Tag Archives: Communication

Why I Think Most Married People Get Bored and Stop Wanting Each Other

bored couple

(Image/ZUMI Kenya)

Author’s Note: I’m not a doctor. I’m not much of an expert on anything. But I’m curious, and I think a lot, and I like to explain WHY I think things. I don’t want there to be any confusion about what I believe or the reasons that led me here. I don’t think I have anything to teach people necessarily. But I think we can teach ourselves things by going through certain mental exercises, and those lessons or conclusions will sometimes be different than mine. That’s okay. Until I’m certain I know everything, I’ll continue to operate as if I might be wrong about all of it. Because I might be. The only story I know is my own, so it’s pretty much the only one I tell.

It’s possible I’m the only person in human history to treat strangers differently than people I know well. I often do that.

I’m more patient with and, arguably, “nicer” to other people’s kids than I am to my son.

I don’t have words to describe what I feel when I think about him. He’s the cutest. He’s in 4th grade, and he’s my favorite everything. He also pisses me off all the time when he’s being a little dickhole. The person I love the most is ALSO the person who makes me angry most frequently. The person I love the most is ALSO the person I spend the most time with which leads to me lapsing into moments when I’m taking him for granted.

Maybe I’m a shitty person or a bad father because of those moments when I show an extra ounce of favoritism to another kid when I’m correcting my son, or tolerating behavior from another kid that I wouldn’t tolerate from my own.

Because I’m not a psychology expert, or even just a really smart person, I can’t explain with 100-percent certainty the WHY behind this.

I can’t explain why I’ll walk around in sweatpants with out-of-control hair in front of a woman who I want to like me and find me attractive, but won’t go out in public or even answer the door for a pizza delivery without dressing better.

I can’t explain why my manners are on full display when first meeting someone who hasn’t earned my respect, but I’ll be totally informal with someone I’ve known for years.

I can’t explain why I was often nicer to strangers than I was to my wife.

But it’s true. I was.

Before my son was the person I spent the most time with, his mother was.

Before my son was the person I loved the most but who could also upset me the most, his mother was.

She’s beautiful. Hot, even. And she is the person I loved above all things. She’s the person I cared about and valued most. She’s the person I shared all of my resources with and promised to be with for the rest of my life.

She’s the only person I ever did that for.

I loved that woman very much.

But I was still a dick to her when things weren’t going my way. I was still sometimes nicer to our friends who were visiting for dinner and wine than I was to her. I was still quick to dismiss something she claimed to care about based solely on me not caring about it like an egomaniacal douchebag.

I still was disinterested at times in going to bed with her, even though she’s sexually attractive and literally asked me to. Which seems insane, really.

Why?

Why?

WHY?!?!

I don’t know. I’m not proud of it. And I’m under no delusion that I’m all together.

Something might be fundamentally wrong with me. I might be a new or unique kind of broken. I don’t know.

But I think it might be something else. Let’s start here…

Hugh Grant Got Caught Soliciting a Miami Prostitute

Remember that?

Sure you do.

Hugh Grant. The British actor. Totally handsome dude. Presumably super-wealthy. I don’t think he had any trouble finding dates if he wanted them. Just a hunch. I’m theorizing that he wouldn’t “need” to employ the services of a prostitute to have his sexual wants satisfied.

But more significantly than all that is that he was married. And not just to anyone. He was married to the woman who—to me—was (purely from a visual standpoint—let the record show that visual stimulation and desire is probably the least-important aspect of “attraction”) the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

Elizabeth Hurley. She’s 52 now and probably still gorgeous. In her early 30s, she’s what I would have designed with a Weird Science computer and a pointy-bra hat.

I was 21 years old back when this went down in 2000 and it seemed super-significant. My 21-year-old brain couldn’t process how Hugh Grant could intentionally choose to cheat on Elizabeth Hurley with some rando lady of the night in South Beach.

But I think I can now.

Personal decisions about hiring sex workers aside, I think I understand why any man or woman married to another human being wouldn’t see that person through the same prism as some star-struck 20-something who never met them before.

I Classify it as Hedonic Adaptation, But Maybe it’s Something Else

I think it’s an important idea to understand, because I think when people don’t know what they’re up against, they’re more likely to experience hardship and failure.

Hedonic adaptation is the psychological phenomenon of our brains adjusting to positive life changes and normalizing them, the consequences of which are losing some of the “highs” we used to feel when we first experienced them.

You get a pay raise. It feels good. You get used to the new pay. Feel just as poor as you used to.

You get a new car. It feels good. You get used to the new car. You let it be just as dirty as your old car.

I’ve written in many posts, including my most recent from last week, that I believe hedonic adaptation is a major contributor to relationship problems.

A kind reader objected to my use of the term hedonic adaptation.

I can’t be sure, but I think she was uncomfortable with the idea of comparing how we treat and feel about “things” with how we treat and feel about people.

As a recovering idealist, I totally understand where she’s coming from. It’s an insult to the sacredness of marriage and the intrinsic value of a human being to reduce a person—and certainly a spouse—to an object.

But I don’t think being uncomfortable makes it less true. I don’t think our brains give a shit WHAT the thing/person/experience is. I believe it’s a foregone conclusion that as familiarity and comfort with something grows, the likelihood that you’ll take it for granted through thoughtlessness increases.

I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that you will love or value something less. Just that you’ll “forget” how much it really matters to you. Like your ability to breathe or see or use your arms and legs. People tend to take them for granted until the least-fortunate among us lose one of them.

It’s not ideal. But it is the human condition.

I certainly don’t love or value my son less as I’ve “gotten used” to him being around. But I think those little chemical triggers that make young couples crush on one another and lust for one another when they first meet WILL, 100-percent, no-exceptions, lose intensity or go away entirely over time.

It’s TOTALLY uncomfortable to suggest to your spouse that you aren’t quite as attracted to them as you once were. I think that’s why most of us avoid discussing it. We love to avoid uncomfortable conversations and situations.

I wonder what would happen if we did things differently.

Remember, much of this is superficial. And it’s not your fault.

None of us are actively sitting around TRYING to bore with stuff—certainly not our marriage partner. I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb in suggesting that if we never got “bored” or lost the intense chemical reactions our bodies experience when we first meet a romantic partner, that we’d have about 90-percent fewer divorces to worry about.

This isn’t about how much someone matters. It’s not about objectifying human beings or disrespecting those we love.

It’s about acknowledging that we are programmed by nature to lose over time some of the naturally occurring emotional triggers that help us effectively communicate and convey attraction, desire, love, courteousness, patience, forgiveness, etc. to our partner.

We can’t deal in reality when we don’t know what reality is, or deny its very existence.

I think the people who have the best relationships are secure enough with themselves and one another to deal with uncomfortable things and topics as a team. As a partnership. To—together—ask questions and discuss ways in which they can demonstrate the love and care that they think and feel, even if it doesn’t quite look or feel the same as it did when they first met.

Here’s a free life tip I think my failed marriage taught me: Confidently discussing uncomfortable things together in order to promote a healthy relationship and marital harmony will benefit a marriage. I think the act of doing so together is WAY more powerful and bond-forming than being honest about our feelings can be damaging.

The husband and wife who can, with intellectual honesty, discuss and deal with the natural “boredom” or “loss of attraction” that might eek into a long-term relationship are going to be better off than the ones who pretend it isn’t real.

BE UNCOMFORTABLE and discuss things bravely, because being uncomfortable and discussing things bravely is the hard—but RIGHT—thing to do.

But It Could Be Other Things Too

I label this hedonic adaptation because it’s what makes sense to me.

But that doesn’t make me right, and even if I am “right,” hedonic adaptation wouldn’t be a catch-all for this phenomenon.

When you first meet someone, you are single. You are an individual with mystery and potential in their eyes, as they are to you.

The dynamics of that moment are RADICALLY different than when you wake up in the same bed for the 1,871st day in a row, looking and smelling your worst with two kids and a dog and a mortgage.

I’m not even trying to be cynical about this. The love and care you feel—the VALUE—you place on your long-term spouse, family and household is infinitely higher than the first night you met back when all the sparks first flew.

But there are elements of relationships that often “worsen” as circumstances, individual interests and priorities, and group priorities change over time.

Maybe it’s worse manners. Maybe it’s the absence of displaying sexual attraction for your wife or husband. Maybe it’s saying something a little bit mean, or offering a thoughtless or dismissive reaction to something she or he told you.

Maybe back on your third date, all of that would have gone much differently.

Comfortable Lies vs. Uncomfortable Truth

Maybe it’s not about the other person. Maybe none of it is.

Maybe it’s about us.

I was a confident young man when I met my ex-wife. I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize and be whatever I wanted. The world was mine. And so was she.

The years went by.

The confident individual became an unsure partner. The cool guy living alone became the uncool part of a couple.

Maybe we stop feeling attracted to our partners because once they’re our partners, and two I’s become a We, we literally stop being the people they were attracted to in the first place.

We LOSE ourselves when we give up our individual identities to be a husband or a wife. To be a mother or a father.

We turn into different people because we must.

So it’s not just boredom. Sometimes, attractive traits literally go away, and unattractive traits take their place.

