Our relationships work like a weight scale. Like a math equation.
With every person we know, there’s a ledger. There are no accountants. No bookkeeping. No visible scoreboards.
Just the running score we have in our minds and hearts. The math is impure, of course. Subjective. No two people will score their relationship with one another exactly the same. And without super-honest—sometimes uncomfortable—communication, neither person will necessarily know where they stand in the minds and hearts of the other.
We’d all like to believe in unconditional love. I always have. And I’m sure there have been countless examples of people providing it to loved ones who other people would have cut out of their lives under identical circumstances. But we’re only human. Even the strongest among us have weaknesses and breaking points.
Provide enough negative experiences for another person and they won’t want to be around you anymore. Provide enough emotionally painful experiences for another person and they won’t even want to know you. Hurt someone intensely enough, and they won’t even be the same person anymore.
This is how good marriages turn shitty, how faithful spouses turn to affairs, and how people who love one another and share children end up disliking one another so much that they’re willing to uproot their homes and children’s lives just to escape.
It’s been said by me and much smarter people several times already—marriages or long-term romantic relationships rarely end from one, big, obvious, dramatic moment that came out of the blue. Most of the time, relationships end after thousands of tiny little moments that escaped our notice piled up enough that the scale couldn’t hold up anymore. One side gets so weighed down, that the entire thing crashes to the ground, splattering all the sadness, anger, pain, shame and fear on anyone standing close enough.
Misdiagnosing My Divorce
I’m definitely an idiot, but I’m like a smart-ish idiot. I’ve always been fairly analytical, curious, and interested in getting to the WHY behind, well, everything. I always want to how or why something happened, and how or why someone or something behaves as it does.
My mental aptitude is in the top 10%-15% if you place any stock in standardized academic testing.
And even though I’m kind of smart-ish, when I applied all of my brainpower to figuring out the WHY behind my wife wanting to divorce, I settled on a totally incorrect conclusion.
Misdiagnosing things is VERY bad. If you get it wrong after a relationship has ended, and you don’t actually know why, you’re likely doomed to repeat the experience. If you get it wrong DURING your relationship, you’ll spend all of your time and energy on things that won’t make anything better. Which is why people sometimes FEEL like they’re working hard on their relationship, only to continue eating shit sandwiches from their ‘ungrateful’ partners who aren’t responding emotionally the way the Misdiagnoser wants them to.
That was me. A Misdiagnoser.
My wife’s father—my father-in-law, a man I loved and respected intensely—died out of nowhere one autumn day. We’d all had dinner together the night before. Everything was fine. Happy. Fun. The very next night, I learned the tragic news from a phone call, and was suddenly facing the task of telling my wife the most painful news she would ever hear.
The following month was a blur. I tried to play the role of Good Husband and Good Son-in-Law for my wife and extended family.
But that woman wasn’t my wife anymore. She was someone else.
I thought it would get better eventually. It never did.
I lost my wife when her father died.
So you know what I did? I pointed to that tragic life event, and interpreted it as my wife mishandling the situation emotionally. I convinced myself that my “overly emotional” wife was showing her true colors once again—putting her feelings ahead of more important things like our marriage and family.
And here’s the worst part in terms of the modern-day divorce crisis: I’d argue that that story makes sense. It’s easy to believe.
I think there are many thoughtful, intelligent people who would agree with that initial analysis, make a snap judgment about my ex-wife or me, and never put any more energy into digging for more truth.
“Yeah, Matt. That’s terrible. Something similar happened to my other buddy, Trey. She’s being selfish, and putting her sadness ahead of your marriage, and now your family is suffering for it. I’m sorry man. I wish I knew what to say.”
It doesn’t always matter what’s true. It doesn’t always matter what’s real. People will act on their BELIEFS—independent of whether we agree with those beliefs, or even know that person has them.
If you value your relationship with someone, it will be helpful to come to terms with this truth. When we love people, we have to honor THEIR experiences—THEIR reality—in order to connect with them on an emotionally healthy level.
There’s Famous Precedent for This Phenomenon
For 1,500 years, early astronomers used Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system to create astronomical charts. ‘Geocentric’ means that the Earth is the center of the universe, and everything in the night sky is orbiting around it.
Today, we know this isn’t true. Nicolaus Copernicus got suspicious and theorized we were actually the ones moving around the sun. Later, Italian genius Galileo Galilei proved it.
But for 1,500 years prior, every educated person in the world believed the sun revolved around Earth. And it wasn’t because everyone was a bunch of stupid morons. Given the mathematical parameters and limited technology of that time, you can PROVE Ptolemy’s model.
