Who comes First: your Partner or your Children?

"The Kiss" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Are you connecting more with your children, your friends, or the internet than with your partner? When your partner is demoted to second place behind the children, a friend, or the internet, the partnership is bound to deteriorate. This does not mean that we have to neglect our children or friends, but that we always put our partner first, and let our partner know it.

Primary Linkage

“Linkage” is the energetic connection one experiences through relationships with people, animals, and favorite activities. Primary linkage is the relationship through which one experiences primary connection. Whether you currently have a primary partner or not, having connection with a variety of friends, family members, and activities can provide joy and richness. However, if you want to sustain a good primary relationship, the priority you give to your various preferences is vital.

Primary linkages sometimes go to the internet, reading, or addictions rather than to one’s partner. Some people find that primary linkage to a pet is the only kind of linkage that is satisfying, as it is safe, reciprocal, and void of complications. All of these linkages, if they become primary, lead to less linkage between partners. When couples predominantly focus their energy on people or activities other than each other, they don’t nurture the relationship or deal with hurt feelings and unmet desires. Unspoken feelings become silent judgments and disappointment.

Most divorces can be traced back to the shift of primary linkage from the partner to someone or something else.

If you can’t go anywhere without your children or have lost the desire to spend time alone with your partner, this indicates that the primary linkage has shifted away from your partner. “The more you and your partner drift apart, the more each of you will link with one or more of the children. The more you link with the child, the more you will drift apart from you partner. The cycle never ends.” (Stone, Hal, Ph.D. & Stone, Sidra, Ph.D. (2000) Partnering, New World Library.)

Linkage with the Children

A major challenge for most couples arises when they have children. Young children need a great deal of love and attention, and respond very positively to linkage. Of course linkage with our children is absolutely necessary and rewarding.

It is also often easier to obtain energetic connection from children than from an adult, because they are dependent and they reciprocate easily. As a result, it is quite common at this stage for a parent to shift his or her primary linkage to the children.

Ideally, we bond with our children, while retaining primary connection with our partner. The problem occurs when the primary linkage shifts permanently to the child.

Example of shifting primary linkage to the children

Imagine that Anne, who is warm and friendly, is married to John, who is cooler and impersonal. Once they have children, Anne’s natural warmth feels nurtured and reciprocated through her children’s affection. This is quite natural.

Yet, if the linkage with John is not nourished, because it’s easier to get the linkage through her children, the whole family system suffers. While John may not communicate any problem with this shift in energy, he is likely to feel it. As a result of the underlying feeling of abandonment, he may plunge deeper into work and outside activities. Eventually, he may be susceptible to the warm attentions of another woman, missing this within his primary relationship. Or he may simply feel resentful or alienated, making it more difficult for Anne to feel warmth toward him.

Primary linkage to the child burdens the child

Such linkage to the children is not healthy for Anne or the children. Anne’s linkage with her children, being based on their dependence, cannot be as whole, equal, and multifaceted as the linkage with her partner. The children may feel increasing demand to respond to Anne’s dependence on their affection. In addition, children who are the primary source of linkage for the parent feel increasingly burdened by the growing unstated needs of the parent.

Pseudo-partnership with a child

It’s not appropriate to attempt to have a pseudo partnership with a child, because of the inbuilt inequality and dependence of the child on the parent. Moreover, role-modeling a primary partnership, or some sort of satisfying equal adult relationships, to our children gives them much more than giving them all of our attention and energy.

Well-adjusted parents

Nothing benefits a growing child more than to see well-adjusted parents, who are caring toward the children, actively engaged in their own lives. Children feel secure when parents take care of themselves and honor each other rather than just being co-parents. A loving partnership between two adults who are emotionally, intellectually, physically, and even spiritually committed to one another is much richer and more multifaceted than an overly-focused relation between an adult and a child, pet, or electronic device.

Single parents, too, benefit their children by having a rich and mutifaceted life, including other pursuits and friendships outside the parent-child relationship.

This is not to say that we should not love, nurture, and give plenty of attention to our children. The parent child relation is irreplaceably magical and special, but not to be confused with an equal and reciprocal adult partnership.

Suggestions to avoid this cycle


Don’t take your partner for granted. Make efforts to enjoy each other and engage in every-day consideration and spontaneity. Simple courtesy can keep the primary linkage strong. If you’re on the internet, working, or with the children, and your partner walks into the room, don’t ignore him or her. You don’t need to drop everything, but friendly acknowledgment shows the importance you place on your relationship.


Also, teach your children that they don’t have constant access to you at all times in all places in the home, especially in the master bedroom. Make sure you create boundaries to ensure that you have privacy at certain times and in certain places in the home. Of course, when the children are mere infants, they are very dependent and need instant access to a caring adult. The primary relationship has to be nourished when he or she is asleep or has a babysitter. But over time, a bit more separation is good for the whole family. The more gradual this transition is the less painful for both the parent and the child.

Role-model respect and intimacy

With clearly-defined boundaries that are compassionately enforced, children are not likely to feel rejected. It’s healthy for the children to see the value you place on your primary relationship. By increasing their respect for their parents, their own self-respect is enhanced. Saying to your child “We love to spend time with you, but it’s also important for us to have privacy and to enjoy some time together” role models for them how to express their own desires and boundaries in a positive way. Children also gain confidence when they know they can survive without instant access to their parents.

Time alone together

Make regularly-scheduled dates or special rituals together. Spend time alone without the children in addition to family time. Occasional excursions away from home adds freshness and excitement. Stepping into the unfamiliar with your partner energizes the relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Spending Time Together.”

Recommended reading:
Stone, Hal, Ph.D. & Stone, Sidra, Ph.D. (2000) Partnering, New World Library.

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