Many of us spend years politely or fearfully not mentioning it. Maybe we grumble to one of our friends about it in a private moment.

Then years go by, and two people who were once inseparable are now total strangers.

It’s the saddest story of our time because it happens thousands of times every day and hardly anyone is doing anything about it.

But you can. You can be honest with yourself and the people you love, and you can talk about true things even when it’s hard.

Pleasant lies taste wonderful and are easy to hear and hide behind. But they’re poison.

Difficult truths taste bitter going down and kind of make you want to puke. But they’re medicine. They cure the sick. Mend the broken.

Difficult truths might save the whole world.

Maybe we just need enough courageous people taking the leap.

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Text Less, Speak More — Because the Break-Up Sauce Tastes Awful

text message confusion by Hamilton Animatic

(Image/Hamilton Animatic)

I want you to imagine a person looking you directly in the eye and saying: “I’m going to kill you.”

First, I’d like you to imagine that it’s your best friend saying it with a huge smile on his or her face immediately following a joke you’d just played on them.

friends laughing together

(Image/Video Block)

And next, I’d like you to imagine that it’s a stranger saying it after breaking into your house late at night wearing a creepy mask, using an ominous tone of voice, carrying a weapon, and just looking all-around murdery.

Strangers-mask by Horror News

(Image/Horror News)

Our reaction to hearing “I’m going to kill you,” is largely dependent on what we can see and hear. On context.

What we can see and hear—non-verbal communication—is commonly called the 7% Rule, even though that’s probably not technically correct. The 7% Rule says that communication, on the whole, is 7 percent verbal, and 93 percent non-verbal.

A good example might be a person saying “I love the taste of canned spinach. I’m going to eat a bunch right now,” while shaking their head no, which we’d all safely interpret as the person NOT liking canned spinach like a smarty, and joking about wanting to eat some.

Tone of voice, facial expression, and other nuanced components of how we interpret information when someone is speaking to us play a HUGE role in our understanding of what someone is saying to us.

Which is why, other than exchanging logistical information—making plans, sharing news, etc.—we should try to avoid text messaging as much as possible.

Seriously.

Two Dumbass Kids and a Potentially Phantom Rivalry Over a Girl

When I was a high-school sophomore, I had a little crush on a super-attractive girl in the freshman class.

Katie. She was awesome and liked me back. We had a cute little almost-thing for a couple of months before summer break happened and I disappeared for a few months, and then for my entire junior year, because I moved 500 miles away to live with my father for the first time since I was 4.

Which doesn’t really matter in the context of this discussion.

What does matter is that I moved back with my mom and with all of my old friends I’d grown up with for my senior year of high school. And during the year I was gone, Katie had dated some other guy at school. And for reasons/explanations I was told and can’t remember, THAT guy decided he didn’t like me, and maybe wanted to fight.

We didn’t fight. We just kind of ignored each other and probably considered the other to be a huge asshole. Then I graduated and moved away and haven’t seen that guy since.

Without EVER speaking a meaningful word to him, I still have memories of us not liking one another for an entire school year. Because of a girl neither of us dated that year.

I don’t know how he remembers it. I don’t know how he’d feel about it, or me, today.

I just know I perceived another guy to be someone I didn’t like (the reason being that my friends told me he didn’t like me—not because he’d ever actually wronged me in some way), and that I spent an entire year feeling shittier than necessary whenever we were in the same place—and I had ZERO facts about his true feelings and intentions, nor had I ever attempted any type of meaningful conversation with him.

I have memories of a high school rivalry that I may have fabricated like an idiot from totally false information from other high school idiots.

I experienced real, tangible negative moments that I still kind-of remember 20 years later, and I can’t even prove whether my opinions and beliefs back then were based on anything real or true.

With Text Messaging, We Don’t Even Need the Help of Idiots to Recreate These Scenarios

This video has bad words, FYI. But it’s amazing. Watch it. (Special thanks to Becky for sharing the timely video on the MBTTTR Facebook page.)

I don’t think we need any more examples. You get it. Not that it matters. You’ll keep on texting because you’re a masochistic, lazy glutton-for-punishment like me.

Remember when we used to memorize 30 phone numbers and politely leave messages with our friends’ parents to have them call us back, sometimes several hours later, just to ask a question we insta-text today?

We’ve arrived at the point where actually answering and speaking on the phone is an inconvenient thing we have to do—like laundry. Texting feels easier, and it tickles our This Shortcut Is Awesome pleasure sensors.

But it also lends itself to a crap-ton of misunderstood messages—things intended to be benign but that angered someone or hurt their feelings. Things that read like a joke through our current emotional filters, only to respond in a way that feels disrespectful and dismissive to the person who, in fact, is not joking.

That kind of awkward, fact-deficient exchange can escalate something immaterial into a real-life problem, and a minor problem into a relationship-ender.

Because I’m a writer, I’m really comfortable texting. Because I’m more comfortable communicating via the written word, I like to try to explain myself through writing.

Sometimes, I try to do that via text message.

Rife with peril, this is.

Choosing convenience over focusing our attention on the people and things that matter is essentially the summarized theme of Shitty Husbandry, as well as being a substandard friend, family member or teammate/partner of any kind.

We struggle mightily with empathy in our human relationships. We like to think what we think and feel is right and true, while anyone bringing something different to the table is wrong and full of shit. It’s why pretty much all human conflict exists—disagreeing about something, and then being dicks about it to everyone on the other side of a debate or argument.

We struggle mightily with this even when the person is our spouse, friend, or family member of several years. We struggle mightily with this when someone we know better than anyone else is looking right at us and speaking words from the same language we speak.

Even with all of that going for us, we still fundamentally don’t understand the other person often enough that MOST people who truthfully say “I love you” and have sex a bunch of times and share a home address end up not liking each other and divorce or break up. They don’t “get” each other, fight about stuff and hurt each other’s feelings a bunch of times, then one or both of them quits because it feels too hard.

People who share a bed and have known each other for years.

Reducing all of that to auto-corrected text and emoji is literally Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for Fuckness Casserole with Break-Up Sauce.

So please be more thoughtful about what you choose to discuss via text, and how easily something you say might be interpreted in a way that makes someone you care about feel shitty even if that’s not your intention.

Sometimes, the things that matter warrant a phone call.

Sometimes, No Response is a great choice.

Always, clear and effective communication is the greatest tool in our relationship arsenal and demands thoughtfulness and effort.

Always, the people we love and care about are worth it.

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I Have No Idea What You’re Talking About; Do We Say What We Really Mean?

Futurama Fry

Not sure if we should have to crack codes, or just speak using clear and direct language in our relationships. (Image/Looper)

In January 2016, I published an article titled “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” which became the most popular thing on the internet worldwide for a day or so and has now been read several millions of times in several languages.

I don’t think it’s anywhere near the best writing I’ve done, and I spend most days embarrassed at how much “Men do this, and Women do another thing” sort-of language is in there. I don’t believe all men, nor all women, do things one certain way, with the possible exception of our respective peeing techniques.

Despite its many flaws, “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” resonated with many people and continues to. Surely the click-baity headline has been a factor, but there’s something more important, and it’s the reason thousands of people have thanked me for “saving their marriage” even though I did no such thing.

That article did for many people what the book “How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It” had done for me. It removed the blinders many of us were wearing on the subjects of effective communication and empathy in our relationships.

It’s such a dangerously simple concept that all of the wise and mature people who already figured it out dismiss it as child’s play, and about which the rest of us roll our eyes like “I’m so sure this over-simplified bullshit is the reason my marriage is in shambles and half of all marriages end in divorce! No way!”

But we need the wise people to patiently teach this secret of life to their children, and skillfully share it with their friends and extended family.

And we need everyone else to start paying attention to details that—tragically—fall into a category of things most people don’t talk or think about, and aren’t formally taught.

“She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink”—effectively or otherwise—tried to communicate the most important idea in romantic relationships other than Love is a Choice.

An event can occur—anything, really—and it’s possible for one person to be deeply emotionally or psychologically wounded and feel intense pain because of it while a second person experiencing the same thing at the same time and place never even notices.

This is common. Human nature. The result of individuals not sharing brains and nervous systems.

But it’s also the reason the majority of human relationships fail.

I like the second-degree burn analogy, because it illustrates it perfectly. Lightly touching someone on their arm doesn’t hurt them. Almost never. If they scream out in pain, they’re probably a bizarrely dramatic person with some form of mental illness and questionable sanity.

HOWEVER. If someone has a second-degree burn, and you lightly touch their arm on the burn wound, their painful outburst makes sense.

And what the average person in the average relationship doesn’t understand, but that “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” helped some people finally get is that just because being lightly touched on your arm, or a dirty dish sitting by the sink, or a damp towel on the bed, or dirty socks on the floor, or sarcastic jokes, or staying home with kids instead of going to work full-time doesn’t feel or seem like it should be hard or painful DOES NOT mean that another human being with a different mind, heart, body, and life experiences doesn’t experience those same things in profoundly painful ways that are different than yours. Especially when it happens over and over and over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over, again.

