Category Archives: Marriage

I Didn’t Trust My Wife Long Before She Stopped Trusting Me

Trust dissolving

(Image/equippingministries.com)

I trusted my wife with everything I thought was important.

I trusted her with everything that mattered to me.

I trusted her to honor our marriage vows. I trusted her to not kill me in my sleep. I trusted her to conceive, deliver and mother my children. I trusted her to not commit major crimes. I trusted her to not clean out our bank accounts and disappear. I trusted her to behave in mature, intelligent, socially acceptable ways when we were out together. I trusted that my wife was who she said she was, and that I’d made a wise and acceptable decision to choose her as my life-long partner in marriage, parenting, money, co-habitation, and whatever else the future may deliver.

But I didn’t trust my wife with everything.

I didn’t trust her on matters I didn’t perceive to be important, such as our respective preferences for different types of food or drink or music or movies or personal hobbies or weekend activities, etc.

Cheering from the stands of a New Year’s Day college football bowl game, I was emotionally invested in the outcome, because my favorite team winning mattered to me.

My wife thought football was a little bit dumb and boring, and was infinitely more interested in what I’d call sideshow attractions, like the marching bands and cheerleaders.

Sitting among 75,000 screaming fans, with millions more watching at home on TV, and feeling those intense moments of anxiety as the clock counted down with the game in the balance, and then—MAGIC—something unexpected and glorious happens to secure unlikely victory. JOY. Total strangers embracing with happy tears streaming down our faces. VICTORY.

My wife thought it was all a little ridiculous. A bunch of adults investing themselves emotionally in something silly like football. She loved the art and showmanship of the marching bands, baton twirlers and dancers, and there was nothing anyone could say, nor anything she could witness that would change her mind or make her conclude anything other than: football is stupid and marching band stuff is awesome.

I didn’t trust my wife’s opinions when they conflicted with mine.

And in and of itself, that’s probably not particularly weird or harmful. But when combined with the following truth, I think you stamp your divorce papers long before anyone ever realizes there’s a problem.

I didn’t trust my wife’s feelings.

If my wife was upset about something—independent of my involvement—it’s fair to say I defaulted to a position of: She’s overreacting again.

I didn’t always come right out and say that. If I wasn’t defending myself against some perceived criticism, I’d exercise as much diplomacy as possible.

But she’s smart and perceptive. If I didn’t agree with her conclusions, I usually said so, and tried to offer reasons why.

No matter how valid my reasons, or how sound my logic, or how well-intentioned I was being, this little song and dance usually resulted in another marriage fight.

I thought I was right. I thought she was wrong. And I believe Right should always win out over Wrong.

And in a vacuum, I still believe that. Right should trump Wrong.

But marriages are not vacuums.

Love matters.

And loving and honoring one’s partner and working for the benefit of her or his emotional health and welfare, is INFINITELY more important than winning arguments about marching bands vs. football, or the significance of leaving a dirty dish by the sink.

StillTryingHard asked:

“From the male perspective—what is the impact of loss of trust from the wife on the male psyche? How does this impair ability to function in the relationship and does the despair it causes just result in giving up trying to regain it? Not sexual infidelity loss of trust, but honestly worded and kind explanation of why the wife feels like the parent, how repeated secrets and their discovery makes the wife wonder what the next one will be and how learning of secret emotional relationships makes the wife hate his password protected always present iPhone.
“To what extent (as a man) do ‘you’ see it as the wife’s job to fix her shit? I know your answer—but around trust and facing loss of it, what do men need to hear to make it safe to be vulnerable to their vulnerable partner?”

A Different Kind of Answer

StillTryingHard asked for my take on the polar-opposite scenario in a marriage.

She asked me to talk about what happens inside the male mind when his wife demonstrates a distrust of him.

And I hope STH will forgive me for providing what might appear to be a counter-intuitive response (we can and should talk about this more in the comments!), but the above scenario and general mindset is what I believe the actual problem to be.

No “male behavior” encompasses all men, and no “female behavior” accurately describes the actions of all women. But men and women often display tendencies that cut to the heart of the whole Battle of the Sexes/Mars-Venus conversation.

Out here in the world, the Men Are Pigs brigade can blame men for everything while the Red Pill-Swallowing Manosphere can point fingers at women, and the consequences—on a case-by-case basis—might be minor.

Maybe it’s limited to an impolite exchange of comments on the internet, or a group of men swapping stories after a Saturday morning round of golf, or a group of women doing the same at the spa. It’s not ideal, but it’s mostly contained.

In a marriage between a man and a woman? Where the break-up will fundamentally change the lives of both people, their children, their finances, their friends and family, and unknown other ripple effects?

There, the stakes are a bit higher.

I don’t know that I particularly care about the women that hate men because they’ve had a lifetime of bad experiences with them. Doesn’t it make sense for certain women to have their guards up with men after the previous five or eight or 15 that they’ve dated/loved/lived with/slept with, etc. all turned out to be negative life experiences?

And isn’t that also true for certain men? If they’ve been lied to, manipulated, or cheated on by women they believed to love them?

We can’t make people like and respect each other, unfortunately.

But, in MARRIAGE?

What could POSSIBLY be ambiguous about publicly stated vows like “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad”? Or “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life”? Or “until death do us part”?

We can be dicks to one another here on the internet or to strangers on the street with little immediate consequence.

It spreads hate. It extinguishes light. It perpetuates fear.

But we can do it, and in that moment, an individual’s life or group of family members’ lives might not be adversely affected forever.

But when we do it in our marriages, we break things inside others and ourselves that I’m not sure can ever be fixed.

I have a little boy in third grade. He’s my entire world. Almost every decision I make, big or small, begins and ends with him in mind.

Almost every hardship he faces—all of the little things that present challenges and anxieties and fears and pain in that child’s world—is a direct result of his parents’ divorce.

On occasions where that child is crying in my arms, he’s crying because of circumstances that wouldn’t exist if his mom and dad were still married.

And I’m sure there’s all kinds of blame to go around, but I KNOW why I’m divorced. I know who to blame for those tears.

My wife believed one thing.

I believed something else.

And instead of that being okay like it is when my best friends root for a different sports team or vote for a different political candidate, I didn’t trust her.

No matter how many millions of ways I DID trust her, I didn’t trust that when she told me that something was hurting her or mattered to her, that she was experiencing it accurately.

Didn’t seem like it would hurt to me.

Didn’t seem important from my perspective.

So, when she said something that didn’t align with my experiences, I didn’t trust her.

I didn’t trust her feelings.

I didn’t trust her feelings because they were different than mine.

You can get away with that with your buddies. With your co-workers. With people you want to argue with on the internet.

But when you promise to love and honor someone forever, you damn well better TRUST them when they describe their experiences to you.

Which Came First—His Distrust or Hers?

Men often display a need to be trusted and respected. Bad things tend to happen when they feel otherwise in their relationships.

But when you deny your wife or girlfriend’s right to experience human life in the way they do, calling them wrong, or stupid, or crazy?

When she can’t feel safe talking to you about things that make her feel bad?

When she can’t trust you to take care of her even in matters as seemingly small as a random conversation?

Cause. Effect.

When we love and honor our partners, we go first.

We don’t point fingers. We look in the mirror.

Trust can’t be a thing in a constant state of rebuild.

Trust must be in a perpetual state of accumulation.

Trust shouldn’t be something we react to.

Trust should be the thing we lead with.

These two articles are awesome, and helped me formulate my thoughts here:

1. Men Just Don’t Trust Women. And This is a Problem

2. 5 Stages of Distrust and How it Destroys Your Relationships

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‘Should I Divorce My Wife?’

man drinking alone at bar

(Image/Improvemant.com)

You two are fighting a lot, sleeping in separate places, not having sex, nor really even talking to each other any more than you have to.

You haven’t felt like yourself—the person you remember being growing up—in months. Maybe years.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how you got here.

That’s probably because no one thing caused this. It was a series of many tiny, mostly undetectable moments over the course of months and years, many of which you’ve forgotten about. There may even be things you don’t realize are on the Reasons Why This Is Happening list.

Maybe one of you had a sexual or emotional affair.

Maybe someone very close to one of you died.

Maybe you lost a job or are having financial difficulties.

Those tend to be the big things that camouflage all the little things.

Maybe addiction problems are driving a wedge between you. (Maybe even stuff you don’t consider to be addictions, like video games or pornography.)