For 1,500 years, the smartest people in the world—every scientist, navigator, educator and thought leader—knew how the sun, moon and stars would move in the sky. They could ‘prove’ it convincingly by accurately predicting what would happen next in the night sky, even though EVERYTHING about their prediction model was based on false information.
People can believe things that can’t be proven—big and small. Don’t get hung up on the countless religious and political examples of this in world history. Just think about the people in your personal life. They might believe something about you or about your relationship that isn’t true, whether or not you realize it.
And if you’re constantly operating outside of THEIR reality, you’re bound to disagree with them, fight with them, confuse them, frustrate them, anger them, and hurt them.
This is the way your marriage ends.
The Moments—Big and Small—When We Lose Those We Love
We call them small, but shouldn’t. MOST of life is small moments, so it’s the collective pile of these small moments building up in people’s emotional bank accounts that end up being The Big Thing.
It’s the pinpricks—the paper cuts—that end us. We just never see it coming, because each moment seemed too minor to present a serious threat. In isolation, none of them seem to cause enough damage.
Then, one day, one more thing gets thrown on the negative side of the scale, and it comes crashing down.
The Small Moments – Minor Life Setbacks
We’re always trying to make progress. To achieve something. We want to get a new job, or succeed at a project or hobby, or whatever. But life doesn’t always hand us victory. Sometimes we have to take it on the chin a little first until we quit trying, or overcome it.
But the setbacks hurt. The disappointments are hard to swallow. Sometimes that’s because we hold ourselves to super-high standards. But, if you’re anything like me, it’s because these setbacks feel like failures for the people you love as well. Like you’ve let them all down by not earning the job offer, or not winning the competition, or working on a project at home or work that doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped.
So, you’re feeling the shame of failure, but you’re PRETENDING not to. You’re wearing the Tough Guy mask. You’re imagining your wife, kids, friends, parents—whoever—are all talking about what a loser you are (even though most or all of them love you, and are NOT actually thinking or talking about what a loser you are).
You withdraw from your spouse or romantic partner and hide because you’re feeling sorry for yourself, OR you’re leaning heavily on her for support. To nurse you back to health.
No matter which reaction you chose, you forced your wife to invest a bunch of emotional/mental/physical energy into trying to navigate your feelings (often the same feelings you belittle her for demonstrating when they’re about something that matters to her).
If you withdraw, you leave all of the work of home and children, etc. to her.
If you vampire her energy to prop you back up, you leave her short of what she needs to get through the days with her workload.
But here’s the worst part:
When SHE has a minor setback in her life, maybe you don’t see it as being a big deal. Or. Maybe you try to help her solve her problem with all of your superior man-wisdom, when all she really wants is a trusted confidant who is steadily, reliably in her corner.
These are the types of little interactions, where we are taking more from our spouse and marriage than we are giving to them.
And once one end of the scale is weighed down by enough moments, shit breaks.
The Small Moments – Illness
These are broad generalizations. They do not apply to everyone. They simply apply to me and many other people.
When my wife was sick, I certainly went out of my way to bring her meds, food, drinks, blankets, etc. And I thought by doing that, I was being a good husband.
You know what I WASN’T doing—ever?
I wasn’t thoughtfully taking care of things my wife would have taken care of while I was recovering on the couch. If I was sick on the couch, not only would my wife have brought me food, blankets, meds, etc., but she would have also kept the kitchen spotless, kept the laundry going, managed the family calendar, and much more.
My wife—and many wives/mothers—don’t get days off even when they’re sick. Because in their experience, if they’re not taking care of certain life duties, they’ll never get done. They can’t count on anyone else to do them.
This arrangement can work for a few years. It takes a while for things to pile up on the scale.
But eventually? Something as seemingly innocent as a sick husband asking for more Advil from the couch where he’s watching movies while his wife is packing two school lunches and getting two kids ready for bed can make a person snap.
The Small Moments – Parties and Social/Family Gatherings
I was nicer to strangers than I was to my wife.
Not always. Just often.
Someone I didn’t live with or barely knew could say or do something, and get total politeness from me. But if my wife said or did that EXACT SAME THING, maybe I’d find some way to voice my displeasure, or make it clear to everyone in earshot that I didn’t agree with whatever she had just said or done.
Someone I saw a few times a year, or maybe never again, would get my BEST treatment and behavior.
But the person I claimed to love above all things, and promised to honor for the rest of my life got a bunch of subtle or overt dick-headed commentary and treatment.
I’d be kind and charming to strangers. Laugh hysterically with my friends.