THAT scenario is what ends the majority of marriages and relationships of all stripes, every day, everywhere on earth and probably on some other alien worlds in the far reaches of the universe, but I can’t substantiate that since Mexico is the furthest place from Ohio I’ve ever been—and their shitty relationships look just like the ones I see around here, except it sounds better, because Spanish.

If young people fundamentally understood this basic concept of empathy and learned how to talk about it during their formative dating years, our marriage success rates would improve dramatically and help fix much of what’s broken.

It Feels Like a Code or a Secret

To me and others, it does.

Every human being’s great crime is forgetting that literally every other member of the seven-billion-and-counting human race has a totally different brain and chemical makeup than we do. Since every conscious second of our lives is experienced through our own eyes in the first-person, it seems easy enough to understand how this happens, but I continue to choke on the sheer amount of assholery I see, hear, feel, and dish out myself every day despite the growing number of people maturing into the adults responsible for setting new standards of human behavior in the 21st century.

My parents didn’t talk to me about this stuff.

No one did.

And most people never had a parent or teacher or trusted adult explain this nuanced idea while emphasizing how big the stakes are. No one prepares us for the shit-storm that ensues when we get it wrong.

So when I discovered this “code” on the heels of my life-crippling divorce, I felt a powerful compulsion to share my story and try to raise awareness about this.

After more than four years of writing about it, I don’t feel any closer to a concise and clear method for communicating this marriage/relationship-saving idea.

Commenter: ‘Must Husbands Crack Codes? Why Can’t Wives Clearly State the REAL Problem?’

Brian’s question got me thinking, and motivated me to write for the first time in weeks.

Strictly for pragmatism’s sake, YES—men/husbands/boyfriends, and presumably women/wives/girlfriends as well—must crack this code.

We’re human beings. When we hurt is often when we communicate most poorly, or not at all, running off to pout silently and waiting for an apology we’ll never receive (probably because they never even knew we were hurt by whatever the thing was).

But we also deal with a lot of philosophical questions around here, and Brian asks a fair one:

“If the wife simply came out and said ‘Hey… look, when you leave the glass there, it makes me feel like you’re not even aware that it is hurting me in a way that’s actually way bigger than just the glass,’ instead of hinting around and playing the ‘This issue we’re currently arguing isn’t actually the real issue that I’m pissed off about and fighting like hell over’ game; the guy is now presented with a statement that needs to be digested prior to spewing an emotional ‘WTF? Really? Over a glass?’ response.”

Should We Have to Decipher Coded Language in our Relationships?

Part of me believes the average guy in this “dishes by the sink” situation will respond to her attempts to connect something larger to the “dish” with the same level of dismissal and invalidation that he already exhibits toward the seemingly minor matter of the dish itself. But—BUT—if we are asking men to step outside of themselves and exercise the humility necessary to listen, communicate, behave, comfort, respect, support, love in the ways their wives or romantic partners can understand and interpret accurately, is it not also fair to ask women (or everyone who plays little miscommunication games for reasons few of us understand) to work to more clearly or effectively communicate what is actually hurting or causing relationship problems?

To Brian’s point, if someone seems dismayed at the idea that a dish left by the sink could be significant enough to be worthy of a marriage fight, might there be greater need for the affected person to communicate more skillfully WHY the dish, or the socks, or the towel, or the sarcasm, or whatever, has been elevated into a marriage-threatening thing that could fundamentally change everyone in the family’s lives forever?

I don’t know.

But considering what’s at stake, I hope more people will think and talk about it.

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What You Don’t Know Actually Can Hurt You

dice optical illusion

(Image/Zako.org)

Disclaimer: I might be clinically insane.

That needs to be said upfront, because it’s mathematically possible and I have no official medical diagnosis to prove otherwise. I’ve never been in anyone’s head but mine, and there’s a pretty good chance mine’s a little more whack than yours. I’m not sure.

So that’s my big caveat–that I might be totally bat-shit crazy, because I don’t assume (about this) that just because I experience life this way that you also do.

But I’m betting there will be someone–maybe you (hi!)–who’s also a little bit nuts. Maybe they’ll get it and think it matters.

I am–by far–the wimpiest version of myself while flying on airplanes.

It’s not the kind of thing you can observe. I maintain a calm appearance because I want to look like a cool customer.

But sometimes I’m not.

There are moments while flying where my body feels involuntary jolts of fear. All those “DANGER!” chemicals your brain produces during life’s least-calm moments. I sometimes experience that on routine commercial flights.

I know it’s irrational. Super-irrational.

There are more than 100,000 flights every day around the globe. In the United States alone, there are more than 5,000 commercial jets in the sky at any given time. And how many non-terrorism-related U.S. commercial flights have not made their destinations in my lifetime?

Honestly, that ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades in 1996 is the only one I can think of. Even a 2009 US Airways flight that hit a flock of birds and suffered total engine loss managed to land safely on the Hudson River in New York (an incident dramatized in the film “Sully”).

If you believe in math (and I totally do), it’s literally less than one in a million that something super-scary or dangerous happens on commercial flights.

And yet, there I sit, doing my best to wear my best Super Calm Guy face (I hide the fear pretty well), but on the inside feel all kinds of nerves whenever:

  • The plane changes altitude significantly.
  • We make any major directional turns.
  • The plane bounces significantly from turbulence.
  • I hear that ding-noise that is probably just some random passenger asking for scotch or a pair of headphones, but which my mind always assumes is the pilot calling the flight attendants into the cockpit to warn them of imminent danger and to keep it a secret from the rest of us to avoid panic.

I stare at my phone. I read the same sentence in my book over and over. I maintain eye contact and a calm demeanor with anyone seated next to me I might be talking to.

But on the inside of my chest and stomach, I feel involuntary fear and anxiety as if I’m going to die any minute now, and my son and ex-wife are going to get stuck rifling through my house at the estate sale, with my ex-wife secretly celebrating my untimely passing so that our little boy no longer has to live in a house which clearly hasn’t been dusted or vacuumed in the corners for far too long.

When I was little, I used to have a reoccurring dream of falling–the kind that likes to happen shortly after falling asleep. It wasn’t a peaceful fall. The ground was rushing toward me, and I was afraid.

Of course, like in the dirty dreams where you never actually get to do the deed, I’d wake up before I hit the ground, and just sit there waiting for my heart rate to return to normal.

The Power of Information

I spent last week in Las Vegas for work, and because my company’s travel department hates me apparently, it had me fly through San Francisco on my way back to Cleveland. From Vegas. Don’t get me started.

I flew on four planes. I’ll fly on four more to get to and from Mexico within the next two weeks. I have a fair amount of air-travel experience. Nothing bad has ever happened.

I’m not afraid leading up to the flight. I don’t worry about it, nor dread it. I just have an uncomfortable physical reaction to certain aspects of air travel that are exacerbated by my overactive imagination.

If I was sitting in the co-pilot seat and the captain said to me: “We’re about 100 miles away from a large storm system, but we’re going to increase our altitude by 5,000 feet and veer off to the right, and we’re going to miss the storm by several miles,” I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have any anxiety about these two maneuvers I was anticipating.

If I was sitting with the captain, and he said: “I know turbulence is uncomfortable, but it’s a normal part of flying and there’s nothing to worry about–even when it’s really bumpy–here’s why…,” I’m pretty sure I’d be cooler than how I normally experience it.

It’s not just knowledge or information that eliminates the irrational fear. Sometimes, something significantly distracting overpowers it. I fly at least once a year with my young son. I don’t feel fear when I’m with him up there. Maybe because I feel like it’s my job to be brave for him, so I accidentally am. Or maybe because the rational part of my brain acknowledges the obvious: If this was legitimately risky, you would never have bought the tickets, and you certainly would never put your son in danger, and maybe that’s the thing that offsets that unpleasant panicky feeling that sometimes crops up.

What Don’t You Know About Your Spouse or Romantic Partner?

You’re probably not like I was. You probably don’t concoct paranoid thoughts and feelings about your spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend and then have unpleasant physical reactions to them.

But that was me during the final 18 months of my marriage while I slept in the guest room wondering what my wife was doing, who she was talking to, who she was thinking about, and what she really thought of me.

The final few years of my marriage messed me up pretty bad. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine, because I repeatedly lacked the courage to directly speak my thoughts, feelings and fears to the one person who mattered.

We don’t always speak or behave honestly.

We feel angry. Sad. Embarrassed. Paranoid. Jealous. Ashamed. Insecure. Afraid. But we don’t communicate that to our partner. Since we feel it so profoundly, and they “know us” so well, we assume they know it–or they should if they actually cared.

We don’t effectively communicate truth, and then when our partners don’t do what we silently hoped they would, we feel even shittier–whether that’s sadness, anger or disappointment.

We have brains and our brains are funny things.

Our brains have been doing their thing for however long we’ve been alive, and our brains learn how to tell us stories to fill in gaps. It’s how we can often catch moving things sailing overhead, or instinctively stop or dodge to avoid collisions in vehicles, or on foot.

We don’t need 100-percent of all information to guess accurately.

When we’re inside, but it’s raining outside, we don’t need to experience being rained on to know we’ll get wet.

