Tag Archives: Family

Should We Get Married? (Part 1)

how-the-hell-should-i-know-that

(Image/MemeGenerator.net)

In Wonder Woman lore—including the 2017 Gal Gadot film—there exists an island of Amazonian women unknown and invisible to the rest of the world.

Everyone on the fictional island of Themyscira is female. There are no ‘traditional’ families. There is no such thing as marriage.

Everyone there seems fine with that arrangement. The only child on that island that I can remember from the film is the protagonist heroine Diana—born of a Greek mythology-esque encounter between her mother and Zeus.

She knew little of marriage or family or male-female relationships.

I think we can safely assume that when Diana imagined her future, and established her personal hopes and dreams as a child and young woman, getting married and/or becoming a mother was likely not part of them.

It’s different for most of us.

A lot different. Especially in the United States, where I live, and other Western cultures.

Regardless of our gender, regardless of our religious (or non-religious) affiliations, regardless of our politics, regardless of which state we live in, and regardless of whether our parents themselves are married, we are mathematically likely to get married, or enter into a long-term relationship with dynamics that approximate marriage.

In the U.S., 95 percent of people 18 and older are either married, divorced, or planning to marry someday. In other words, marriage DIRECTLY affects and influences 9.5 out of every 10 U.S. adults.

Why?

Well, we can do the whole history-lesson thing even though it’s probably mind-numbingly boring to most people. We can talk about how Western civilization spread and evolved, incorporating beliefs and traditions rooted in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Ancient Israel, and the early Catholic Church, all of which continue to influence a ton of our beliefs, religious and political practices, and cultural traditions today.

OR.

We can simply agree that—just as pre-Wonder Woman Diana grew up surrounded only by women and thusly never conceived of marriage and family as a concept—everyone living in Western, English-speaking societies grows up seeing the VAST majority of people around them dating, getting engaged, getting married, and having children (even if they’re only seeing it depicted on TV and in the movies), resulting in most of us believing: Getting married is just what you do when you’re an adult! It’s what you’re supposed to do, and you’re probably weird if you don’t!

Unless you have same-sex romantic leanings or grew up in a single-parent family while hiding out in the woods, I assume—like me—you grew up never for a second questioning the idea that pairing up with someone and probably having children with them was basically ingrained into your belief system. You never even stopped to consider other alternative futures.

Other than our own births—which none of us actually remember—our wedding day and the birth of our first child are frequently cited as the biggest, most significant, happiest days of our lives.

Marriage: Survivor Island

Because that’s what marriage essentially is, right? Survivor Island minus the television crews?

No matter how wonderful our parents and extended families are, and no matter the quality of our education and academic experiences, MARRIAGE is essentially the equivalent of everyone we invite to our wedding being on the same jumbo plane with us and bidding us farewell as we parachute onto some island we know next to nothing about.

We know how to eat. But do we know where to find food, and what’s safe to eat?

Maybe we know how to build shelter. But do we know what location makes sense, and what the greatest threats to our safety—weather, disease, animals, other people—are?

We kind-of, sort-of know how to not die, but in this case, we don’t even know what may or may not be fatal.

“Good luck!!! We love you guys!!! Never go to bed angry!!!” they all smile and wave to us with the best of intentions and fortune-cookie marriage advice, as they’re sending us off on the ultimate Darwinian experience.

No one tells us the truth about marriage, and even if they try it doesn’t take, because most of us don’t take anything seriously that isn’t an immediate threat. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s a REALLY important concept: We CANNOT know what we don’t know.

Old or long-married couples bicker at each other and seem as if they haven’t had sex in two decades. That’s just what happens when you’re married that long!

I didn’t like hearing people I loved speak crossly to one another, but I also never doubted the substance and stability of their marriages.

Even if their marriage was garbage, where I came from, if people got married, it was likely to be forever.

Nowhere was that more evident than my grandfather’s funeral less than two weeks ago where I saw dozens of people I hadn’t seen in a decade or two, many of whom were there with their spouses just as I remembered them from childhood.

The adults did us a disservice as we were growing up, though.

They didn’t give us the real story. They didn’t give us the dirt. They didn’t tell us the truth.

They didn’t tell us all of the things that destroy love and marriage disguise themselves as things that don’t seem important. They didn’t tell us that the most dangerous things don’t APPEAR or FEEL dangerous as they’re happening, but that the slow and steady buildup of these little things is what will ultimately cause the collapse of a marriage and family.

Some of it was because they wanted to preserve our innocence. They wanted us to believe in Santa Claus because it was fun and made us feel happy. They told us not to talk to strangers, but they didn’t tell us WHY.

They don’t tell us what some people are capable of.

We read about slavery, about Hitler, about war. But it all seemed so old and faraway and non-threatening.

Sometimes, if we manage to avoid serious trauma as a child, we don’t get to experience actual fear until we watch terrorist hijackers fly airplanes full of people into buildings full of people because they disagree with the religious and political opinions of some unknown percentage of the people they killed.

Ironically, it’s this level of super-belief certainty—this idea that YOU are right, therefore your spouse must be wrong—over a subject of disagreement that will inevitably damage and potentially end your marriage.

But, before we worry about what we should or shouldn’t do within our marriages or romantic relationships, there’s a worthwhile question to explore first.

Should We Get Married?

It’s not obvious to me how best to answer that. I’m confident that I could evaluate couples on a case-by-case basis and form an opinion about whether a particular couple ‘should’ (in my opinion) get married.

But I’m just some asshole writing on the internet, and EVEN IF I was totally ‘right’ about their prospects of having a healthy marriage and satisfying family life, precisely ZERO people should ever do something specifically because of my opinion.

Especially as it pertains to marriage. Because I’m 0-1.

That doesn’t make me good at knowing what awesome marriage looks like. It just makes me kind-of good at knowing what a well-intentioned, but ultimately bad, marriage looks like.

But since I’m divorced—and admittedly much older than your typical bachelor (and a father as well)—I am faced with the very real decision of whether to actively pursue marriage again.

To be clear, I am MOSTLY thinking about younger, never-married people when I write this stuff because that is the group I perceive to be most guilty of unwittingly marrying with good intentions, but without the tool kits and skillsets necessary to execute the day-to-day of healthy monogamous, cohabitating relationships—particularly with children.

Divorce is a plague. It might be a little hyperbolic to say so, but divorce ruins lives. It certainly damages the people affected in profound ways, and every divorce tends to damage SEVERAL people. And there are thousands of divorces every day in the U.S. alone.

So.

SHOULD we get married?

I don’t think I know what I believe. But in Part 2, we’re going to talk through all of the reasons people commonly marry, and just maybe, that will spark something.

To be continued.

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I Didn’t Know Ponds and Cigars Could Do That

vintage wedding photo

Pardon the crookedness of this photo. I wasn’t planning to publish it. These are my maternal grandparents on their wedding day. I’ve always liked this photo. A lot. (Image/Matthew Fray)

That’s my grandparents on their wedding day about 62 years ago. It’s one of my favorite photos.

