Who comes first, your partner or your kids?

Put a lock on your bedroom door.
Never let a child interrupt. Kiss your
partner first. Andrew G Marshall's
book, I Love You But You Always Put
Me Last, argues that parents need to
childproof their relationships, or lose
them. Time for some expert survival
Sam Leith with his wife, Alice, and
children, Max and Marlene. Photograph:
David Yeo for the Guardian
Sam Leith
It is any given breakfast time in
my house. Marlene, four, is due at
school in 40 minutes and is in a
rage because she asked for
Shreddies and Special K but now
just wants Special K. Max, two, is
cross because I put milk on his
cereal. Marlene has chosen a tiny
summer dress but my wife Alice
thinks she needs leggings, too – it's
not all that warm – and she's
refusing to put them on.
My wife starts to bargain with the
sticker chart I've been using to
persuade Marlene to go to bed at
night without needing "one more
wee" 40 times, and I pettily rebuke
her that the chart is a bedtime
bribe and not for general use.
Alice is cross because all this is
making her late for work. I'm
cross because I've been up for an
hour and a half and nobody has
stopped wanting something or
complaining about something for
30 seconds. We use the word
"darling" with each other, but it
doesn't always sound like a term of
If Alice and I argued before we had
children, I can't remember it. The
truth is, I can't remember much
because my brain these days has
the texture of a sodden nappy, but
I'm fairly sure it was a sunlit
upland of laughter, kissing and
skipping through bluebells.
Certainly there was a lack of
Diprobase, estate cars and dodging
dogshit with a buggy; there were
holidays in Istanbul and
Marrakech (this summer I hid in
the windowless loo of a French
motel, waiting for the kids to go to
We were together for a couple of
years before we decided to have
children, and married three years
after that. There isn't a moment we
regret what our children have done
to our lives, and our relationship is
strong. But God, it's hard work.
I am aware that moaning seems
graceless; but even in a position of
privilege (we love each other, we
enjoy our work, we get to spend
more time with our children than
many parents), I have to admit the
relentlessness of it is impacting on
our relationship. I don't think we
can be alone in that. You can
adore your job – because raising
children is nothing if not a job –
and still find it overwhelming. And
it doesn't feel appropriate to
complain at small children
themselves, so you tend to unload
on each other.
So, here we are: living the dream.
We have two beautiful children, as
the cliche has it, a third on the way,
and yet we struggle. That's fine:
we're front-loading the hard bit, is
how I see it. We will spend a
decade in the baby tunnel of doom,
and come up smiling in about
2018. But at least we are doing
what society and our own
consciences tell us to do: we are
Putting The Children First.
Is it possible, though, that we are
doing it all wrong? That's the thesis
advanced in a new book by the
relationship therapist turned self-
help author Andrew G Marshall.
And that's why we've arranged to
have – in the interests of long-term
happiness as well as journalistic
inquiry – a session with the author.
In I Love You But You Always Put
Me Last: How To Childproof Your
Marriage , Marshall sets out what
he describes as a "revolutionary
idea". It's so revolutionary he puts
it in italics: you should put your
children second. He later tells me it
would be easier to ask people to eat
cat sick than follow his precepts.
On one level, it's no more than
common sense. If your marriage
goes tits-up, your children are
unlikely to benefit, so tending your
relationship is, indirectly, a way of
tending your children. On the
other hand, there are some serious
taboos in this area. In 2005 the
American writer Ayelet Waldman
wrote an essay called Motherlove
in which she declared that she
loved her husband (novelist
Michael Chabon) more than her
children. "He and I are the core,"
she wrote, "the children are
satellites, beloved but tangential."
Waldman's essay prompted a
meltdown: various loons
threatened to report her to social
services and she was hauled on to
Oprah to explain herself. It will be
interesting to see whether Marshall
is similarly tarred and feathered.
As he is a man, I suspect not,
though he may attract different
sorts of opprobrium.
