She Divorced Me Because I Was Nicer to Strangers Than I Was to Her

couple fighting in public

(Image/Bao Moi)

I was usually nicer to strangers than I was to my wife.

People I didn’t know and would never see again. I treated them with patience, courtesy and politeness.

But the person who lived in the same house, gave birth to my son, and did more for me than anyone else? I often didn’t extend those same courtesies to her.

While I was oblivious to most of my missteps as a husband, I was fully aware of this—something I’ve noticed about myself from childhood: I sometimes treat total strangers better than the people I love most.

From age 5 on, I lived with my mom nine months out of the year. I lived with my dad, who lived hundreds of miles away, the other three months (school breaks).

I was observably nicer to my dad than my mom.

Throughout my relationship with my wife, she would point out instances when she felt I was being mean, or impatient, or thoughtless toward her, and that it hurt her feelings because as she was feeling that way, she could see me being kind, patient and thoughtful toward others, even strangers. She wondered why I couldn’t treat her that way, too.

My defense was always something like: “I LOVE you. I married you. Everything I have is yours,” arguing that should somehow earn me the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t know why I did that, felt that, or thought that.

I have a little boy in third grade who I love in ways I don’t know how to articulate. He’s my favorite everything.

But sometimes, I’m kind of a dick to him, and I hate it.

When he gets crumbs on the floor, or makes some mistake that is probably super-standard for little boys in third grade, or otherwise “fails” whatever expectations I have for him in a given moment, I sometimes respond with anger and a little harshness.

Sometimes I imagine if the last words I ever said to him were angry or prick-ish, and then I died in a car accident or something.

I almost feel like crying when I mentally put myself there.

I was nicer to other adults than I was to my parents.

I was nicer to other people than I was to my wife.

I was and am sometimes nicer to other children than I was or am to my son.

We know that we love the people we love. But the people we love only know we love them when they see, hear and feel evidence of that love. They don’t just psychically or magically feel good because of our thoughts and intentions.

When we are nicer to others than we are to them, they can begin to question whether we actually do love them.

I don’t know what that does to a parent when their child treats others better than them as I’m still in My Dad Can Do No Wrong Land, which will surely go away in the next couple of years. Not looking forward to finding out what that’s like.

Bad things happen to children who feel unloved and unaccepted by their parents.

And bad things happen to people who feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by their spouses.

All because we sometimes treat strangers better than people we love.

As Always, You’re Not the Only One

The term is “selfobject.” And you and I have “selfobject needs” and when these needs go unfulfilled, we lose our sense of self, feel shittier about our lives, treat ourselves and other people worse, and inadvertently damage all of our relationships, including our marriages.

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut figured this out and coined the term in the mid-twentieth century, and therapist F. Diane Barth illustrated it with examples from one of her married-couple clients in her excellent article “Why It’s Easier to be Kind to Strangers Than Our Partners” which I discovered by typing almost that exact phrase into Google.

“At some point in every relationship, partners, parents, siblings, friends, and even children provide psychological and emotional functions for us that we cannot provide for ourselves.”

Most people—even non-parents—can probably relate to married couple Bob and Ann.

The couple struggled for years to conceive a child.

When they finally did, they welcomed a colicky newborn into the world who cried nonstop every night for a long time.

The first thing that happened was all of the happy things they’d imagined in their heads about starting a family looked and felt quite different in real life. It was supposed to be amazing and feel good. But mostly it was exhausting and felt bad.

Bob and Ann both are stressing out, big-time.

Ann feels like a crappy mother.

Bob feels helpless but tries anyway by offering suggestions. The suggestions anger Ann. She cries and lets him know how much harder he’s making it on her.

He withdraws. She feels abandoned.

This is totally NOT how I thought this would go, they think.

Stress is hard on marriage and relationships even when the stress is good, like moving into a new house, taking a new job, or bringing a new child home.

“It is also common not to have compassion for one another during these times, even though it would seem that it would be exactly the most useful emotion in the moment,” Barth writes. “Why is it that we can be compassionate and kind to friends, relatives and even strangers in ways that we cannot muster for our loved ones?

“The answer is in part found in the meaning of compassion itself. One of the keys to compassion is empathy, which author and speaker Brené Brown defines as the ability to take another person’s perspective, to understand and appreciate what they are feeling. We expect our loved ones to do exactly this for us. Ann expected Bob to appreciate how badly she was feeling about herself as a mother, for instance. She also needed him to recognize how hard she was trying and to tell her that she was not a bad mother simply because her baby was not being soothed.