Or, maybe you’re a little bit like me and can’t pinpoint exactly where everything went off-track. You only know you’re several years into this marriage and none of it feels like you thought it would back when you said “I do” in front of everyone who mattered.

There’s no one-size-fits-all diagnosis or a specific One Thing that kills a marriage. But the laundry list of “little” things that break relationships and the hearts of those in them all tend to live in the same bucket, and look and sound the same as everyone else’s story.

In other words: No matter what your particular set of shitty-marriage circumstances looks and feels like, you can rest assured that you’re not the only one.

I Was You Once

I don’t talk about it much. In fact, I don’t think I ever have. The time I considered divorcing my wife.

Maybe because it doesn’t fit the narrative of her leaving me and the gargantuan cloud of fuckness that infected me for a long time afterward because it turned out to be the last thing I ever wanted, and the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

It was, like, bad.

I cried sometimes and felt like a massive loser and failure. Like I’d let everyone down. And to this day, I have significant shame issues any time a life situation forces me to acknowledge my failed marriage to someone new.

My little boy. My parents and family. Her parents and family. Our friends.

And later, any married person.

It’s easy to feel like you’ve failed all of them, or like you don’t measure up to all the people who didn’t mess up like you did.

(It gets better when you realize that they actually DO mess up and simply mask it well, OR mess up at other life things that you have a good handle on. You’re a human being with inconvenient thoughts and feelings, as well as certain fears, anxieties, insecurities and personal vices. Everyone has that same list of suckage. It’s the minutiae that varies from person to person. You’re not a freak or fundamentally different than anyone else. Promise.)

So, yeah.

I totally considered initiating a divorce with my wife.

I was sleeping in the guest bedroom. She wasn’t particularly nice to me. She didn’t make me feel good. She wasn’t interested in doing anything with me. We never touched one another. After several years of marriage, she’d sometimes leave for work in the morning or go upstairs to bed at night without saying a word to me.

It hurt.

I thought she was a cold, cruel, unforgiving shell of a human being who didn’t like nor love me.

I didn’t think it was fair that I felt the way I did because of how she was treating me. I didn’t think it was fair that she had advocated to get married when I was still young and scared only to be acting this way now. And it seemed obvious that being single again, or maybe with someone else, would drastically improve my day-to-day life experience, mentally and emotionally.

If we didn’t share a beautiful son, and I hadn’t spent the previous 30 years vowing to never get divorced like my parents, I’d have walked out like a huge moronic asshole, and spent the rest of my life telling people over bar drinks what a raw deal I got, and how unlucky her next boyfriend or husband will be.

The Hard Questions

It took me a long time and a bunch of misery and depression to piece the mystery together. To be able to tell the REAL story.

And had it never hurt, maybe I’d have never asked myself the right questions: What have I done to cause this? What could I have done differently to avoid having my marriage and family fall apart? How much of this might have been avoided had I made better, less-selfish choices?

Those are hard questions.

Not if you lie to yourself and others like I would have had I kept blaming my wife for everything and feeling sorry for myself like a helpless butt-hurt victim.

They’re hard questions when you’re willing to tell yourself the truth, even if it’s inconvenient.

Those are the answers that gut you from the inside. They’re the ones that make you throw up with tears streaming down your face.

All those times you told her she was crazy or wrong simply because she disagreed with you. All those times you chose video games and poker night to sitting next to her. All those times you chose fun excursions with your buddies and left her alone, yet never invested a similar amount of time and energy to planning fun things for her and you to do together. All those times you jerked off to porn or thoughts of someone else instead of investing that desire and energy into the person you once loved and wanted so much that YOU asked HER to marry you.

They’re the uncomfortable truths.

The ones that keep you up at night and generate all those What Might Have Beens.

A stronger, more courageous, and all-around better version of yourself emerges once you’ve asked and answered all the hard questions.

Because it typically turns out that you weren’t the stupid idiot who married the wrong girl.

The inconvenient truth is typically that you were the stupid idiot who didn’t know that all those things you were doing instead of paying attention to your wife and marriage were a lot less harmless than you’d thought.

All those things you thought were stupid and petty and nagging, yet would have been so damn easy to accommodate with a tiny bit of graciousness and unselfishness, weren’t so stupid and petty after all.

You didn’t know it would all lead to this moment right now. Standing there with puke on your chin, snot dripping from your nose, and salty tears you never realized were trapped behind those red eyes.

And then it happens. Something unexpectedly good in the midst of all the soul-sucking shittiness.

Hope.

Because now you’ve got a real chance.

Should you divorce your wife?

Who can say?

Before we start to guess, I’d ask you to first take off the mask and make yourself really uncomfortable playing Devil’s Advocate against your self-preservation instincts.

You’ll know you’re on the right track once you start to squirm. You’ll know you’re in the right place once you identify the moments that seemed so benign and unimportant at the time, but actually changed the whole world.

The kind of moments that might crop up again, and give us an opportunity to right a few wrongs.

An opportunity to be courageous.

An opportunity to be men.

Should you divorce your wife?

We can talk about it later. Though the truth is, when the time is right, you’ll already know the answer.

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Influence Your Relationship Using the 6 Principles of Persuasion

influence

(Image/justinmarroquin.com)

Most divorce and breakups could be avoided if the partner most dedicated to the relationship could effectively persuade or influence the other to adjust their behavior or communication habits in relationship-strengthening ways.

You know—theoretically.

In real life, the problem often lies in one person believing their ideas, opinions and ways of doing things are right while their partner’s hare-brained ideas, opinions and stupid way of doing things are wrong.

Sadly, it frequently breaks down along gender lines.

It’s good for all of the people who can benefit from the whole Mars/Venus, Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti concept.

It’s bad for all of the people who don’t fit neatly into those molds, and value things like equality and not being pigeonholed by stereotypical labels.

I think most rapists and serial killers are white men. It would be awesome if people didn’t assume I’m a threat to rape or kill someone based on my gender and skin color. I think other people with different skin colors and gender profiles probably feel the same.

Yet, mountains of Gottman Institute data has demonstrated that the top predictor of divorce has direct ties to gendered behavior, and that is: A husband’s willingness to accept his wife’s influence has the greatest statistical correlation to, and is the No. 1 predictor of, whether or not a marriage will last.

Sorry guys.

Understanding What Influences Human Behavior

That’s a powerful word.

Influence.

I like it. I like how it sounds, what it means, and the idea of people being influential (if you’re not an evil dickface planning a poison Kool-Aid® party or whatever).

Setting aside my belief that many men are accidentally sexist because of their Father Knows Best upbringings where they were exposed to women catering to, or being belittled by, men who were the bosses, primary decision makers, and group or organizational leaders by virtue of their stoic manliness and not being slaves to their emotions and menstrual cycles like all those diaper-changing, laundry-folding, lunch-packing women… setting all that to the side for a moment…

Human beings, regardless of gender or any other categorical label, often believe things or react emotionally to things in ways that are radically different than another person. It happens all the time, every day, in every conceivable type of relationship or life scenario.

First, something happens.

Then one person thinks and feels one way about it. And another person thinks and feels something different. It’s common for the two people to debate whose thoughts and feelings are better, or right, or most accurate.

Sometimes the debates are reasonably friendly and/or professional.

Other times, such disagreements can lead to name-calling, or fist fights, or divorce, or homicide, or violent riots and rebellion, or one country bombing another country.

It’s a problem.

An incalculable amount of human misery is generated by the equivalent of someone with colorblindness identifying something as being green (the color they accurately see) fighting with someone who sees the same object as being red.

When we tell people that their feelings and life experiences are wrong, and deny honoring their wants or needs simply because they’re not the same as ours, we end up breaking a lot of things AND being stupid assholes. Because if we had the same eyes and brain as the person we’re talking to, we’d see the color green, too.

The 6 Principles of Influence and Persuasion

The most sensible solution, I believe, is to master the skill of empathy and teach it to our children at home and in schools.

But that’s like saying the most sensible solution to our financial problems is finding hidden pirate treasure or riding our pet unicorns to Leprechaun McGee’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The transformation of the current human race into a more empathetic version that won’t fight and troll one another on the internet at every opportunity will probably take longer than it takes my 8-year-old to put his shoes on before school. (An inexplicably and painfully long time.)

So, we turn to the next-best thing: Persuasion.

We develop the ability to influence those within our influential sphere—the most important being our marriage/relationship partners, our children, our co-workers, etc.