As a culture, we tend to associate
romantic love with self-
gratification or self-actualisation,
and parental love with selflessness
and sacrifice. Anyone who has ever
watched a helicopter parent deliver
their bewildered three-year-old to
piano lessons will know it's a little
more complicated than that. But
that polarity – romantic love
selfish; parental love selfless –
makes it hard to say that your
partner is more important to you
than your children. It sounds, well,
Marshall rings our doorbell at 5pm
on a Tuesday, just as I am trying to
feed the kids. I have been looking
after both of them all day every
day while Alice, who works short
and intense contracts as a
producer/director of TV
documentaries, is out. With his
angular face and dandyish straw
trilby, Marshall has something of
the celebrity anatomist Gunther
von Hagens about him. Marlene is
soon busy with an unflattering
portrait of our guest in poster
An entrepreneurial sort, Marshall
now spends more time writing self-
help books than doing clinical
work. Even so, he has a huge
waiting list for his personal
practice, and runs three "associate
therapists" specialising in what he
calls the "Marshall Method". (One
imagines him copyrighting the
name, but it turns out there's
already a Marshall Method for
compacting asphalt.)
Sam, Alice, Marlene and Max: 'You
end up fighting like Russian oligarchs
after scarce natural resources: sleep,
time to think, more sleep.' Photograph:
David Yeo/Guardian
"Sorry about the chaos," I say
while wheeling and ducking and
slinging plates and filling glasses
and mopping spills and generally
engaging in the improvisational
ballet that takes place between the
kitchen and the dining table.
"That's all right," he says amiably.
"I'm not here to judge you." This, of
course, instantly makes me think
that he is here to judge me. I can
only hope he is true to his word.
While I attempt to interview
Marshall about his therapeutic
experience and writing career,
Marlene and Max sit with us at the
kitchen table with brushes and
paints. A section of transcript
Andrew: "The thing is, you write a
book on it and you suddenly
become the go-to guy. People come
literally from the four corners of
the Earth. So you learn even more
about the subject…"
Max: "My dragon going to have big
Me: "So, do you ever see people and
just think these are hopeless
Marlene: "Dad, can you get me
another bit of paper? I'm drawing
a fairy for Alice!"
Max: "I've got green! I've got
Andrew: "No, actually, because I'm
an incredible optimist and I think
you can change relationships. I
believe that what you need is –"
Max: "I made you! I made you!"
Andrew: "– good relationship skills,
and you can learn relationship
skills… Brilliant, excellent, so are
you going to draw us a dragon
now? Is it going to be a friendly
dragon or a fire-eating dragon?"
Max: "Ehm, a fendly dragon."
Andrew: "That's nice."
Me: "Something I'm noticing now,
and with children it happens all the
time and it has relationship
consequences, is that you're always
being interrupted and–"
And so on. If Marshall now
publishes a yet more radical book
titled, from Larkin, Get Out As
Quickly As You Can And Don't Have
Any Kids Yourself, I would not
entirely blame him.
"I'm 54," he tells me, "and I was
taught to stand up in a bus if an
adult wanted a seat. And now… I
was going up to Edinburgh recently
in one of those trains where they'd
messed up the allocated seating.
And this woman was saying that
the adults should stand up because
her children needed a seat. In the
space of a single generation we've
turned that whole thing upside
Marshall has a quiz you can do to
find out how strong your
relationship is: the more points you
score the deeper in the shit you
are. One thing you notice is that if
you tick the statement "We have
two children under five" it scores
you an instant four points – the
same as a midlife crisis or the
death of a parent.
To relieve that pressure you need to
do some things that many of us are
not doing. Here, Marshall has a
good deal of granular and
interesting advice. Make sex a
priority: treat your partner as a
lover rather than just a co-parent.
Acknowledge feelings of anger
("Half of my work is about
teaching people how to argue").
Learn to properly talk, properly
listen and properly apologise (there
are various little exercises
involving stopwatches that sound
silly but make a certain amount of
sense). Don't obsess about being the
perfect parent: learn to be at ease
with "good enough".
