“Would you have changed if she had not left you?”
Within an hour of answering this exact question in the comments of How to Change Your Shitty Husband, someone else sent an email asking the same question, and whether I’d written an article about it before.
I have answered this question many times—but I think thoughtlessly and too cynically. Maybe because I thought the question was actually about me. Maybe sometimes it is.
Wives and girlfriends, I think, are mostly asking this because they’re trying to decide whether there’s hope for their partner to experience the same emotional intelligence evolution that I did WITHOUT going through divorce, since divorce sucks more than shitty drivers trying to kill you and your 11-year-old at highway speeds.
People frequently ask whether my wife had to divorce me in order for me to make the changes that I did, and it’s easy to say yes.
For me, under my specific life circumstances, it’s easy to efficiently and truthfully say that it took the pain of losing my family to motivate me since to learn all that I have about human relationships.
But that’s a dangerously simplistic answer AND eliminates the opportunity for me to humble-brag about my coaching work with husbands and boyfriends, which sometimes results in clients demonstrating vastly improved emotional intelligence and relationship habits. You know, without all of the limp-wiener sobbing and vomit parties that accompanies the dark and scary early days of divorce when you’re still trying to decide each day whether you want to continue breathing and feeling things. (Or maybe that was just me.)
The Answer is Not Either Or
It’s not a binary choice. It’s much more than just one or the other. There are other possibilities to consider beyond whether to divorce/break up, or remain in a toxic relationship.
There’s nothing particularly special about me or the coaching work that I do. It’s unique, I suppose, in that only I can be me, and only I can think and speak the way I think and speak. People frequently reach out to me because of articles I’ve written which they say explains their relationship to them in ways that make sense where other self-help content had failed to connect or resonate.
I’m not for everyone. But I am for those people. The people who speak my language and think and feel kind of like how I think and feel. Those are the people I can help via coaching.
For other people, different coaches, or therapists, or marriage counselors, or even just some great books might be what can help them the most.
Like figuring out how to fine-tune your specific relationship with your specific partner by tailoring your behavioral and communication habits to THEIR individual needs in order to achieve balance and peace, so too should you use the tools and resources best suited to helping you succeed.
I didn’t have me to talk to.
But I think Now Me could have helped Then Me because I know how to say things in ways that make sense to me. My ex-wife did NOT know how to say things in ways that made sense to me. She said things in ways that made sense to her, and I was too ignorant and immature to put in the work necessary to help both of us learn how to say and do things in the ways that made sense to one another.
People don’t divorce on the reg because all these people who were once madly in love and super-connected to one another suddenly disagree about every possible thing.
People divorce because they don’t know how to explain what’s wrong from the OTHER person’s point of view. Unless you can clearly explain your spouse’s argument or feelings in a way that makes them say “Yes! You totally get it! That’s exactly right!” then it’s safe to conclude you STILL don’t get it.
It’s not your failure to understand it that will get you divorced as much as your stubborn unwillingness to legitimately TRY to understand. That usually ends with your spouse concluding (sensibly) that you don’t care enough about them for them to justify investing the rest of their lives in your relationship, which to them, feels bad every day.
The Right Words, the Right Way, the Right Time
The 5 Love Languages is a simple, profound, and useful way to frame relationship communication and behavior, which is why the book’s author Dr. Gary Chapman has more money than really good bank robbers.
There are five common ways in which people receive love—meaning when people do these things to or for them, they literally feel loved. What most of us do is show our love to others in the way that makes sense to us—in the way WE feel loved. But whenever OUR love language doesn’t align with our romantic partner’s love language (and vice versa), things can get super-hairy like the Elephant Exhibit at the Jimmy John’s Wildlife Preserve.
For many people, the simple adjustment to using words and behavior tailored to their partner’s specific love language can revolutionize the way two people communicate with and connect to one another.
This same principle can be applied to any kind of human connection or communication challenge.
We find answers to our problems when we ask the right questions.
There is a way THAT person learns things, hears things, feels things. It’s probably different than the way you and I learn, hear, and feel stuff.
So to get through to them, it’s our job to understand HOW things get through to them, and then using behavior and communication methods consistent with the way the other person absorbs new information.
Would You Have Changed if She Had Not Left You?
It’s easy to say no. It’s easy to say my wife had to leave me for me to hurt badly enough in order to motivate me to learn WHY, thus developing the emotional intelligence and empathy necessary to learn how be less of an asshole in life and relationships.
But I can’t be sure that’s true.
I might even say I AM sure that I would have changed if I’d had the requisite amount of information I needed back when I needed it.
You can’t know what you don’t know.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
The key difference between me now versus me then, is then I believed I knew a lot, and now I’m pretty committed to never assuming I KNOW things. If I ‘know’ things, I can’t learn. If I ‘know’ things, I won’t ask good questions. If I ‘know’ things, I’ll be wrong the exact same amount as I always am, but a much bigger asshole along the way.
We just need the right people, the right conditions, and partners willing and able to speak the language and use the vocabulary that we understand.
It’s a choice.
And no matter which side of the broken-translator crisis you live on, I hope you’ll choose it.