The long-time thought leader in the psychology-of-persuasion space is a man named Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, and author of the classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Cialdini spent 35 years studying what moves people to change behavior, and broke it down into six basic principles.

Cialdini wrote the book to help people protect themselves from manipulative mind tricks (from con artists and shady sales pitches), and to help marketers tap into the human psyche ethically to succeed in their profession.

But since only a small percentage of people work in marketing and since I believe marriages and families matter more than product sales, I thought it might be interesting to explore how we could use persuasive behavior to positively influence our partners in an effort to strengthen our relationships.

Principle #1: Reciprocation

We feel indebted to people who give us gifts or do nice things for us. And we are societally conditioned to think of people unwilling to reciprocate favors as assholes. And since we don’t want to be assholes, we are much more likely to do things for people who have done things for us.

“The implication is that you have to go first. Give something: give information, give free samples, give a positive experience to people and they will want to give you something in return,” Cialdini said.

I know what many of you are thinking: “But Matt!!! That’s bullshit!!! I do EVERYTHING for my spouse and children, and they don’t do anything for me!!!”

I get it.

Your partner and/or family takes you for granted. Welcome to the human experience.

This exercise isn’t about what feels fair.

It’s about influencing another human being to do something we want them to do. When we are willing to go first, and give before we try to get, we have a MUCH greater chance of cooperation from anyone.

What nice thing could we do for our partners that they don’t expect that might earn us a kind and empathetic ear when we want to ask them to do something for us?

Principle #2: Social Proof

When people are uncertain about a particular course of action, we tend to look around for cues from others to help guide our actions and decisions.

Cialdini and a research team conducted an experiment to see what type of messaging on hotel room signs would result in hotel guests reusing their bathroom towels.

Sign #1 cited environmental reasons.

Sign #2 said the hotel would donate a portion of laundry savings to an environmental cause.

Sign #3 said the hotel had already made the donation and asked “Will you please join us?”

Sign #4 said the majority of hotel guests reused their towels at least once during their stay.

When guests were told that most other hotel guests were reusing their towels, they were more likely to comply with the request. Sign #4 got 48 percent of experiment participants to reuse their towels.

I would STRONGLY discourage someone from telling their spouse that “So-and-so does all these great things for his/her spouse! Why can’t you do them for me, loser?” and contrasting undesirable behavior with something that looks more attractive. That will prove counterproductive.

But, how might we use proven, successful relationship behavior from other people to help influence our partners to change a harmful behavior?

Principle #3: Commitment and Consistency

Obviously, people don’t always do what they say they are going to do. That probably includes more than half of everyone who has ever made a public marriage vow.

However, the science is the science. People are more likely to do something after agreeing to it verbally or in writing.

People strive for consistency in their commitments, and prefer to follow pre-existing attitudes, values and actions, Cialdini said.

How might we (with kindness and good intentions) get our partners to reaffirm their commitments to our relationships in ways that might foster more connection and positive love- and intimacy-related feelings?

Principle #4: Liking

“People prefer to say yes to those they know and like,” Cialdini said.

Physical attraction, shared traits, and being paid compliments MAJORLY influences who we like.

People struggling in shitty relationships often love, but don’t really “like” being around, their partners. Try to look beyond that for a minute.

In the context of this psychological principle, something super-subtle like having a similar name nearly doubled the likelihood of someone responding to a survey request by actually participating in it.

For example, someone named Robert James was almost twice as likely (56% to 30%) to comply with a request if asked by someone with a similar name like Bob Ames, than he was by someone named Matt Fray.

The key takeaway for relationships, I believe, is learning how to be knowledgeable about our partner’s existing preferences.

Sales people greatly improve their chances of making a sale by demonstrating that they understand their customer’s personal preferences.

Couldn’t that same principle work in our behavior toward our spouses?

Principle #5: Authority

Most people tend to respect authority figures. Not just our bosses at work or police officers, but even people like the medical office workers checking our insurance cards and asking us to fill out sign-in sheets at our doctor appointments, and others, such as flight attendants.

That’s why con artists commonly pose as company officials via email, on the phone, or by wearing some type of uniform when they knock on doors. It’s to appear “official” and authoritarian.

We tend to follow the lead of real experts.

There are an endless amount of helpful resources on improving relationships and marriage, with one of the most obvious being the Gottman Institute, and their science-based approach using big data to uncover the secrets of happy marriages, and the hallmark traits of relationships that are doomed.

How can we cleverly use an authentic expert to influence our partner to take a certain action?

Principle #6: Scarcity

Ahh. Good ol’ scarcity.

The genesis of all “Act fast! These deals end soon!” messaging and the reason why those brilliant countdown clocks on Amazon and Living Social products sometimes prompt us to click that “Buy Now” button sooner than we might otherwise.

It’s the most basic premise of economic theory: The less there is of something, the more valuable it is.

People are drawn to, and willing to overpay for, rare and uncommon things that other people also want.

Cialdini didn’t need to conduct any new experiments to prove that people OFTEN want what they can’t have.

This bears out in shitty marriages all the time. Husbands frequently demonstrate indifference in their romantic relationships with their wives, and fight with her when she calls him on it, but then freak out and cry a lot when she finally decides to leave him.

That’s kind of how it went for me, too.

While it might be tempting to threaten divorce or withhold sex in a misguided effort to manipulate our partner in a reverse-psychology sort of way, I think any relationship-damaging behavior (which any type of cruel or unloving manipulation would be) defeats the purpose of using persuasion and influence to strengthen our connections with those we love.

But the question remains: How can we use the SUPER-powerful “Fear of missing out” phenomenon to influence our partners in healthy ways to adjust a behavior that might save or strengthen our marriage?

Influencing others isn’t about luck or sorcery. It’s science.

It’s simply caring about something enough to figure out how it functions, and how best to care for it to keep it operating at a high level for a very long time.

It’s simply caring enough about the people we love to figure out how best to care for them in a way that keeps their hearts, minds and spirits functioning at high levels for a very long time.

Like, longer than my son’s putting-his-shoes-on process.

Like, forever.

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I Figured Out Who To Blame For My Divorce

man and woman pointing fingers at each other

(Image/shawnpowrie.com)

After an 18-month downward spiral of misery hallmarked by sexlessness, sleeping in separate bedrooms, and crying more than any middle-class white guy living in the United States should be allowed, my wife packed a bag and drove away with our preschooler in the backseat.

And because during those final months I felt as if I was trying harder than she was to make it work, I blamed her for ruining my life and taking half of my son’s childhood away from me.

I felt abandoned. Betrayed. Rejected.

I felt like she chose someone else over me because I wasn’t good enough.

Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not attractive enough. Not sexy enough. Not tall enough.

Not ANYTHING enough.

Must be this tall to ride.

She moved out. And before I had time to figure out what hit me, she was with someone else.

I blamed her for breaking up our family. I blamed her for disrupting our little son’s childhood. I blamed her for the intense pain I felt in my head, chest and stomach. I blamed her for leaving me alone in a town where I didn’t have roots, but couldn’t move from.

I blamed her for ruining my entire life.

She did this to me.

The Skill of Blaming

When bad things happen in my personal life, my brain quickly creates stories to explain why those bad things are as much Not My Fault as mathematically possible.

It’s kind of incredible how instantaneously it occurs.

I’d call it a superpower, but maybe everyone does it. Also, I perceive superpowers to be tools used for good, and blame-shifting even as an involuntary subconscious process that happens before we even have time to speak or act, is not something I’d consider “good.”

I don’t have to try hard to do this.

Point to something you don’t like about me, or some aspect of my behavior or lifestyle you observe as needing improvement, and I can tell you a legit story about why it’s that way.

Only child.

Small-town Ohio.

Divorced parents.

Unforeseeable economic conditions.

ADHD.

Super-busy.

Single father.

Whatever.

Something I inherited or some limitation created by someone else can usually be blamed for whatever The Bad Thing is.

Sometimes I even catch myself saying: “That’s not meant to be an excuse; that’s the actual reason” to people to whom I’m probably just making excuses.

I’d like to think I’m being honest when I say it.

But maybe I trick myself into believing my own bullshit before I ever get to the part where I challenge my own assumptions. Maybe I sometimes move on before ever getting to the self-challenging part because I’m busy or distracted or lazy. That’s probably how a whole bunch of false beliefs and general assholery happens.

I think I might thoughtlessly do what many humans thoughtlessly do: We rationalize and believe whatever story makes us feel most comfortable.

