Editor's note: This article was originally published on Monica Swanson's blog. It has been republished here with permission.
The conversation began in the car. Our family was loaded up and headed to the beach for the afternoon.
While the boys talked over one another in back, I caught up on text messages. My husband drove quietly, thinking about hospital patients or projects on our property. He spends a lot of time in thought and lets the rest of us do most of the talking.
Suddenly, one of our boys leaned his little body forward until he was almost between our front seats, and blurted out, "Dad, you never TALK!" I looked up from my phone, and cracked a little smile, and Dave kept driving.
Our son went on, "I mean, you're always so quiet. You should talk to Mom more!"
This didn't seem to bother my husband one bit. He said nothing, but drove on.
Maybe it was my husband's lack of defensiveness, or the safe environment of being in the car where we don't have eye contact, but this simple observation seemed to start something. Before long, all of our boys were throwing in their 10 cents. It wasn't long before Dave and I found ourselves a captive audience, as we listened to our boys' full editorial commentary on our marriage: How well we did (or didn't) communicate, relate or laugh together. One boy thought we only talked about THEM ... about their school, sports or schedules. Another added that we talk about household stuff and bills. The one who started everything admitted that "they probably do talk when they're on dates," and our 4-year-old just parroted every other thing the big brothers said.
Finally, the older, wiser brother attempted to conclude the dialogue by saying, "If you guys ever shut up, maybe they would be able to talk!" to which Dave and I had to laugh.
That entire conversation happened in under three minutes, but it really affected me. It made me think. A lot.
What hit me the most was really NOT what the boys were saying ... even though that was quite interesting. But it was more the fact that they had things to say.
They are watching. Noticing. They actually listen. They have thoughts and feelings about how my husband and I relate.
And that hit me really hard.
It made me consider the fact that one day all of our kids will be with friends, or on a date, (or in some therapist's office,) and they will describe their parents' marriage: "My parents' marriage was __."
What will they say? What might go in that blank?
Because, I am confident that my marriage is solid and happy, it's not perfect, but it is absolutely secure, my husband and I have shared so much and we know of the times we talk at the early in the morning or late at night (the few times that the house is quiet.)
But our kids? Their perception of our relationship might be altogether different. How our kids describe their parents' marriage is and will be determined by the things they witness every day - as we drive, when we talk on the phone or chat in the house.
And that little conversation in the car - it was a healthy wake up call for me.
Now I admit that I'm feeling silly for not thinking on all of this more before.
I've read books, and I knew from before I ever had kids that our children are deeply affected by our marriage. They will develop most of their thoughts and opinions on masculinity and femininity, relationships and marriage, through what they pick up at home. They will learn conflict resolution, and how happy (or not) a marriage can be, by watching their own parents.
Sure, other factors influence kids and relationships, but I ought to never take for granted that I am a role model. Every single day.
The few days following that car ride, I found myself tuning in a little bit more to my boys when my husband and I were together. As I greeted Dave with a hug one afternoon, I looked over his shoulder to see one of the boys look up from his school work and try to hide the faintest smile.
When Dave called me at a most inconvenient time, and I heard myself speak to him with a tone that let him know this was a very inconvenient time, it hit me that two of my boys were standing right there and it was affecting them in one way or another.
It's true that Dave is often quiet. So, how do I respond? Do I turn to my phone to find someone else to connect with or could I try to turn my attention to him? It isn't so hard to get a conversation started ... asking him questions and paying attention to him. These are some of the qualities that balance him, and made him fall for me in the first place.
Though I am secure with the relationship that my husband and I share, I know there is always room for improvement. And quite honestly, this little car chat was just the motivation I needed to put a little more effort into the way in which I treat him. I want my kids to remember me loving their father deeply. I want them to recall how I spoke to him with great respect. I want it to be clear that I enjoy him.
I realize now that kids in the house can actually serve as great reminders - reminding me to be the kind of wife I really do want to be. Every day.
I encourage you to consider what your kids' perception of your marriage might be. IF you've got guts, you might even ask them! We can look at our kids' perception of us as a sort of barometer. They can't tell you everything about your marriage, but they might reflect some truths, which would be good to hear.
In light of all of this, I hope you'll join me in doing these three things for the sake of the (kids and) marriage:
1. WORK ON YOUR MARRIAGE!
Knowing your kids are watching is only extra motivation!
If you think your kids might describe your marriage as less than great, let it be your wake-up call.
If your marriage seems less than positive to your kids, it probably could use some TLC. Get to work on it: Find a good counselor, read some books. Talk to your spouse about building it back up. You married for a reason - dig deep and find it. I believe God can do miracles even in marriages that seem hopeless.
Some of you may be struggling, because you feel that you are doing your best but your spouse is not. This is still a sign that you ought to seek counsel. But also keep in mind that your response TO your spouse will make a huge impression on your kids. You can only control YOU, and your individual influence on your children is still great. Your kids will pick up on a gentle spirit, strong convictions, patience and faithfulness, and they will always remember that one of you set a positive example. Choosing to handle things with wisdom and maturity is the best gift you can give your children.
2. Let your kids see the best of your marriage!
Now I'm not talking about faking it. Kids will sniff out a fake in two seconds. What I mean is this: Do I love my husband? Yes. So, why not pull myself away from whatever I'm doing when he walks in the door and greet him affectionately. Show him love always, but especially in front of the kids. Not to put on a show, but because it is genuinely in my heart to love him. Let the kids be an extra motivation, and feel good about what you're showing them.
I've also found this to be a fun way to get my husband to reciprocate. Since we've been talking about this lately, I have a fun excuse to whisper, "Hurry, you better kiss me, the boys are watching!" (How can a man say no to that?)
Show the kids that married people can flirt. Show them affection and plenty of fun. It's good for them, and it's good for you, too.
3. Practice self-control!
This is me talking to me. I hope I'm not the only one!
I happen to be the more demonstrative type. I express myself well. I get excited and I show it. I get mad and ... well, you get the picture. So, here's the thing that has hit me like a punch in the gut. Just because I feel it, doesn't mean I need to express it. A little self-control is a good thing, and this applies to marriage and parenting in a big way. I am learning to overlook a few things, telling myself I can talk to my husband about it later. Usually when later comes, it is not a big deal any more. But being critical and grumpy about laundry on the floor, or an errand that was forgotten, simply isn't worth the negativity it spreads through the whole family.
I can't help but consider how easy it is to control my emotions when we have a guest in the house. Now I am trying to imagine that my kids are like little guests, and I should show them my best too.
Perhaps this is something you keep in the front of your mind, and if so you should feel really good about it. But maybe a few of you needed this healthy reminder like I did. If so, I encourage you to get together with your spouse, and talk about what messages your marriage might be sending to your children. This is as good a time as any to recommit to growing a healthy marriage which will benefit both you and the children that are watching.