In nine years of marriage, it’s safe to assume my ex-wife and I ate dinner together between 2,500 and 3,000 times.
We must have talked about things that didn’t upset her sometimes. We must have talked about things that bored her sometimes. Maybe we even talked about things that made her happy.
I don’t remember. Several hundred conversations, and I can’t remember most of them.
It’s hard to remember the moments that never made you feel.
Maybe that’s why the only dinner conversations I remember are the ones involving her saying that she didn’t love me or want to stay married, as well as a few conversations that I’ve retroactively applied emotion to, since I now realize that they’re on the official This is Why I’m Divorced® list along with me sometimes leaving dishes by the sink.
My wife divorced me because when she told me stories about her day, I tried to fix whatever she was telling me was wrong.
And for many people, that will seem sensible—to try to help someone solve a problem they’re having. For many people, the idea of turning a husband trying to help into a marriage problem will seem like the insane actions of an emotionally unstable wife who is always looking for something new to complain about.
I would have agreed with you 10 years ago. I mean, I DID agree with you 10 years ago. Because I agreed with you 10 years ago, I was a shitty husband who accidentally and obliviously sabotaged what could have been, and should have been, a good marriage. (Hint: Which is what almost ALL married people have. Two people who married each other on purpose, thoughtfully, and well-intentioned SHOULD have a good marriage.)
I Didn’t Understand the Why
My wife was telling me stories about her day—about things or people or situations that might have upset her—for ONE reason. Just one.
It was my wife’s way of trying to connect with me. To share her experiences. The ACT OF SHARING the experience with me, and me simply being present and listening to her was THE ENTIRE POINT.
My role was to listen.
When my wife told me about someone that bothered her earlier in the day, I would sometimes tell my wife that I agreed with the other person.
Not only did I deprive her of the connection-building exercise by simply allowing her to speak without judgment, but I piled on more pain and frustration by validating the words or actions of the person that hurt or upset my wife earlier in the day.
1. Something happened that my wife experienced as a negative. Someone said or did something that made her feel shitty.
2. The thing that helps her feel better is to tell someone who will listen without judging her for her honest feelings and actual experiences.
3. She wanted to tell the ONE person in the world who promised to love and honor her every day for the rest of her life, and the only other adult who lives under the same roof.
4. I took her outlet for a positive connection-building experience—the thing she needed to do to emotionally move past the shitty day—and made THAT shitty. The thing that is designed to make her feel good became something that actually felt bad.
5. I then took the extra step of sometimes TAKING THE SIDE of her adversary from her story. I sometimes listened to her account of the day’s events, and essentially told her that her response—emotional or behaviorally—was INCORRECT. I literally told her that she did it wrong, and agreed with the other person.
6. All she wanted was for someone who loves her to LISTEN to her. That’s it. Not hard. Just STFU and listen. And after several hundred times of NOT doing that, I ceased to be someone she could trust to confide in. I was no longer a feel-good resource for coping with the ups and downs of adulthood, because hundreds of previous attempts ended badly and painfully for her. She didn’t feel safe anymore. She didn’t trust me anymore. Because safety and trust are two words that don’t always mean what we think they mean.
The most dangerous part of human relationships is how subtle and nuanced these moments are.
The things that erode and eventually destroy that which is most fragile and dear and precious to us tend to be things happening within the blind spots of our daily lives. We’re not being neglectful or irresponsible by not noticing them. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to notice them unless we are actively and mindfully looking for them.
After thousands of conversations with my wife that didn’t go like I thought they would. After, literally, thousands of instances where my wife reacted to me or a situation differently than I would have expected, I NEVER—not one time—set out to really understand the reason behind it.
I was certain—I was so certain that I was right, and therefore, she must have been wrong—that I guess I just kept waiting for her to grow up and see the world as clearly and correctly and smartly as I did.
But she never did.
She finally had enough and left.
And then I cried a lot more than a man probably should and felt sorry for myself.
But then I grew up.
And I began to see the world more clearly. I learned to stop labeling what an individual experiences as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Because if I was born to their parents and had their identical life experiences, I would say and do and feel all of the exact same things that they do.
Maybe my wife was wrong sometimes, too. Maybe she did things she shouldn’t have done. People ask me about that a lot, suggesting I’m too hard on myself. That there must be another side to the story.
Of course there’s another side. Here it is:
Imagine an alternative reality where when my wife told me stories about her day, I listened, and then told her that I cared about her experiences—that I was so happy when she had good things happen, and that I was so sorry when she had bad things happen—because I loved her and wanted to make sure she knew it. Make sure she felt it, because those are the things we remember.
Imagine if I’d done that.
Maybe all of those theoretical ‘mistakes’ my wife made would have never happened at all.
Behind every misunderstanding is a reason. Behind every disagreement is a WHY. The Why behind why someone feels a certain way. And when we love the person on the other side of the disagreement—or simply on the other side of the dinner-table conversation—understanding that Why is EVERYTHING.
Find the Why.
Start right now.