I’ve been thinking about blame ever since another writer pointed me in the direction of this Dr. Brené Brown video on blame. It’s excellent and you should watch it in an effort to keep your assholery quotient as low as possible.

When Blame is Good

I’ve been trying to work out when blame or the act of assigning blame might be useful.

If someone is wrongly accused of a crime or even just misidentified as having caused The Bad Thing at home, school or work, it seems like a good thing to exonerate the innocent by discovering the true cause.

Similarly, bad things sometimes happen on a broader scale, like a workplace accident, airplane crash or building fire. In these situations, some type of root-cause analysis and investigation is conducted to identify the reason The Bad Thing happened.

It’s good to identify reasons. To assign “blame” correctly, because then steps can be taken to learn from any mistakes that might have contributed to The Bad Thing happening.

There are very few items on my Reasons My Life is Better Because of Divorce! list that I just invented.

But one of them is: Now that I’ve identified several ways that my incorrect beliefs and asshole behaviors contributed to my divorce, I can now be confident that I’m unlikely to repeat them.

Which is a bigger deal for people like me than you might realize.

People who smoke a pack of Marlboros every day, and pound fast-food cheeseburgers and shakes for every meal are more likely to gain weight and develop heart disease, cancer or another potentially fatal disease linked to poor nutrition.

There was a time in history not so long ago where MOST people in the world didn’t know things like that.

Figuring out what to “blame” for the sickness and death was good. It was useful. It helped us collectively make better choices moving forward.

The truth is that blame is rarely good or useful. A better word for the good kind of “blame” is Accountability.

When Blame is Bad

I’m wrong more often than I want to believe (You are too. Sorry!), but I’m pretty sure blaming other things and other people for The Bad Things we encounter is almost never good.

Brené Brown says it best in that video above that you probably didn’t watch.

She said “I’d rather something be my fault than no one’s fault. Why? Because it gives us some semblance of control.”

And that very thought is, I believe, the one that helped me get from depression and borderline-suicidalness, to the place where I can find comfort and peace that my son and his mother have someone other than me who cares about them and looks out for their wellbeing.

When my needy, bitchy, nagging, unsatisfiable and overly emotional wife left me, I was a victim, and powerless to any of her personal-life decisions (which impacted me directly because we share a child). Everything was her fault, and I was miserable and kind of wanted to die.

However.

When my unsupported, emotionally abandoned wife who had spent several years trying her best to help me understand how my actions and attitudes were harming her and our marriage (while I repeatedly denied it and refused to change) FINALLY worked up the courage to leave the relationship in the face of sacrificing so much time with her son, and suffering the personal-life fallout of all who would judge her disapprovingly for that choice…

Everything became MY fault. 

Because—despite tricking myself and others for many years—I had been a monumentally shitty husband.

And after coming to terms emotionally with the depths of my failings, my misery turned into power.

My despair turned into hope.

Because I finally, finally, finally understood how my actions had lead me to the place I was in, and I could feel the incredible power that comes with being in control of my own life again.

And when you understand how something you did or didn’t do lead to the worst thing that ever happened to you, you get to stop being afraid of it happening again for the same reason.

We can’t fix things when we don’t even know what’s broken.

Blame blinds us to accurate diagnoses.

Brown said: “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability is a vulnerable process.”

Similar to how The Gottman Institute has conducted incredible amounts of research and amassed huge quantities of data on which to base its relationship-counseling advice, Brown also has taken a research-based approach to helping people develop better relationship skills.

“Blaming is simply a way to discharge anger. People who blame a lot seldom have the tenacity and grit to actually hold people accountable because we spend all of our energy raging for 15 seconds and figuring out whose fault something is,” Brown said. “Blaming is very corrosive in relationships, and one of the reasons we miss our opportunities for empathy.”

And if you don’t exactly know what empathy is and why it’s important (I did not throughout the entirety my nine-year marriage), then you’ll be pleased to know it’s the one thing you can start practicing today that will literally change your life and those of everyone you interact with regularly in profound and positive ways.

Nine out of 10 doctors recommend it for curing a bad case of assholery.

When I blame other people and happenings for the bad things I experience in life, then nothing I do matters because everything good or bad that happens to me is out of my control.

The poor helpless victim that I am.

When I accept responsibility for all of my choices from an appropriate age of accountability through today, then everything I do matters because everything that happens to me is a result of something I can influence by whatever I choose next.

It’s the difference between anxiety and confidence; between despair and hope; and between a life where things just happen to us, and one where we decide what happens next.

It’s easy to blame everything on my ex-wife.

It’s hard to be accountable for everything that happened to my family.

But my most important discovery following the worst thing that ever happened to me is this: I can do hard things.

And so can you.

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The Power of Understanding

The Power of Understanding

On the left is what we consider “color-correct.” On the right is what someone with red-green colorblindness sees. (Image/Irv Aron’s Journal)

Person #1: “I love the way the red pomegranates, orange oranges and yellow bananas pop in this photo.”

Person #2: “What are you smoking? Everything looks muted. Dark greens and grays. Nothing is red or yellow in that photo.”

Person #1: “Are we looking at the same thing here? The colors are vibrant and beautiful. You’re crazy if you don’t think so.”

Person #2: “Whatever. You’re a moron. I know what I see.”

Couples fight a lot. We’re human. We disagree because our brains work differently than others’. But when we FIGHT, it’s mostly because we don’t understand.

And then, no matter how many different situations crop up, it seems as if the fight is always the same.

Both people believe they’re looking at the same thing, yet both people see something totally different, in much the same way people with color-correct vision perceive color differently than those with red-green colorblindness.

That situation rarely comes up today because advanced tools and understanding in optometry detects colorblindness early.

But you can imagine the conversations people were having before it became widely known that color-blind people literally see something different than those of us blessed with the ability to see the full range of colors.

Two sane people arguing about how something right in front of them looks totally different than what the other is describing, and both thinking the other must be crazy or intentionally trying to upset them.

I think that sums up the majority of marriage and relationship arguments throughout human history.

Sometimes one person will be factually incorrect, yes.

But the marriage fights that slowly break down the emotional connection between two spouses tend not to be about things we can “prove.”

We Don’t Need to Speak the Same Language; We Need Only Accurate Translations

I can’t read nor understand any spoken language that isn’t English (not counting the 30 words I still remember from my Spanish classes).

How accurate or helpful a written document or spoken set of instructions may be can’t overcome my inability to understand them when offered in any language but the one I know.

There’s profound power in understanding what something means.

The Power of Habit

Stuff happened to you when you were a baby that you can’t remember, but the imprint those things left on you is responsible for some of the emotional triggers affecting you today.

They look and feel different for everyone. Even siblings raised by the same people in the same environment.

Moreover, we spend our lives subconsciously developing habits. Habits are very powerful. When our spouses say or do certain things, it may trigger something within us that brings out the worst in us. It’s emotional, deep-seated chemical response based on a lifetime of experiences (many of which we may have misinterpreted or misunderstood at the time!).

Charles Duhigg wrote an awesome book about habits. Here’s a quick video about the power of habits:

So, I finally understood what my wife had been saying all these years, and that fundamental shift in understanding changed EVERYTHING for me in terms of my ability to properly frame our conversations and disagreements.

It was incredibly empowering (albeit regret-inducing) to recognize reality. To be clued into the truth about colorblindness for the first time.

And I was so excited about this information that seemed so powerful and important to me that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

Divorce was very hard as a child to see your parents go through it, and it’s very hard as an adult — the breakage and loss we feel, and the added pain of watching our kids suffer and knowing we had a hand in it.

And FINALLY, I know something that other guys don’t know, but IF they knew, they could all change and then maybe they won’t get divorced like me.

That was what I thought and felt.

But after doing this for four years, seeing and hearing how so many relationship and divorce stories play out, and going through the human experience myself in my various family and social relationships, I’ve learned something else very important.

We Don’t Change — Our Understanding Does

I thought my new understanding would change me. I even used the word “change.” I described myself as a new person. A different person.

It’s a lot of semantics of course, but I’m not actually all that different. And I haven’t really changed despite all of my newfound understanding.

I used to believe that I could help a man understand what I know, and that if he “got it,” he could then flip a switch and magically turn into someone else who never did the things which upset his spouse.

That’s not what happens.

People don’t magically turn into other people with totally different personalities and habits, no matter how much they learn.

I used to believe that a guy would simply stop doing all of those things which started fights at home and THAT would save a marriage.

I no longer believe that.