The handsome gentleman on the left died last night, just one week after his 85th birthday.

Father of eight. My mom’s the oldest.

Grandfather of 23. I’m the oldest.

Great-grandfather of three. My son is the oldest.

Nearly 40 years ago, my grandparents traveled 400 miles west to be with my young parents at the hospital.

My dad was 23. My mom was 21. My mom had received a college scholarship far from home, and that’s where she met my dad while she was in school.

I was supposed to be dead, according to the doctors and nurses. They told my parents and family to expect the worst.

But then I lived anyway, because I don’t always do what I’m supposed to.

My father handed my grandfather a cigar at the hospital. Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon.

It’s a boy.

When I was 3, my grandparents again drove west from Ohio to visit me and my parents.

While someone wasn’t looking, I decided to run off into the woods on the edge of our lot. I wandered those woods for more than an hour.

I came across an elevated storm drain spilling rain runoff into a creek bed.

While it was likely just some nasty corroded old water drainage infrastructure, it looked magical through the prism of a 3-year-old.

I thought it was a waterfall.

Then I wandered some more.

Eventually, I heard my grandpa’s voice cutting through the woods. Calling my name.

He must have been terrified. But he wasn’t angry. Not only wasn’t he angry, but he let me take him by the hand and blindly wander those woods again searching for that shitty waterfall I was so excited to show him.

I never found it again.

He never got angry with me.

Not long before my 5th birthday, my mom and dad divorced and then my mom and I moved into my grandparents’ big farmhouse with them in rural Ohio.

They lived on 43 acres, which felt to me like Oz.

They had a small pond, just a little over an acre in size on the other side of a field, far enough to drive to.

There was a little one-room wooden cabin with an old cast iron wood-burning stove that I never saw anyone light or use. Rustic. Dusty. Bugs. Smelled old.

But we called it “the cottage.” And it was perfect.

There was a weeping willow tree close by—a large one—where you could usually find the empty shells of cicadas stuck to the bark of the tree trunk.

If my grandfather wasn’t taking me on a fishing trip to a large nearby lake, or to watch me fail at fly-fishing in the river, we were catching fish at the private pond.

With his youngest son—my uncle—about to finish high school, it must have been perfect timing having me show up to live with them.

He included me in everything age-appropriate.

Not a huge talker. Not like me. He was a doer.

He didn’t really have to say anything, because what he DID was always so transparent. His actions always told the story.

We’d spend hours along the shore of that pond. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling. Landing a fish. Then releasing it. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling.

Dragonflies would buzz around. Wind would stir the trees and tall grass. Grasshoppers. Crickets. Bullfrogs.

And my grandfather.

There to help me tie a better bass-hook knot if I needed it. There to help me unsnag a hook. There to praise me when I landed another largemouth or catfish.

In a life that sometimes feels too heavy, and with a mind that sometimes feels too busy, that was where everything melted away.

The relative silence of the great wide open. The only nearby machine being that fishing rod and reel providing life-sustaining therapy I never even knew I needed.

I didn’t know fishing in a pond with my grandfather could do that.

Two years ago, my grandparents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and my son got to be there for that. When my grandparents, both in their 80s took to the dance floor at the reception hall to share a dance in front of everyone, my great-uncle—my grandma’s brother—faux-scolded my grandpa: “Keep your hands off my sister!”

More than 60 years of marriage. Eight children. All the grandkids. Health problems. Friends dying. Watching all of the good and bad things happening to all of the branches on his family tree.

I doubt he thought of himself as the patriarch of the family, the way most of us looked at him, but that’s all I could ever see.

A man who loved and served. Steadily. For 20 years longer than I’ve even been alive.

Last summer, my family flew in from all over the country for a family reunion at my grandparents’ house. My grandpa’s last one. Everyone knew it.

I was outside talking to everyone. Someone sent word that my grandpa was asking me to come inside. He had something he wanted to give me.

His kidneys were failing. He was going through dialysis. Painfully. And he didn’t want to. But my grandmother didn’t want to say goodbye to him no matter how in love with Liam Neeson she might be.

So he persevered. Because that’s what you do when you love someone.

I sat on the couch nearest his easy chair. The man was tired. Physically weaker than I’d ever seen him.

But his eyes were clear. And so was his mind.

He asked how I was. He asked about my father hundreds of miles away. He always asked about my father.

He handed me a cigar.

Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon. It’s a boy.

I’d never seen it before and thought it was strange that my non-smoking grandfather was handing me a tobacco product.

“Your dad gave that to me in the hospital the day you were born. I thought you should have it,” he said.

I stared at it for a moment, digesting the implications. It looked almost new.

it's a boy cigar

This is the one. It’s resting on my bedroom nightstand. I didn’t know a little thing could be worth so much. (Image/Matthew Fray)

My father—long-divorced from his oldest daughter—had handed him a cigar nearly 40 years earlier celebrating my birth.

Then my grandpa raised eight children. Entertained hundreds of friends and family members in that old farmhouse through the decades. Ran a business. Moved to a smaller house nearby 10-15 years ago.

And throughout all of that, he took care of a cigar.

Just some crappy cigar.

Because it mattered, I suppose. Because it represented the grandson who lived when he wasn’t supposed to. The grandson he found in the woods. The one he must have thought would be somewhat of a stranger to him growing up, but was then granted an entire childhood with because of life circumstances no one ever saw coming.

I didn’t know cigars could do that.

The last thing my grandfather did was fight to stay alive as long as he could because my grandmother wanted him to.

He didn’t have to spin any stories. He’d just hand you a cigar, and you knew.

He didn’t have to tell everyone how much they were loved—particularly my grandmother.

Because he gave his last breath living it.

And if you’re guessing that’s something I can latch onto and feel proud of today, you couldn’t be more right.

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Pain is History’s Most Effective Influencer of Human Behavior

(Image/Shutterstock)

I don’t know how many times I had to be burned by the hot steam that escapes a simmering pot after removing the lid before I learned how to do it without getting hurt.

Same with boiling water, or drinking hot liquids without giving them time to cool.

When I was in college, I had to drink 101-proof liquor while it was still on fire in order to learn not to do it anymore.

I’ve touched barbecue grills while they were still hot. I’ve burned myself while removing baking trays from the oven. I’ve burned myself with candles and lighters and the cigarettes I used to smoke in my teens and 20s.

I have no doubt that my parents, teachers, and other adult guardians such as my grandparents and babysitters regularly communicated to me that I shouldn’t touch hot things because I would get hurt if I did.

But, either through thoughtlessness, recklessness, or simple ignorance, I still managed to burn myself dozens of times in my life.

If I did something which resulted in a painful burn, I usually didn’t do that again.

If I did something which resulted in a painful cut on my hand, I usually didn’t do that again.