Marshall doesn't have any children
himself. When I ask him about this,
he bristles a bit and says he prefers
not to talk about that because it's
important for therapeutic reasons
that he be a blank canvas. "I don't
want this piece to focus too much
on the fact that I don't have
children," he says when it arises a
second time. "I'm not telling people
how to bring up their children.
What I'm interested in is helping
people not ruin their marriage in
the process. My expertise is in your
relationship with each other."
Fair enough, I think. Or fair
enough-ish. His personal life is his
own business, and in 30 years as a
therapist he'll have seen the inside
of enough relationships to know a
thing or two. But some of his
recommendations might benefit
from a hands-on encounter with
the enemy. Not allowing your
children to interrupt you when
you're talking to each other, say:
well. In a book dedicated to "good
enough" they sound a bit like
counsels of perfection.
Decisions about priorities aren't
made in isolation, either. Children
muscle in. In theory, you are
mutually supportive team-workers,
keeping the show on the road. In
practice, you are fighting like
Russian oligarchs after scarce
natural resources: sleep, time to
work, sleep, time to think, sleep
and sleep.
You start by nobly volunteering to
do the early morning or night
feeds, tenderly padding upstairs to
change a nappy or downstairs to
sterilise a bottle. A year or so in,
you're keeping an encyclopaedic
mental catalogue (though one that
differs substantially from your
wife's encyclopaedic mental
catalogue) of who had the 35-
minute and who had the 40-minute
lie-in on any given day over the
last three weeks.
My fantasy, for example – one that
retreats week by week, month by
month, as the things that need to be
done right now tumble into the in-
tray – is of sitting in my study on a
sunny morning with a clear day
ahead of me, and embarking on the
writing of a book. Alice, knowing
that each new maternity leave
yanks her out of the professional
stream she's swimming in, is
anxious to work while she's able.
It's fair that I should shoulder the
kids during those periods and fit
my own work into the interstices.
But all that's easier on paper than
in practice. You what? You're
working from now till November?
Plus, you feel super-complicated
about the children. The obvious
thing to do would be to farm them
out to baby-prison (aka nursery)
for much more time. But because
our work comes and goes that's
also not simple. Even when you're
looking after them, you feel
complicated. Because though there
are oceans of delight – really! – in
building Duplo towers and reading
Cinderella for the umpteenth time,
and watching their little faces
blossom with laughter etc,
admitting to yourself that after a
bit you find this stuff kinda tedious
feels like saying you hate your
Sam and his family: 'It doesn’t feel
appropriate to complain at small
children, so you tend to unload on each
other.' Photograph: David Yeo for the
The idea, of course, is that you set
aside "you time". But how many
couples with young children do you
know of (you can have the Obamas
as a gimme) who believe in the idea
of a weekly or monthly "date
night" featuring something along
the lines of babysitter, cinema
tickets, restaurant food,
conversation about non-child-
related subjects and sexual
intercourse? And for how many
does that idea seem as fanciful
as manticores, world government
and a humble moment for Donald
But it's easy to pick holes.
Marshall's big idea does have an
undeniable resonance with our
lived experience. So, much later,
when Alice gets back from work,
we have a sort of bash at the
Marshall Method – although, he
says, this is not how it would be
done in a clinical context. He
never sees clients at home.
After the killer intro "Do you have
any concerns, or fears, or anything
you'd like to talk about?", Marshall
starts to probe our marriage. Soon,
armed with one of the kids' felt tips
and a bit of their leftover drawing
paper, he's making two sets of little
slips of paper with things written
on them: "self", "work", "siblings",
"fun", "sex", "hobbies". We are
each encouraged to assemble them
into a list of priorities.