“But, as happens in relationships, Bob also had needs. In particular, he needed Ann to help him feel okay about himself as a partner. He needed to believe that she would know how to soothe their baby. And he desperately wanted her to let him know that they were going to be the family he had imagined they were.”

Kohut said people require “selfobject needs” to be met just like they need oxygen to breathe, from birth to death.

Kohut explained that humans use the RESPONSES of certain others—our romantic partners or parents or children or friends, etc.—to help us maintain a healthy, balanced, positive, stable sense of self.

In other words, we make those closest to us an actual part of ourselves, and those people provide important psychological and emotional functions for us that we can’t give ourselves.

We literally rely on loved-ones’ behavior to guide our beliefs about ourselves, and to know the person we believe ourselves to be and see in the mirror while brushing our teeth.

And when those others stop providing the responses we’re conditioned to expect, or that we grew accustomed to, we’re not really ourselves anymore. We stop being the person we thought we were.

And when people in marriages or romantic relationships of any kind become someone else, everything tends to break.

But you know that already.

Because it’s not just you. And it’s not just me. And that often makes us feel better to know we’re not in this alone.

But I don’t really feel that way about this, because it’s another in a LONG and distinguished list of things that cause divorce that WOULDN’T cause divorce if we were simply aware of it before it happened, or as it was happening.

I’m aware of many areas of my life that could use improvement. Sometimes, I take steps to make things better. Sometimes, I let bad habits continue to make my life worse and erode my relationships.

Even when I understand that my words and actions are accidentally hurting someone I love and care about, I still sometimes say or do those things thoughtlessly.

Maybe that will always be.

Or maybe some habits are simply harder to break, and I’ll get there one day.

I didn’t know how to make my wife feel loved.

I don’t know if I would know how to make her feel loved now.

I only know that a bunch of bad things happened because I was unaware of how my words and actions made her feel, and then everything got sick and died.

But you can’t treat an illness that you can’t diagnose.

And maybe now that we’ve identified it, we can do things better.

You deserve it.

And so do all the people who matter most.

If we can treat total strangers with kindness, using polite language and thoughtful action, I think we might be able to do the same for our spouses.

And since I don’t have one of those, I’m going to have to count on you find out.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

31 thoughts on “She Divorced Me Because I Was Nicer to Strangers Than I Was to Her

  1. TheOriginalPhoenix says:

    I just think it’s amazing how self-aware you are. I’m sure it took time and effort to get to where you are but I applaud you for doing so. It’s always interesting to read your posts because they’re so informed. :) Keep it up.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. So true, and yet so challenging to alter that dynamic. It has to do with familiarity. We get so comfortable with our loved ones. We trust they will continue to be there for us and forgive us when we are unkind because they know us so well. It takes a real inner strength to rise above and be present enough in the moment to treat our loved ones the same respect and kindness that we do for strangers. Not easy.

    Good topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. KJCJ says:

    I completely agree that we sometimes treat others better than our spouses. I can excuse it. But what I cannot excuse is ignoring my complaints when I say something about it. When I ask repeatedly to treat me different, using clear and direct words, and you still don’t change, then I have nothing more to give. And I check out. So NOW is not the time to try to save this marriage. That ship has sailed. I’ve moved beyond hope to resignation and there is nothing left to save.
    It seems that men (or at least my husband) heard me telling him what my problems were with our interaction but because he was not uncomfortable, he saw no need to change. Nevermind that I was uncomfortable with his behavior, he wasn’t so why bother to change. But now I’m emotionally gone and he is trying to move heaven and earth to get me back but even now when I tell him exactly what my problems were, he cannot give me what I need. And he never asks what he can do to make it better. I guess I can see why he doesn’t ask how to improve our marriage, why ask for help if you always know the answer? If he had a problem with a stranger, or co-woker or friend, he’d ask what the problem was, listen and seek a solution. But with me, he not only didn’t ask, he didn’t try to change until it was too late.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. WiserNow says:

    We live what we learn. Growing up with alcoholic parents the game was ‘don’t let anyone know’. It was crazy and violent in the house, but we acted like everything was great outside it (even though we were never seen together as a family). Even though I did not drink I had the anger of an alcoholic and treated strangers and friends much better than my now ex-wife. And guess what? Tried to play the game ‘don’t let anyone know’. Had a nervous breakdown due to the divorce and break up of the family and realized I need to do everything the opposite of my natural incline. I’m kind of an ass to lots of strangers but not to my wife.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Clare Kennedy says:

    This post is so timely in my life. I wonder if we don’t allow ourselves to get close to the ones we love or who we are supposed to love. Maybe the learned behaviour of managing non personal relationships or friendships is so ingrained in our though processes that we use this to prevent giving ourselves wholeheartedly to another person called our spouse. Maybe the pressure to continually be open and vulnerable is just too much. Polite conversation which may occur for just five minutes in relation to ones lifetime is easy. The complication of giving oneself wholeheartedly is the crux of the issue with long term relationships… I don’t have the answer but definitely recognise my husband who is now my ex of 26 years in your article. Extremely poetically written.