If I did something which resulted in a painful financial expense, I usually didn’t do that again.

Do you think there’s a chance that even one person in human history (after the invention of fire) truly learned to avoid touching hot things without experiencing a painful burn wound somewhere along the way?

I can’t prove it. But I’m thinking not.

My son didn’t learn not to touch hot things because his mom and dad are amazing communicators who beamed that critical life information into his head with our brilliant words.

It’s because he did a bunch of reckless little-kid shit like all of us did and got hurt a million times. Now, he’s marginally better at not hurting himself because pain-avoidance is what most living things are already programmed to do.

Something happens. It’s awesome. Do that a bunch more times.

Something happens. It’s horrible. Avoid doing that ever again.

Cause and effect. It’s how we learn pretty much everything that helps us avoid death and dismemberment every day.

Shitty Husbands Learn They’re Shitty the Same Way Kids Learn to Not Touch Hot Things

All of you knob sanders can save your whiny retorts.

But, Matt! I’m a man, not a child. I don’t like you comparing me to a kid!

Join the club.

Listen. You’re either:

A. A shitty husband who KNOWS he’s shitty and that he’s intentionally damaging his spouse and marriage every day, in which case you can go grind some more knobs and piss off, or…

B. A shitty husband who DOESN’T know he’s shitty and that he’s unintentionally damaging his spouse and marriage every day, in which case you’re EXACTLY like the kid who doesn’t know that touching the grill lid is going to burn him. There’s a difference between being a moron, and truly NOT knowing something you couldn’t possibly know. Not your fault at all. It doesn’t make you a kid. It makes you INNOCENT up to a certain point. Or…

C. You’re someone this doesn’t apply to at all, which makes you the least knob-cobbling person here.

Don’t sweat the technique.

This isn’t really for you guys anyway.

It’s for your desperate, crying, pissed-off wives who are trying to figure out why you don’t love them anymore.

The thing I know that they don’t, is that you more than likely do love them. Very much. And that you are largely unaware of the pain and frustration they’re feeling every day.

If both of you told someone the story of your marriage, it might sound very different.

Your wife and/or family mean everything to you. And whenever the subject comes up, you tell anyone who will listen how much you love and value them.

And you actually believe it. You feel it.

But your wife doesn’t feel it.

There isn’t just one reason why. There are dozens, including things that happened 10 years ago that you don’t even remember anymore.

It makes sense that you don’t remember. They didn’t matter to you at the time. They were the equivalent of room-temperature water sitting on the stove. They were the surface of a barbecue grill that hasn’t been fired up in weeks.

Whatever.

It’s your wife I’m talking to anyway. Because it’s getting harder and harder to write to you. You think you’re right. You think I’m wrong about your marriage. And that’s fine. Maybe I am sometimes. There’s no chance everyone’s marriage is just like mine was, nor that every married couple is just like my ex and I were.

I assume you will continue to keep touching stuff and getting burned until the consequences hurt enough to start doing something differently.

Telling someone that their feelings and perceptions are either right or wrong seems pretty useless, but we spend a lot of time doing or at least thinking it.

It’s really easy for me to stand up and walk to the other end of the room.

If a quadriplegic tells me that it’s hard for them to do that same thing, how valid or useful is my opinion anyway?

A husband’s or boyfriends’ incessant dismissal of his wife’s ‘complaints,’ or frequent invalidation of the things she says matter to her—it’s a marriage killer.

Regardless of gender or marital status, a spouse or romantic partner on the losing end of those exchanges over the course of several years will FEEL as if their spouse doesn’t love them. Maybe even hates them.

After all, why would someone who loves me repeatedly do things that hurt me even after I said they hurt me?

I don’t know how to stop it.

I’ve been writing the same crap for more than five years. If I had the words that actually moved the needle, I’d use them.

Every day, several thousands more people end their relationships, and at the root of that split is THIS dynamic.

I want to encourage your wives to be patient with you like we’d expect them to be with children. Moms understand that their children weren’t intentionally running around trying to break things or burn themselves.

Those same women who are exceedingly loving and thoughtful and patient with their children frequently demonstrate an inability to provide that same level of patience and forgiveness with their spouses.

Which is sensible enough.

She didn’t marry a kid intentionally.

She’s not sexually attracted to children.

She had the expectation upon exchanging wedding vows that having an adult partner for the rest of her life would enhance adulthood. That it would be better to have a built-in support system. A financial and sexual partner. A parenting partner.

People get married because they believe their lives will be better afterward.

And then, like touching an extremely hot surface, sometimes we learn the hard way that that isn’t true at all.

When marriage makes your life harder and shittier, you start to believe that your life will be better if you stop being married.

And once someone starts believing that? Party’s over.

Just maybe she’ll actually buy the idea that you honestly don’t know that what you’re doing hurts her, and just maybe when she truly understands that you’re innocent of trying to cause intentional harm, she can find the right words and tone to reach you.

To convince you not to do that thing that’s going to hurt later.

Someone asked me recently whether I could have learned how to stop hurting my wife WITHOUT her leaving me. If there was some magic combination of words that might have worked.

The answer is no.

I was certain—CERTAIN—that I had a firm grasp on things. That I was smart. Decent. Good. Correct.

That if something didn’t seem painful to me, then it must not be painful to anyone else.

And if they tried to tell me it was painful, then they must be mistaken.

And if they’re mistaken, I must help them see things more clearly.

I ran up to my wife every day for several years and kicked her in the shin, and then when she said “It hurts me when you kick me in the shin,” I treated her like an asshole incapable of evaluating for herself whether something actually hurt or not.

I can’t be certain that had my wife changed her approach and communication strategy that it might not have more effectively helped me understand then what I know today. But I’m certain that nothing was ever going to change without someone trying something different.

She finally did when she took off her ring and found a new place to live.

Divorce Insurance Premiums are Expensive

I did things which resulted in a painful divorce. I can’t prove that I won’t do some of those same things again. After all, I’ve burned the roof of my mouth with hot food or drinks several dozens of times.

But for the same reasons that I’m intellectually aware of all of the potential burn hazards out there that I mostly succeed at avoiding in my daily life, I feel pretty confident that I’m unlikely to repeat the same behaviors I believe are directly linked to the slow and unpleasant death of my marriage.

And that’s awesome. I feel pretty empowered, actually.

But the cost of acquiring that knowledge was really expensive. And I don’t mean money.

I felt burned everywhere. Inside and out.

And for the first time in my life, I felt enough pain where death didn’t feel like such a bad thing. I was more scared of hurting that much forever than I was of dying.

Perspective is a powerful thing.

Before I put my hand in fire, I didn’t know it was hot, even though someone warned me about it.

Sometimes, maybe you just have to hurt bad enough to learn what not to do anymore.

I hope someone proves me wrong.