Were there some surprises? Alice
put "self" at the top, "siblings" one
notch above "partner" (cheek!) and
"pets" at the bottom. I put
"intellectual nourishment" at the
top, "self" quite low down (well
below "children" and "partner")
and "fun" at the bottom. From
which you can infer that Alice is
highly self-reproachful ("I thought I
was being quite honest. I didn't put
that at the top because I think I'm
the most important person, but
because I think I'm quite self-
obsessed") and hates the cat
crapping in the garden; and that I
am a passive-aggressive prig who
revels in martyrdom and
aggressively invigilates the moral
high ground. Both true.
In any case, it certainly kicked off
a conversation. We tell Marshall
how one of us blows up quickly and
forgives quickly, while the other
avoids conflict but cherishes
resentments, and he says: "Isn't it
interesting that you each chose the
opposite? You've chosen someone
who's going to call a spade a spade,
and you've chosen someone who's
going to say: 'Ooh, have we got a
garden?' " He has a point.
Following his rules is sometimes
easier said than done. He asks that
you make a point of saying hello to
each other first, and the children
second. Most nights, Alice comes
home after the children are asleep,
and in the mornings I get up with
them, so the opportunity for a
preferential hello, so to speak, has
not arisen. And honestly? I'm not
going to put a lock on the bedroom
door. Experience shows that the
cat, let alone the daughter, will
scratch for two hours or more
without any signs of fatigue.
But when Marshall points out that
work – dress it up though we might
as a simple matter of earning to
support the family – is also
massively involved with identity
and ego, and that we might be
doing it for ourselves rather than
our spouse, he hits home. And
when he suggests that, finally, the
bedrock of your future happiness is
the relationship you choose with
each other, he hits home.
So I've been paying attention, a bit,
to the basic business of being nice.
I have been practising apologising
– "Sorry I was grumpy this
morning" – without adding: "But
the children were boiling my piss
and I'm afraid you asking me twice
whether I'd brushed her hair really
didn't help and while we're at it
what on Earth were you thinking
of, opening a new carton of milk
when as I'd made quite clear the
open one was only two days out of
We've been turning off our phones
during family time. My progress in
Candy Crush is considerably
retarded, but it's a sacrifice that
seems worth it. Marshall suggests
you leave messages and make other
small gestures to make it clear that
you're thinking of your beloved. So
I do. The other day I used the foam
rubber letters the kids play with in
the bath to spell out: "WE ALL LOVE
ALICE" on the shower wall. From
downstairs, gratifyingly, I heard an
exclamation of "Aaaahhh!" a few
hours later. The following day it
read: "WE ALL AVE LICE."
I've been striving to follow the
Marshall Method, in other words.
And you know what? We haven't
had an argument since. Well, not a
big one. Next week I'm going to try
letting the kids out of the basement.
An extract from Andrew G
Marshall's I Love You But
You Always Put Me Last: How
To Childproof Your Marriage
At the centre of my work is an idea
so radical I will be surprised if you
buy it: you should put your
children second. Of course, there
will be times when the children
need you – perhaps they are ill or
it's their first day at school. But on
an everyday basis your husband or
your wife should be your number
one priority.
I know this is a tough idea to
swallow – particularly when you
have a small, helpless baby on your
lap – but children are just passing
through, while marriage should be
for ever. A happy marriage means
happy children. If you put your
children first, day in and day out,
you will exhaust your marriage.
Children sense the unhappiness;
they try to build bridges for their
parents and get drawn into things
they are too young to understand
or, worse still, think the problem is
down to them in some way.
When I explain about putting each
other first, clients often look at me
blankly – almost as if they can
hear my words but can't quite
process them. Of course, they don't
want to neglect their marriage, but
they want to give their children
every opportunity in life and,
although they don't necessarily use
this word, to be "perfect" parents.
If that involves putting your
relationship on to autopilot during
your child's crucial formative
years, isn't it worth it?
At this point, I should introduce the
idea that sits alongside "Put your
children second", and that is "Be a
good enough parent". Look out for
your children but do not
micromanage them. If you put all
your energy into raising the next
generation, you risk identifying so
closely with your children that
their success is your success and
their failure is yours, and this will
put them under unnecessary
One key piece of advice involves
guarding your comings and goings.