I believe a guy — any person, really — will continue to be exactly who they are. But I believe they will occasionally be more mindful of their behaviors and reduce instances of situations which historically caused an argument.

But the real value is in the understanding.

Marriages aren’t saved by people changing everything about themselves and the chemistry that brought them together in the first place.

Marriages are saved by people who learn how to understand one another. We learn that our translators are unreliable, so we must account for things getting lost in translation. We learn that the goal of a conversation is not to win an argument, but to achieve mutual understanding.

We learn that we can look at the exact same photo as someone else and see something totally different because neither of us are wrong. Then, when we talk, we are — maybe for the first time ever — actually talking about the same things with the same frame of reference.

Because my brain and your brain are not the same.

Because all of my individual experiences, and all of yours, shaped us into people who see and feel things differently.

Because colorblindness is real.

“Oh, he’s colorblind. Of course the fruit looks different to him. He isn’t wrong. He isn’t crazy. And he hasn’t been intentionally trying to anger or hurt me all this of time after all.”

We want them to change.

But all we really need is for them to understand.

That’s when good things happen.

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Is He the One?: How to Know Whether You Should Marry Him

litmus test

(Image/Broken Bread Club)

I used to leave a drinking glass by the kitchen sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher, and then argue with my wife when she complained about it.

I wrote that story a year ago, and since, more than five million people read it on this blog, and several million more read it elsewhere.

I call it “the dishes post,” even though it’s about a lot more than dishes. When I was asked today in an email whether there was a way to know BEFORE marriage that someone who by all appearances is a good man, might be a shitty husband, I realized the dishes post also serves as an excellent marriage litmus test.

She asked: “But, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way for a woman to know or predict that *before* getting married? Red flags are obvious (infidelity, abuse, jealousy, etc.) but what about far-less obvious stuff?”

It’s a good question. And a year ago, I wouldn’t have been brazen enough to answer it. But when millions of people read something, share it with their friends and family saying: “THIS!!! This guy gets it!!!” and guys send me private emails telling me that it helped them finally understand why he and his wife or girlfriend always have the same fight over and over again, and that I helped him save his marriage, I feel emboldened even if it’s unjustified.

The Marriage Litmus Test

It could be dishes by the sink. It could be dirty socks thrown next to the hamper. It could be pee dribble on the toilet seat. It could be muddy shoes on the floor. It could be unrinsed shaving cream and facial-hair stubble crusted to the sides of the sink basin.

It doesn’t matter what the Thing is. Everyone has different Things.

It’s the Thing He Does Which Hurts Your Feelings or Disrespects You, And Then Acts Like You’re Crazy or Wrong When You Say So.

It usually goes like this:

Behavior X = The Thing That Hurts. Sometimes there are several things.

But Behavior X does not hurt him. In other words, dirty socks on the floor might bother you, but it doesn’t bother him. Because it doesn’t bother him, he thinks it’s irrational for it to bother you.

Thus, in his mind, the simple and best solution is not for him to stop throwing socks on the floor, but for you to stop letting your irrational emotions ruin your day.

“Why are you freaking out about something so minor and petty? Just let it go, babe! It’s not a big deal! I’ll pick them up later!”

I think you probably get it. So, here’s the test:

Step 1: Identify things or behaviors your boyfriend does which hurts your feelings.

Step 2: Say so. Kindly. Patiently. Honestly.

If he gets it, and says words and adjusts behavior to demonstrate that he gets it, he passes The Marriage Litmus Test with an A+. Congratulations!

This is uncommon. More likely are the following types of responses:

1. Dismissal — Treating your concern as unimportant like shooing away a flying insect.

2. Outrage — Responding as if you’re wrong, even going so far as to blame you for finding reasons to feel angry and start fights.

3. Avoidance — Denying you the opportunity to explain yourself because “Now’s not a good time for this,” and choosing to focus his energy and attention elsewhere.

Which means The Marriage Litmus Test continues. He doesn’t know how much is at stake, just like cigarette smokers in the 1960s didn’t know that smoking caused cancer. He’s not intentionally causing harm. He’s accidentally causing harm by choosing activities he honestly doesn’t know are bad.

Patience must be maintained. If you flip shit on him during the test, the test results will be invalid, because flipping your shit is ALSO not okay, no matter how easily and automatically you might slip into lashing out angrily.

Step 3: Kindly and honestly communicate that the Dismissal/Outrage/Avoidance response ALSO hurts, just like The Thing.

And for the sake of leading by example, kindly ask when a good time might be to talk about it more with him. NOT to criticize. But to help bridge the misunderstanding because you want your partner to understand where you’re coming from, just as you want to understand his perspective. You want to spend the rest of your relationship not fighting over silly things.

If he refuses to ever talk about it because you’re being a stupid, nagging, bitchy idiot, then maybe it’s time to leave. Because, without a major shift, your relationship is doomed.

If he agrees to a later conversation, and honors that commitment, things are looking good, and he may still earn an A.

Step 4: During the conversation, follow The 4 Easy Steps For Getting Your Husband to Finally Listen to You.

Not everyone’s brains work exactly the same. It is common for two people to view the same thing totally differently, which is why you’re having the conversation in the first place. Just because two people disagree DOES NOT make one wrong and the other right. Not all disagreements have an objectively true answer, like whether chocolate tastes better than vanilla.

Chocolate tastes better to me. Others prefer vanilla. The reasons are unique to each individual.

The trick is to understand what HURTS your boyfriend. So many guys mask their pains for fear of losing their Man Cards that sometimes their girlfriends don’t actually know what hurts them.

And it’s truly this simple:

Thing That Hurts Guy = Guy Hurting

And in EXACTLY that same way…

Boyfriend Behavior Being Discussed = Girlfriend Hurting

Each instance of the behavior caused a paper cut. And it just kept happening. Paper cuts. They don’t kill you. But it really hurts and is totally debilitating to get them over and over and over again. And ultimately, too many cuts becomes a fatal wound.

The Test Results

Even though a paper cut won’t kill me, I’m not going to choose a relationship with someone who repeatedly cuts me with paper, even after I point out that it’s happening.

My partner may accidentally give me a paper cut thoughtlessly. If she demonstrates clear remorse and pledges to stop, I will respond differently than if she says: “Toughen up, pussy. They’re just paper cuts.”

Everyone will have a different pain tolerance and threshold, as well as different reasons (they might have children together, for example) for grading the Marriage Litmus Test on a curve.

In the end, it’s up to each person to establish their personal boundaries and to enforce them. People who don’t communicate and enforce their boundaries are doomed to a life of other people making them miserable.

In the end, a guy who doesn’t “get it” or refuses to try will make a shitty husband, even if he’s a good guy in other areas.

He’ll just keep on cutting you with paper. Maybe not on purpose. But eventually, through negligence.

In the end, a guy who believes there’s a clear winner in the Chocolate vs. Vanilla debate, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion is wrong, will ultimately prove to be an insufferable asshole and shitty husband who will purposefully or inadvertently teach your kids to be insufferable assholes.

But just maybe, once your boyfriend understands that something that doesn’t hurt him and that he never intended to be harmful CAN STILL HURT YOU, and it registers with him how dangerous and abusive it is when people suffer that way, everything will change.

He may still paper-cut you accidentally now and then. But when you say so kindly, the moment won’t turn into another fight.

It will turn into a moment that brings you closer together.

Because he knows what he didn’t before, and because he’s a good guy, he’s going to try hard to not hurt you.

And because you know that when you do feel hurt, it will be safe to tell him, and you can trust he will always have your best interests (and those of your future family) at heart.

Sometimes, he’ll disappoint you. And it will hurt. Maybe one day that pain will be replaced by gratitude for avoiding a toxic marriage.

But sometimes, he’ll surprise you. In a good way. Because he passed the Marriage Litmus Test.

Because you found the one for you.

And that’s where Happily Ever After — at least the real-life, non-fairytale version — begins.

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When Your Spouse Dies and You Miss Their Dirty Socks on the Floor

dirty socks on the floor

(Image/The Livingston Post)

After her husband died unexpectedly, the dirty socks and pants she used to find thrown on the bedroom floor became something she missed.

She avoided washing his last load of laundry as long as she could. Savoring this once-annoying moment as she realized how much she would miss it.

Debbie Wilkins Baisden recounts this story and the life lesson it provided in her article “Stop Being a Butthole Wife.”

Everyone who has ever written about male-female relationships could have predicted what happened next.