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The Search for Beauty in Divorce

(Image/Shutterstock)

Six short years ago, my wife was selfishly choosing her emotions over the wellbeing of our family. She was breaking her promise to love me and to honor our marriage in good times and in bad. She was failing me, and our son, and I blamed her—angrily—for quitting on me. For quitting on us.

Her leaving, resulting in an empty home, the loss of half my son’s childhood, and genuine fear of my unknown future, was the most painful and life-disrupting thing I’ve ever been through.

First, my parents divorced when I was too young to object, making my life harder than all of my friends’. A long-time source of pain and sadness, and my wife knew it.

Divorce wasn’t on the table. We’d said it a hundred times.

But there she goes. Choosing another life over ours. She was running toward something she wanted and felt good about. Her life was IMPROVING, while I was crying in the kitchen, dry heaving into the sink, and feeling certain no one would ever want to kiss me again.

It was almost like I wanted to die, and the shame and feelings of failure that brought are indescribable. I was officially NOT ME anymore. I was some pathetic, sobbing, broken imposter.

She did this to me, I thought and felt.

Not felt, like a purple bruise or a hard slap.

I felt gutted. Betrayed.

I felt rage.

I didn’t want anyone physically hurt—that’s not my way—but I wanted to burn something to the ground. I had a couple of places in mind.

When you hurt that much, you stop caring about things you previously used to. Self-preservation matters less because dying would at least solve the pain problem. When it seems like the worst thing just happened to you, it can make you feel as if nothing else can be taken from you. You’re not afraid of new pain, because nothing could hurt worse than what you’re feeling now.

The worst thing I have ever known—bringing a pain I couldn’t have survived too much longer than it lasted, and forcing me to adjust uncomfortably to an entirely new life I’d never wanted or asked for—was divorce.

Divorce—in and of itself—was the enemy, and an evil thing.

And my ex-wife—the betrayer; the quitter—was the one who forced me to endure it.

The anxiety would make me puke sometimes. Tears would stream down my face.

“That fucking bitch,” I’d choke out.

And then I’d vomit again.

The Road Back to Life

I was dead.

My heartbeat remained. I could move around and talk a little. But I’d lost several months, maybe even a year. What I was doing wasn’t living.

I had ONE ultra-focused mission: To make sure I protected myself and my son from ever experiencing a pain like that again.

My new top priority was to NEVER feel dead again. I’m not sure I could survive it twice.

Divorce hurt me as a little kid.

Divorce hurt me as an adult.

Divorce hurt me as a friend, as several of my social relationships faded away.

Divorce hurt me as a professional, as I couldn’t focus at all on anything being said in meetings, nor could I care about work projects.

Divorce hurt me as a father, as I saw my son half as much as I had before, and I no longer had any control over who he was around, how safe he was; and that I now had to wear the Scarlet Letter of divorced dad in a million life situations where I assumed everyone—friend and stranger, alike—thought I was a shitty father.

Divorce was my new enemy. And I needed to understand it. NEEDED to.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle,” Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War.”

It was an idea I’d already accepted. So I went to work on understanding divorce.

I did that right here.

I wrote stories. I wrote stories about my marriage. Little moments that stood out to me, and then I wrote about what I was thinking and feeling about them at the time, versus how I thought and felt about them today.

I read books.

I asked questions. I asked so many questions. Sometimes, just to myself while I stared at the ceiling waiting for the pain to stop.

And I just kept writing as I discovered new ideas. I was uncovering so much about myself, about people, about love and relationships and marriage, and it was empowering to find that new knowledge.

If I UNDERSTAND what happened to me, then I don’t need to be afraid of it happening again, I thought.

I became addicted.

I needed answers.

It was the only way to save myself.

How I Saved Myself

I used to creepily stare at myself in the bathroom mirror for longer than I imagine most sane people do. Like a cliché movie scene you don’t want to watch.

I didn’t recognize myself, because I felt like an entirely different person, and I think that made me see an entirely different person.

I actively sought UNCOMFORTABLE ideas—things I didn’t necessarily want to hear; things that opposed ideas I’d accepted as gospel truth my entire life; things I didn’t WANT to be true—because I’d spent my entire life swimming exclusively in comfort and familiarity, and all that had done was deliver the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

I had to try something else.

Why did my wife choose to end our marriage and leave? Is she evil? Crazy? Out to get me?

Is she stupid? Is she a con artist? Is she a monster?

Is she a bad mother?

Is she a bad person?

All that mattered was the truth because the truth is what I needed to understand to protect my future self from divorce, or from hurting like this ever again. I wasn’t afraid of any answers as long as they were true.

My wife wasn’t evil.

She wasn’t crazy.

She wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt me. There was no credible evidence of any of those things.

She wasn’t stupid, nor a con artist, nor a monster.

We still interacted all of the time, because our son was going back and forth between us every two or three days. We HAD to cooperate so that he always had school clothes, and lunch money, and whatever he needed to feel safe and loved.

Not only was she NOT trying to make any of that extra-hard on me, she—just as she had in our marriage—took on the responsibility of leading the way in knowing what he needed, and taking steps to make sure he had whatever that was. Doctor appointments. Meetings at school. Clothes. Supplies. Birthday and Christmas presents.

She did everything possible to include me in anything meaningful going on with our son.

She was the furthest thing from being a bad mother.

I met her when I was 18—a freshman in college. I’d known her for 16 years—more than half of my life that I could actually remember. My son’s mother was NOT a bad person.

So how could this be? How could this happen?

I’d just stare into that bathroom mirror. Until I finally recognized my true enemy.

It wasn’t my ex-wife.

It wasn’t divorce.

It wasn’t God, or the Universe, or Life.

It was me.

The worst thing that had ever happened to me didn’t happen to me because my wife quit on me and tried to hurt me. My son wasn’t gone and growing up a child of divorce because of my wife’s selfishness.

The worst thing that had ever happened to me happened because of me.

Because my wife HURT—just as I was hurting right then—for years and years. And not only was I the source of that pain, but instead of listening to her and trying to help her NOT HURT anymore, I used pretty much every opportunity she took to try to talk to me about our marriage as some kind of personal affront, and accused her of always finding new things to complain about.

I was the source of her pain. Thus, I was the only one who could stop the hurt, and help her heal. As her husband, I must have seemed to her like a reasonable person to seek help from RE: the biggest source of pain and fear that SHE had ever known—again, just as I was feeling right then.

She came to me for help, and I told her that her concerns were a figment of her imagination.

She asked me to help her stop hurting, and I told her that the things she was telling me were painful were NOT things that actually hurt people, so something must be wrong with her. I told her to get help. I told her to stop blaming me for her own weaknesses and poorly thought-out arguments.

Without even trying to be an asshole, I transformed all of the pain and relationship-killing behaviors I caused into something my wife was responsible for.

I BELIEVED the story I had told myself about her selfishness and mismanaged emotions.

I BELIEVED I was the good guy. The victim.