    Liked by 1 person

    • soosiekue says:

      That’s what my husband used to say! That he was nicer to friends or to strangers because it required less effort because the interaction didn’t protract into days on end. He could muster the energy to be pleasant if he only had to maintain it for a few hours. But not if he had to do it day in, day out, at home with his family. He simply found it too draining! I still cannot believe anyone when they make that claim. What a cop out. How ridiculous.

      We are divorced now. And now he treats me much better. Because we simply don’t spend much time together. So during the few hours when we do interact (like take our daughter out for dinner as a family), he has the energy to behave pleasantly towards me. I always said he was a great guy, as long you weren’t married to him!

      But that does not “fix” anything or comfort me. The fact is, people who let themselves off the hook when empathy/compassion becomes too much of an effort don’t deserve to remain in intimate relationships, imo. If you treat the waitress with more consideration/empathy than you treat me, you are too weak to bother with. I am so much happier being apart.

      Like

      • Bronze says:

        Mine also said he could be nice to everybody else because he ‘saw them less’. When he once answered my “good morning, how did you sleep’ with “None of your f****** business” and I asked him if he spoke to his co-workers like that and why did he think it was ok to speak to me like that – he simply had no answer because he knew he would never say that to another living being. I wish I had of left him that very day instead of sticking around for years more.

        Like

  6. Natasha says:

    Immediately following this read, my son dumped an entire bowl of ravioli down the stairs. It seems some of us may have to put this post into action sooner than others.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Elizabeth Voss says:

    May I ask, were you truly “unaware” of how your words and actions made your wife feel? Or, did you not believe her and dismiss her feelings (or think she was being unfair/ ridiculous) when she actually told you how you made her feel?

    Liked by 2 people

    • lehcar says:

      In my experience, there was complete awareness but with the assumption that I would always forgive him so it was okay to be a dick, as long as he apologised after. I always thought apologies were a recognition of wrongdoing and a promise to try not make the mistake again but years of apologies later, I realised that his apologies were empty… an excuse to keep treating me like a dick and not feel bad about it. Ultimately, it was my mistake in providing boundary-less, unconditional love.. he never made any effort to change because he knew I’d always forgive! Boundaries of what behaviour you will and won’t accept, are so important and need to be established early in any relationship, otherwise you end up a doormat and once you’re there, there’s no changing it.

      Liked by 5 people

  8. chubaoyolu says:

    Certainly very apt and true… we tend to treat those we love with the least respect and only realize our idiocy after they are gone. It truly takes a consciously consistent effort to avoid this fate in your relationships. Thanks for sharing so bravely as usual. Happy new year.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent stuff. I think people also compete in a destructive way. You meet my needs, then maybe we’ll see if what you have said really still matters, or or some variation on the theme. My husband told me plenty of times over the last twenty years that he only did whatever things he did because it was so terrible for him to be stuck with me and my son or in later years he said things that were broader references to all of us , me and all our children…basically that we were the cause of his behaviors, a somewhat more abuser-ish version on the theme.

    Like

  10. jedi dad says:

    Thank you for writing this and sharing it. I really resonate with this, and it parallels some of my own experience.

    Like

  11. Maggi says:

    “We know that we love the people we love. But the people we love only know we love them when they see, hear and FEEL evidence of that love. They don’t just psychically or magically feel good because of our thoughts and intentions.” Holy sh*t…. #NailedIt

    ..and that is why the expression, “You know I love you, don’t you?” is one that I abhor. It triggered me when my ex said it, and it triggers me to this day. It is such a lazy declaration – it abdicates all responsibility on the apathetic partner’s part to put in the work required to make your partner feel loved, appreciated and cherished. So let me get this straight.. not only are you not making me feel loved, I’m expected to be my own cheerleader?!?.. which I did for a while.. “Well he does love me cuz he’s here, so it must be something lacking in me that I’m not receiving or feeling his love.” or “he’s doing his best,” or “I shouldn’t make him responsible for what I didn’t get from my father.” What a glorious feeling it was when I finally had the epiphany that it wasn’t my responsibility to pick up the emotional slack for him. Tragically, even when I very clearly expressed that HE was going to have to make the effort and put the work into making me feel loved (and I was willing to do my part as well), he just couldn’t deliver. He brought home a ‘relationship’ book and said “we should read this” I said whachu me WE?? I suggested he go to individual therapy, as our marriage therapy kept him distracted, and supported his thinking the problem was the ‘marriage’ (i.e. OUR problem).. NOPE, he didn’t need it. That’s when I threw up the deuces and said I’m out…✌️ I am a ride or die kinda girl.. but when I can’t even see that you are willing to make the difficult and challenging adjustments individually in order to make the dynamic b/w us better.. well then.. my work here is done. And I apply this blueprint to all my situations & relationships.. work , personal & otherwise.