Everyone in happy, peaceful marriages read it and said: “Amen, sister! Don’t sweat the small stuff!”

Wives frustrated and angry with their husbands who leave dirty laundry on the floor, and dirty dishes next to the sink said: “I know you’re sad your husband died, but that doesn’t mean we should excuse the disrespectful behavior! I’m not my husband’s maid, and he needs to respect me and pick up after himself!”

And then a guy would reply: “Why do you believe you have the right to command your husband to do things your way, or dictate the terms of your marriage when he feels differently? You’re not his mother!”

And then a married or divorced wife would reply: “The person who does all the cleaning should make the rules!”

And then a married guy would reply: “I suppose that’s what you say and feel when your husband is outside shoveling snow, or fixing the plumbing, or taking garbage to the curb! You feminists have ruined marriage!”

And then a woman would reply: “Actually, you misogynists are the ones who ruined marriage!”

And then more people would internet-scream at each other about who is responsible or to blame for their problems, the premise always being that “If only men/women would stop doing (insert ‘crime’ here), we wouldn’t have all these relationship problems!”

If I Blame Everything on Divorce, Then Nothing is Ever My Fault

That’s my life in a nutshell.

I don’t do it on purpose.

I don’t sit around thinking: This is all totally my fault, but I’ll just blame it on someone or something else for public-relations reasons and trick everyone.

But I do often catch myself blaming divorce for things.

I was popular and well-liked growing up. (Or at least, I THOUGHT I was popular and well-liked, which has the same effect on your mind and body even if it wasn’t true.)

I assumed everyone I met liked me, and I assumed everyone I would meet would like me, and that made me mostly fearless.

I made friends easily. Girls seemed to like me. Friends’ parents, teachers, and coaches all seemed to as well.

I had many friends. Both in high school and college. In two different states because my mom and dad lived in different places.

I struggled with the transition to domesticated, couples-based socializing after my girlfriend/fiancée/wife and I started our life together, and everything converted from big-group activities and parties, to small dinner parties and small-group gatherings.

But as time passed and I matured, I found peace and pleasure with the ebb and flow of being married and couples-based socializing as we all began building careers and families.

Then the hits started coming around age 30.

The fight about where we should live and work.

The birth of our son.

The death of a parent.

The near-universal husband/wife clashes over money, household chores, and how we treated one another when things got rough.

It’s the slow march to divorce most people don’t see coming nor recognize as it’s happening, but it mostly looks the same for everyone in failing or failed marriages.

My wife stopped liking me.

Then, stopped loving me.

She’s not big on pretending, so I felt the change. And one day at a time, it started pecking at my insides.

Next thing I knew, I was sleeping in the guest room and freaking out.

Then, she was gone, and I freaked out harder.

Then—I don’t know. That’s now, I guess. “Then” is now. On April 1, it will be four years since my marriage ended.

It’s a big blur in my head that feels simultaneously lightning-fast and like an agonizing eternity.

I only know this: When the story began, everyone liked me, I wasn’t afraid of anything, and life was awesome. And now? I worry about people liking me. I’m afraid of all kinds of things. And life is just okay.

It’s easy to blame her for my life and feel sorry for myself.

It’s easy to blame her when she goes on vacations with her boyfriend and our old couples friends.

It’s easy to blame her when she goes on trips with our son and families of his new friends from school.

It’s easy to feel: She did this to me. She turned me into someone else, and then dumped the person she made me become.

It’s easy to blame all the hurt and shame and fear and anxiety and inconveniences and difficulties on other people.

I think if men can keep blaming feminism and “nagging wives” for ruining marriage, then men will never have to grow and change.

I think if women can keep blaming misogyny and “shitty husbands” for ruining marriage, then women will never have to grow and change.

Growth and change is hard. Like cooking when you don’t feel like it.

Maybe I’ll just order a pizza.

Maybe someone can start a peaceful-relationship delivery service. Delivering harmony and kindness to our front doors for a small fee.

Nothing Changes Unless We Do

I don’t know Debbie Wilkins Baisden. But as someone helping to popularize the term “shitty husband,” I feel uniquely qualified to guess the following:

Debbie labeling herself a “butthole wife” because she used to complain about her husband’s dirty laundry was NOT to excuse husbands who are slobs, nor to label all wives seeking thoughtfulness and respect from their husbands as “buttholes.”

Me labeling myself a “shitty husband” is NOT me taking on all of the blame for my failed marriage, nor is it to condemn all men who leave laundry on the floor or dishes by the sink as “shitty.”

It’s simply a fun writing convention to talk about where I messed up in my marriage.

Maybe my ex-wife believes she messed up sometimes. I don’t know. I know only that I’m qualified to write about my thoughts, feelings and experiences, and NOT qualified to write about anyone else’s, least of all someone with whom I disagreed with so much, that we ended a marriage with a young child involved.

EVERYTHING is Our Responsibility

Guys LOVE to come back at me with: “This is all just theory and conjecture! If guys do all the stuff you say, they’re just going to get run over by their domineering, emotional, bitchy wives!”

To which I’d reply:

Don’t marry anyone who is domineering, bitchy, or whose emotional reactions you consider intolerable.

I’m simply NOT blaming myself or men for failed marriages. Never have; never will.

I am identifying all of the ways I messed up or made decisions which led to divorce, and asking myself the question: If I hadn’t messed up, and had I made better decisions, isn’t it possible that the events leading to divorce wouldn’t have happened in the first place, and that our marriage would have thrived?

Another good question: If instead of waiting for my wife to grow and change, I proactively grew and changed, isn’t it possible my wife would have felt and responded differently? Isn’t it possible most of our fights would have never happened at all?

Single people can point fingers at certain behaviors and decide for themselves that they’re unacceptable and that they’d never be in a relationship with someone who showcased them. Single people are responsible for their own happiness. Single people are not beholden to others.

Yet, single people almost ALWAYS (to the tune of 95%) pursue long-term relationships with other people, presumably because they believe a long-term relationship will make them happy.

However, the entry fee for a relationship is trading in your Single Person card and exchanging it for a In A Relationship one.

And now, in a certain context, you don’t get to be yourself anymore.

Marriages and Relationships Aren’t Two People Doing Something Together

We talk about two people getting married. And now they’re a couple. Two different people. But a team.

It’s kind of true. But as soon as it gets hard and one person feels like the other is a bad teammate, people start looking for another team to join, or to go back to being a team of one.

But I don’t believe a marriage is two people doing something together.

I believe a marriage is ONE thing. And it’s built from two parts.

What makes an airplane fly? The wings or the engine?

Exactly.

Two different parts, which if EITHER stops functioning, the entire thing goes down.

People fight, fight, fight, fight, and fight some more because they want their spouse to admit to being wrong and acknowledge that he or she was “right.”

And people fight, fight, fight, fight, and fight that EXACT SAME FIGHT until they die or divorce because the husband’s or wife’s goal is to win the fight.

When the airplane’s engine wins enough fights, one of the wings will fall off.

When the airplane’s wings win enough fights, the engine or engines will start to lose thrust.

And then, boom. Fiery explosions and sadness.

The intentions of critical airplane parts should be to maximize the aircraft’s performance, lest they all explode and die.

The intentions of husbands and wives should be to maximize the performance—NOT of themselves, but of the marriage as a unit.

The widowed Debbie missed picking up her husband’s annoying dirty laundry because the marriage was WAY bigger than just her, or just her feelings, or just the laundry, or just anything.

And she shared that experience because it mattered, just as I share mine.

But lost in all the noise, is purpose and meaning. The reasons WHY these stories matter. 

He’s blaming her.

She’s blaming him.

I’m blaming her, and then…

I’m blaming me.

It’s no one’s fault and everyone’s.

And it’s easy to blame, blame, blame, so we all do it some more, even when we don’t need any more blame. We’re totally good on blame now. Quota’s filled.

We need responsibility.

Accountability.

The willingness to serve a thing bigger than just ourselves.

Because that’s where true peace, happiness, love and contentment lives. Or maybe just because you fucking promised. Take your pick.

Maybe we’ll get it right someday.

Maybe even me.

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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.

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5 Sales and Writing Secrets That Could Save Your Marriage (and Make Your Relationships Thrive)

telling a secret

(Image/We Share Pics)

Couples struggle in relationships because they don’t know how to talk to each other.

There are other reasons. But that’s the biggest.

Maybe I’m the only one, but nuanced, intangible things like “feelings” and “communication” and “psychology” never pulled much weight with me growing up, or even in my 20s.