I BELIEVED divorce was evil and a plague on society.

I BELIEVED women everywhere were growing dissatisfied in their relationships for superficial reasons, and then abandoning their husbands and breaking families because life didn’t deliver them the Cinderella fairytale ending they’d hoped for.

It felt true. All of it. Because from the inside of my life, that’s how I experienced it.

But what really happened?

She persevered through 12 years of the person who had promised to love, serve, honor and protect her for the rest of her life, ignoring most requests for help.

She remained hopeful that she’d eventually find the right words to break through. The ones that would help me see what she already knew to be true. The ones that would effectively communicate how much she hurt on the inside—how afraid she was—just as I felt right then, staring into the bathroom mirror taking stock of all that I’d done.

I believed a story about myself that wasn’t true. That—because I tried to be a good person who loved others and didn’t hurt people—I was by default a good husband.

I believed a story about my wife that wasn’t true. That—because years and years and years and years of pain piled up in moments big and small where the ONE person she had let into her life to be with forever, and had trusted to love her deeply, turned his back on her, or ran away any time she talked about feeling sad or hurt or unhappy. She didn’t QUIT. She reluctantly submitted after THOUSANDS of moments where her partner demonstrated both a lack of competence and/or desire to help protect her from the kind of pain that turns you into an entirely different person.

The kind of person you no longer recognize in the mirror.

I believed a story about divorce that wasn’t true. That—because I felt so hurt by it and saw so many other people hurt by it—it was evil.

Divorce isn’t evil. It’s just bad. Like cancer.

Divorce isn’t a plague. Broken people accidentally hurting each other in their most important relationships is. THAT’s the plague.

Divorce—as ugly as it feels to me, and as uncomfortable as it makes me philosophically after a lifetime of believing Marriage is Forever—is a tool for people who are otherwise out of options.

It’s a lifeline.

An emergency escape hatch.

It’s inconvenient. Because the thing I want most in the world is to help people avoid accidentally harming their relationships, which I believe will lead to fewer divorces and more forever-marriages.

It’s inconvenient. Because divorce has caused me more pain than anything else I’ve ever known.

And as I’ve railed against divorce, and lifted up marriage as virtuous and sacred, I’ve accidentally piled on even more.

Because divorce is bad, but some things are worse.

What causes more pain than divorce?

I never recognized it because it was never happening to me.

But just maybe, the trappings of a faux-happy marriage—the kind that look good to everyone else, but are silently killing one or both members of it—wreaks more havoc. Maybe that causes even more damage, and more pain.

Everyone and everything is a little bit damaged.

Perfection isn’t part of the human experience.

But when we know we are a little bit damaged and love ourselves anyway; and when we acknowledge our imperfections, but still courageously step up to light up the darkness—I think that’s about as close as we get to perfect.

In the uncomfortable, gritty, raw, unfiltered muck of real life, both the beauty and the pain often keeps out of sight.

I was lost.

And I found my way back by learning how to find both the beauty and the pain that isn’t obvious to anyone not looking for it.

You must find the pain. If you don’t see it, you’ll feed it, and accidentally hurt the people you love—and yourself.

I see you, people suffering silently. You’re brave and amazing.

And you must find the beauty. Covered up by all the rage and fear and anxiety and vomit and tears.

If you don’t see it, you’ll lose hope.

I see you, people committed to being a force for good when it seems like you’re constantly being shit on for doing so. You inspire me to carry on. You fuel me to give more. Thank you.

The most beautiful things are those that persist despite all of the horrors happening around them and all of the ugliness trying to cover them up.

The most beautiful things ARE NOT those things unmarred by nicks and scratches.

The most beautiful things are those that radiate so much good, that whatever imperfections inevitably exist, we never even notice.

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What Would You Do if You Could Learn Almost Anything You Wanted To?

kid-super-power

(Image/beatingcowdens.com)

Somewhere in the world, there exists a person who could objectively and legitimately be called The Smartest Person on Earth.

Maybe she’s a Nobel Laureate in the field of astrophysics.

Maybe he’s the global thought leader in the development of artificial intelligence.

I don’t know.

But what if I told you that—no matter your education level or particular area of expertise—you are capable of knowing and understanding almost everything that the Smartest People on Earth know and understand?

Why Does This Matter?

Good question.

  1. I’m being fast and loose with the word ‘smart.’
  2. I think ‘smart’ people are best-equipped to have good relationships and live good lives and make a positive impact on the world.
  3. I want you to know that you’re smart, and then use that smartness to improve your relationships because THAT and your personal health are the two most important influencers on how good or how shitty your life feels every day.

There are different kinds of smart. Is the high school dropout who can’t identify Italy on a world map, but who CAN masterfully build a performance car engine or race vehicle suspension, someone you’d consider to be dumb?

What about the genius music prodigy who can compose an original piece anytime you ask her to, but who knows squat about finance or history or pop culture or engineering or sports or computer software?

Is she smart for being a genius at one thing, or dumb for being an ignoramus about thousands of things?

We get sucked into a trap sometimes of associating advanced degrees and good vocabularies with intelligence. People ALWAYS think I’m smarter than I am because I can string words together, both writing and speaking.

And then they think some guy wearing a trucker hat and speaking with a southern American accent is some idiot hillbilly, even if that guy is a master mechanic, or a brilliant farmer, or whatever.

EVERYONE has something that they are masters of. Something they’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours doing. They’re experts, even if they don’t recognize it themselves, and even if it’s an activity not currently earning them a paycheck.

Everyone is smart. It’s just that many of us are biased to label certain types of intelligence or skill as ‘smart’ because we value those things more than all the other versions out there, so we accidentally treat everyone NOT living in that bubble like they’re assholes, which makes us assholes.

It’s a vicious cycle of assholery.

The Power of Asking a More Beautiful Question

Despite the truth that EVERYONE is their own version of smart whether we, or they themselves, recognize it, for the purposes of this exercise, let’s think of ‘smart’ as meaning “most knowledgeable.”

What is the difference between The Smartest Person on Earth—the person who knows the most out of everyone in the world—and someone willing to ask the right question?

If the Smartest Person on Earth knows and remembers more things than you, but you can find all of those same answers by asking Google, or an expert, or reading a book, or going to experience something for yourself—is there really a difference? If you’re coming to the same answers?

I mean, The Smartest Person on Earth will mop the floor with us on Jeopardy!, but do I REALLY care that they memorized some fact, or read some book that I can look up in 30 seconds on my phone, or have that same book on my doorstep in 48 hours?

Mental aptitude is a thing. Some people’s brains work faster and differently in ways various academics might label as ‘better.’ I accept that.

I just want to hammer home the idea that EVERYONE can know and understand ANYTHING they want with just one skill.

Just one little skill.

And that is: Asking good questions to the right people, and using effective tools to gather knowledge and information.

Someone committed to THAT is unstoppable.

At school.

