Who’s Number One?


We both love college football. We love autumn, and football represents the welcome arrival of the fall season. We have our favorite teams, and we love it when they win. One thing we get a special kick out of is when, midway through the season, a team that so far has struggled is close to winning its first game. As the TV camera pans the crowd, ecstatic fans are cheering the team as they count down the final seconds to victory. We see the fans raising their index fingers in the air as they shout, “We’re No. 1!” In the polls their team wouldn’t even be in the top 25, but in the hearts of the fans, it’s right there on top.

If feeling like you are No. 1 is important in football, you can imagine how much more important it is in marriage. Before we look at how being No. 1 in the eyes of our spouses affects our marriages, we need to be clear that we are talking about human priorities. It is a given that God is to be the top priority in our lives. We aren’t questioning that basic principle. It is the underlying theme of everything in this chapter. Our concern is not how God fits into our priorities, but how our priority lists stack up in reference to the relationships in our lives.

Stable Marriages With Mixed-Up Priorities

In our counseling careers, the most common type of marriage that we’ve encountered is the child-centered marriage, in which everything revolves around the children. It’s clear that for them the kids are No. 1. That even includes marriages in which the kids are grown, married, and on their own, and they still are the top priority for the parents.

Some non marriage-centered marriages succeed, in the way they do, because both spouses put the same thing ahead of the marriage on their priority lists. What they don’t realize is that they are also putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on their marriage relationship, and they are limiting the quality of the marriage they experience.

An Ancient Example of Shifting Priorities

This isn’t only a contemporary problem. When you turn to Genesis in the Old Testament, you encounter several marriages that were very child-centered. Look particularly at the account of Isaac and Rebekah in the book of Genesis, chapters 24 to 28.

At first we see a wonderful marriage-centered relationship. Isaac and Rebekah represent a beautiful love story. At the beginning of their marriage, there was a strong love attachment. But then the kids came along — twins. Everything changed. And for Rebekah it started when the twins were still in the womb. These two boys started competing with each other even before they were born. One of the most critical times in a marriage is at the birth of the first child. How the couple responds to the addition of a new life to their marriage sets the direction for the marriage in the years ahead. And Isaac and Rebekah did not respond well to the addition of children to their marriage.

And then when the babies were born, Esau, the oldest, turned out to be a strange-looking baby. He was covered all over with red hair, sort of a “wolf man junior.” And Jacob was a beautiful baby. Remember, Rebekah had kept it in her heart that the younger one would be the powerful one, and when she saw how beautiful the younger one was her heart became attached to Jacob. Her relationship with Jacob would eventually become more important to her than her relationship with her husband, Isaac. And Isaac was left to fill in the gap by caring for Esau. Over time these coalitions between Rebekah and Jacob and between Isaac and Esau, became more pronounced. Jacob was a real mama’s boy, while Esau got leftovers from his dad. And Isaac and Rebekah gave very little, if anything, to each other.

The beautiful love story over time turned into a bad marriage relationship. This is often the result of any marriage that is not marriage-centered. That is why it is important to not settle for what we think is “good-enough.” God’s model for marriage is always better than our own conventional wisdom. He desires us to place our spouses above any other earthly priorities for a reason — to protect what is sacred. And we know that what often starts out as good at some point becomes empty and can even turn bad. Avoiding that path leads us to a secret shared by couples in great marriages.

Secret to a Great Marriage: Put the Marriage First

Couples in great marriages live out the belief that the primary relationship in their lives, humanly speaking, is their marriage relationship. Their marriage supersedes all other human relationships to the point that both spouses have made the other spouse their priority, and each spouse knows that.

Marriage as the Primary Human Relationship

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This secret is based on the importance the Bible places on marriage. In the Creation story in the first and second chapters of Genesis, two unique things are established. One is the principle of the Sabbath rest — that one day in seven is to be different. That principle was and is a part of Creation. The other is marriage. Marriage is also a unique part of Creation. By their placement in Creation, God made both of these — the Sabbath and marriage — of prime importance.