Feelings?! Those are for girls!

Communication?! What’s there to talk about?! Everyone is basically the same!

Psychology?! That’s pseudo-science! Can’t we talk about something that matters, like football or movies?!

Yes, I was/am an idiot.

Those very accurate (if ignorant) thoughts and internal monologues explain why I’m divorced.

It’s worth repeating: If your marriage is miserable and broken, the reason is because you don’t know how to talk to each other.

Sure, you both have personal and collective problems outside of the communication spectrum, but two people pulling in the same direction who understand how to exchange healthy and productive dialogue about them will actually grow closer while overcoming the hardships together.

The future of our closest and most-treasured, most-meaningful relationships depends on us figuring this out. I say “us,” because I’m totally in the boat, too. A lifetime of bad habits and emotional triggers can only be broken and reprogrammed with new, better habits and thoughtful situational response.

Maybe my professional life can be a source of inspiration.

If Words and Sales Techniques Influence People to Buy Things, Could They Also Affect Behavior in Relationships? 

“They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl W. Buehner

From dating through our divorce, my wife and I were together for 12 years.

Maybe it’s because we’re creeping up on four years since our separation and my memory isn’t what it used to be, but I can’t remember the specific words, tone of voice, timing and circumstances of any of our verbal spats.

I can only remember how it felt.

I was angry. Confused. Frustrated. Arrogant. Defensive. Ashamed.

Like most couples, we mostly had the same fight over and over again. A few details change, but it’s always The Same Fight®, with the same themes and argument patterns.

The Same Fight doesn’t always scare you when it’s happening because you’re used to having it. But The Same Fight is what infects hearts, breaks couples and destroys families.

People pay attention to, and try to change or fix things that scare them. Have you heard or lived the story of the husband who seems disengaged from his wife and marriage, but has a complete meltdown and goes into desperate Super-Husband Mode after his wife says she wants a divorce, causing “WTF???” reactions from a wife who felt ignored, unwanted and unloved for years?

That’s what I’m talking about.

Those men fighting for their marriages and families when it’s too little, too late are guys who would have made different choices all along had they only FELT what they now feel in their frightened desperation.

It’s the marketing and advertising industry’s most potent weapon — human emotion.

Coca-Cola is the world’s most recognized brand and, I believe, the top-selling beverage in every country on Earth where it’s sold except Scotland (where I believe it’s #2). Coke is last on the list of companies that need more brand awareness. Yet they spend a kajillion dollars every year on people-oriented or “feely” marketing campaigns and advertisements because they want people to feel good when they think about, or drink, Coke.

And this is a company selling a product that’s not particularly good for us.

I think maybe we should try to be more like Coke in our relationships, except what we are offering IS actually good for people. With due respect to the fine people at Coca-Cola, strong relationships and stable, cohesive families actually will change the world.

“But, Matt!!! Advertising and marketing stuff doesn’t work on me!!!”

Right. I used to believe that, too.

And maybe it’s true. I can’t prove nor promise that certain word choices will influence an individual person to take a desired action. But I CAN prove and promise that certain word choices influence people.

When I’m not blogging about what a shitty husband I was, I’m writing marketing content designed to influence people to buy or sign up for something. I see a lot of data. I read a lot about strategy for improving results.

And yesterday, for the first time, I asked myself the question: Couldn’t these ideas just as easily apply to our interpersonal relationships?

5 Sales and Marketing Tricks You Can Use to Improve Communication with Relationship Partners (and Everyone Else)

1. Pay Attention to Timing

It’s hard to sell Christmas gifts in April. It’s hard to sell swimwear to cold-weather residents during winter. It’s often impossible to sell things during a crisis.

For example, Sept. 12, 2001 was probably a bad day to launch a new mattress and bedding sale in New York City.

But more subtle than that in the marketing world is time-of-day engagement metrics for things like email open rates or social media posts and ads.

MANY more people will open an email at 9 a.m. Monday than at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, just as many more people will see and engage with a Facebook post or advertisement at lunchtime or 7 p.m. on a weeknight than most other times (though it varies by demographic – young people stay up longer, for example).

All that to say: Maybe dumping criticisms or complaints on people during their busy workdays, or making requests or demands of others right when they walk in the door from a long day at work or at home with small children (and we have no idea what they’ve been through) isn’t the most effective timing nor best idea.

2. Chemistry is NOT Pseudo-Science. Smile and Hug More.

I’m not a biologist or any other kind of doctor, but I’ve read about dopamine enough to know it’s one of, if not the, most influential chemical our body produces to give us feelings of happiness.

Smiling is measurably the highest positive emotional gesture we make. It makes others AND ourselves feel better. And it’s a non-verbal cue which connects us to others and signals that we mean them no harm.

Additionally, HUG. For at least SIX SECONDS. Not strangers, necessarily because that might be weird. But your spouse, for sure. After six seconds, the body releases all of these excellent chemicals, including dopamine, which makes everyone’s lives better.

You might not feel like smiling or hugging. You also might not feel like brushing your teeth, or going to the doctor, or replacing your vehicle’s tires. But you do it because it’s important.

Smiling and hugging (and the chemicals they release) are IMPORTANT.

Side note: When you are text-messaging, non-verbal cues AND tone of voice are absent. Stop discussing important things via text. Pick up the phone, or save the important stuff for later.

3. Use the Right Words

Effective marketing and sales copy is customer-focused. It either educates or entertains. Customers DO NOT care about companies. Customers care about how companies’ products and services can solve their problems or otherwise improve their lives.

A thoughtful copywriter always asks: “How does this make you feel?” rather than “Which message do you want to send?”

Specific word choice matters.

You, Because, Free, Instantly and New are the five most-persuasive words in the English language, according to data analysis of advertising and marketing copy. Using those words has a measureable impact on the number of people who will open an email or click something online.

What words have a positive impact on your partner?

What words have a negative impact on them?

Don’t know? Ask. Or pay attention to what words (and actions) soothe them or make them happy, as well as those that upset them. Keep track! Talk about them!

How is it that I know which words will help me improve my email marketing campaigns, but don’t know which specific words made my wife hurt or feel good?

No need to overthink that one. I was an asshole.

4. Talk No Longer Than 30 Seconds at a Time During Conversation

Brevity is critical in marketing. And while I’m decent executing it as a marketer, I’m fairly horrible in conversation (and writing blog posts, *ahem*).

I am the KING of the never-ending monologue because of the way my brain processes new ideas and keeps triggering new thoughts while I’m talking, but also because my dad used to monologue-lecture me. I can remember ALL of the things I did which earned the lectures, but none of the lessons dad tried to teach me.

I used to use a lot of words while trying to convince my wife she was wrong to be mad at me or on the wrong side of an argument.

Pro Tip: That shit doesn’t work.

“Sometimes we speak beyond what someone is able to listen to. What the research shows is that the human brain can really only hold on to four things at a time, so if you go on and on for five or 10 minutes trying to argue a point, the person will only remember a very small part of that,” said neurologist Andrew Newberg, co-author of “Words Can Change Your Brain.” “We developed compassionate communication with the idea of having several goals, and one of them is to speak briefly, meaning that you speak one or two sentences, maybe 30 seconds worth or so, because that’s really what the human brain can take in and absorb.”

5. Make three positive comments for every negative statement

Newberg’s research also suggests that negative arguments have a very detrimental effect to our brain. We need to pay particular attention to not let them take over and work against them by using the 3-to-1 ratio:

“When you get into a dialogue with somebody to discuss any particular issue, a three-to-one ratio is a relatively good benchmark to think about; you wind up creating the opportunity for a more constructive dialogue and hopefully a better resolution,” Newberg said.

In marketing, positive messages work better when consumers have time to ponder purchase decisions. (Your partner totally has time to ponder.)

And negative marketing messages work better when there are deadlines because people generally demonstrate a fear of missing out and want to avoid negative outcomes.

Both positive AND negative statements should be used in our personal relationships to communicate thoughts and feelings.

But, for best results, we must counterbalance the fear- and anxiety-producing ones by using much more positive and hope-inspiring words.

Less hate. More love.

Less anger. More forgiveness.

Less stress and anxiety. More peace.

No tricks or scams. No lies or deception. Just authentic, thoughtful word choice and message delivery.

What we say, where we say it, when we say it, why we say it, and how we say it all dictates whether our messages are heard, understood, and properly digested.

Though our behavior often suggests otherwise, our closest relationships are the most precious and important things in life.

