is that you set aside “you time”. But how many couples with young children do you know of (you can have the Obamas as a gimme) who believe in the idea of a weekly or monthly “date night” featuring something along the lines of babysitter, cinema tickets, restaurant food, conversation about non-child-related subjects and sexual intercourse? And for how many does that idea seem as fanciful as manticores, world government and a humble moment for Donald Trump?
But it’s easy to pick holes. Marshall’s big idea does have an undeniable resonance with our lived experience. So, much later, when Alice gets back from work, we have a sort of bash at the Marshall Method – although, he says, this is not how it would be done in a clinical context. He never sees clients at home.
After the killer intro “Do you have any concerns, or fears, or anything you’d like to talk about?”, Marshall starts to probe our marriage. Soon, armed with one of the kids’ felt tips and a bit of their leftover drawing paper, he’s making two sets of little slips of paper with things written on them: “self”, “work”, “siblings”, “fun”, “sex”, “hobbies”. We are each encouraged to assemble them into a list of priorities.
Were there some surprises? Alice put “self” at the top, “siblings” one notch above “partner” (cheek!) and “pets” at the bottom. I put “intellectual nourishment” at the top, “self” quite low down (well below “children” and “partner”) and “fun” at the bottom. From which you can infer that Alice is highly self-reproachful (“I thought I was being quite honest. I didn’t put that at the top because I think I’m the most important person, but because I think I’m quite self-obsessed”) and hates the cat crapping in the garden; and that I am a passive-aggressive prig who revels in martyrdom and aggressively invigilates the moral high ground. Both true.
In any case, it certainly kicked off a conversation. We tell Marshall how one of us blows up quickly and forgives quickly, while the other avoids conflict but cherishes resentments, and he says: “Isn’t it interesting that you each chose the opposite? You’ve chosen someone who’s going to call a spade a spade, and you’ve chosen someone who’s going to say: ‘Ooh, have we got a garden?’ ” He has a point.
Following his rules is sometimes easier said than done. He asks that you make a point of saying hello to each other first, and the children second. Most nights, Alice comes home after the children are asleep, and in the mornings I get up with them, so the opportunity for a preferential hello, so to speak, has not arisen. And honestly? I’m not going to put a lock on the bedroom door. Experience shows that the cat, let alone the daughter, will scratch for two hours or more without any signs of fatigue.
But when Marshall points out that work – dress it up though we might as a simple matter of earning to support the family – is also massively involved with identity and ego, and that we might be doing it for ourselves rather than our spouse, he hits home. And when he suggests that, finally, the bedrock of your future happiness is the relationship you choose with each other, he hits home.
So I’ve been paying attention, a bit, to the basic business of being nice. I have been practising apologising – “Sorry I was grumpy this morning” – without adding: “But the children were boiling my piss and I’m afraid you asking me twice whether I’d brushed her hair really didn’t help and while we’re at it what on Earth were you thinking of, opening a new carton of milk when as I’d made quite clear the open one was only two days out of date…”
We’ve been turning off our phones during family time. My progress in Candy Crush is considerably retarded, but it’s a sacrifice that seems worth it. Marshall suggests you leave messages and make other small gestures to make it clear that you’re thinking of your beloved. So I do. The other day I used the foam rubber letters the kids play with in the bath to spell out: “WE ALL LOVE ALICE” on the shower wall. From downstairs, gratifyingly, I heard an exclamation of “Aaaahhh!” a few hours later. The following day it read: “WE ALL AVE LICE.”
I’ve been striving to follow the Marshall Method, in other words. And you know what? We haven’t had an argument since. Well, not a big one. Next week I’m going to try letting the kids out of the basement.
An extract from Andrew G Marshall’s I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How To Childproof Your Marriage
At the centre of my work is an idea so radical I will be surprised if you buy it: you should put your children second. Of course, there will be times when the children need you – perhaps they are ill or it’s their first day at school. But on an everyday basis your husband or your wife should be your number one priority.
I know this is a tough idea to swallow – particularly when you have a small, helpless baby on your lap – but children are just passing through, while marriage should be for ever. A happy marriage means happy children. If you put your children first, day in and day out, you will exhaust your marriage. Children sense the unhappiness; they try to build bridges for their parents and get drawn into things they are too young to understand or, worse still, think the problem is down to them in some way.
When I explain about putting each other first, clients often look at me blankly – almost as if they can hear my words but can’t quite process them. Of course, they don’t want to neglect their marriage, but they want to give their children every opportunity in life and, although they don’t necessarily use this word, to be “perfect” parents. If that involves putting your relationship on to autopilot during your child’s crucial formative years, isn’t it worth it?
At this point, I should introduce the idea that sits alongside “Put your children second”, and that is “Be a good enough parent”. Look out for your children but do not micromanage them. If you put all your energy into raising the next generation, you risk identifying so closely with your children that their success is your success and their failure is yours, and this will put them under unnecessary pressure.
