Who Do You Love More? Your Kids or Your Husband? Thoughts on Instinctual vs. Intellectual Love

Lots of new things have been happening since I last updated about our bungalow life. We are still living here in approximately 1000 square feet, but we’re adding even more things into our living space. Our former master bedroom turned into office/guest room is now a nursery/office/guest room, awaiting a new arrival due any day now. A tri-purpose room is not easy to plan, and there will be a blog post about all the organizational undertakings to fit baby and work and guest accommodations into one room coming soon.

But first, I want to address some late pregnancy anxiety. Sure, I am a little anxious about the uncertainty of when the little one will arrive (I am a planner through and through, if it wasn’t obvious through this blog). Sure, I am a little anxious about giving  birth, as any first time mom would be (we’ve been told all our lives it’s simultaneously both the most painful and most rewarding experience for a woman). But mostly, I am anxious about the change in the dynamic in my husband and my relationship upon arrival of the baby, and as we grow as a family until she leaves the nest (hopefully 18 years later?).

This anxiety stems from selfish reasons. My husband and I have a 10 year history as a couple, with just the two of us (7.5 years if you count the introduction of our dog into our lives 2.5 years ago). Like every couple, we’ve had conflicts and disagreements, but it’s easy to say that my partner has always been my priority, above anyone else in the world, for almost a decade. And for the majority of that decade, I have felt incredibly lucky and loved, thanks to his efforts to prioritize me in the same way. How can anyone not have anxiety when the studies generally point to a decline in quality of marital relationships when kids are involved? See, e.g., article A, B, or C.

It’s hard to say whether this general decline in marital satisfaction is directly correlated to survey results which reveal that 75% of women say they love their kids more than their husbands, but I’m guessing the two are not completely unrelated.

This begs the question, when push comes to shove, what do you prioritize first? Your children or your marriage?

I struggled with answering this question in a way that was satisfying to me.

I first conceded to the conventional wisdom that children should always come first. They are your own blood and flesh, mothers always sacrifice anything for their children. If your child and your husband are both trapped in a burning building, it is motherly instinct to save your child first. Your husband will forgive you because he would probably do the same.

Then I thought, maybe the “children first” attitude is what is causing so many couples marital dissatisfaction, especially when their children are young. Blogger/Huffington Post contributor Joanna Goddard addresses this in her blog  when she talks about Esther Perel’s (author of Mating in Captivity) thoughts on marriage after kids:

“Perel believes that there’s a badge of honor among American women to not prioritize yourself or your marriage: It’s all about the children. Without realizing it, she said, women can end up getting their emotional intimacy and physical satisfaction from their children, instead of their partners, said Perel. They give their babies tons of wonderful affection–and then don’t have anything left over for their spouse. The marriage can become an afterthought.”

So I should prioritize my husband first? Well rated books A and B (and many others) seem to think that is the answer. After all, your children will one day be independent adults and flee the nest, and you don’t want to suddenly be faced with living with a practical stranger (your spouse), should your relationship have even survived that long. I read Book B, but I’m not satisfied with that simple answer either.

Maybe the answer is that there’s enough love to go around for everyone, that parental love and romantic love are two different things and shouldn’t be directly compared. Well, there is some truth to this, but I think it is the sugar-coated version of the underlying dynamics of love, relationships, mammalian instinct, and intellectual satisfaction.

This is what I’ve come up with that’s a “good enough” answer for a very-soon-to-be-mother. And yes, I do want to revisit this post when I’ve been a mother for 6 months, or one year, or 10 years, or 30 years, to see whether I still feel the same way.

It’s true that your love for your child and your husband are inherently different and not comparable. On the one hand, the love for your child is instinctual and visceral.  It is our evolutionary duty to protect our offspring, for the survival of the human race. In other words, it is pre-programmed. The love is easy because it is unconditional, both from parent to child and from child to parent. I can’t really speak on this volume of love yet, as baby is not yet born and our bonding process is still forming. But in a very crude way, I can relate it to the ease of loving a pet, because they seem to dote on you unconditionally. It is easy to love your child as it is easy to love a pet. As the comedian Bill Burr so eloquently puts it (excuse the language, but it is a hilarious clip and spot on to my point),

“You can’t appreciate how awesome a dog is when you’re a kid like you can when you’re an adult… it’s not until you’re an adult that you appreciate [your dog], your dreams start dying, someone cheats on you, bankers fuck up your 401K. Then you come home and that dog is looking at you like ‘Dude, you’re awesome’ and you’re like ‘No, dude, you, you are fucking awesome, you are the shit.’ It’s the greatest thing ever… My poor girlfriend, she’s sitting there like ‘Jesus Christ, you love the dog more than you love me!’ and I’m like ‘Sweetie, you’re not there at the back door shaking your ass every time I come home…”

I’m not equating a dog to a child, but I am arguing that it is EASIER to love your child because they need you and his/her survival depends on you. Young children require a lot of physical touch through diaper changing, holding, feeding… enforcing that evolutionary bond so that parents don’t abandon their helpless young. In that regard, a parent-child bond is relatively effortless because of its roots in survival instinct. Perhaps not to the degree of a human child-parent love, but other animals also have this bond with their offspring to ensure the survival of their species.

On the other hand, your relationship with your spouse requires intellectual conscientiousness. Loving an adult is hard because it is something you have to do mostly with your brain (there’s some mammalian instinct in pairing up, but in most other species this bond is broken after offspring are introduced). While a partnership can certainly make life easier, your survival as a human being does not depend on your partner (and vice versa). Loving an adult is hard because as human beings, we’re all flawed. And when your bond to that person isn’t instinctual, it requires thoughtful effort to keep that relationship satisfying to both parties. In other words, it is HARDER to love your spouse because that bond is not pre-programmed (animals do not do this!) But in a way, the intellectual and passionate love with your spouse is more satisfying because it requires conscious thought,  similar to how achievements feel much more significant when you’ve had to work hard at them. It is the kind of love that elevates humans above animals because of our intellectual capabilities.

Of course I wonder if my thoughts on this will be much different months and years down the line when I am a mother. For now, my answer to the question would be “It’s easy to love your children, it’s harder to love your husband. But to lead a satisfying human life, you need to strive to do both.” At times this will mean that I have to conscientiously prioritize my husband because my instincts want to prioritize my child, but it does not mean I love my husband “more.”

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