My phone made a sound I’d never heard before.
I picked it up and looked at the screen. Tornado warning.
I lived through three hurricanes in Florida. Frances. Ivan. Jeanne. I respect severe weather, but don’t fear it.
It was my five-year-old son’s bedtime. But he wasn’t with me. I texted my ex-wife to make sure she was aware of the storm warning. She was.
On television, the weather lady encouraged us to seek shelter and the safety of basements if we had them—my son’s mother does not. Massive red blotches of rain and lightning strikes painted the screen. Areas of cloud rotation were forming as cold air mashed into warm air at high altitudes.
The sky grew darker and darker over our suburban Ohio rooftops.
The thunder rolled.
The civil defense sirens howled of impending danger.
A wife I know is going to leave her husband Friday.
He doesn’t know it. Their two young kids don’t know it. But I know it. Because the totally defeated wife and mother is calling the game for rain. She’s been one of my dearest friends since grade school.
I wonder how many people knew my wife was going to leave before she actually did last year.
My friend married a guy not so different than me. A really nice guy. A really nice guy who ended up being really shitty at marriage. He never figured out that being nice isn’t enough. He’s about to learn though.
She already left him once. On January 4. It was the premise for An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 5.
He came home from work to discover his wife and kids were gone.
Begged her to come home. Promised to change.
And seven weeks later, she and their two children moved home. A family, reunited.
You’ve heard the phrase: Old habits die hard?
The old habits didn’t die.
It just didn’t sink in, I guess. Maybe he thought she wasn’t serious. Maybe he lacks the discipline to make the transition. And now she’s leaving. He got the second chance I once prayed for every night for months and months and months. And he fucked it up.
For video games.
For afternoon naps.
When you take your wife for granted, one of two things can happen: 1. She can grow to resent you and lose all respect for you. Or, 2. She can do that AND leave you.
Hit the road, Jack.
I know what it feels like when your wife leaves. I know what it feels like to sit in an empty house without the familiar pitter-pattering of little feet running around. I know just how loud silence can be.
He’ll be eating shit sandwiches for a very long time. Near as I can tell, you never get used to the taste.
He got a legitimate second chance.
And blew it.
What a waste.
There’s no better word to describe how you feel when the people you care about most are in danger and somewhere else.
About a year before my wife moved out, I was traveling for work and got a text message from her telling me she’d been in a car accident. A snow plow hit her, and she and my little son were stuck in a ditch. And I might as well have been on another planet being in a faraway city.
The two people I care about most were in as vulnerable a spot as they’d ever been, and I was nowhere to be found.
My ex probably thinks that’s a metaphor for our marriage.
It was excruciating—my inability to be there for them in that moment. They were fine, of course. But the “What ifs?” are enough to make you nauseous.
And last night was the exact same feeling.
My God. What if?
The black sky rained lightning and hail on our little slice of the world. The lady on TV was telling us not to leave our basements.
And my son and his mother were hunkered down in a first-floor bathroom in their house with no basement.
And maybe even unwanted and unneeded.
These are not the things husbands and fathers want to feel, regardless of marital status. But that’s what I felt.
My friend’s husband, if past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior, is going to scream and point fingers: “Look what you’ve done!!! Look what you’re doing to the children!!! How could you be so selfish!?!?”
That’s what he will say. That’s what he will think.
I don’t think this world has taught him how to look in the mirror and ask the really hard questions. The ones that make our skin crawl. The ones that make us look away from the stare of our own reflection from pure shame. The ones that require us to take off the self-righteous masks we all occasionally wear.
But maybe this will finally teach him. Maybe he can learn how to hold his own gaze in the mirror. Maybe he can begin a journey of self-discovery. Maybe he can grow.
How can a man teach children how to accept responsibility for their choices if he never learns himself?
He’s as nice a guy as I’ve ever met.
I didn’t need to learn the lesson because I’ve already learned it. But no situation has quite driven home the point for me like watching this oncoming train wreck has.
Being a nice guy or a good guy DOES NOT mean you can’t also be an extraordinarily shitty husband. I foolishly believed the opposite for years. And learned the hard way.
Good guys lose their families all the time. And sometimes, they deserve it.
Because they chose themselves over their marriages even if they weren’t always conscious choices.
You have to know the signs. And you have to take action when you see them. If you’re married. If you have a family. They must come first.
“But Matt! It’s just a stupid video game! Who cares if the bathroom sink’s a mess!? It’s just going to get messy again after we clean it!”
It’s important BECAUSE it’s important to her. (Write that down.)
This is true of your romantic relationships, of your relationships with your children, with your friends, with your extended family, with your professional network: Give more than you take.
It’s the only choice. Do that, and your relationships will thrive. All of them. Don’t? Everything breaks.
The Dark Horizon
The storm is coming for so many husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children.
The storm is coming for my friend. For her husband. And for their kids.
I think maybe some people get married and it’s bullshit and it never really mattered and they get divorced, go their separate ways and everyone is better off for it.
But then I think there are people who really meant what they said when they made their vows.
‘Til death do us part.
And then their souls fuse together, making a clean break impossible. There’s no dotted line to cut. Because the two are mixed. So, you end up just ripping them apart and hoping for survival.
Those people end up on spiritual and emotional life support right up until they’re not anymore. And the timetable is different for everyone.
I’d never been so afraid.
I’d never been so angry.
I’d never been so sad.
So you learn how to be courageous.
You learn how to forgive.
And you commit to choosing hope.
Because it’s the only way to survive.
It’s the only way to thrive.
But you never quite shake the feeling: What if I’d listened to the warning signs? What if I’d acted sooner?
Then the thunder rolls. And the wind and rain pick up. And the sirens scream.
And you turn to protect that which matters most.
But it’s just a bunch of empty space.
And then the sirens scream again.