At work.

In life—and that includes at home in our relationships.

If You Ask Your Relationship Partner Good Questions (and Receive Honest Answers), What CAN’T You Accomplish Together?

Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, and contributor to The New York Times and Psychology Today, might be the world’s leading authority on the art and science of asking questions.

Berger reached out to me last year to get my take on questions relationship partners could or should be asking for his new book releasing in late October called The Book of Beautiful Questions.

I have no idea whether my feedback actually made it into the book, but I secretly hope it did because there’s a better-than-average chance it’s the only New York Times Bestseller my name will ever be attached to.

But what really matters is the IDEA about asking questions. This insanely powerful idea that you have everything you need to stay connected to, or reconnect with your spouse or relationship partner.

There is mountains of research backed by decades of data science that can help you understand what does, and what does not positively affect relationships.

There are brilliant thinkers who have built amazing guides to help you better understand yourself and your spouse or partner.

And then there is the actual person sitting on the other side of the dinner table, sitting next to you on the couch, lying down next to you in bed.

What questions could you ask them in order to better understand what you could do to help strengthen your marriage/relationship?

“By asking questions, we learn, analyze, understand—and can move forward in the face of uncertainty. When confronted with almost any demanding situation, in work or life, the act of questioning can help guide us to smart decisions and a sensible course of action. But the questions must be the right ones; the ones that cut to the heart of a complex challenge, or that enable us to see an old problem in a fresh way,” Berger wrote in an article about his upcoming book.

Much like how the things that actually end our marriages seem too minor, too ‘silly,’ too insignificant to actually be the cause of our divorce or breakup, this idea about asking questions might seem too simple to be the key to overcoming many of your life’s biggest stressors and obstacles—at home, at work, financially, emotionally—whatever.

Ask the right question to the right person.

Ask the right question in your favorite search engine.

And then the right answers will emerge.

Beautiful questions yield beautiful answers.

And, just maybe, beautiful answers yield more beautiful lives.

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If Marriage Were an Airplane, Which Matters More—the Engine or the Wings?

plane-is-taking-off-at-sunset

(Image/bt.dk)

I’m not an aviation expert or aeronautical engineer, but I’m pretty sure airplanes need their engines AND wings both to be working properly for a flight to be successful.

And think about how much is at stake.

When an automobile stops working, we can usually pull it over to the side of the road without much danger or risk.

Even when a boat hull fails, we have a fair chance of surviving with floatation devices and swimming, so long as land is within reach.

But when an airplane stops working, the results are usually very, very, very bad. We don’t need to talk about it.

I’m probably biased because nothing worse than divorce has ever happened to me, but I perceive the stakes involved in marriage to be similar to an airplane ride. If you’re anything like me, a part of you dies once you don’t get to be someone’s spouse, or someone’s all-the-time parent anymore. A part of you dies once you realize you’re a single parent and have to go through life under conditions you’d never even conceived of before.

Damaged, maybe broken. Baggage. Guilt. Uncertainty. Maybe anger. Probably regret.

You get it.

Divorce sucks ass.

I’ve not been in an airplane accident, but I can imagine they are, you know, really awful.

So which matters more?

The engine?

Or the wings?

How Marriage is Like an Airplane

I think it’s easy for people—young people, particularly—who have never been taught otherwise to think about marriage the same way they think about their current dating relationship with their girlfriend or boyfriend.

You remember being in high school or college-aged and feeling in love?

It was the cutest shit, ever. You missed one another because you were apart all of the time, either living with your parents in high school, or involved in various social or educational activities in college, or super-busy at work during your early adult years.

It’s EASY.

And I think young men and women ask themselves after a year or two of dating: Is there any reason to believe we can’t just keep doing this forever?

And of course, everyone thinks they can.

Everyone thinks they can be Forever Boyfriend and Girlfriend.

Two individuals with individual lives who complement one another so well.

But then MARRIAGE happens—or even just a marriage-like forever commitment and co-habitation scenario materializes—and suddenly we’re dealing with something else. And I think the ability or inability to understand the difference between the before and after is what determines the success or failure of most marriages.

A marriage is like an airplane.

It’s NOT two individual things in close proximity to one another.

It’s two things (the spouses) totally and complete fused together to form ONE thing (the marriage).

One spouse is the wings.

One spouse is the engine.

And to put it bluntly, the reason MOST relationships fail is because one of them stops functioning as its needed.

When the engine dies, the plane crashes.

When the wings fall off, the plane crashes.

When one spouse isn’t giving to the marriage what the marriage requires, the marriage dies. Every time.

We can’t rely on just one critical airplane component to get us to our destination.

We can’t rely on just one spouse to hold a marriage together, and certainly not to nurture one and make it thrive.

A marriage isn’t just two things.

A marriage is one thing. One vitally important thing.

But a marriage is comprised of two individual, but equally vital parts. One cannot work without the other.

You can be broken wings before you’re airborne.

You can be a non-firing engine while sitting still on the ground.

You can NOT feel the pressure of being responsible for the lives of others as a single person with no one but yourself to care for and answer to. That is an option, and one worthy of consideration.

But we all know that’s not what most people do. Most people get married, or couple up. About 95 percent of people, in fact.

And as soon as you do, you no longer get to take days off. You don’t get to only function some of the time.

When the plane is in the air, there’s very little margin for error.

Once you take the vows—once you promise someone forever. Once you make and share children. Once you form a home. A life.

You’re an airplane in flight.

Maybe the wings.

Maybe the engine.

In either case, there’s only one way that it ends the way you want it to—working in tandem every day, forever.

And the sky is a blank canvas, a crossroads with never-ending options, a compass with unlimited possibilities.

A place above the clouds.

Where love is the fuel.

Fly.

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The Real Reason Why Women Leave Men

David vs. Goliath

(Image/Flickr User upside of inertia, via CC)

“Hey Matt! You’re a big, stupid idiot!

“How far do you want us to bend over backward to excuse women’s poor behavior?! We shouldn’t have to pretend it’s okay for them to act this way. What are you, some kind of feminist? You hold men to this high standard, but not women! This is why everything women do is fine, but men will always be the bad guys with you, you sackless loser.”

Signed, A Thousand Male Readers Who Think I’m an Asshole

Listen, guys.

I used to be you, so I very much understand where you’re coming from. I also used to be married, and now I’m not BECAUSE of just how much I used to be you.

We’re pretty sure we’re not crazy, so when our wives or girlfriends say or react to something that challenges our brain’s parameters for Normal Human Response, we conclude that something must be seriously wrong with them.

If you’re anything like me, it scares you. Bat-shit crazy is terrifying. Especially when you love them. You want to help, right? You want to help them think correctly and believe all of the true and wise things you believe, so that these weird and seemingly unnecessary arguments stop happening. I remember. I thought and felt those same things.