One key piece of advice involves guarding your comings and goings. If your partner is already home when you return from work, for example, go immediately to where he or she is and give him or her a kiss. If your partner is with the children, it is doubly important to greet him or her first. I know your children will be excited to see you (that’s why you love them) and your partner is often busy, but getting off to a good start sets up an evening of co-operation and pleasure in each other’s company – rather than your partner feeling like part of the furniture.
This is particularly important when you have a baby. It is very easy to greet your son or daughter – babies bring out our protective streak – and completely ignore the person holding him or her. For the first few days, it takes a bit of willpower to greet your partner first and then cuddle the baby, but soon it’ll become second nature.
If you’re the one already at home, I’m not asking you to drop everything and go to the door, although that would be nice. However, you can stop what you’re doing for a second to give your partner a kiss and maybe a quick cuddle.
Guarding your goings is equally important. When you leave the house, give your partner a kiss and tell him or her where you’re going and when you’ll get back. If you just disappear without saying goodbye, even if it is for 10 minutes, it gives the message that your partner is not important or that you don’t see the two of you as a team.
My next tip takes the concept of guarding one stage further: “Put a lock on your bedroom door.” This is seldom a popular idea. Somehow parents think they have to be 100% available, whatever the circumstances. “What if the children need us?” they ask. “If there is an emergency your children can knock, or shout ‘FIRE’,” I always reply.
A locked door sends an important message. It will make your children think twice before demanding attention and help them realise that even parents need a private space. As my clients who have teenagers admit, they would never dream of entering their son’s or daughter’s room without knocking, but they allow their children to just wander into their bedroom whenever they wish. Similarly, I would advise parents never to let your children interrupt when you are talking to each other.
My third tip is to discuss your priorities. Nobody minds dropping down the list if they understand the emergency – for example, your mother is in hospital – but your partner needs reassurance that it is not for ever and to feel able to discuss the day-to-day implications. And, most important of all, not to fear that he or she will get their head bitten off if they say: “What about me?” So set aside a regular time to talk to each other, for example, over your evening meal, or switch off the TV/computer for 15 minutes after the children have gone to bed, and explain the demands on your time.
Once again, guard this time to unwind together and don’t let it get trumped by work or a pressing need to empty the dryer. Time together says “You’re important to me; I’m interested in what’s happening in your life and I want to share what’s going on in mine.”
One of the key messages I give my clients is: if it’s good enough for your kids, it’s good enough for your partner, too. It’s not only children who thrive on praise. That’s the reason successful companies review their employees on a regular basis and give positive feedback. When it comes to our home life, we are slow to give compliments. I’d be a rich man if I’d been given a bonus every time I heard the words “I shouldn’t have to thank my husband for emptying the dishwasher/looking after his own kids/coming home when he said he would” or “I shouldn’t have to thank my wife for a nice cuddle on the sofa/letting me play football/keeping the children quiet while I’m busy”. However, imagine for a moment how you would feel if you had put yourself out to do something and not only was there no recognition but also a slight overtone of, “About time, too.” It’s like a company telling its employees, “At last you’ve made your target.” How motivated would that workforce be?
There is a particularly nasty trap that lots of parents fall into. They set up a sub-alliance with one or more of their children and leave their partner feeling isolated and often angry. If you and your partner are going through a tough patch, it is very easy to lean on your children, especially as many children will try to “make it better”. Often, couples can withdraw further and further, and find it harder to reach out to each other and be a team. With so much unspoken resentment, it is not surprising that people prioritise family time over couple time. Not only is there less chance of a row with the children around, but it is easy to hide behind the comfortable intimacy of being Mum and Dad together, and forget the problems of being husband and wife.
The 10 Golden Rules
1 Don’t neglect your marriage: it is the glue that keeps the family together.
2 Being a parent and a perfectionist don’t sit easily together. Instead, aim for good enough.
3 The main job of a parent is to take your children’s feelings seriously, but this doesn’t mean giving in to every whim, rather explaining why something is not possible or sensible.
4 Happy relationships need good communication skills as well as love and connection.
5 In disputes about how to raise your children, there are no right or wrong answers. Listen to each other, be assertive and negotiate.
6 Don’t draw children into adult issues or let them take sides.
7 Encourage your children to be self-sufficient and don’t become their servant. In this way, you will have more time to invest in your relationship.
8 You need to feel loved by your partner and not just a service provider. To this end it is important to be romantic, have fun together and make sex a priority.
9 When there’s a problem, try not to label your partner or the children as the cause: look at your own contribution.
10 If something is good enough for your children, it is probably good enough for your partner, too.
• Andrew G Marshall’s I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How To Childproof Your Marriage is published by Macmillan on 12 September at £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £10.39, including free UK mainland p&p, go to theguardian.com/bookshop.