I never really knew my wife even though we were married for nine years and together for 13.
Not because of some crazy spy shit nor from any deliberate attempts on her part to hide her true identity from me. I didn’t really know my wife because I never invested the time, effort and energy to know her in a way that would have equipped me with the information I needed to avoid hurting her in ways I didn’t know were hurting her.
That’s the big defense in our relationships, right? “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to! I had no idea this was such a big deal to you!”
That’s the BEST version of this dynamic and it will still poison your relationships and end your marriage.
The more common version of this story involves one of us (usually the guy in a heterosexual relationship) trying to convince our partner that they’re overreacting—that it SHOULDN’T be a big deal to them. That, if they realize how insignificant the incident was, or how silly the fight is, then they can stop feeling bad about it. No one’s upset anymore! Problem solved!
That’s what I did. I tried to help my wife feel better by explaining how I felt about it, believing, I guess, that she might adopt my version of events, thereby relieving her of the inconvenient pain or anger or sadness she was feeling.
It makes sense when you’re a dipshit who has no idea that you’re a dipshit. (*points at self)
Something that frustrated me in marriage and which seems to frustrate many of the men I talk to in my coaching work is the idea that our wives are constantly “surprising” us with new complaints.
Right? Like, you’re just going about your day, minding your own business, not doing anything that seems harmful to anyone, and—BAM—she’s making the face and using the voice again.
Here we go again. What is it this time, princess?
Honestly, my wife would be hurt and/or upset by something she experienced, and my legitimate mental and physical reaction was to filter everything she was telling me through this idea of her being a petty, unfair, nagging, hyper-sensitive, overly emotional ingrate.
I thought SHE was the one making our marriage shitty. I seriously believed that.
And if you’re reading this and identifying with my wife in this story, and your blood is boiling a little bit because of what a condescending, invalidating asshole I was being BEFORE even speaking to her, I want to encourage you to consider that your partner believes that too.
I say that with zero judgment.
When you think of yourself as a smart, kind, polite person who succeeds at work, has healthy social and professional relationships, and who always got along with family members growing up, and the ONLY person who ever complains about you is your spouse (who you promised to love forever, share everything with, and who you perceive yourself to sacrifice most for), then it’s easy to mathematically arrive at this conclusion.
The sad and angry wife in this example is the statistical outlier. She’s the one who is acting radically different than the rest of his interpersonal data sample. Who am I going to believe? My own judgment plus EVERYONE I’ve ever known? Or this crazy woman trying to make me out to be the bad guy?
So please don’t interpret me as demonizing these men or myself 10 years ago. You can be legitimately decent and well-intentioned and STILL harm your spouse and marriage in your blind spots.
Good people can be bad spouses. Good people can unwittingly destroy their marriages.
And one of the ways that happens is when spouses (usually husbands) are “surprised” by their wives’ expressed sadness or anger. Over and over and over again.
How did this happen? How is it possible that she’s THIS upset about something I never even saw coming?
The Damage Happens Because You Didn’t See it Coming
When you’re a parent—or even just an adult—and you see children running in the house, or next to a swimming pool, or skateboarding in the middle of the street, the dangers are obvious to you.
You can see all the potential hazards. Like a prophet.
It’s probably not because you’re psychic. It’s probably because you’ve ran into sharp corners, or burned your hand on the stove, or cut yourself with a knife, or had some scary close calls while riding your bike in your neighborhood.
It’s the knowledge and wisdom that comes with experience and a nuanced understanding of the situation.
The same things happen in our career pursuits and favorite hobbies.
Whatever you’ve spent the most time practicing, or reading about, or thinking about, or discussing, are the things you have the most expertise on.
All of us have something.
I type fast and can usually string words together pretty efficiently. I know a lot about NFL football, Marvel movies, bourbon whiskey, video games, the newspaper industry, cooking, and poker relative to most people.
I’ve also learned an enormous amount about relationships over the past seven years, because I’ve studied them, thought about them, written about them, and talked about them more than anything else.
Whatever we do the most and have learned the most about are the things in which we develop expertise or mastery.
I had a relationship coaching client in his 70s. Married 36 years.
He was expressing frustration about hearing the same complaints from his wife for nearly 40 years. (Feel free to laugh. I sort-of did even though it’s probably more sad than funny.)