I was missing one critical piece of the puzzle, though. Unfortunately, that piece of the puzzle represented 80 percent of the actual image, so I was never entirely sure of what I was looking at and now, through the prism of hindsight, I understand that I’d spent my entire marriage guessing incorrectly.

This elusive puzzle piece that I was missing is absent in MOST marriages. I believe 100% that it is the greatest contributor to divorce and relationship break-ups everywhere.

I tried to share this magical, relationship-saving puzzle piece many times before.

In a story about colorblindness.

In a story about dishes.

In a story about painful second-degree burns.

And I’ve even shared this exact one in radio interviews and article comments.

I hope it makes sense this time more than all of the other times, because this life-saving truth is evasive.

This truth hides from you in plain sight. This truth is uncomfortable because it requires that we trust other people more than we trust ourselves, and we are understandably afraid of doing that. This truth is uncomfortable because it shatters our very perception of reality.

Other people hurt us. Other people don’t always have our best interests at heart. Others are more difficult to trust than our own eyes and ears.

I know what I saw.

I know what I heard.

I know what I felt.

Everyone feels that way. And since everyone is in constant disagreement with someone about SOMETHING, we can safely conclude that at least some percentage of us are getting it wrong.

No matter how sure we feel, we pretty much never KNOW things.

If you are so certain of what you saw, heard and felt that you argue with someone sharing a different account, then I have bad news: You are probably going to get divorced.

It really sucks, so I hope you don’t.

I’ll make you a promise, right here, right now.

If you’ll bravely open your mind and heart to honestly consider whether what I’m about to share might actually be the difference between you having a healthy, lasting marriage and wonderful family life vs. a depressing, shitty divorce that negatively impacts your kids and strains all of your family and social relationships; you might just find a bit of magic to transform your entire world and the lives of your partner and kids.

Because THIS is it.

This is everything.

The Simple Secret That Could Save Your Marriage

Most people are familiar with the bible story of David and Goliath. It’s frequently used to characterize any underdog scenario in life where an individual or competitive sports team might be facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

With apologies to Old Testament writer Samuel, I’m going to share three versus from the famous David-and-Goliath story, but I’m going to replace ONE word three times, because doing so might save your marriage, and I’m pretty sure Samuel would want that.

48As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a cotton ball, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The cotton ball sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a cotton ball; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

Holy shit!

Did you just see that, guys?!

Little shepherd boy David just smoked that giant Murdery Hagrid-looking sonofabitch right in the forehead with a small piece of balled-up cotton fibers and dropped him like third-period French!

Wait.

That’s a bunch of crap, right? Bollocks? Nonsense? Stupid? Impossible?

This is where I need you to take the leap of faith. Please.

You guys ever see a movie or read a book where the story’s protagonist knows something really important and tries to tell everyone about it, but no one believes her or him, until something horrible happens later and everyone goes “Ohhh. Holy shit. Voldemort REALLY is alive, terrorists REALLY have taken control of Nakatomi Plaza, Freddy Kruger REALLY is murdering teens in their dreams, future murder bots called Terminators REALLY are travelling through time to try and kill various members of the Connor family! I should have believed them! Now I feel like a huge dick!”?

This moment, right now, is EXACTLY like those moments.

You’re being the huge dick who isn’t believing the person who really needs you to and who also happens to be the person who loves you, trusts you, and gives you more than anyone else in your life.

Sometimes, you see a cotton ball hurling through the air and bouncing softly off of someone else—usually your wife or girlfriend—which is then followed by them freaking out as if that harmless cotton ball actually hurt them.

What a bunch of drama-queen psychos.

We get so focused on their whiny bullshit over that cotton ball hitting them, that what they’re actually saying hardly registers with us.

We are concerned with their ability to process information within the framework of reality, right? How scary is it to live with a person who literally can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not?

And the secret—the one that can change your entire relationship and worldview is this: While you are seeing and feeling a cotton ball in your hand and hurling through the air, it’s not only possible, but likely, that your spouse or romantic partner is seeing and feeling a stone. Not a pebble. Not a tiny speck of gravel. A substantial, hard, shitty, ­­don’t you dare throw that at me, you prick kind-of stone like the one David slayed the giant with in the bible story.

You Might Not Believe Me Yet, But You Should

What’s more likely?

That every romantic partner you’ve ever met or heard of is clinically insane or mentally incompetent, OR that both of you, despite living through the same moment, are experiencing it much differently than one another?

Here’s the part that ruins everything.

It MAKES SENSE for BOTH people to think, feel, say, and do what they do after a disagreement in which one person is getting pelted by stones by their asshole partner, but loves them and is trying to communicate that they need help from them; but the OTHER person is defending themselves like “OMG. Cotton balls! They were just cotton balls! Calm down, please. Why are you acting like a psycho?”

Do you recognize the danger?

Two good people, trying their best, both reacting TOTALLY NORMALLY to the events they’re experiencing.

It’s not always gender-specific, but so often it’s the men feeling under attack for something they’re being accused of doing or neglecting.

These guys’ wives and girlfriends are like: “Why would you hurl stones at me?! What is wrong with you? Don’t you love me?”

“I didn’t throw stones at you.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Umm, no I didn’t Kathy Bates in ‘Misery.’ How about we put down the sledgehammer and take a stress tab or something?”

“You’re not listening to me! Why would you want to hurt me? Stones hurt!”

“I didn’t throw stones at you. I threw cotton balls at you, and now you’re acting like a baby about it.”

“You’re such an asshole. Are you, or are you not going to stop hitting me with stones?”

“Since that ISN’T what happened—cotton balls; they were COTTON BALLS—I’m probably not going to stop. Cotton balls don’t hurt people. They’re soft and light, and bounce harmlessly to the floor, so please stop trying to turn this into something it’s not.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

Maybe there are tears. Maybe there is fear.

Maybe then, his defensive anger melts and his protective instincts kick in.

He runs to her rescue. She sucks when she’s mad, but nothing gets to him quite like when she’s sad.

“I’m so sorry, baby. I would never, ever, ever do anything to hurt you. Never. I’m really sorry. Everything’s going to be okay.”

You have a finite number of those moments, husbands and boyfriends (or whoever).

It feels like you’re having The Same Fight over and over and over again. It becomes routine. You get used to it. Because you get used to it, you don’t think it matters.

But it matters.

Because every time you have that conversation, she is becoming more and more convinced that you’re going to keep throwing stones at her. She’s going to keep getting hurt.

So, now she can’t trust you.

She concludes that you’re either doing it on purpose, or that you care so little about her, that you’re unwilling to help her not feel pelted by stones anymore. Has to be one of those two, right?

AND IT MAKES SENSE THAT SHE WOULD FEEL THAT WAY.

It does.

Stop throwing rocks at me, dick. I don’t care what you’re calling them. It hurts and I’ve told you this a million times, and you haven’t stopped, so I’m out. You’re mean, dumb or both, and I can’t trust you to be my partner. I can’t trust the rest of my life to you.