    Anywayz… it’s always validating to know that other people have experienced similar complicated issues within a relationship as I have. Thx for putting yourself out there Matthew💖

    Liked by 3 people

  12. soosiekue says:

    “Why is it that we can be compassionate and kind to friends, relatives and even strangers in ways that we cannot muster for our loved ones?

    …The answer is in part found in the meaning of compassion itself. One of the keys to compassion is empathy,We literally rely on loved-ones’ behavior to guide our beliefs about ourselves, and to know the person we believe ourselves to be and see in the mirror while brushing our teeth.

    And when those others stop providing the responses we’re conditioned to expect, or that we grew accustomed to, we’re not really ourselves anymore. We stop being the person we thought we were.”

    I’m confused: So because Matt’s then-wife did not receive the responses from Matt that she was conditioned to receive; she stopped being the person she was, because Matt’s lack of compassion for his then-wife was due to his lack of empathy for her, and he lacked empathy for her because she was one of his loved ones? What??? I am so confused.

    Are you saying you lacked compassion, and you don’t know why? I want to say you’ve answered a question in this post, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out what that answer is. You were a jerk to her, but nice to strangers or friends. She told you how it made her feel. You didn’t care, didn’t feel empathy, for various reasons that you’ve written about in other posts, and eventually the whole thing got sick and died. We get that.

    But help me understand the answer to the question:
    “Why is it that we can be compassionate and kind to friends, relatives and even strangers in ways that we cannot muster for our loved ones?”

    WHY do we allow ourselves to NOT muster empathy for loved ones? WHY do we give ourselves permission, grant ourselves the luxury, of dismissing the feelings of those closest to us?

    Was this question answered??

    Like

    • The answer may be different for different people but my own failings in those areas generally revolved around being hurt, becoming self-focused in my pain, a d then not being able to stomach complaints and criticisms from the man who was constantly hurting me. But it would also be honest to say that the same effects sometimes spring out of health problems both physical problems and clinical depression at various points.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh yes,my husband and I both suffered from that affliction, Matt. I remember, I used to really get upset when he was nice to strangers, even friends, but not very nice to me. I used to pray about it and one day I got a fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant that said, “always treat your husband like an honored guest.” Something clicked there and I realized I never did.

    We’d clean the house for company,we’d get out the good dishes, everyone on their best behavior. It was totally backwards from the way it should be. We should give our best to those we love, not to strangers. It was very convicting and so I changed. The good manners came out for hubby,the good dishes, all those things we save for a special occasion. We forget, we are the special occasion.

    Hubby’s way better today, not perfect, not refined, he still scowls at me while turning the charm on for strangers, but it’s gotten 100% better. I had no idea how awful I was to him either, until I was challenged to treat him like an honored guest and had to bite my tongue a million times a day until it began to come naturally.

    Liked by 5 people

    • misshued says:

      This is so absolutely true. A similar sentiment is behind the idea of dating your significant other; we put so much effort into new relationships, but as time passes, we let our efforts fade away.

      Everyone likes to feel special, worthwhile, and loved. And while of course it’s easy to say “but you know I love you”, which is true, we all need to actually feel that love. We need to feel like we are worth our partner’s time.

      I’m glad you found your fortune cookie. I hope others find theirs as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • anitvan says:

      My pastor was fond of saying, “Save your best manners for your family.”

      Liked by 2 people

    • Jack says:

      Oh gosh. I think this 58 year old corporate lawyer is going to get a tattoo.

      On my forehead, so I can see it every morning in the mirror.

      And it will say:

      “We forget, we are the special occasion.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • One should not dismiss the advice of a fortune cookie.

      Like

  14. I Can't Remember What Name I Used Last Time says:

    “I didn’t know how to make my wife feel loved.”

    Sometimes asking works, followed by screwing up, asking again, trying something else, screwing that up, asking again…

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hey Matt, since while you are wisely and kindly owning your own stuff you sometimes get a ton of push-back from folks who would rather see both sides at the same time or even just blame for your ex, I thought you might like to see this example that the other side does get represented out there in blogland.