Sales and marketing people. Writers. They’re not for everyone.

But in the realm of HOW to communicate effectively — maybe doing things as they do would go a long way toward inspiring change in the feelings and behaviors of the people we live and work with.

Of the people we love.

Only one way to find out.

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We Can’t Always Get What We Want, But if We Try Sometimes…

maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-by-angela-duncan

Everyone needs a few things. If you deny help to your partner in their pursuits, or become an obstacle, then your relationship will inevitably suck or end. (Image/Angela Duncan)

You and outside forces are engaged in a never-ending dance—working in harmony, or against each other—to motivate your spouse or partner to stay with you or leave you.

While I never thought of my marriage as any sort of Gotcha!-trap for my wife, it’s pretty clear upon reflection that my behavior frequently conveyed the belief she would never leave and that I had no power nor responsibility to influence her decisions or motivate her to choose me and our marriage over other options.

Maybe it’s because I grew up Catholic and didn’t see much divorce.

Maybe it’s because I was ignorant and oblivious.

Or maybe it’s because I was a stupid asshole.

It has become clear to me in the years following the 2013 divorce that ended my nine-year marriage that my wife needed things in life (whether or not I agreed with her conclusions) and that my job—my solemn duty as her husband—was to help her acquire or achieve those things, even if those things were as simple as more attention, more respect and more empathy.

Our opinions regarding others’ needs have little impact on their behaviors and choices. If THEY believe they need something, they will pursue those needs with or without us.

We can accept that and thrive, even if it means exerting more energy and giving more of ourselves to others.

Or we can reject it, and learn the hard way in our failed relationships (even when we mask the truth and convince others—and sometimes ourselves—things are okay even when they’re not).

What Do Our Partners Need? What Do We Need?

People need things.

We can debate semantics surrounding the word “need,” like whether electricity or indoor plumbing or Wi-Fi or sex or vehicles qualify. But if you’ll grant me some latitude on using that word, it will help very much.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously published his hierarchy of human needs in 1943.

It’s normally presented in pyramid form like this:

hierarchy-of-human-needs-pyramid-image-by-huriata

Image/Huriata

In reverse pyramid-stacking order, people need:

1. Physiological (Basic Needs)

We need air, water, food, clothes and shelter.

Typically, if any of those are missing, we don’t care very much about family drama, the economy, or The Walking Dead season finale.

2. Safety

We need to feel safe.

If lions and bears are chasing us, or someone is pointing a gun at us, or we are diagnosed with a life-changing or threatening disease, or the financial markets crash and we lose all of our money, or terrorists detonate bombs in random public places, we lose our ability to feel safe.

Stress and anxiety consume us, and we are stuck on the second rung of the Life Needs ladder until the feelings of safety return.

3. Love/Belonging

We need to feel loved and/or as if we belong to a tribe.

Humans have such a profound need to feel loved and part of something that they will often sacrifice personal safety to cling to physically/sexually/mentally abusive parents, caregivers and romantic partners in their pursuit of feeling loved and connected to others they identify as being “like them.”

4. Esteem

We need to feel respected and accepted.

We crave professional success, mastery of a hobby, accumulation of wealth, victory in competition, as well as fame and recognition in a constant pursuit of feeling respected by others.

Maslow called this craving for the approval of others the Lower form of Esteem.

Because we can NEVER feel respected and accepted until we respect and accept ourselves. Self-respect is the Higher form of Esteem, Maslow said.

5. Self-Actualization/Transcendence

We need to achieve whatever our individual or collective potential is, and accomplish whatever we are capable of accomplishing in order to live and die without shame and regret.

As you move up the five-step pyramid from Basic Needs for staying alive to more mind- and heart-based needs, you will notice the group sizes getting smaller and smaller.

That’s because we must not just understand, but master, a level of human need before we are able to move on to the next. Maybe people for many reasons live their entire lives without feeling loved, without respecting themselves, and never really feeling safe or comfortable in their own skin.

Also, let the record show you can regress and fall down a peg or two.

Because I’ve lived many years succeeding in the #4 Esteem space, and now I mostly stumble around back in #2 (an apt bathroom metaphor) trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me and whether I’m even capable of pulling myself out of the sewage-like post-divorce shit bog to achieve a satisfying life for myself and those I love.

‘Is My Marriage/Relationship Suffering Because ACTUAL Needs Aren’t Being Met?’

Yep.

You need things. And she or he needs things too. And when one or both of you need things, you (often involuntarily) will pursue them.

And the simple truth is this: When we are obstacles to our spouses’/partners’ pursuit of needs, or when we neglect to fulfill any of their needs required of their partners, then we are complicit in our partners’ decisions to pursue those needs elsewhere.

No, guys. That doesn’t mean it’s cool to cheat on your wife or girlfriend because she won’t agree to threesomes, or to jerk off to internet porn at the expense of sex with your wife because you claim she doesn’t satisfy superficial sexual “needs.”

No, ladies. That doesn’t mean it’s cool to have an affair with Greg at work, or Brad at the gym because the attention they provide satisfies your feel-good emotional needs.

But I think it DOES mean that we should all be super-intentional about discovering our partner’s needs (not what WE think they are, but what THEY think they are) and commit to helping them achieve their personal five levels to become their best-possible selves.

Either that, or communicate quickly and clearly that we’re unwilling to so they can pursue a great life without us deliberately holding them down.

Your Marriage is Dying Because You Don’t or Won’t Trust Each Other

I always honed in on infidelity when discussing the word “trust” in relationships.

That always seemed like a big deal. To be loyal and trustworthy. I also believed there was merit in being a “trustworthy” financial partner and co-parent.

I figured: I don’t cheat, I don’t physically abuse, I don’t gamble away all of our money, I’m not an addict, and I’m not a threat to abandon her or our children. I’m trustworthy!

But that’s not the equation for Trust.

The equation is:

Safety + Belonging + Mattering = TRUST

That’s according to Christine Comaford who writes about neuroscience and business leadership.

There’s a problem, of course: Our faulty brains.

While amazing and miraculous, they’re also totally unreliable. If we all bought our brains at The Brain Store, most of us would have returned them already for ones we hoped would work better. Not that I’d be able to find the receipt.

Comaford helps business executives understand that their employees NEED things. Fundamental, primitive things. And that no matter how unimpressed the employer may be with those “needs,” a failure to help employees achieve them (at home for personal reasons, or at work for professional ones) will always keep employees and business teams underperforming, or inadvertently motivating people to seek work-oriented need fulfillment elsewhere.

The parallels to our marriages and personal relationships are obvious.

“So as a leader, and as a human, you must identify whether it is safety and or belonging and or mattering that is most important to the people in your life… and then do everything you can to satisfy that subterranean subconscious need,” Comaford wrote in this Forbes piece on human motivation.

“Safety + belonging + mattering = TRUST.

“This means leaders must behave in ways that make employees feel that they are safe, that they belong, and that they matter. Doing so will help shift them out of their fear-driven Critter State (where all decisions are based on what they perceive will help them survive) and into their Smart State (where they can innovate, collaborate, feel emotionally engaged, and move the company forward).”

The People You Love Need Things

And they will pursue them—again, regardless of whether you agree with their “need” list.

People are programmed to crave and pursue their needs.

The concept of meeting the needs of our spouses/romantic partners/families isn’t new to me.

But until I applied the concept of basic fundamental human need and motivation to my own failed marriage, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so clearly how one must aid his or her loved ones in their individual pursuits up the five-level Life Need Pyramid or, at the very least, avoid being an obstacle.

My wife needed things and stated them. I either didn’t believe her or chose not to act because I disagreed with her priorities.

But our marriage WAS a priority to me, even if my behavior failed to demonstrate that.

And I think if I’d understood that NOT being an active participant in my wife’s climb up the Life Need Pyramid would stamp my divorce certificate, I might have made different and better choices.

And I think if I’d made different and better choices, I’d be enjoying the upper levels of the Pyramid, instead of the damp and musty basement.

And I think everyone who makes different and better choices gets to reach that top-floor penthouse where genuine peace and contentment live.

Where life is LIFE. Joyful. Uplifting. Satisfying.

Where energy is abundant, and we collectively give more to pulling people up, up, up to the top floors with us.

Where we’re living for something greater than ourselves.

I think maybe that’s where fear, shame and self-loathing go to die.

I think maybe that’s what it means to really live.

And I think the view’s probably pretty nice up there.

And if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need.

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