But I couldn’t extend that same kindness and charm to my wife? I couldn’t whisper in her ear how amazing she looked, and how grateful I was that out of all the people in the room, I was the one that got to take her home?
I never said or did things like that.
And if you don’t think that matters, you have the same disease I used to have.
The Big Moments – The Wedding
Listen. Weddings are bullshit. I get it.
They don’t HAVE to be. They SHOULDN’T be.
But they often are.
A big, expensive party celebrating the beginning of a living arrangement statistically likely to suck ass 5-10 years later.
We put so much time, effort, and energy—culturally; societally—into weddings, and I’m not the least bit shy about saying how asinine and bullshitty it all seems to me.
But you know what weddings are—independent of all the pomp and circumstance?
They are DAY 1 of what is supposed to be FOREVER.
And the significance of that can’t be overstated.
Weddings seemed like “girl stuff.” Bridal magazines, dresses, cakes, flowers, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t really care about. Weddings were “the bride’s day.” So, I just checked out unless I was asked for my opinion. I barely helped with anything. I was 24 and 25 during the year of my engagement. Thinking about marriage isn’t something that happened. I was too busy not knowing how much it mattered just like the rest of the world.
Our lives already looked how it would look when we were married. Forever Boyfriend and Girlfriend. Easy!
We can’t know what we don’t know, so I couldn’t have known it back then. But I started to lose my wife during our engagement, when I demonstrated total disinterest in something that mattered so dearly to her.
I didn’t participate—actively—in what people often refer to as “the best day of their lives.”
THAT is how I chose to begin our journey to FOREVER, and never once considered the dangers of doing so.
The Big Moments – Having a Baby
I left my crying wife in the hospital about five hours after delivering our only child, right on the heels of her being in labor for 24 hours.
I don’t like talking about it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.
We talk about safety. We talk about trust. And people think they know what that means. But sometimes it takes on different meaning in romantic relationships.
After that day, my wife couldn’t trust me anymore. Not to be there for her when she needed me to be. And because she couldn’t trust me, she couldn’t feel safe. The future felt too unsteady, too uncertain.
The day of my son’s birth was the true beginning of the end. And it was 100-percent within my power to have made a different choice.
I didn’t know how to give more than I took. I chose me, taking for granted that my marriage would always be there.
Through the prism of hindsight, the outcome was predictable.
The Big Moments – Trauma and Grief
“The straw that broke the camel’s back” is a famous idiom which describes the seemingly minor or routine action that causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions.
And it’s truly the way most relationships end.
Someone suffers a major emotional trauma, or are grieving the sudden loss of a close family member or friend. It’s so significant—they break so much on the inside—that they never get to be themselves again. It’s not a concept a person gets to understand until they suffer through it themselves.
When people break on the inside, they feel worse than they’ve ever felt before. It’s emotional and physical rock-bottom.
But something interesting happens in that moment.
When life feels like it can’t get any worse, you stop being afraid of anything. Maybe for the first time in someone’s life, they fear nothing.
People aren’t afraid to leave their spouse when they can’t feel any worse. People aren’t afraid of potential judgment from their family or friends when they can’t feel any worse. People aren’t afraid of the unknown when they can’t feel any worse, because they’re ALREADY in the midst of I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
If your relationship was already in bad shape, a significant traumatic moment, or the grieving that can occur after a tragic loss, can and will cause the scale to collapse.
If your relationship was NOT already a mess, then THIS IS YOUR MOMENT. This is when you write the story of how you show up for your partner in relationships.
How you show up when it’s inconvenient. When it doesn’t feel good. When it’s hard.
This is your chance to show up—not for you—but for them.
Your golden opportunity to put your marriage and the person you claim to love above all things AHEAD of your immediate wants.
This is the moment when you must give more than you take.
But over and over and over again, even when there’s no certain date on the calendar when it will stop feeling hard.
When life will feel good again.
This is your opportunity to walk the In Good Times and In Bad; ‘Til Death Do Us Part walk.
And you must. If you want to have a marriage that goes the distance, this is the path. This is the price.
Love without expectation.
Giving with no hands out.
Effort without seeking pats on the back.
Every minute is another Small Moment to invest in her. In your future. In your family.
Every major life event is a rare Big Moment to step up and do everything better and differently than I did.
It’s how we beat this.
It’s where heroes are born.
There probably won’t be statues and parades.
Just your family. Always.
And all around you, every day, people learning to follow your example. Changing the world.
Not just in the big moments. In all of the moments.
That’s where the real fight lives. In the hiding-in-plain-sight everydayness. In the ordinary.
You just didn’t realize it.
But she has.
Just ask her.