We’re good guessers most of the time. Seriously. We’d be dead if we weren’t. I’ve never fallen off a cliff, but I’m skilled at guessing what would happen if I did, and taking steps to avoid it.

We’re excellent at observing the world around us, and avoiding danger.

But not always. We don’t bat 1.000. We strike out sometimes. Maybe not even half the time. But sometimes. And sometimes we do it in our relationships when our busy minds start guessing what our partners might be thinking or feeling, and then having psychological and emotional reactions to those guesses without confirming truth or accuracy one way or another.

YOU CAN’T TRUST YOURSELF.

No matter how good we are at not dying, and no matter how effectively we navigate our interpersonal relationships with friends, co-workers, and families of origin. We can’t trust ourselves, because the fact is, we’re WRONG a lot.

We just are.

You’re wrong about what your husband thinks and feels.

You’re wrong about what your wife thinks and feels.

You’re wrong about what your parents think and feel.

You’re wrong about what everyone at work thinks about you.

You’re wrong about what your children think and feel.

We’re all wrong about a countless number of things which all of us lacking the power of omniscience can’t possibly know.

But our brains guess anyway. Our brains always guess, and without a crap-ton of discipline, mindfulness and wisdom, we tend to mentally and emotionally FEEL whatever conclusion our brains settle on.

I have no way of knowing what would have happened had I walked another path. It’s not something I think much about.

But, through the prism of hindsight, I feel confident saying that a major, major, major contributor to my failed marriage and broken family is, simply…

A lack of information.

Either I thought and felt things that weren’t true, and perhaps reacted to those false conclusions, OR my wife thought and felt things that weren’t true, and in many instances, it was my fear or stubbornness that allowed that to happen.

I was so busy pretending to be tough and courageous, that I was hiding all of my weakness and fear.

I hadn’t yet discovered the truth: It IS being tough to be vulnerable and honest. It IS brave to push through fear and tackle things head-on.

Like when I calmly am there for my little boy in the seat next to me on the airplane and everything’s okay.

The most important things and people in our lives are too significant to leave to mistake-prone guessing. Yet, many of us do, and after months and years of that, our worlds end for a little bit until we pick up the pieces again.

Sometimes things are worse than we think, and we don’t really want to know the truth even though the solution lives in that truth.

Sometimes things are better than we think, but we have no idea because we want to pout and be mad, or because we’re too embarrassed to say or ask what’s on our minds.

When we don’t have enough information, we draw incorrect conclusions that lead to us thinking, feeling, saying and doing things we otherwise wouldn’t.

And maybe sometimes that doesn’t really matter.

But sometimes–it’s the only thing that does.

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The Myth of the Nagging Wife — It’s Invisible Burns That Actually End Marriages

Burn victim with medical bandages

Sometimes we’ll find it’s the husbands, or men, in relationships whose invisible wounds aren’t properly cared for. Just not most of the time. (Image/RawStory)

We sometimes hear husbands complain about their stupid, bitchy, nagging wives.

Some of them probably are married to petty, unkind women who’ve been plotting all along to make their husbands’ lives miserable. Statistical probability and whatnot.

But that’s NOT who most women are.

Most women said yes to a man’s voluntarily offered marriage proposal.

This isn’t arranged marriage in medieval times. This is one adult voluntarily asking another adult to give up being single together to form a partnership and live together faithfully for the rest of their lives, share property and finances, and maybe have children together.

Maybe some people don’t mentally grasp the parameters of a typical marriage agreement, but I feel confident in speculating that most do. Most people know what they’re signing up for, and then they sign up voluntarily.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where we go wrong, but Dr. John Gottman and the Gottman Institute identify husbands (I’m paraphrasing): “failing or refusing to accept their wives’ influence” as the No. 1 reason for—and predictor of—divorce. For those who don’t know, the Gottman Institute is to marriage and relationships what FiveThirtyEight is to sports and political election data, with Dr. Gottman playing the role of Nate Silver.

The math is the math, and math is truth. Math doesn’t have an agenda.

Statistics can lie, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here, no matter how uncomfortable it makes all the men who want to be “right,” or want to “win,” or want to perpetuate the narrative that it’s not the common male behavior that needs adjusting, but it’s actually the female response to it that’s “wrong” or “broken” or “inappropriate.”

Husbands vs. Wives and the Battle of the Sexes

One of the most common complaints I get from male readers on several blog posts is the (totally false and misguided) accusation that I’m advocating that men be submissive in their marriage and do whatever their wives want.

It annoys me, but I can’t reasonably expect everyone to have read everything I’ve ever written (and remember it) to know what I think and am advocating at any given time.

What I struggle with most is when people frame the husband-wife relationship as adversarial. As if two people should agree to marry, and then spend the rest of their partnership jockeying for control in the household.

What about that arrangement sounds appealing, or as if there’s a chance for any sort of happy ending?

Advice: DO NOT MARRY PEOPLE WHO WANT TO CONTROL YOU. And make sure you rule out that possibility BEFORE you marry them. Also, maybe don’t try to control others. That’s one effective way to avoid being a thundering asshole.

One novel idea is to actually LOVE the human being you are vowing to marry for life.

If we can start the conversation with LOVE assumed to be a foundational element in this arrangement, then I feel like there’s a chance to understand one another.

Love is generous. It’s kind. It’s unselfish.

Love is not about winning. Love is not about power and control. Love is not about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Love is freely given in action, word and spirit—a conscious choice that is constantly being made—to support and communicate to a spouse or relationship partner how much value they have.

So, when talking about marriage, I begin with three assumptions:

  1. Two people loved each other and wanted to get married.
  2. Both people knew what they were promising—a lifetime of faithful love and support.
  3. Both people entered marriage with the best of intentions, setting out to have a good marriage that looked and felt like however they idealized it in their heads throughout their dating and engagement.

But Then the Invisible Burns Start to Hurt

There are various things men often do (or don’t do) that cause women to feel shitty in their relationships.

These behaviors HURT wives and girlfriends. They cause legitimate pain, the same as if you were punched, kicked, cut, stabbed or shot. A thing happens. Someone hurts because of it.

And it’s in THIS MOMENT that marriages die along with countless relationships that never reach marriage status. 

This painful, damage-causing behavior isn’t happening because men are systematically plotting to upset their partners. It’s happening because many men don’t realize that these things hurt their wives. These men don’t realize it in most instances because that same situation DOES NOT hurt them.

It’s hard to understand how something we KNOW doesn’t hurt could hurt someone else.

Which is why I like the second-degree burn analogy.

If someone places their finger on our arm, it doesn’t typically hurt us. “Brace yourself, I’m going to lightly touch your arm with the tip of my finger,” is potentially a sentence that’s never been written or spoken before.

However, what if we have a second-degree burn that’s an open wound and THEN someone puts their finger on it?

That shit will feel like a horror show and we’ll want to stab them.

Point being: One event can occur and be experienced in radically different ways by two different people. In relationships, that often breaks down as husbands or boyfriends tending to do things one way, and wives or girlfriends tending to do things another. It’s not gender-specific, nor is it universal. It’s simply what we can observe while looking at vast amounts of data, and I think most of us can see it and feel it in various parts of our personal lives.

The Change We Need is for Men to “See” the Hurt

I don’t think men are bad. I don’t think men are intentionally hurting their wives or girlfriends.

What I do think is that wives have invisible second-degree burns, and then husbands and boyfriends are touching painful burn wounds that they have no idea are even there.

Their wives say, “Oh my God, that hurts me when you do that. Could you please stop?”

And then the confused and startled husbands reply, “All I did was touch your arm! Why don’t you make a bigger deal out of it? It seems like you’re always finding something else to complain about.”

And then she says, “When you touch my arm it hurts me.”

And then we husbands say: “God, that’s stupid. It doesn’t hurt when people touch your arm. You’re being crazy and overly emotional. Again.”

What happens next seems logical enough when you truly see this hidden, misunderstood and poorly translated interaction play out.

She feels unloved, neglected, abused, abandoned and unwanted by the person she loves most and who promised her forever. She explains exactly what’s hurting, and he tells her she’s wrong and making it up in her head.

He feels as if he’s being treated unfairly, receiving unjust accusations, not being given the benefit of the doubt, nor credit for all of the good he does, and all of the internal and external changes he’s made to be his wife’s partner for life. He ALSO feels as if his reality and intentions are being unfairly and inaccurately misrepresented.

Like clockwork, the relationship breakdown is inevitable unless there’s some kind of magical empathy breakthrough. Usually, there’s not, which is why MOST relationships fail. Most dating couples never make it to marriage at all. The ones who do, divorce half the time. And many of the couples that don’t divorce are hopelessly miserable and wish they weren’t together.

So guys, this isn’t about feminism or trying to emasculate men.

This is about ACTUALLY SEEING the mechanics of how relationships really are, and then adjusting accordingly even if it’s “inconvenient.”

We can do that by NOT getting married. And we can do that by NOT saying or doing things that hurt the people we claim to love and promised to love and serve for life.

It’s clearly difficult to see and effectively communicate this thing that too often ends our relationships—this inability to “see the hurt.”