If your partner is already home
when you return from work, for
example, go immediately to where
he or she is and give him or her a
kiss. If your partner is with the
children, it is doubly important to
greet him or her first. I know your
children will be excited to see you
(that's why you love them) and
your partner is often busy, but
getting off to a good start sets up an
evening of co-operation and
pleasure in each other's company –
rather than your partner feeling
like part of the furniture.
This is particularly important when
you have a baby. It is very easy to
greet your son or daughter – babies
bring out our protective streak –
and completely ignore the person
holding him or her. For the first
few days, it takes a bit
of willpower to greet your partner
first and then cuddle the baby, but
soon it'll become second nature.
If you're the one already at home,
I'm not asking you to drop
everything and go to the door,
although that would be nice.
However, you can stop what you're
doing for a second to give your
partner a kiss and maybe a quick
Guarding your goings is equally
important. When you leave the
house, give your partner a kiss and
tell him or her where you're going
and when you'll get back. If you
just disappear without saying
goodbye, even if it is for 10
minutes, it gives the message that
your partner is not important or
that you don't see the two of you as
a team.
My next tip takes the concept
of guarding one stage further:
"Put a lock on your bedroom
door." This is seldom a popular
idea. Somehow parents think they
have to be 100% available,
whatever the circumstances. "What
if the children need us?" they ask.
"If there is an emergency your
children can knock, or shout
'FIRE'," I always reply.
A locked door sends an important
message. It will make your
children think twice before
demanding attention and help them
realise that even parents need a
private space. As my clients who
have teenagers admit, they would
never dream of entering their son's
or daughter's room without
knocking, but they allow their
children to just wander into their
bedroom whenever they wish.
Similarly, I would advise parents
never to let your children interrupt
when you are talking to each
My third tip is to discuss your
priorities. Nobody minds dropping
down the list if they understand the
emergency – for example, your
mother is in hospital – but your
partner needs reassurance that it is
not for ever and to feel able to
discuss the day-to-day
implications. And, most important
of all, not to fear that he or she will
get their head bitten off if they say:
"What about me?" So set aside a
regular time to talk to each other,
for example, over your evening
meal, or switch off the TV/
computer for 15 minutes after the
children have gone to bed, and
explain the demands on your time.
Once again, guard this time to
unwind together and don't let it get
trumped by work or a pressing
need to empty the dryer. Time
together says "You're important to
me; I'm interested in what's
happening in your life and I want
to share what's going on in mine."
One of the key messages I give my
clients is: if it's good enough for
your kids, it's good enough for
your partner, too. It's not only
children who thrive on praise.
That's the reason successful
companies review their employees
on a regular basis and give positive
feedback. When it comes to our
home life, we are slow to give
compliments. I'd be a rich man if
I'd been given a bonus every time
I heard the words "I shouldn't have
to thank my husband for emptying
the dishwasher/looking after his
own kids/coming home when he
said he would" or "I shouldn't have
to thank my wife for a nice cuddle
on the sofa/letting me play
football/keeping the children quiet
while I'm busy". However, imagine
for a moment how you would feel
if you had put yourself out to do
something and not only was there
no recognition but also a slight
overtone of, "About time, too." It's
like a company telling its
employees, "At last you've made
your target." How motivated would
that workforce be?
There is a particularly nasty trap
that lots of parents fall into. They
set up a sub-alliance with one or
more of their children and leave
their partner feeling isolated and
often angry. If you and your
partner are going through a tough
patch, it is very easy to lean on
your children, especially as many
children will try to "make it
better". Often, couples can
withdraw further and further, and
find it harder to reach out to each
other and be a team. With so much
unspoken resentment, it is not
surprising that people prioritise
family time over couple time. Not
only is there less chance of a row
with the children around, but it is
easy to hide behind the comfortable
intimacy of being Mum and Dad
together, and forget the problems
of being husband and wife.