I asked him to grab a pen and paper, and in two columns, jot down the things that mattered most to his wife. One column of positive stuff. One column of negative stuff.
In other words, what are the things that affect your wife in good and bad ways? What matters most to her in a good way, and what matters most to her in a bad way? What are the things that move the needle for her, emotionally?
My client couldn’t name ONE THING. Not one. “I don’t really know, Matt.”
Well. Gee whiz.
“Respectfully, sir. You don’t know your wife.”
Imagine STUDYING poker, playing in live games twice per week, playing online several times per week, and watching several hours of it on TV.
I have poker textbooks that I would pore over. I would study the pros on TV. I would analyze every nuanced decision the best players in the world were making in an effort to be a strong player.
And it worked. I got pretty good.
Now. Imagine being a woman who—in every decision she makes, large and small—factors her husband into the equation.
What to have for dinner. When to broach certain subjects with me. What plans to make for the upcoming weekend. What gifts to get MY parents for the holidays—something that hadn’t occurred to me before she mentioned it.
There were almost no decisions my wife would make throughout the course of the day that didn’t take into account how our son and her husband would be affected by it.
Compare that to me.
I woke up, maybe worked out, drove to work, did work stuff, drove home, and then maybe I’d cook or help clean up the kitchen. One or two days per week, I’d vanish for poker night. When I was home, maybe I was playing online poker, watching a movie or TV show that I liked, or “managing” a fantasy football team.
You know. Minding my own business after a day where I went to work, cooked dinner and cleaned up the kitchen, and then sat down to watch, read, or play something.
So, that’s why I always thought it was bullshit when she’d be upset with me about something.
Because I didn’t do anything.
And I was right. I didn’t do anything. I was SURPRISED by my wife feeling upset or neglected or disrespected by something I either did or didn’t do.
Imagine if I’d given the list of things that affect my wife positively and negatively even HALF of the attention I gave to trying to master poker or win my fantasy football league.
Maybe, if I had a nuanced understanding of the sorts of things that caused my wife to feel pain, it would have occurred to me just how hurtful it must have been for her to see me put so much time, effort, and energy into mastering a game she had no interest in, and which took me away from her and our home several hours per week, while NEVER investing even a fraction of that same disciplined focus, effort, and energy in her. Into our marriage. Into optimizing our home life in a way that helped her feel seen, heard, respected, cherished, desired, and supported.
What if I KNEW my wife? What if I really, truly knew who she was? Her hopes and dreams. The very specific reasons why things I thought were petty or silly created pain for her. What if I—with well-practiced expertise—had developed mastery-level skills for marriage, and a comprehensive understanding of who she was and what mattered most to her?
Someone who KNOWS their spouse with the same mastery they have of their profession or favorite hobbies or whatever they’ve studied the most? That’s a person capable of anticipating his or her partner’s emotional, mental, and physical needs in real time.
Without any surprises.
The “invisible” bad shit doesn’t happen because we can anticipate it. We see the potential danger or potential mistakes and avoid them.
That’s what well-practiced, focused people who are paying attention do. They see problems before they happen and adapt for the best-possible outcome.
Imagine if you also did that for your spouse.
Imagine a life without being “surprised” with another “petty” complaint.
Imagine a partner who never complains because she or he is in a constant state of having their needs met. Of being considered. Of being validated. Of being respected. Of being loved.
I don’t know what you’re best at in life. But I’m pretty sure you were mostly shit at it when you didn’t even know what you didn’t know and were just getting started.
Maybe you’re accidentally shit at various aspects of your relationship. Maybe you’re regularly confused by your partner.
And just maybe, putting in the work of understanding and knowing things about them that you don’t currently know will mitigate much of the conflict and discomfort in your marriage.
Just maybe, when we are tuned into our partners and have expertise on the things that affect them—both good and bad—we are able to anticipate and meet their needs in real time. Without surprises. Because these things are no longer happening in our blind spots.
The pain- and conflict-producing situations are no longer sneaking up on us.
We see the sharp corners. The boiling pan on the stove. And we’re just a little more mindful and cautious.
Maybe that’s how we help prevent a lot of pain, and more effectively soothe it when it happens.
Maybe that’s how we turn frustrating, unhealthy, and disconnected relationships into ones we want to be a part of.
I didn’t know my wife. But, if I’d chosen to, I could have.
And that would have changed everything.