But, when you finally do see it, you realize quickly enough that it was never very complicated.

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Sorry You Asked

Achilles heel statue

(Image/Beth Clayton)

I took down the MBTTTR “Ask Me Stuff” page because someone email-yelled at me about a large amount of unanswered questions last week, and I think she’s right.

I am not discouraging questions moving forward, nor do I want to give the impression that I’d prefer that people not reach out. I hope people who want to will continue to in comments or by email.

But the pile of unanswered questions might be causing harm, and that’s something I needed to fix, because I could.

Here’s the strongly worded email I received which prompted me to make the change. (There are more bad words than even I usually say, which I’m guilty of liking.)

I wasn’t going to share it, but it’s pretty good, so I’m going to. Different people always react differently to things, so I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say.

I found your blog this past weekend like so many other women do…out of sheer desperation. I understand you have a day job and have your son 50% of the time. However, get ready, because you’re about to get your ass ripped.

You put this blog online and encourage comments. You say, “Ask me anything!” and then you NEGLECT to respond or answer your comments for MONTHS AND MONTHS AT A TIME!!! WHAT THE FUCK, MATT!!!!

What the fuck is wrong with you?! You have all these earth shattering realizations as a failed husband after your wife leaves you, and then you blog about it only to then NEGLECT the very women who reach out to you for help afterwards?! WTF DID YOU EXPECT TO HAPPEN AFTER YOU STARTED BLOGGING ABOUT SHITTY HUSBANDS?!

It is morally reprehensible for you to leave these wounded wives out there hanging FOREVER WITH ZERO ANSWERS bc you’ve just decided to abandon them like their husbands have. The second you took up your cause and ASKED FOR PEOPLE TO WRITE TO YOU, you owed them an answer back, even if you don’t have the answer to their specific problem(s).

Reading your blog initially gave me hope, but once I saw you left your small following hanging month after month after MONTH without responses to their numerous comments, I saw you fundamentally haven’t changed as a man. You really don’t care about these wounded, abused, desperate women calling out to you for help. You rarely reply to ANY comments on your blog and when you do it’s months after their desperate pleas for your feedback. It physically sickens me as a woman, a fellow Ohioan, and a wife of a shitty husband, although I must say my own husband puts you to shame. He’s a much better husband than you could probably ever be.

You should be fucking ashamed of yourself. I personally don’t give two fucks how busy you are, or what your excuses are for not replying to these comments in a more timely manner. You took it upon yourself to request feedback. You knew what that would mean.

Do these desperate women a favor and delete your blog because all you’re doing is disappointing and wounding these exasperated and desperate women more than they already are. These women, more so than anyone else, deserve more than to be simply ignored…especially by you, of all people. You’re exacerbating their pain by not replying to their comments. Asshole. As you would say.

Most Sincerely,

Wife of a “Shitty Husband” and former reader of a “Shitty Blogger.”

P.S. You’re an Asshole.

The “P.S. You’re an Asshole.” was a nice touch, I thought.

Because I AM kind of an asshole, my initial reaction was to respond with: “Thanks for the feedback. Now please go fuck yourself,” which is precisely the sort of instincts that will get you divorced and make strangers hate you. I DID NOT respond with that, which is a decision I’m pleased with.

However, I did go instantly into Defense Mode: Who the hell is this, and why does she think it’s okay to talk to me like this? I tend to get defensive anytime someone finds fault with, or takes offense to, something I did or didn’t do, as if I can’t make mistakes or as if all of my actions are somehow flawless and above reproach. It’s a bad habit that probably keeps me from growing into a better human being, and I know it’s a VERY bad habit for two people in a relationship.

If I’ve learned anything about what ended my marriage, and what ends many relationships, it’s that saying and believing “It’s not my fault!” a bunch of times will earn you a divorce, and you’ll probably deserve it EVEN IF the thing is really not your fault.

If your marriage isn’t more important to you than your ego, and if wanting your spouse to feel good and loved within your marriage isn’t more important to you than winning some meaningless fight, your relationship is going to be shitty anyway, and if it doesn’t end, you’ll probably both want it to.

I sat on the angry note for a day, and read it four or five times, because

  1. When you live in discomfort long enough, it loses its edge, and you can operate more effectively within it. Like weightlifting or yoga for your mental/emotional health.
  2. The truth hurts.
  3. Because the truth hurts anytime it’s inconvenient, I’ve learned to recognize the feeling, and I suspected she was right. After some reflection, I decided that she is. I shouldn’t solicit questions if I’m going to leave them hanging with no responses, PARTICULARLY if a lack of response could in any way be piling on to an already painful experience. In other words, I realized pretty quickly that just because I thought she was overreacting doesn’t mean she was.

She was going to bat for a bunch of people scared and hurting as they feel their marriages and families falling apart, and might think there’s a lifeline bit of information out there that might save them. It doesn’t matter that they shouldn’t ask me. It doesn’t matter that I can’t help. It doesn’t matter that no one understands what my life looks like logistically. No excuse or reason I can offer matters.

  1. Someone hurts.
  2. When I did or did not do something that I could have to make it better, by default, I was making it worse. It doesn’t matter that my intentions weren’t to do that. It doesn’t matter that I might disagree with someone else’s opinions. It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe they SHOULD be hurt. They still hurt anyway. Those with the ability to do something good, should. Always. It’s easy for me to rationalize that I don’t owe to blog readers what husbands owe to their wives. DOESN’T MATTER. I was wrong to provide an environment for people hurting from the very thing I’m trying to help reduce instances of, to hurt even more because when they called out for help, no one ever came.

In marriage and relationships, sometimes our spouses or partners call out for help. If we’re not going to, who will?

Inevitably, someone will think knee-jerk reacting to ONE complaint is a bad life strategy. That’s probably true. But before we all thought of him as a huge creep who drugs and sexually assaults women, Bill Cosby said something important once, that I now wish I could attribute to someone else. He said: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

And that’s my life right now. I’m trying to do many things well, and while trying to juggle them all, every one of them suffers.

But, guess what? No one cares. Nor should they.

Here’s something I KNOW from my work by day as an internet marketer who works with big data: If one person thinks and feels something, a bunch of other people do, too.

They may not be the majority. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t matter.

I’m Sorry to Everyone Who Asked for Help and Never Even Got a Ring Buoy Thrown Your Way

I really do owe them all an apology. Unanswered comments. Unanswered emails. I can’t even fathom a guess how many of those there are. Too many.

It’s hard to explain myself to other people. Maybe everyone feels that way about themselves.

I get upset when people tell me that I don’t care.

That I don’t really care about families and people who are suffering. That I don’t actually mean the things I say or write.

And that’s because I do care. Very much.

I’m just shitty at several facets of communication that are probably exacerbated by ADHD and trying to do too many things—trying to please everybody, instead of just saying no more often.

My nine-year-old and I were playing video games this weekend. A cooperative one where two strangers were playing with us thanks to the magic of the internet. While trying to defeat a giant robot monster together, our little digital fireteam kept failing because we couldn’t get all of the players to stick together.

Many people who play these games use headphones and microphones to communicate with each other. I don’t do that because I’m 38 years old and there’s no way I’m voice-chatting with a bunch of 10-year-olds or other nerdy dads and moms playing PlayStation, and also because I don’t want my little boy hearing strangers say all of the inappropriate things he probably already hears me saying.

My son said: “You know why they’re doing it wrong, dad? Because you can’t communicate. How can we expect them to know what to do if we can’t communicate?”

It was—seriously—the wisest thing I’d ever heard my son say, and I told him so twice.

Seems simple. Communication. So simple, I think, that we don’t always recognize how significant a failure to communicate effectively can damage us and our efforts in whatever we’re working on personally or professionally.

It’s easily my life’s biggest Achilles heel, and probably always has been.

I’m sorry to anyone adversely affected by it—especially those who reached out during times of intense pain and vulnerability, only to be met with silence which probably felt just like: “I don’t care about you or your life.”

The angry email asked me to delete the blog. I’m not going to do that. But I thought this might be the first step toward reconciling something that might have been doing more harm than good.

I hope, someday, I’ll be doing some of these things much better.

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Please Help Me Answer These Important Questions

your-big-questions-built with statamic

(Image/Statamic)

Of the many questions sent to my email inbox (some of which go unanswered—I’m so sorry for that), there are two that stand out as the most frequently asked.

1. How can I get my husband/wife to read your blog posts?

2. How can I get my husband/wife to understand these ideas you write about before it’s too late?

In a way, they are the same question, because they share a common desire and goal—to bridge a relationship divide. To help one person gain the ability to translate their partner accurately, or to acquire the ability to communicate an idea so clearly that the other person finally understands.

Just yesterday I got this question from a husband wanting me to help him find a way to get his wife to read the An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands series, which now stands at 14 volumes. He didn’t say whether he considered her, or himself, to be a shitty spouse.

I don’t know how valuable getting people to read the posts are. I have no way to measure how effectively they accomplish the goal of helping someone evolve their understanding of their spouse and/or marriage that “saves” a marriage, or better yet, makes one thrive.

But the big-picture question here is a significant one: How can we get our partners to understand the ideas that keep couples together?

I am asked these questions more than I know how to estimate. I’ve attempted to answer them more times than I can remember. I’ve tried a variety of answers. I don’t have a sense of how effective any of them really are.

I think we can all agree that we can’t make people love if they don’t love, nor care if they don’t care.

It’s often the case that one spouse has mentally and emotionally checked out of a marriage before their partner realizes it. That’s how it was at my house, only I was still too slow on the uptake to recognize she would actually leave.

I spent YEARS not reading Dr. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, even after my wife asked me to. She proactively wanted me to read a book she believed would help us connect. A book that might teach me how to exhibit intentional empathy in a way that would make our marriage a pleasant, safe, sustainable relationship for both of us.

But I was like: I already love her. I already promised her forever. What more does she want? What more do I really need to do beyond that?

And I just kept NOT reading it.

At some point during the 18-month shit show of us sleeping in separate bedrooms before the day she finally moved out, I discovered and adopted the Love is a Choice philosophy after being introduced to The Love Dares. I also randomly picked up a copy of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (which I credit most for putting me on the path of understanding what I think I do today)—which totally blew my mind.

It was an epiphany. Legit. I finally SAW it. The way two people imperceptibly pinprick and papercut one another over the course of many moments through the months and years. I finally saw the danger of two people (usually a man and woman) unable to understand one another, even though they both speak and read the same language.

I excitedly gave my wife my copy of How to Improve Your Marriage… and couldn’t wait for her to read it so she could understand that I FINALLY understood, like for-real this time. So she could see how the book so precisely nailed our relationship dynamics, and my realization that if a mainstream book was able to do that, it must mean that many couples—perhaps even most—experience these same dynamics.

Which means we weren’t uniquely dysfunctional or broken. Which means we weren’t hopeless.

Because common problems have common solutions.

We’re going to figure this out and save our marriage! I thought.

But then for a handful of months, that book sat discarded and ignored next to the bed where she slept. Every morning when I’d go up to the bedroom I no longer slept in to get dressed for work, I’d check her reading progress. If she’s reading, then she must care.

But the bookmark was always on page 53. That’s where she stopped.

I couldn’t figure out why.

But it’s easy enough to see now: She’d been done with the marriage long before I ever even had the ability to articulate the real problem.

She tried to reach me for years, and I was uncooperative and disrespectful.

Later, I tried to reach her, and she was mentally and emotionally spent. I’d exhausted whatever faith she’d had in me a long time ago. And I was getting a taste of my own medicine, as it were.

My wife did not WANT to divorce. Not philosophically.

But in the end, she concluded it was ultimately the best choice for her and our son, and it took me a long and painful time to understand and appreciate why that makes sense.

Because it DOES make sense. The truth hurts.

What’s Your Experience?

We’re not always going to reach everyone. Sometimes, a person isn’t—and can’t be—ready until they’re ready. But I think we’re still obligated to try. Right? To help? To do our best?

We must.

So, I’ve got to ask, and will appreciate immensely your feedback:

Have you ever successfully asked your spouse or partner to read blog articles here, or relationship-oriented books to the betterment of your relationship? If so, how did you do so?

What do YOU believe is the most-effective way to break through communication gridlock to reach a stubborn spouse and help him or her grasp these extremely important relationship ideas so few people seem to inherently understand? Have you tried and succeeded, or did someone successfully get through to you? If so, will you please share how?

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How Trying to ‘Fit In’ Can Ruin Your Life and Marriage

Never Abandon Yourself

(Image/Pinterest)

As far back as I remember, I was taught that some human behaviors are so bad that if you do them, God—an otherwise all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving father figure—will be so pissed and disappointed with your choices that you run the risk of being banished to the shittiest, most-frightening, most-painful environment imaginable for ETERNITY.

I don’t know how many of you try to conceptualize FOR-FREAKING-EVER, but it hurts my head so much that even the concept of an eternal paradise scares me a little. I’m not really capable of imagining forever. Dinosaurs were alive 65 million years ago. Compared to FOREVER, 65 million years is less time than it took you to read this sentence, relative to our lifetime.

Let’s not discuss theology, please. I have no idea what’s true and not true, and I have a sneaking suspicion no one else does either—even those who act like they’re really certain about it.

This Bad Human Behaviors List was mostly not a problem.

I didn’t want to kill anyone. I never even liked hurting people.

I didn’t want to rape, or kidnap, or steal things. I didn’t even want to covet my neighbor’s wife or possessions.

I wanted to treat people well—not for praise or recognition—but just because that’s what naturally made sense for me.

The things on the Bad Human Behaviors List were super-easy to avoid for the first 12 or so years of my life. I didn’t want to do them anyway! Yay!!! I’m going to Heaven!!!

And then somewhere along the way, I started waking up with erections and inevitably had one anytime I was called up to write something on the chalkboard in front of the class at school. Sex became a thing I thought about a lot, and to some extent, talked about with friends.

By mid-high school, I’d experienced alcohol and marijuana, and decided I really liked both.

And for the first time in my life, my personal values were on the line.

Am I going to be the kind of person who does things because I like them and they feel good even though I believe they’re wrong?

With the full knowledge and understanding that having sex outside of marriage AND consuming alcohol or smoking pot just to “feel good” were on the Bad Human Behaviors List—the very list that will damn your ass to an eternity of excruciating fiery torment—I totally chose to do them anyway.

Guilt.

Shame.

Fear.

These things were now a part of my world, and there was nowhere to hide from them. What I discovered is that if you drink enough, and smoke a bowl, and climax a couple of times with a sexy partner in crime, you kind-of dull or mute the discomfort of guilt, shame and fear. Like a numbing agent.

Temporary relief from the discomfort of Real Life.

Whenever that relief wore off, you’d just do it again. Like a non-hospitalized college kid’s personal morphine drip.

Twenty years, one son who needs my guidance, and one divorce later, and I still find myself pushing that metaphorical button.

It doesn’t look anything like it used to. I never smoke. I rarely drink. I’m no longer surrounded by 10,000 single women every day.

But I’m still dancing with the question: What kind of person am I? What do I REALLY believe, and can I live courageously and authentically in whatever those true and actual beliefs might be?

Do You Ever Lie Like I Lied?

I didn’t think it was lying. Deception for the sake of taking advantage of someone, or benefiting at others’ expense.

THAT’s lying, right? I’m just not always disclosing the whole truth. That’s so much different than lying! Keeping some things to myself isn’t on the Bad Human Behaviors List!

I was pretty much being Peter in the movie scene from “Office Space” when he’s trying to justify to his girlfriend how stealing fractions of a penny from his employer isn’t actually wrong since Take-a-Penny trays exist.

Because I fucking lied. I was lying to myself as I spent years convincing myself I was doing the right thing.

I was “honest” in that I never tried to deceive my wife in some ultra-heinous way. But I lied to her by misrepresenting myself about sex.

“We celebrate anniversaries instead of the quality of relationships.”

– Mark Groves, relationship coach, speaker, writer

I wasn’t ashamed to drink with her nor have honest conversations about it. It wasn’t a source of guilt and shame.

I wasn’t ashamed to have honest conversations about pot smoking with her because it was such a relatively insignificant thing in our adult lives. It just didn’t matter enough to ever matter.

But then we get to sex. It’s always so uncomfortable to talk about for me, like I’m 12 again.

Maybe deep down, I’m still the 12-year-old just waiting for God to ban-hammer my sinful ass to perma-bathe in some hellfire lava pit.

Here’s the important part:

I was afraid to communicate things I thought and felt about sex to my wife—both when we were dating, and during our marriage.

Why?

Because I was afraid of rejection.

I was afraid my wife wouldn’t like the REAL ME, so I played like I was all morally virtuous in the sex department, even though I was actually a little pervy, and fantasized about interracial three-ways and other rad stuff that would probably make my grandma cry.

When Did We Decide Everyone Else Matters More Than Us?

This isn’t about sex, or moral righteousness, or even communication in marriage.

It’s about betraying and abandoning yourself to win the approval of others.

I was watching and listening to relationship coach and speaker Mark Groves talk about these ideas in a video I’ll share below.

[Full disclosure: Mark and I “met” for the first time on the phone last week because I really like and respect the work he does, and from that conversation I am intentionally looking for opportunities to share Mark’s work and support him, as he has the same mission that I do, and he’s already doing what I one day hope to—write about and talk about this stuff full-time.]

In this talk, Mark shares a number of personal stories (not unlike I try to do) in order to illustrate the lesson he learned from it, and share ideas for a better way of living.

Listening to his talk from the video, I was affected when he talks about how there’s a moment when we’re kids where most of us abandon ourselves in favor of: “I need to be this type of person to get the love of my parents.”

And how we often behave and make major life decisions (including who we date and/or marry) in an effort to live up to whatever cultural, religious, educational standards we believe will earn us the approval or praise of others.

“So we become who we think we need to be to be loved,” Mark said. “But when we do that, who’s not getting the love? Inside?

“Us. We abandon self to stay part of a group that doesn’t even celebrate who we truly are.

“That used to be something that preserved us in evolution, but it doesn’t seem so helpful now.”

The Science of Relationships (a Mark Groves talk)

Mark and I had a great talk where it was clear we were both passionate about the idea that our interpersonal relationships are truly the things that have the greatest impact on our lives.

How good or bad our human, earthly life experiences are is most greatly affected by the quality of our closest relationships. How good we feel. How healthy we are.

Yet, we spend our lives NOT learning about relationships from anyone except people who ALSO suck at them. Then shitty things happen and we cry and stuff.

I often use the term “failed relationship.” Mark hates that term and called it “shitty.”

“A relationship that ends is not a failure,” Mark said. “It’s expansion. It’s growth. It’s just the end of a story.

“We celebrate anniversaries instead of the quality of relationships.”

I spent a lot of time thinking about that. Longevity is beautiful, and Mark is the first to say so. But longevity DOES NOT make a relationship “successful.”

And it doesn’t have to be this way.

The path to a better way starts with treating ourselves better.

You deserve it. We all do.

Even me.

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The Subtle Difference Between Shitty and Non-Shitty Husbands and Wives

Coke vs. Pepsi by Adweek

I don’t drink a lot of soda, but I think I could identify Coke vs. Pepsi in a blind tasting. But since they’re both cola, there are probably many people who cannot. And I think it’s fair to call the differences subtle. (Image/Adweek)

The difference is so subtle that I didn’t recognize it until now.

And now that I have, it isn’t hard to see why so many pissed-off guys stumble on these articles and miss it too. My own inability to tell the difference when I was married is WHY I’m divorced today.

In everyone’s defense, including my own, the differences can be hard to detect. Really hard. If it were easy, therapists and divorce attorneys would have trouble finding work.

It’s not only subtle, but ever-changing.

The shitty behavior of husbands and wives may be healthy and totally acceptable in different relationships with different partners.

What is NOT shitty today may one day become shitty. What is shitty today may one day cease to be shitty.

It’s little wonder we have so many disagreements in our relationships.

I’m accused often of blaming men and husbands for the majority of relationship failures and divorce, and I’ve written sentences so strikingly similar to “I believe male behavior is responsible for the majority of divorces,” that I understand why some people feel that way. One of the best things about speaking these ideas someday as opposed to writing them now is that I think it will be easier for people to more-accurately gauge my meaning when they hear it vs. reading it.

Subtle.

More subtle than the flavor of Coke vs. Pepsi.

Even more subtle than the difference between the words “complement” and “compliment.”

So very subtle.

“You’re a female-worshipping pussy!” some tough guy said.

“This is bullshit!” another guy said. “A wife’s expectations need a reality check in many cases, though others hearing the story are sure to think the husband is at fault due to the false ideas permeating our culture.”

Another guy characterized my ideas as old-fashioned and unrealistic. He said a few things I disagreed with, but then he asked a great question that I’ve been thinking about since:

“What about the seeming double standard—is this fair to men, or anyone, to expect them to be any less human, any less fallible or fragile than anyone else? Is it OK to suggest that men are not entitled to simply be loved for who they are as a person? Or should men be required to constantly earn love—not for who they are—but for what they can do or provide?”

You see, when I was married, I misdiagnosed the marriage-problem symptoms my wife and I displayed, and I was CERTAIN of my correctness in any given disagreement between us. I was right, therefore she was wrong.

Here I was doing or not doing all of these things she wanted me to do differently. And most of the time, I would draw a line in the sand—a boundary, if you will—and stand my ground. I—quite literally—believed my wife was being unfair, or reacting inappropriately to something (like a judge sentencing someone to life in prison for a speeding ticket).

What’s the Difference?

I don’t know that I believed my choices were things I considered to be marriage-enhancers, but I DEFINITELY didn’t consider them to be things that might destroy mine.

Don’t you see the inherent danger there? For me, the scariest things in life are the dangerous, potentially fatal things that we don’t or can’t see coming.

Cancer. Heart attacks. Fatal auto accidents. Terrorism. Sink holes. Asteroids.

I don’t sit around feeling fear over these things because I don’t give a lot of mental energy to them. But I absolutely believe they’re the scariest things.

The things we don’t see coming.

I believe the behaviors that end relationships, lead to affairs, and are ultimately responsible for divorce, are behaviors that MOST people don’t recognize or identify as a danger.

I wasn’t a bad guy. Most guys aren’t bad.

But I WAS a shitty husband. Accidentally. Unaware. Thoughtlessly. Not on purpose.

And because I was trained from a really young age that we treat ACCIDENTS radically differently than we treat INTENTIONAL harm and destruction, I usually defaulted to the position that the “punishment” of my wife’s frustration or anger didn’t fit the “crime” of whatever action or inaction had upset her.

This might sound familiar because I’m pretty sure the vast majority of people can identify with either my experience, or my ex-wife’s.

“But, Matt! You always say that you were a SHITTY husband! How do you know?! Maybe your wife was just being a control freak or an insufferable nag! Maybe SHE was the shitty one!”

You know what, maybe she was sometimes.

I don’t think about things like that. I don’t try to remember every time I felt wronged by her in some attempt to excuse or justify my choices.

My marriage ended and now my little boy has to share homes and CONSTANTLY miss one of his parents, and possibly suffer a little bit socially.

I did things that hurt my wife.

Not her face. Not her arms. Not anywhere on the outside of her.

In her heart. In her mind. In her gut.

I didn’t know when I was married that emotional pain could hurt worse than physical pain. When my wife would talk about feeling hurt, I consciously or subconsciously treated her like she was a crazy person. Like she was a child I perceived to be acting overly dramatic about a tiny scrape. Like she didn’t know how to rank or manage discomfort.

This is what it looks like to not possess empathy nor understand the word’s meaning. When a husband or wife proves incapable of displaying mindful, intentional empathy for the person they promised to love and honor forever, they are breaking their marriage vows.

A shitty husband disregards his wife’s expressions of pain and treats her like there’s something wrong with her whenever he would have felt differently.

A shitty wife disregards her husband’s desire to feel appreciated as “payback” for feeling unappreciated herself.

A shitty husband abandons his wife to entertain herself in favor of doing things he prefers to do alone, when the THING she prefers to do is be together.

A shitty wife berates and shames her husband anytime he performs a task differently than she would have.

Where’s the Line?

“Where is the line between being responsive to your partner’s needs, and drawing a boundary around your own?” said MBTTTR commenter Lindsey in a recent conversation that inspired this post.

Is it possible that some husbands are having THEIR boundaries violated by wives who force husbands to earn their love and kindness, rather than give it freely?

“Is it OK to suggest that men are not entitled to simply be loved for who they are as a person?” the male commenter asked.

That question forced me to self-reflect more than almost any question I’ve been asked in the four years I’ve been writing here.

I think it’s quite simple. NOT to decipher. It’s way too subtle and requires vigilant communication and a mindful, willful desire to achieve a high level of bridged understanding with another person whose differences might frustrate you and create discomfort.

There’s nothing easy about it. But it is simple.

There are:

  • Things That HURT. Actions or words that fundamentally cause pain and/or harm to others, and
  • Things That Inconvenience or Conflict with Personal Preferences. Stuff a husband or wife WISHES were different, like how my ex-wife wished I liked skiing and house cleaning, and I wished she liked watching sports and playing poker.

If a relationship’s survival depends on HURTFUL things coming to an end, then I perceive it to be largely on the shoulders of the person causing the pain to stop, or at minimum, to actively seek ways to minimize it because they love and respect the person they married.

If a relationship’s survival hinges on two people finding balance between personal preferences and conveniences, then I think it’s profoundly important that the two people love and respect one another enough to make damn sure these matters of disagreement DO NOT cause damage to one another.

Because here’s what happens.

An event takes place. A moment comes and goes. Maybe someone did or said something. Maybe someone forgot a calendar event or special occasion.

There are endless possibilities for events we experience, and there are endless possibilities for how any individual person might react to that experience.

And it strikes me as being perfectly okay to not sign up for a lifetime together with someone whose preferences or reactions to events do not align with yours. By all means, don’t get married if you believe the relationship is doomed to fail.

BUT.

It strikes me as perfectly NOT OKAY to promise in front of witnesses, friends, and family; and sign legal contracts, and—most importantly—be assuring one’s partner or fiancé/fiancée throughout the length of an engagement that you’re in this forever to either:

  1. Knowingly bring harm to your spouse.
  2. Knowingly treat your spouse as if they aren’t good enough, and required to EARN your love simply because you want them to think as you think, or do things as you prefer them to be done.

A person who threatens a marriage by treating their spouse as if they aren’t good enough because of a difference in PREFERENCES is every bit as bad as the shitty spouse who damages their partner through intentional or neglectful harm.

Love is a choice.

And when we marry someone, we are to give that love freely for the rest of our lives. But NOT when our marriage vows have been broken by someone who refused to give the love and empathy marriage requires.

How do we get two people to actively choose to love one another, even when they don’t “feel” like it?

Maybe we can’t.

But that’s what a shitty spouse is—someone who won’t give love because it’s inconvenient or doesn’t feel good.

Who’s to blame?

Amidst the chaos of war in the middle of the battlefield, where both sides are firing shots and taking no prisoners, it’s really hard to tell.