    [It happens to be set up from the point of view of problems with the love language of service which I was unfortunately “cured” of ever expressing or understanding growing up in one of those homes where my dad had such angst and perfectionism that he just taught everyone that they could ever be good enough to be loved. But a,though I tend to really have empathy for those whose partner has that as a primary love language and struggle with the opposite, I think set-up speaks right into the hearts of a ton of those who participated in your viral blog experience.]

    http://herviewfromhome.com/stop-being-a-butthole-wife/

    Liked by 1 person

  16. amixedbag says:

    Hey Matt, thanks for sharing this post. My husband and I are going through the exact same challenge as we speak. It has been happening for years but has been getting worse since we had a child. I blame him for not communicating and not being there, but after reading your post I realise that it’s a two way thing. I’m certainly as much to blame as he is. Recognising the problem is always a very important step, but I’m not sure I know how to solve the problem. We’ve been trying harder but it feels like we’re taking one step forward, two steps back. Any thoughts?

    Like

  17. Sadly reminds me of the day I told my husband I wished I was one of the neighbours instead of his wife – I’d get the best of him then. Apparently I have to earn it by being more affectionate and I’m not doing it well enough. Doesn’t get the chicken/egg thing goes both ways.

    Like

  18. theslingsta says:

    This is brilliant. Really well written and insightful. You’ve hit on something pretty universal here I think. Nicely done!

    Like

  19. This is true, I had to leave someone because they got slack, and mean

    Like

  20. This is sort of kind of what I commented on your last post. Sorta.

    Interestingly, my ex used to tell me “don’t talk to me like you talk to your employees” – he was not a fan of constructive feedback, apparently. :)

    Like

  21. Anne says:

    That failure of mutual empathy is probably the cracking foundation of most failed marriages. It isn’t about the dirty socks on the floor or the nagging. It isn’t even about men or women behaving badly in their own special ways. It’s mostly that one partner wants the parental style empathy and support of the other but wants to return only the empathy happy smile of gratitude response of a child. I’ve seen both husbands and wives who want to be the beloved child. I’ve seen it in gay couples, and I’m sure it happens to bis and trans and everyone else on earth trying to have a relationship. The trouble is, the child-partner doesn’t want to turn around and offer that adult empathy and support to their parent-partner. Parents aren’t supposed to need that from them. It makes them angry and mean – how dare mommy-spouse be scared and alone and need comfort? That isn’t part of child-partner’s job! They are being betrayed, and life is not supposed to work that way! They are entitled to a mommy for life. Or a daddy.

    When you have a partner like that, you are completely and utterly alone. Scared. You know that when you are seriously ill, your partner may not be able to step up and take care of you. They will be upset, but that is not the same. You feel sad every day when your partner criticizes when you are trying to share something that hurts. If you are agonizing over whether the dog needs to be euthanized or could benefit from possibly pointless painful treatment, your spouse will not share the decision with you and will offload their own distress and guilt afterwards by telling you that you made the wrong decision, making you feel like your heart is physically breaking in your chest, all the while obviously failing to notice that you need some emotional help from them. In fact, demanding that their insatiable need be satisfied instead. And only theirs. Because you are not really a partner-person to them, you are mommy-spouse. Loved, but not in a way you want to be loved.

    You step up when your partner is really sick and take care of his physical needs, his household responsibilities, and keep up with his doctors, then you despair when you return home from surgery, exhausted and hungry, and he says “just tell me if you want me to do anything!” and disappears into his den. He knows how to cook, but in this situation, he’s so upset about mommy-spouse being sick that he needs emotional comfort and would insist on step by step instructions, absolutely withholding empathy. And with empathy, physical care. He does not know the correct name of the surgery you just had.

    When you have a partner like that, you don’t have a partner. And that’s when you start wondering about leaving. Or trying to explain that all this isn’t just about dirty socks or dinner.

    I’m not proud that I get so frustrated that I retaliate and don’t provide empathy and get us going in a downward spiral. I’m working on that. But I can’t take this much longer. I speak for many mommy/daddy spouses. We are lonely. And the key here is that I don’t know if child-spouses would ever do it differently, other than a few surface habits. And I know that if I leave, my husband will be bewildered and devastated and still love me. I probably won’t because we have been living this stupid pattern for a stupidly long time, but I am bringing it out in the open at home and hoping for something new.

    Like

  22. Sailor-Chick says:

    I really could go for some advice from you regarding how a person changes from an accident that leaves them with permanent injuries.

    Like

  23. […] don’t always know that leaving dirty dishes by the sink, or being extra-polite to strangers, or doing a bad job of executing household tasks like meal planning can end our […]

    Like

Join the Conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: