Tag Archives: Empathy

What Being Drugged and Robbed Taught Me About Rape Culture

rape drug roofie - newsbeezer

(Image/newbeezer.com)

I’d only been conscious for a half-hour or so, and I was fighting tears because as a general rule, I don’t cry in front of my friends unless things are very, very bad.

This was close. Maybe just one ‘very.’

But one of my first and most potent thoughts was the realization that this is what women have to be mentally and emotionally vigilant against ALL THE TIME, and I’d been privileged to live more than 40 years without giving it a second thought.

Again, I can’t prove I was drugged. But it’s a theory everyone, including the police detective, seems comfortable accepting since it’s unusual for lucid people to hand over their ATM cards and mobile phones to strangers and tell them every passcode and PIN number necessary to extract and transfer the maximum amount of money.

I guess I’ll just ask you to take my word for it that I didn’t intentionally lose track of five hours, nor did I volunteer my phone and wallet to strangers.

If I couldn’t demonstrate that the theft occurred, I’d just be another asshole who lost all of his stuff after a late night in Las Vegas.

“So, you’re saying that you were out drinking with friends, and the next thing you remember is waking up in the stairwell of YOUR hotel with no shoes, no phone, and no wallet? Are you surrrrrre you didn’t just misplace your things, silly? How much did you have to drink? Can you explain who might have wanted to drug you? Can you tell me ANYTHING about the people you claim did this to you?”

These are all fair questions, objectively speaking.

My “saving grace,” if you will, is that people I don’t like very much took all of my money, and I can prove it. It lends credibility to my story.

But what about the thousands—perhaps millions—of women who have this EXACT same story, except instead of being a target for financial theft, some monster used a drug to effectively take away her free will, and then take things away from her that can’t be replaced like my stupid phone, money, and driver’s license can be?

One of the three friends I was with is a super-pretty woman about 10 or so years younger than me.

I kept thinking and saying: Thank God it was me and not her. 

I was shaken by the incident. I’m not inclined to minimize it because I know how heavy it felt for a minute, but I was honestly back to normal more or less one week later.

When women (or men) are physically violated, they lose things that can’t be put back together in a week, or ever.

I was embarrassed about this. I am embarrassed about this.

Because let’s be real. If I’m stone-cold sober instead of living it up at The Golden Nugget, this probably doesn’t happen.

And I’m reminded that women sometimes blame themselves, or are victim-blamed by investigators, attorneys, or people they turned to for support after enduring an unimaginable horror.

“So you were wearing a low-cut cocktail dress and heels? Not exactly the image of purity, is it?”

“Oh, you agreed to go to a bedroom with him, but you DIDN’T agree to have sex with him? Hmmmm.”

“So you were drinking alcohol and now you’re saying your memories are fuzzy so someone had to have drugged you? Tell me again how much you had to drink before this alleged ‘drugging’ occurred.”

I used to wonder why a large percentage of rape victims reportedly never file a police report.

I don’t wonder about that anymore.

The #1 Lesson I Learned From Being Drugged and Robbed

The most important takeaway from this incident has nothing to do with me. I’ll certainly be more careful in the future when I’m out in similar environments.

It’s now much easier to understand why some women (especially when alone) are standoff-ish or cold when strange men try to strike up conversations with them at a bar or store or wherever.

You don’t have to look hard to find stories from ego-wounded men who felt mistreated and rejected by a woman he was attracted to, interested in, and worked up the courage to talk to.

Those stories help fuel the so-called Men’s Rights movement. Of these “bitchy,” “judgy,” “self-righteous,” “stuck-up,” women who reject the well-intentioned advances of men who wanted to talk to them or buy them a drink.

Maybe some of these women are actually mean. It’s not awesome to be mean, but it’s a choice. A legal one.

But what if they’re not? What if what we’re interpreting as ‘mean,’ is something else?

One of the most important skills we can have as humans—particularly in our closest interpersonal relationships—is the ability to identify and understand the OTHER true versions of the story we just experienced.

Is that an insanely reckless and inconsiderate asshole weaving in and out of traffic, endangering everyone around him with no regard for others?

Or is he rushing his deathly ill child, or pregnant wife who has gone into labor to the nearest hospital?

Context always, always, always shifts the perspective or prism through which we look at things. Context provides understanding. It provides accurate interpretation and meaning.

Simple context can make an extremely painful incident something that doesn’t hurt at all.

Ohhhhhhh. THAT is why they did that! I would have done the exact same thing if I was in the same situation. I wish I wouldn’t have jumped to conclusions and felt so bad about that. I wish I would have asked better questions before thoughtlessly reacting.

These are the ideas my clients and I discuss regularly in our coaching calls.

These are the ideas that help different individuals, different political groups, different religious denominations, different races, different cultures, and people practicing different lifestyles co-exist without being insufferable cocks that no one likes to one another.

Life, once again, has gifted me with an evolved perspective. With a more accurate lens through which to view social interactions from both my point-of-view, and others’.

I’m grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful for the short turnaround time recovering from an extremely troubling incident.

And I’m grateful for the opportunity to once again grow into a wiser more-evolved person with a greater sense of empathy and understanding for a scary thing that millions of women, and surely a lot of men too, have suffered through, and that I’ve been largely blind to, because I had the unearned luxury of being so.

Here’s to fighting the fights that need fought.

And to supporting those fighting those fights. Publicly and loudly.

And privately, silently, from the shadows.

Much love to all.

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Podcast Interview: The Mindset You Must Change if You Want a Great Marriage

(Image/thelifestyleplaybook.com)

I know what you’re probably not thinking: I really want to listen to Matt blather on about conflict in relationships!

And because you’re not thinking that, this is me encouraging you to start thinking about it because clearly I’m an attention-whore. Therapist and author Lesli Doares, because she’s kind and gracious, invites me onto her podcast Happily Ever After is Just the Beginning every so often to jam about relationship stuff. (You can also check out Lesli’s The Hero Husband Project here.)

Today, her newest episode “The Mindset You Must Change if You Want a Great Marriage,” features … wait for it … me, soapboxing about people’s beliefs and how everyone thinks they’re right all of the time, and how that condition is the root of most relationship conflict (and every other kind of conflict).

In this episode, Lesli and I discuss this unhelpful mindset, and kick around ideas for how people can connect more powerfully with loved ones to improve their romantic relationships, as well as connect with other people, so they can have better social relationships in general.

You can listen here on the web at Web Talk Radio, or from your favorite podcast service (because I’m an Apple user, I can’t provide a Google Play link, and I’m sorry), but here is the link to the Apple Podcasts episode.

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How to Comfort (and Not Comfort) Someone Going Through a Divorce

(Image/Upsplash)

Only two kinds of people could help me feel better during my first year of coping with, adjusting to, and healing from my divorce.

The first kind of person was a friend or family member who knew me before I was married. My relationship with them lived independent of my marriage. My identity—for them—wasn’t intertwined with me being married.

My ex-wife and I were together about 13 years in total, married for nine. And the majority of people in my daily adult life met me and knew me as her husband or us as a couple. So when I spent time with them as a frightened, depressed, embarrassed divorced guy during those initial weeks and months, being with them only amplified all of my fear, sadness, and shame—through no fault of their own.

People who knew me BEFORE I was married had a personal relationship with me as an individual. Was I still ashamed, sad, and afraid? Yes. But one of the biggest parts of healing after divorce is readjusting from a WE to a ME. From an Us to being an individual again. It doesn’t happen overnight.

It hurts when everything feels wrong. It’s hard to not feel like yourself. But O.G. friends and family make you feel like yourself automatically because it’s not weird or different to be an individual with them.

The second kind of person who could help me was someone who had experienced divorce or an ultra-significant breakup of a long-term relationship where the emotional and logistical loss is essentially the same.

The second kind of person could be a total stranger, but if they knew what I knew, being with them and talking with them was more cathartic than some of my best friends and other people who loved me could ever be.

People who understood—I mean, really got it down in their core—were people whose lived experiences were similar to mine. And people with shared life experiences are best equipped to offer one another the thing people in crisis need: empathy.

Let’s roll with a good, old-fashioned Do’s and Don’ts (<— that can’t be grammatically correct) list.

Let’s start with the Don’ts.

Things You Should Never Do or Say to Someone Getting Divorced

1. Don’t say “You’re going to be fine! Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to [insert you or whoever here].”

Not all marriages, divorces, families, nor the humans that comprise those things are the same. Divorce IS totally great for people who escaped abusive situations, or for people who WANTED the divorce, or for people who don’t have children and profited from the situation.

For some people, divorce doesn’t make them a social pariah in their neighborhoods, families, churches, social groups, workplace, etc. But for others, it does. For others, they’re mostly sad because of their children. And for others still, divorce was literally the #1 thing in their entire lives they didn’t want to have happen.

Dismissing it as some rad thing they’ll grow to appreciate later makes you a tone-deaf asshole.

[Side Note: You can learn how to be less of an asshole in life and relationships here.]

2. Don’t say “You know what you need? To get laid,” or try to manufacture a party or night out at the bars where that happens.

I promise that sexual beings will have sex when they feel like it. So you don’t need to encourage them, unless YOU are someone they are potentially sexually attracted to and feel like propositioning them.

Few things in life have insulted me more than when a few guys I knew thought me hooking up with some drunken rando at a bar would be beneficial or somehow right things that were wrong.

Does copious amounts of alcohol-driven euphoria and intense orgasmic ecstasy generally feel good? Sure. If you eliminate anything mental, emotional, or spiritual from the conversation, yes. But when people are suffering from divorce, the problem IS mental, emotional, and spiritual. Tying one on and climaxing a few times (or probably just once) with someone you’re never going to see again is infinitely more likely to make someone feel worse than better. Please encourage your loved ones to NOT do that.

3. Don’t say mean things about their ex as a method of offering support.

If you’re just talking out of your ass and don’t really mean it, then you’re being a ridiculous asshole and telling your friend/family member/colleague that they were stupid to marry and share resources (and possibly children) with such a substandard human being. You’re tearing down and verbally desecrating the good, sacred, beautiful thing the sufferer is grieving the loss of, and you’re doing it from a place of nonsense where you don’t actually know or believe what you’re saying.

And if you ACTUALLY do mean it and believe it? Then you’re doing those same things intentionally. Don’t.

Things You Should Say or Do For Someone Going Through a Divorce

1. Make yourself available to listen. Not to speak. Just to be there.

Make yourself available to share space with them and be prepared to do nothing except sit there, still, listening. If you have lived a similar experience, it will be easy to respond in affirming, supportive ways. If you have not, there’s NOTHING you can say to make it better, but you BEING THERE is making it better. That’s the gift you’re giving, and it’s a powerful one.

The greatest lesson I learned from my divorce (or rather my reflections on my failed marriage) is that we MUST—if we desire a happy, healthy, peaceful, mutually beneficial relationship—allow people to care about whatever they care about. Maybe that’s horse racing, maybe it’s knitting, maybe it’s yoga, maybe it’s I just got divorced and I feel like I want to die. Everyone has their own unique list of things that are meaningful to them, whether it be something deeply personal and emotional, or something mentally stimulating like a hobby or entertainment pursuit.

One of the most valuable things we can give someone is the gift of respecting, honoring, sharing interest in the things that matter to them. There is no agenda. There is no natural interest or pleasure, necessarily. Just a very basic: That person really cares about this. I really care about them. So I’m going to behave as if I care about this too out of love and respect for them.

That applies to all relationships, no matter what. It’s also particularly useful when supporting someone who is grieving a loss and trying to heal a personal trauma.

2. Encourage them to take all the time they need.

Don’t abandon them or stop inviting them to social get-togethers because they’re not “over” their divorce or break-up as fast as you would like, because you feel like they’re not as fun as they used to be.

If you’re truly interested in helping them heal, then remind them that there’s no blueprint or How-To manual for any of this.

I have had a variety of coaching clients talk to me about feelings of shame stemming from their swirling intense emotions, or from their impatience with themselves for feeling like they haven’t moved on.

And I always remind them that divorce is hard, and if they weren’t totally freaking out I’d be way more worried about them—especially if they’ve lost time with, and influence over, their children’s lives. It’s NORMAL to spaz out big-time when your entire life is disrupted and you lose things that are most precious and meaningful to you. It’s all of the people who bounce back in a day or two that scare the shit out of me.

Remind them that it’s hard and they’re responding in a way totally consistent with something excruciatingly difficult. Encourage them to be patient with themselves. Encourage them to be kind to themselves. Our primary job as people moving past something difficult is to breathe. To stay alive for one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year.

When you do that long enough, you eventually arrive at a year, month, week, day, hour, or moment where everything is okay. Where you get to be you again.

Where something amazingly good and beautiful happens. Something that could have, and would have, never happened unless every day before that one had happened exactly as it did.

People deserve to have something to look forward to. And when we stay alive long enough, that moment inevitably arrives.

To stay alive, all that’s required is that we keep breathing. Kindly, remind them.

There is nothing we can specifically do to heal the individual trauma suffered by another.

We can simply be the friend or supportive family member/colleague that creates an environment where grieving people can heal on their own terms.

You don’t need to fix anyone. You shouldn’t try to save anyone.

Just love them. No matter what. And, if they choose healthy things, time will do what time always does.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

It almost seems as if nothing happens, but everything happens.

If we’re not careful, it can sound trite. Maybe even cheap. But it’s true and important, and I like to remind people as often as possible in the most empathetic and encouraging way I can, and I would encourage you to remind everyone that you care about:

Just breathe.

Everything is going to be okay.

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Preparing for that Last Goodbye

goodbye gravestone

(Image/Thrive Global)

Nothing sparks contemplation for me quite as intensely as the news of someone’s death.

One of my best friends from childhood—the best man in my wedding, and my roommate for four years of college—lost his father.

I just found out.

And then my head goes to the place where my fingers need the keyboard.

No other life events affect me like death. The same must be true for many of you. The news—the shock and inflexible reality of it—forces you to rewire your brain in real-time, because what you know to be true is no longer true. And there’s no do-overs or rewind buttons. There’s just adjusting uncomfortably—sometimes very painfully—to the new world you didn’t want nor ask to travel to.

My friend’s dad was a doctor. A surgeon. A kind and funny and generous one.

In addition to welcoming me into his home for what seems like the majority of weekends throughout my senior year of high school, this man indirectly had a profound impact on my life.

He graduated from the same university I attended. So when his son and I were exploring college options, he was the one who drove us to campus one weekend to check it out and see a football game.

That trip cemented my friend and I’s decision to attend that school together and be roommates.

It was at that school where I switched majors so that I could make writing my career.

And it was at that school where I would meet the young woman who would later be my wife and son’s mother.

If Doc doesn’t invite me to visit his alma mater with his son that fall weekend in 1996, then almost everything about my life—right this second—could be radically different.

Heavy thoughts.

A favorite writer of mine starts his day by reading obituaries.

He believes that reading obituaries each morning helps him better appreciate life, focus on the present, and live each moment more fully.

There’s a simple brilliance in that.

Another favorite writer of mine will walk down the streets of New York City, imagining that every person he sees is terminally ill. That they will die in the coming hours.

He says that allows him to behave more kindly, more patiently, more empathetically, more thoughtfully to the hordes of strangers that are otherwise easy to de-humanize as they honk their horns, stand in your way while you’re in a hurry, and make daily life in the city more frustrating and less pleasant than it might otherwise be.

They do this because—one might argue—we are our best selves when we’re mindful of the fragility of this life.

We are not promised tomorrow.

How would we treat our spouses, our extended family, our friends, our children? How would we treat strangers?

If we knew they were going to die?

If we knew we were going to die?

It’s funny to me—not Ha-ha funny—that they are going to die. That I’m going to die.

The conditions are ALREADY in place for me to show up and be my best self to others. In that same way I naturally feel right now upon learning the news of Doc’s passing.

We shouldn’t be sad or morose or uncomfortably morbid all of the time. That doesn’t seem useful.

But we should be mindful. We should always be mindful of what may be.

Our time is precious.

Who deserves our forgiveness? Our patience? Our compassion? Our attention? Our love?

There’s a higher path we can choose to walk. I’m often operating several levels beneath it.

But now—right now—I feel how much I want to be up there.

And even if I—predictably—fail to stay up there as I cycle back into routine and normalcy and acting as if my life and my things are the center of the universe and nothing else is happening out there, it can’t hurt to spend right now reminding myself how laughably untrue that is.

That life is happening in other places and it matters.

That other people are fighting their own battles, and they’re hard, and what can I do to help them fight them?

That no matter what has happened in the past, between any of us and all of the people we know, there’s a farewell coming. One way or another, there’s a Goodbye up ahead.

Maybe we could make it a good one.

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The Moments When Men Lose Their Wives

Cesare-Pavese-Quote-We-do-not-remember-days-we-remember-moments

(Image/Quotefancy.com)

Our relationships work like a weight scale. Like a math equation.

With every person we know, there’s a ledger. There are no accountants. No bookkeeping. No visible scoreboards.

Just the running score we have in our minds and hearts. The math is impure, of course. Subjective. No two people will score their relationship with one another exactly the same. And without super-honest—sometimes uncomfortable—communication, neither person will necessarily know where they stand in the minds and hearts of the other.

We’d all like to believe in unconditional love. I always have. And I’m sure there have been countless examples of people providing it to loved ones who other people would have cut out of their lives under identical circumstances. But we’re only human. Even the strongest among us have weaknesses and breaking points.

Provide enough negative experiences for another person and they won’t want to be around you anymore. Provide enough emotionally painful experiences for another person and they won’t even want to know you. Hurt someone intensely enough, and they won’t even be the same person anymore.

This is how good marriages turn shitty, how faithful spouses turn to affairs, and how people who love one another and share children end up disliking one another so much that they’re willing to uproot their homes and children’s lives just to escape.

It’s been said by me and much smarter people several times already—marriages or long-term romantic relationships rarely end from one, big, obvious, dramatic moment that came out of the blue. Most of the time, relationships end after thousands of tiny little moments that escaped our notice piled up enough that the scale couldn’t hold up anymore. One side gets so weighed down, that the entire thing crashes to the ground, splattering all the sadness, anger, pain, shame and fear on anyone standing close enough.

Misdiagnosing My Divorce

I’m definitely an idiot, but I’m like a smart-ish idiot. I’ve always been fairly analytical, curious, and interested in getting to the WHY behind, well, everything. I always want to how or why something happened, and how or why someone or something behaves as it does.

My mental aptitude is in the top 10%-15% if you place any stock in standardized academic testing.

And even though I’m kind of smart-ish, when I applied all of my brainpower to figuring out the WHY behind my wife wanting to divorce, I settled on a totally incorrect conclusion.

Misdiagnosing things is VERY bad. If you get it wrong after a relationship has ended, and you don’t actually know why, you’re likely doomed to repeat the experience. If you get it wrong DURING your relationship, you’ll spend all of your time and energy on things that won’t make anything better. Which is why people sometimes FEEL like they’re working hard on their relationship, only to continue eating shit sandwiches from their ‘ungrateful’ partners who aren’t responding emotionally the way the Misdiagnoser wants them to.

That was me. A Misdiagnoser.

My wife’s father—my father-in-law, a man I loved and respected intensely—died out of nowhere one autumn day. We’d all had dinner together the night before. Everything was fine. Happy. Fun. The very next night, I learned the tragic news from a phone call, and was suddenly facing the task of telling my wife the most painful news she would ever hear.

The following month was a blur. I tried to play the role of Good Husband and Good Son-in-Law for my wife and extended family.

But that woman wasn’t my wife anymore. She was someone else.

I thought it would get better eventually. It never did.

I lost my wife when her father died.

So you know what I did? I pointed to that tragic life event, and interpreted it as my wife mishandling the situation emotionally. I convinced myself that my “overly emotional” wife was showing her true colors once again—putting her feelings ahead of more important things like our marriage and family.

And here’s the worst part in terms of the modern-day divorce crisis: I’d argue that that story makes sense. It’s easy to believe.

I think there are many thoughtful, intelligent people who would agree with that initial analysis, make a snap judgment about my ex-wife or me, and never put any more energy into digging for more truth.

“Yeah, Matt. That’s terrible. Something similar happened to my other buddy, Trey. She’s being selfish, and putting her sadness ahead of your marriage, and now your family is suffering for it. I’m sorry man. I wish I knew what to say.”

It doesn’t always matter what’s true. It doesn’t always matter what’s real. People will act on their BELIEFS—independent of whether we agree with those beliefs, or even know that person has them.

If you value your relationship with someone, it will be helpful to come to terms with this truth. When we love people, we have to honor THEIR experiences—THEIR reality—in order to connect with them on an emotionally healthy level.

There’s Famous Precedent for This Phenomenon

For 1,500 years, early astronomers used Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system to create astronomical charts. ‘Geocentric’ means that the Earth is the center of the universe, and everything in the night sky is orbiting around it.

Today, we know this isn’t true. Nicolaus Copernicus got suspicious and theorized we were actually the ones moving around the sun. Later, Italian genius Galileo Galilei proved it.

But for 1,500 years prior, every educated person in the world believed the sun revolved around Earth. And it wasn’t because everyone was a bunch of stupid morons. Given the mathematical parameters and limited technology of that time, you can PROVE Ptolemy’s model.

For 1,500 years, the smartest people in the world—every scientist, navigator, educator and thought leader—knew how the sun, moon and stars would move in the sky. They could ‘prove’ it convincingly by accurately predicting what would happen next in the night sky, even though EVERYTHING about their prediction model was based on false information.

People can believe things that can’t be proven—big and small. Don’t get hung up on the countless religious and political examples of this in world history. Just think about the people in your personal life. They might believe something about you or about your relationship that isn’t true, whether or not you realize it.

And if you’re constantly operating outside of THEIR reality, you’re bound to disagree with them, fight with them, confuse them, frustrate them, anger them, and hurt them.

This is the way your marriage ends.

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Shameless Self-Promotion Note About My Coaching Services

I started coaching in 2019. Clients and I work collaboratively through current and past relationship stuff in order to improve existing relationships or to prepare for future ones. Other clients are trying to find themselves after divorce or a painful breakup. We talk by phone or video conference. People like it. Or at least they fake it really well by continuing to schedule future coaching calls and give me more money. If you’re going through something and think I might be able to help, it’s really easy to find out for sure. Learn More Here.

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The Moments—Big and Small—When We Lose Those We Love

We call them small, but shouldn’t. MOST of life is small moments, so it’s the collective pile of these small moments building up in people’s emotional bank accounts that end up being The Big Thing.

It’s the pinpricks—the paper cuts—that end us. We just never see it coming, because each moment seemed too minor to present a serious threat. In isolation, none of them seem to cause enough damage.

Then, one day, one more thing gets thrown on the negative side of the scale, and it comes crashing down.

The Small Moments – Minor Life Setbacks

We’re always trying to make progress. To achieve something. We want to get a new job, or succeed at a project or hobby, or whatever. But life doesn’t always hand us victory. Sometimes we have to take it on the chin a little first until we quit trying, or overcome it.

But the setbacks hurt. The disappointments are hard to swallow. Sometimes that’s because we hold ourselves to super-high standards. But, if you’re anything like me, it’s because these setbacks feel like failures for the people you love as well. Like you’ve let them all down by not earning the job offer, or not winning the competition, or working on a project at home or work that doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped.

So, you’re feeling the shame of failure, but you’re PRETENDING not to. You’re wearing the Tough Guy mask. You’re imagining your wife, kids, friends, parents—whoever—are all talking about what a loser you are (even though most or all of them love you, and are NOT actually thinking or talking about what a loser you are).

You withdraw from your spouse or romantic partner and hide because you’re feeling sorry for yourself, OR you’re leaning heavily on her for support. To nurse you back to health.

No matter which reaction you chose, you forced your wife to invest a bunch of emotional/mental/physical energy into trying to navigate your feelings (often the same feelings you belittle her for demonstrating when they’re about something that matters to her).

If you withdraw, you leave all of the work of home and children, etc. to her.

If you vampire her energy to prop you back up, you leave her short of what she needs to get through the days with her workload.

But here’s the worst part:

When SHE has a minor setback in her life, maybe you don’t see it as being a big deal. Or. Maybe you try to help her solve her problem with all of your superior man-wisdom, when all she really wants is a trusted confidant who is steadily, reliably in her corner.

These are the types of little interactions, where we are taking more from our spouse and marriage than we are giving to them.

And once one end of the scale is weighed down by enough moments, shit breaks.

The Small Moments – Illness

These are broad generalizations. They do not apply to everyone. They simply apply to me and many other people.

When my wife was sick, I certainly went out of my way to bring her meds, food, drinks, blankets, etc. And I thought by doing that, I was being a good husband.

You know what I WASN’T doing—ever?

I wasn’t thoughtfully taking care of things my wife would have taken care of while I was recovering on the couch. If I was sick on the couch, not only would my wife have brought me food, blankets, meds, etc., but she would have also kept the kitchen spotless, kept the laundry going, managed the family calendar, and much more.

My wife—and many wives/mothers—don’t get days off even when they’re sick. Because in their experience, if they’re not taking care of certain life duties, they’ll never get done. They can’t count on anyone else to do them.

This arrangement can work for a few years. It takes a while for things to pile up on the scale.

But eventually? Something as seemingly innocent as a sick husband asking for more Advil from the couch where he’s watching movies while his wife is packing two school lunches and getting two kids ready for bed can make a person snap.

The Small Moments – Parties and Social/Family Gatherings

I was nicer to strangers than I was to my wife.

Not always. Just often.

Someone I didn’t live with or barely knew could say or do something, and get total politeness from me. But if my wife said or did that EXACT SAME THING, maybe I’d find some way to voice my displeasure, or make it clear to everyone in earshot that I didn’t agree with whatever she had just said or done.

Someone I saw a few times a year, or maybe never again, would get my BEST treatment and behavior.

But the person I claimed to love above all things, and promised to honor for the rest of my life got a bunch of subtle or overt dick-headed commentary and treatment.

I’d be kind and charming to strangers. Laugh hysterically with my friends.

But I couldn’t extend that same kindness and charm to my wife? I couldn’t whisper in her ear how amazing she looked, and how grateful I was that out of all the people in the room, I was the one that got to take her home?

I never said or did things like that.

And if you don’t think that matters, you have the same disease I used to have.

The Big Moments – The Wedding

Listen. Weddings are bullshit. I get it.

They don’t HAVE to be. They SHOULDN’T be.

But they often are.

A big, expensive party celebrating the beginning of a living arrangement statistically likely to suck ass 5-10 years later.

We put so much time, effort, and energy—culturally; societally—into weddings, and I’m not the least bit shy about saying how asinine and bullshitty it all seems to me.

But you know what weddings are—independent of all the pomp and circumstance?

They are DAY 1 of what is supposed to be FOREVER.

And the significance of that can’t be overstated.

Weddings seemed like “girl stuff.” Bridal magazines, dresses, cakes, flowers, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t really care about. Weddings were “the bride’s day.” So, I just checked out unless I was asked for my opinion. I barely helped with anything. I was 24 and 25 during the year of my engagement. Thinking about marriage isn’t something that happened. I was too busy not knowing how much it mattered just like the rest of the world.

Our lives already looked how it would look when we were married. Forever Boyfriend and Girlfriend. Easy!

We can’t know what we don’t know, so I couldn’t have known it back then. But I started to lose my wife during our engagement, when I demonstrated total disinterest in something that mattered so dearly to her.

I didn’t participate—actively—in what people often refer to as “the best day of their lives.”

THAT is how I chose to begin our journey to FOREVER, and never once considered the dangers of doing so.

The Big Moments – Having a Baby

I left my crying wife in the hospital about five hours after delivering our only child, right on the heels of her being in labor for 24 hours.

I don’t like talking about it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.

We talk about safety. We talk about trust. And people think they know what that means. But sometimes it takes on different meaning in romantic relationships.

After that day, my wife couldn’t trust me anymore. Not to be there for her when she needed me to be. And because she couldn’t trust me, she couldn’t feel safe. The future felt too unsteady, too uncertain.

The day of my son’s birth was the true beginning of the end. And it was 100-percent within my power to have made a different choice.

I didn’t know how to give more than I took. I chose me, taking for granted that my marriage would always be there.

Through the prism of hindsight, the outcome was predictable.

The Big Moments – Trauma and Grief

“The straw that broke the camel’s back” is a famous idiom which describes the seemingly minor or routine action that causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions.

And it’s truly the way most relationships end.

Someone suffers a major emotional trauma, or are grieving the sudden loss of a close family member or friend. It’s so significant—they break so much on the inside—that they never get to be themselves again. It’s not a concept a person gets to understand until they suffer through it themselves.

When people break on the inside, they feel worse than they’ve ever felt before. It’s emotional and physical rock-bottom.

But something interesting happens in that moment.

When life feels like it can’t get any worse, you stop being afraid of anything. Maybe for the first time in someone’s life, they fear nothing.

People aren’t afraid to leave their spouse when they can’t feel any worse. People aren’t afraid of potential judgment from their family or friends when they can’t feel any worse. People aren’t afraid of the unknown when they can’t feel any worse, because they’re ALREADY in the midst of I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

If your relationship was already in bad shape, a significant traumatic moment, or the grieving that can occur after a tragic loss, can and will cause the scale to collapse.

If your relationship was NOT already a mess, then THIS IS YOUR MOMENT. This is when you write the story of how you show up for your partner in relationships.

How you show up when it’s inconvenient. When it doesn’t feel good. When it’s hard.

This is your chance to show up—not for you—but for them.

Your golden opportunity to put your marriage and the person you claim to love above all things AHEAD of your immediate wants.

This is the moment when you must give more than you take.

Not once.

But over and over and over again, even when there’s no certain date on the calendar when it will stop feeling hard.

When life will feel good again.

This is your opportunity to walk the In Good Times and In Bad; ‘Til Death Do Us Part walk.

And you must. If you want to have a marriage that goes the distance, this is the path. This is the price.

Love without expectation.

Giving with no hands out.

Effort without seeking pats on the back.

Every minute is another Small Moment to invest in her. In your future. In your family.

Every major life event is a rare Big Moment to step up and do everything better and differently than I did.

It’s how we beat this.

It’s where heroes are born.

There probably won’t be statues and parades.

Just your family. Always.

And all around you, every day, people learning to follow your example. Changing the world.

Not just in the big moments. In all of the moments.

That’s where the real fight lives. In the hiding-in-plain-sight everydayness. In the ordinary.

You just didn’t realize it.

But she has.

Just ask her.

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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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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.

…..

Shameless Self-Promotion Note About My Coaching Services

I started coaching in 2019. Clients and I work collaboratively through current and past relationship stuff in order to improve existing relationships or to prepare for future ones. Other clients are trying to find themselves after divorce or a painful breakup. We talk by phone or video conference. People like it. Or at least they fake it really well by continuing to schedule future coaching calls and give me more money. If you’re going through something and think I might be able to help, it’s really easy to find out for sure. Learn More Here.

…..

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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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.

…..

Shameless Self-Promotion Note About My Coaching Services

I started coaching in 2019. Clients and I work collaboratively through current and past relationship stuff in order to improve existing relationships or to prepare for future ones. Other clients are trying to find themselves after divorce or a painful breakup. We talk by phone or video conference. People like it. Or at least they fake it really well by continuing to schedule future coaching calls and give me more money. If you’re going through something and think I might be able to help, it’s really easy to find out for sure. Learn More Here.

…..

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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I Am the Monster You Should Be Afraid Of

Monster Check by Adrian Sommeling

(Artwork by Adrian Sommeling)

How far back can you remember?

I’m pretty sure I can remember moments when I was 3. We must have thought and felt things before our earliest memories. I can only guess that the things I thought and felt as a baby are consistent with what I remember through most of childhood.

Unless you value money above all else, I had it sickeningly good.

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, a child will die because there’s no sanitary drinking water in his family’s village, another will be physically abused or abandoned by her father and/or mother, and another still will become a pariah within his family, social circle or community because of appearance or handicaps or interests or beliefs. It’s unspeakably tragic.

But me? I was immersed fully in constant affirmations of love, had all of my basic needs met, had most of my wants catered to (within the context of our financial resources), and experienced nothing in the realm of abuse, neglect or rejection by family or friends.

“You’re such a good boy, Matt!”

“You’re so smart, Matt!”

“You’re so handsome, Matt!”

“You’re so polite, Matt!”

“You’re so funny, Matt!”

“You’re so nice, Matt!”

“You’re so SPECIAL, Matt!”

Not the sarcastic “special,” either. They meant it. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and Uncles. Parents of friends. Teachers. Coaches.

I’ve had embarrassing amounts of nice things said about me.

It’s a nice way to grow up. You’re never afraid to meet strangers. You’re never afraid people won’t like you. You’re never afraid of failure.

Because you’ve never heard, experienced or even CONCEIVED of a situation in which people didn’t like and accept you, or where you failed to succeed at whatever you set out to do. From your earliest memories, everything about you is “good.” When everything about you is good, you don’t have to work at anything. There’s nothing to improve because everything’s good as it is.

Suggestions from someone to the contrary makes them “weird,” or “wrong.” How many people think YOU’RE the nicest, smartest, most-special person in the world?! Hmmmmm?!, you think to yourself without saying it out loud. Because that wouldn’t be “polite.” And polite = good. Just like me.

When the world sees a happy, polite, nice, smart, funny person, no one raises any red flags or sounds the alarms. In a world with people who rape and murder on purpose, no one’s going to center any public-awareness campaigns around protecting society from people fitting my description.

Violent crime is scary. But in the United States you have less than a 2% chance of being a victim of one in your lifetime, and that’s including a punch to the face.

The vast majority of human suffering stems not from violent acts, but from the trauma endured from the emotional and psychological damage inflicted in our human relationships.

So, philosophical question: What’s a more frightening proposition—the easy-to-spot emotionally abusive and neglectful person you should obviously steer clear from, or the happy, polite, nice, smart, funny person you never see coming?

And this last part is important: The emotionally abusive, happy, polite, nice, smart, funny person isn’t using deceptive subterfuge to trick anyone. The ability and/or tendency to neglect and abuse isn’t part of some clandestine conspiracy.

Because even they themselves can’t see behind the cloak.

A monster.

A terrifying one. Not because you’re afraid, but because you’re NOT afraid.

A dangerous one. Not because they’re intent on destruction, but because they don’t know what they are.

Undetected Monsters Don’t Just Sleep in Our Beds, But Stare Back in Our Mirrors

Remember when little I-see-dead-people Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” said that the ghosts he saw didn’t know they were dead? Same thing.

Sometimes, we are monsters. Dangerous ones who WILL destroy things, including ourselves, and the scariest part about it is that it’s NOT scary.

Non-imaginary creature definitions for the word “monster” include:

  • a powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled and that causes many problems.
  • one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.
  • a threatening force.

I was, and likely remain, dangerous because I’m conditioned to assume that my good, polite and intelligent (arguably) thoughts, intentions and actions are completely benign. That something I do or say is harmless. And if someone suggests that something I do or say isn’t that, then the instinct is to assume they’re getting something wrong.

I fundamentally changed the course of several people’s lives just by waking up every day and doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, or at the very least, making normal, reasonable choices.

The expectation was for my girlfriend/fiancée/wife to think of me and treat me the same as all of my family and friends did from every second I could remember, until whatever present-day moment I was ever in with her.

When she didn’t, she was being unfair, or she was being crazy, or she was just being WRONG.

On matters big and small, she seemed so wrong because of her failure to see how nice and smart and polite and thoughtful and correct and GOOD I was.

It seemed totally insane to hear her say things like: “How could you be so mean to me?” or “If you really love me, why can’t you act like it?”

The Good Guys vs. The Bad Guys

I’ve been a sports fan for as long as I’ve known what sports were.

Football, basketball, baseball and others. My Cleveland Indians are getting ready to face the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

Almost no one outside of Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals fans dislike the Cubs. They’re the quintessential Lovable Losers. The Indians are too, but the Cubs sort of out-pathetic them in an Ultimate Baseball Sadness competition.

Because my dad’s side of the family is Illinois-based, most people I know and love there are Chicago sports fans. And because I grew up with my mom in Ohio, and live here today, I and most of my friends are Cleveland sports fans.

For the first time in 37 ½ years of life, I am forced to actively root against the team my dad and hundreds of people I know and love are rooting for. The Cubs, who I have ALWAYS also rooted for because there’s never been a conflict, are now the enemy.

The Cubs (it hurts to type) are the bad guys.

I realized as I was going through this thought exercise that the Indians—my lovable-loser, underdog Indians—are ALSO the bad guys. They’re the good guys to me and my Ohio friends. But they’re the bad guys to the legion of fans in Chicago who have been dying for a Cubs championship their entire lives.

Every time something good happens to the Indians and I feel happy, a bunch of other people will feel sad.

If we win a game, we’ll celebrate while Cubs fans will hurt.

And vice versa.

The heroes in our World Series stories are different, depending on who we are and how we feel.

The good guys and the bad guys are different, depending on your individual circumstances and opinions.

Who is right? Who are the good guys?

It’s always been hard for me to imagine the people rooting for the other team to be rooting for the good guys. I’ve never had much sympathy for them.

But this really drove the point home for me. A bunch of very good people. Amazing people. People I love. Craving desperately a result that will make me and a bunch of my friends feel shitty. And me wanting the opposite even though it will adversely affect people I love.

Yet another example of the two perspectives, and how two people can look at the same thing and describe it differently. How two people can disagree with neither being wrong.

The lovable losers have become the monsters.

Monsters who don’t think they’re bad guys.

They look in the mirror and can’t see the monster underneath all the good guyness.

Maybe just like you.

Certainly just like me.

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The Illusion of Incorrectness: The One Time Seeing the Other Woman Can Save Your Marriage

optical illusion old lady young lady

Surely, most of you have seen this famous optical illusion before. Many of us can see “both” women — the young woman facing the other direction, as well as the large-nosed old woman. But our brains tend to default to one or the other, forcing us to really “look” for the other perspective. Is it WRONG to see the young lady? Is it WRONG to see the old one? Two different conclusions, but NEITHER are incorrect. Both are right. This happens in life and marriage all the time, but we’re less quick to let others see what they see. We tell them they’re wrong. And then, sometimes, everything breaks. (Image/Gizmodo)

Megan wrote: “I posted your ‘She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink’ article on FB and my one woman friend who always disputes the existence of sexism replied, ‘This wife could’ve learned that dishes in the sink actually isn’t an act of deep disrespect worthy of divorce just as easily as he understood she interpreted it that way despite his intention. I think he’s better off without her. Part of marriage is accepting small flaws rather than blowing them out of proportion. But I say this as someone who’s not a neat freak, nor married to a neat freak (thank God!).’ I’d be curious to hear your reply to that.”

I don’t think Bob Dylan’s music is all that great. I hear it and naturally don’t like it as much as music played by others.

I think shopping in retail stores on Black Friday is insane. I can’t save enough money to justify putting myself in the middle of those crowds.

I think bleu cheese makes everything taste worse. If I was kidnapped and starved by a gnarly hillside cave dweller who scraped a dead skunk off the road, ate it raw along with all of the bugs and grossness crawling on it, had a bowel movement, and then presented it to me as an alternative to a regular meal with crappy bleu cheese sprinkled all over it, I’d have a difficult decision to make.

But people like bleu cheese. A lot.

Black Friday is, I think, the second-most-popular shopping day of the year.

And Bob Dylan’s an absolute legend. I think we all can agree that on the Great Musicians Totem Pole, Dylan ranks considerably higher than Twenty One Pilots, GZA, or The Decemberists, yet the latter are all in my phone and listened to semi-regularly. I don’t hear much Dylan unless I’m somewhere and classic rock is being played.

I got caught up the other day reading a monstrous comment thread on Facebook underneath a Tasty video where a macaroni and cheese recipe called for cottage cheese.

People lost their minds. Some called cottage cheese an abomination. Others said they loved it.

Was anyone right?

The Worst Thing We Do In Relationships

Think about your life for a moment.

You are born. And then you have all of these individual experiences, feelings, educational opportunities (formal or otherwise) and emotional responses to things based on your specific makeup combined with all of those life things.

Now, whenever anything happens to you, you respond accordingly.

When you see a car driving on the street, you probably don’t think anything of it.

If a member of an indigenous Peruvian tribe living in the wilderness saw one, maybe they’d freak out like Brendan Fraser’s caveman character in Encino Man when he saw his first garbage truck.

Total indifference to a passing car AND being blown away by seeing a car — a machine you didn’t know existed — driving by for the first time are equally reasonable responses in context.

It would be weird if a 30-year-old American living in suburbia freaked out when a car drove by.

It would be weird if a person who had never seen a complex machine before paid no attention to a passing automobile.

But when we have the whole story (and we NEVER have the whole story), we understand why someone else responded differently to something than we would.

People draw upon their background and experiences to interpret information.

Everyone you meet will like you so much more, and you’ll be able to grow meaningful connections with them if you DO NOT trash and invalidate their memories and experiences just because they’re different than yours.

This exact same phenomenon happens in each and every one of our relationships up and down the spectrum, from parents and siblings, to friends and coworkers, to our kids and romantic partners.

I am divorced today for many reasons, but I think this is the biggest one:

I never honored, respected or demonstrated any real effort to understand my wife’s individual thoughts, feelings and life experiences during disagreements.

The patience and compassion I would grant to the tribesman in awe of seeing modern civilization for the first time, I denied my spouse. And I honestly don’t even know why, and can only guess it must have felt more difficult to agree with her and I have a nasty habit of choosing “the easy way.”

And here’s the REALLY scary part — I was honest, self-assured and felt confident I wasn’t doing anything wrong each and every time I did so.

I was doing one of the worst things a person can ever do to a loved one, and I was doing so without one shred of remorse because I didn’t know any better.

After doing so enough times, the worst thing that ever happened to me happened and I never saw it coming.

I was so certain of my opinions and personal preferences throughout most of my life that I thought I was doing my wife and other people a favor by challenging theirs. Like, if they just start doing things MY way, imagine how much happier their lives will be!

And even though I think it’s an asshole move, I think I still involuntarily do it almost every day in moments big and small.

That Certainness Will End Your Marriage

Here’s what I think most of us do. We think:

1. I’m of sound mind and body. I’m not insane. My choices and beliefs make sense.

2. That other person is saying that X made them angry or sad or embarrassed. But I experience X all the time, and it doesn’t make me angry or sad or embarrassed.

3. Because my choices and beliefs make sense, this other person disagreeing with them must be wrong.

It makes perfect sense that we do this. Which is why it’s so scary that it’s at the heart of virtually every human conflict in global history.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

Anaïs Nin, author

We don’t have time to go over EVERY imaginable life scenario. Surely, there are times where facts and evidence should sway reasonable people toward certain conclusions.

But on matters which are CLEARY subjective — “That movie sucked,” or “Vegan meals taste amazing,” or “When the person I love repeatedly chooses to play video games or watch football alone rather than touch me or spend time together, it HURTS badly” — the future of marriage and healthy human relationships across the board is dependent on our ability to let people own those opinions and feelings, even when they clash with ours.

Everyone who isn’t an exact clone of ourselves with our super-specific set of emotional reactions, habits, beliefs and life experiences, might react in ways we don’t expect to something we do or say. They might enjoy things we don’t, or want to avoid things we want to do.

And if you tell that person that they are WRONG, or MISTAKEN, or FLAWED, or STUPID, or CRAZY, or otherwise INCORRECT because they don’t arrive at the identical conclusions that you have, you’re going to wreak havoc and dysfunction in all of your relationships.

That means, anytime you surround yourself with confident, boundary-enforcing, authentic people who care about you enough to always tell you the truth even when it’s uncomfortable, and you have a disagreement with them, it’s going to end with one or both of you walking away, perhaps causing irreparable harm.

And maybe there are people out there who thrive in isolation, but it’s my observation that the quality of our human relationships tends to dictate how good and pleasant, or how shitty and miserable, our lives are.

Megan asked me for my response to the woman who suggested my wife could have adjusted just as easily to my behavior and thoughts, as she expected me to do to hers.

The woman said I’m “better off without her.”

At the risk of putting words in this total stranger’s mouth, I think this woman said the equivalent of: “Because the husband’s feelings were just as valid as the wife’s feelings, and she failed to recognize it, this guy should be happy that he’s now divorced and only sees his son half of the time, because I can tell from this one metaphorical story that she is more trouble than she’s worth.”

In one Facebook comment, a stranger dismissed the value of my family and marriage because she disagreed with the premise of my blog post, or perhaps objected to her friend Megan liking and sharing it.

Make of that what you will.

We’re all a little bit blind, or at least colorblind, to the world as it really is.

We can’t know what we don’t know, and that’s nobody’s fault.

But once we KNOW, it becomes our job to stay AWARE.

Don’t forget. Remember. Every day:

Other people are different. My spouse is different.

They are not wrong or crazy. They simply arrived at a conclusion different from mine, and in the context of their entire life story, it makes PERFECT sense that they did.

I want to be friends with them.

I want to have good relationships.

I don’t want my family to break because I was an unaware asshole worsening each and every problem.

And then we go to work trying hard to understand WHY the people we know and love believe things different from us.

In the end, we become smarter and stronger. And we have great friendships.

And I think, just maybe, we have the kinds of marriages we set out to have when we first say “I do.”

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