No one?

Everyone?

I don’t know.

So, I looked in the mirror and figured out who to blame for my divorce.

Because there’s a better life out there. One I didn’t find blaming everyone else for my problems. But after looking into that reflection long enough and hard enough, I think it might be coming into focus.

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Some People Are Women, Others Are Men, and it’s Getting Hard to Talk About

gender identity male female

(Image/Angelus News)

My most popular articles tell true stories about my failed marriage and also tend to include a bunch of my own assumptions about “typical” male-female relationships.

Because of things I’ve experienced, observed, read, and heard about, I perceive there to be common male behaviors and common female behaviors, and sometimes when writing relationship stories—I will say things like: “Husbands often do this… and wives often do this other thing.”

I do it throughout the oft-read Open Letter to Shitty Husbands posts, and this very gender-oriented way of storytelling—for better or worse—is featured prominently in the only thing I’ve written that has been read millions of times: She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink.

I am a straight, white male who was raised in a small Ohio town, and totally immersed—from birth through high school—in conservative politics and what some people like to call “traditional Christian values.”

I used to think it was all very good. Common. Normal. The majority.

I always found comfort in being part of the “majority.” If MOST people believed something, then that must mean that believing that is good. The right thing to do. I am part of the group that is “most correct,” I reasoned.

Of course, I didn’t have access to any sort of data that could reliably tell me what “most” people thought, believed, felt or did, anyway. Nor was I wise enough to even ask the question. SO MANY people were “like me” where I come from that it never occurred to me to question things I was taught or any of the common beliefs of the people who lived where I lived.

Things are much different now.

I don’t live in a place where groupthink is as prevalent as it was for me growing up.

At 38, on the heels of my divorce that forced me to rethink everything I have ever done or believed, today I’m much better about questioning information I come across.

I always want to know WHY. Every one of our beliefs should have a WHY behind it. A REASON. There’s great danger in a bunch of people who believe things but can’t provide an explanation for WHY.

I’m less certain today about the things I think and feel.

Uncertainty isn’t comfortable. Uncertainty probably isn’t very attractive. But it damn sure reduces your asshole quotient. Since no one can know all things, behaving with certainty means you’re totally wrong (and a huge asshole) at least some of the time.

I don’t assume I’m correct about everything, but I always have a REASON for how I came to a belief, and if I discover that my reason for a belief is bullshit, I’m not afraid to abandon it in favor of a better idea.

I’ve learned to embrace the philosophy of Letting the Best Idea Win.

In every conversation, debate or argument between me and someone else with conflicting ideas, there can be only three possibilities:

  1. I’m right.
  2. I’m wrong.
  3. There is no objectively correct answer.

Many people behave in debates as if winning or losing are the only two outcomes. I tend to think everyone loses most of the time. I don’t think “being wrong” is the same thing as losing. Here’s why:

  1. If I’m right, I get to share a better or important idea with the person I’m talking to.
  2. If I’m wrong, I get to learn a better or important idea from the person I’m talking to, and stop believing something that’s untrue, harmful, or otherwise moronic.
  3. If there’s no objectively correct answer, fair-minded and reasonable people can always conclude that an individual’s life experiences shapes their beliefs, and that ANYONE who lived an identical life would have drawn an identical conclusion.

Is it Wrong or Dangerous to Identify Gender-Based Stereotypes in Stories Designed to Help People Improve Their Relationships?

A bunch of people (who might be correct) think I’m a complete idiot douchebag because of what they perceive to be cavalier use of “gendered” descriptors for human behavior.

If you also think I’m an idiot douchebag, you’ll take great joy in reading this MetaFilter thread about the “dishes” post that went viral in 2016.

It’s offensive for some men who are awesome about keeping their house clean, and mindfully comforting their romantic partners, and expertly managing their children’s many needs to read me write the equivalent of “Men are often thoughtless and selfish, dumping a bunch of housework on their wives, which inevitably causes wives to resent their husbands and eventually leave them.”

It’s offensive for some women who are sensitive about gender-based stereotyping of any kind to see it being done. The female experience for them has been one of being shoehorned into certain roles and stereotypes for no other reason than their gender. Women are still sometimes referred to as “minorities,” even though the human sex ratio is essentially 1:1 in almost every country and culture on earth.

I get this. Totally. I don’t like people labeling or telling me who I am either.

And I absolutely understand that this type of stereotyping and generalizing has categorically marginalized huge groups of people through the generations, because of their skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.

“Marginalized” is probably too soft a word for some of the atrocities people have experienced at the hands of the “majority.”

However, I can’t stop asking this question:

While gender-based stereotyping might seem ignorant or misguided to people whose life experiences were much different than mine, is it WRONG or BAD for me to make the observation that “Men often do this, and women often do something else”?

There is no malice intended in my observations that men frequently demonstrate a lack of awareness and empathy in their conversations and behavior at home with their wives. I honestly believe this is the most common scenario. That this is true most often.

There is no malice intended in my observations that women frequently feel sad, abandoned and afraid—and later, resentful—in their marriages because of this common male lack of awareness and empathy.

I am not judging men. I don’t believe women are better than men. But I do believe that women frequently demonstrate superior relationship skills to men like emotional intelligence, empathy, efforts to communicate, and stronger home- and child-management skills as mothers.

I believe that’s true. That doesn’t make anyone good or bad. It simply makes me correct or incorrect—and I honestly don’t know which I am in this case. This is what I think. Not what I know.

I am certainly not judging women. I don’t believe men are better than women, particularly in the context of male-female romantic relationships in cohabitation, marriage, or parenting. But I do believe that men are frequently innocent of intentional wrongdoing in their troubled relationships. That they are predominantly good men with good intentions who honestly love their wives and families, but mindlessly do or do not do things that hurt their wives, and often results in painful break-ups and divorce.

I believe this is true.

I believe anyone can look around and see this for themselves in their own families, and neighborhoods, and workplaces, and religious or social groups, and among the professional relationship therapists who have spent years listening to the same kinds of stories I tell, and who hear all of the same stories I get in my email inbox and in these blog comments.

Another Viral Example: ‘You Should’ve Asked’

Someone awesome and clever created a comic that I believe encapsulates the spirit of several of my posts like the “dishes by the sink” one, or how making your wife or girlfriend feel like your mom by managing your life and cleaning up after you all the time is a common recipe for the death of sexual attraction, and often, the relationship.

This excellent piece called “You Should’ve Asked” is a must-read.

I think the creator (her name is Emma) did an incredible job of capturing this Common Relationship dynamic I’m always going for, but I think she did a better job than I do of not assigning blame or shaming anyone in the process.

I was struck by how many people criticized the piece because they perceived it to unfairly stereotype genders in much the same way people have criticized me.

Does content like “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” and “You Should’ve Asked” cause more harm than good by being too gender-focused? Or do they do more good than harm by raising awareness to relationship issues so common that millions of people read and share them?

I am a guy. Because of this, I write for guys and feel comfortable talking about “guy things” in the same way I perceive them to be true. I don’t pretend to understand what women experience outside of the many books, conversations and stories I’ve read or heard.

I was a husband. Because of this, I write about husbands.

I write stories that I hope resonate with many people, and I don’t know how to do that without describing situations I believe to be most common—most statistically likely to have been true for the average reader.

But, if this isn’t obvious to you already, I believe sexism—which I hope is mostly unintentional—plays a prominent role in the fundamental breakdown of the common marriage, as I tend to describe it.

I defend my stereotyping (right or wrong) because I am rarely making value judgments about men and women.

I think it’s fair and reasonable to identify things as being DIFFERENT, without the underlying assumption that one is better than another. Equality is NOT “Everyone’s the same!” Equality is “Everyone has equal value.”

And I believe that strongly. That all people have equal value, regardless of how many differences we can identify.

I think, whether it be because of cultural conditioning and exposure to mass media or something else entirely, that men frequently demonstrate behaviors common to most males, and that women frequently demonstrate behaviors common to most females.

I don’t know why this happens, though I have foolishly suggested that evolutionary science might have something to do with it because I’m an idiot who occasionally talks out of his ass.

But I think it’s less foolish to observe things that happen around us, and then use those observations in stories designed to hopefully help people discover something important about themselves, about their partners, and about their relationships that might otherwise deteriorate and end painfully without that story resonating with them. Without stories that feel a lot like their own experiences.

Sometimes people see themselves in the words, and everything changes for them. Sometimes kids don’t have to move between houses and cry. Sometimes two really good people who honestly love each other don’t spend years accidentally damaging one another’s hearts and minds, because they finally SEE what’s really happening.

I want to believe that the stories told here have done more good than bad.

If there’s a way for me to do more good and less bad, I also want to know that.

But this criticism and question needs dealt with.

No matter how “common” it may seem to me or anyone else. No matter how easy it is for me to justify using a Mars/Venus backdrop to relationship stories. No matter ANYTHING else: Do we hurt others, and ultimately cause more harm than good when we use words that categorize or label or attempt to define a group of people because they’re connected by a shared trait?

I don’t know.

But if I can do better, I must.

If we can do better, we must.

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