Look at the importance God gave here to marriage. God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him” (Genesis 2:18). But before he did, God brought all the animals before Adam so he could name them. And in doing so Adam realized that there was no one like him. As Adam realized his aloneness, God caused him to fall asleep, and then he made a woman from the man and “brought her to the man” (verse 22). Here is God the Father bringing his daughter Eve to her future husband, just as countless fathers have done with their daughters as they have given them away in marriage. Adam was excited because here was his counterpart, his companion, his bride. And by the end of the chapter, Adam and Eve were husband and wife. The first marriage took place in the Garden of Eden — the marriage relationship is that important! No other human relationship is as important in God’s plan as the marriage relationship, for no other relationship is presented as part of Creation. In addition Proverbs 18:22 says that “The man who finds a wife finds a treasure, and he receives favor from the Lord.”

So what does this mean for us? If we go back to the situation in Isaac and Rebekah’s family, we can illustrate what this means in each of our families.

Modern-Day Isaac and Rebekah

Let’s imagine that Isaac and Rebekah are our contemporaries and that Esau is a problem child. In Genesis Esau likes to hunt and fish, so let’s imagine that his contemporary problem is that he is always skipping school to go fishing, and he is hanging around with the wrong kind of friends. Isaac and Rebekah turn to you for help. You could spend a lot of time trying to help Esau get his priorities in his life right, but when he goes home to his highly dysfunctional family, he will probably say to himself, “What’s the use? I’d rather go fishing than go to school.” The problem doesn’t change because his behavior is basically a protest against what has been going on in his family for as long as he can remember.

So how do you get Esau’s attention? You do it by working on the primary relationship, the one that lays the foundation for all of the other relationships in the family: his parents’ marriage. The way the family is now working is that each son has one parent on his side. One son can work the parent on his side to be against the other parent — he can become a wedge between Mom and Dad, diverting attention away from himself and getting his parents to disagree about him. Eventually the wedge becomes so severe that the marriage suffers. Mom and Dad don’t work as a team anymore. They are at odds with each other. When Mom gets upset because Esau won’t go to school, Dad says things like, “So why is school so important? It didn’t help me. Leave him alone.” And they are at each other once again.

If, however, we view the marriage as the primary relationship in the family, then we can create change in this family by strengthening the primary marriage bond so that Isaac and Rebekah work together as a team again. They support each other on issues, even when they don’t fully agree. Rebekah has to become more supportive of Isaac than she is of Jacob. And Isaac has to become more supportive of Rebekah than he is of Esau. If we can heal the marriage, we can heal the family problems. That’s the power of seeing the marriage relationship as the primary human relationship.

Putting the Marriage First

Ron and Kim are a modern day example of this principle. They came to counseling because their 16-year-old daughter had run away from home several times. The last time she ran away she put her life in danger. During the early meetings another counselor and I (Dave) worked together with the whole family. We started by asking Sally, the 16-year-old daughter, and Sam, the 12-year-old son, a lot of questions about how they viewed their family. Eventually we saw a clear pattern emerge, and at the beginning of the third session, we turned to Sally and congratulated her on her loyalty to her family. Mom and Dad thought my colleague and I were the crazy ones at that point, but then we quickly pointed out to the parents that we believed Sally had become a family problem in order to keep her mom and dad together.

We went on to say that we believed they were close to getting a divorce, and the only thing that was stopping them was the problem they were having with Sally. And therefore we wanted to work with them on their marriage. We dismissed the kids from counseling, and the other counselor worked with Ron and Kim on their marriage. We found out that Ron was indeed ready to leave the family until Sally had run away. Once the parents were in counseling, Sally never ran away again. Fixing the parents’ marriage fixed the running-away problem. That’s the power of keeping the marriage relationship the top priority. When the marriage is the priority, the rest of the family is secure. Someone has said that loving one’s spouse is the best gift a parent can give a child. That’s because it makes the marriage relationship primary.

Often parents worry about shortchanging their kids if they take the time to keep their marriage relationship a priority. It’s helpful to remember that parents only have to be “good enough.” In fact the closer we get to “perfection” as parents, the more damage we do to our kids. “Perfect” parents — parents who never limit or frustrate their children — produce children who grow up to believe they are entitled to anything they want. Even as children they become little monsters, ruling the family to their own detriment.

When a couple makes the decision that they are going to be the best parents they can be but that their priority is to continually work on their marriage relationship, they teach their children an important lesson — that marriage is the primary relationship in God’s plan for us. And if parents have a strong, loving marriage, their kids will not only feel more secure, they will also have a model for the kind of marriage they want to have when they become adults.

Copyright © 2007 Drs. David and Jan Stoop  All rights reserved.
Excerpt from Better than Ever by Drs. David and Jan Stoop, published by Meredith Corporation.

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