When I counsel couples in my practice, I always try and get a "feel" for who gets what priority in the family. Are spouses each other's priority? Or do the kids come first? Most importantly, what is the family structure, and are things a bit wonky?
For families with small children, I'll ask the question, "who comes first," and nine out of ten times, each parent will say "the children." It's not surprising, since we've been taught that children's needs should always come first.
So, you can imagine the look of suprise and horror when I ask couples to consider making the marriage the primary relationship, before their relationships with the children! In common terms, I'm asking them to meet each other's emotional needs first - THEN, meet the emotional needs of the children. THEN, work, friends, etc.
Studies and research back-up the idea that a strong, unified couple is actually BEST for the children. So, it can seem paradoxical, right? I'm supposed to put my spouse before my children, and that's GOOD for them? Turns out, modeling a strong relationship for your children will set them up for secure relationships as adults.
There are caveats, of course. In blended families, the relationship between a biological parent and biological child should take priority over the couple (which can also be a difficult idea to consider).
If in doubt, you can always ask, "who came first?"
When couples are in distress, it's often because one or both spouses feel de-prioritized or unimportant to the other. This, in turn, can create an environment of "nagging," complaining, or distancing as someone tries to get the attention they need. When it comes to conflict, priorities that are out-of-sync can often be the cause.
Considering your priorities is always a good thing to do when you feel your relationship may be headed for conflict. And, it's always a good idea to check-in with your spouse to see what he/she is thinking on the subject. When you're both each other's priority, you might be surprised how well your family can run.