AND IT MAKES SENSE THAT YOU THINK ALL OF IT IS BAT-SHIT CRAZY TOWN DOT COM.

Because, after all. They were just cotton balls.

Just some little, harmless cotton balls that have never, and will never, hurt anyone.

God, she’s crazy.

I believe that if we can help more people understand that the various realities people experience aren’t identical—that one person can see and feel cotton balls, and that another person can see and feel stones—and that based on that fact, it MAKES SENSE for everyone to behave as they are, then people can accommodate for that in their communication with one another.

They’ll be able to meet each other halfway.

“Oh man. I had no idea, babe. Can you understand how crazy it seemed when you were freaking out about the cotton balls? Obviously, I would NEVER throw a rock at you. I would never try to hurt you on purpose. Ever. In fact, it hurts when you tell me otherwise. You’ve been feeling pummeled by stones this entire time! I’ve been hit by stones. That shit totally hurts. I get it, and again, I am so so so sorry, and I swear, if you just tell me moving forward that it’s another situation where even though it appears harmless to me, it’s physically harming you, I’ll understand what you mean, and we’ll be able to get through it without accidentally destroying each other.”

About 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women. Thousands, every day.

And for most of them, THIS is why they’re leaving. This cotton ball-stone thing.

All that you see, touch, taste, hear feels as concrete and tangible as anything else in our lives. Of course we’re going to default to trusting our first-person experiences.

It’s monumentally difficult to doubt our own interpretations enough to trust others’ conflicting accounts of what happened, especially when it makes us out to be assholes.

But, if you can muster the courage, the trust—the faith—to believe your partner when she or he tells you about something that doesn’t jibe with your perception of reality—I think you’ll discover that giant missing piece of the puzzle I referenced earlier.

The one that completes the picture and helps you see things as they really are.

It’s the piece that says Happily Ever After on it.

And it’s the story ending you and your family deserve.

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You’re Right, Guys—You Can’t Make Women Happy

unhappy wife

(Image/Moldova Christina)

A common complaint among married men is feeling like their wives are always complaining about something—that they’re never happy for long and that nothing he does ever seems to be good enough for her.

I remember feeling that way for a few years before spending the final 18 months of my marriage sleeping in the guest room until she finally left for good.

I’m a pretty nice guy and most people seem to like me, and because of that, I always believed and acted as if she was the one with the problem.

I know how frustrating it feels to exchange your bachelorhood for a lifelong commitment to love someone else, only to be told over and over again that you’re doing it wrong.

I know how much it hurts to want your spouse to want you back when they clearly don’t.

I know what it feels like to want to die when they move out and choose some asshole stranger over you after a dozen years together.

Those are honest and real feelings I experienced in the months between her driving away permanently with our preschool-aged son in the backseat, and a court magistrate nullifying our marriage.

Because I hadn’t yet learned the critical life lesson that we can’t and shouldn’t always trust ourselves, I was confident that my interpretation of my marriage and wife’s choice was accurate. That, for whatever my marital shortcomings and mistakes might have been, in the final analysis she was MORE wrong for quitting on our family.

After all, I was happy being married to her. If she would have just stopped finding stuff to get pissed about, it would have been awesome.

But she was hard to please. She was ungrateful. She was the one with the problem.

It’s Not Your Fault, Guys—No One Taught Us Differently

The notion that “girls are crazy” or that women are “stuck-up bitches” or “hard to understand” or “always finding something new to complain about,” isn’t something me and my friends invented. We heard men and older boys and TV telling us these things.

Collectively, men are FAR from innocent victims in all this. But I have no doubt that MOST guys grew up believing this narrative—because situations with crying girlfriends, angry mothers, and stories from their guy friends about their experiences with girls/women seemed to reinforce these beliefs.

That girls/women are too emotional.

That they’re crazy and irrational.

Thought exercise: If you honestly believe a person you’re talking to is capable of temporary moments of insanity where they become hyper-emotional and their judgment becomes clouded to the point where they’re “wrong” or “misjudging” a situation, how do you handle a disagreement with them?

Most guys are set up from childhood to not only believe (as most everyone does) that our first-person experiences and emotional interpretations of them are a reliable guide for determining right and wrong, but many of us also believe that our girlfriends and wives are WRONG when they react emotionally to something we say or do, and during arguments.

I thought my wife frequently overreacted to something she was upset about.

I left a dirty dish by the sink, and she decided she wanted to argue about it. I thought it was irrational to elevate a dirty dish to a marriage problem.

And because I believed my wife to be irrational, I believed she was wrong.

Because I believed she was wrong, I was never really motivated to change.

She’s the one with the problem.

The Danger of Not Recognizing the Difference Between “Trying to Make Her Happy” and “Not Hurting Her”

A lot of people read my most-popular articles—either “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink” or “An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands”—and sometimes afterward men will tell me what a stupid dumbass moron I am because of whatever I wrote.

They think I’m advocating for men to start selling out and doing whatever they can to placate their wives so she won’t want to leave. To “make her happy.” They think I wrote that all men are dicks who deserve to be left and all women are victims who never make mistakes in their marriages.

I recognize these guys right away now—the ones still wearing the blinders they inherited from childhood. The ones that taught them that women are often crazy and wrong. The ones that might have even taught them that men are somehow better than women.

They confuse my message of “Stop hurting her” with “Do whatever the little missus wants and worship her no matter what,” and it’s sad because they and their families will inevitably suffer for it, but it makes sense to me because maybe I would have had a similar reaction back when I was still blaming everything on my wife.

Let the record show that this isn’t intended to be gender-specific. This dysfunctional conversation/argument dynamic can just as easily exist in a role-reversal scenario in relationships that look differently than mine did. But this is generally the kind of relationship I see and hear about most, and the kind I lived through.

The one where husbands and wives get caught in a Man vs. Woman vortex, and slowly hurt one another repeatedly for many years until their marriage fails.

Not from any one moment. In isolation, none of these past arguments seemed like a big deal as they were happening. Certainly not marriage-enders.

None of these moments were scary enough to trip the emergency alarms. Marriages have fights! You just get over it and move on! No big deal!

Until one day the pile of No-Big-Deal arguments gets so big that the floor collapses beneath you, and everything falls apart.

Most marriages don’t end because of something big and dramatic like a gunshot or bomb explosion.

Most marriages end from bleeding out after being paper cut to death. One, even 10, paper cuts aren’t that scary. But after tens of thousands, maybe you bleed so much that you die.

The #1 Thing That Ends Relationships

I believe, when you strip away all of the bullshit and psychobabble, that one idea sums up why more than half of all relationships fail:

Men frequently demonstrate an inability or unwillingness to recognize the pain they cause their wives or girlfriends and then fail to intentionally adjust the behavior to stop hurting them.

Empathy can often be hard for people to exhibit when we don’t relate to nor understand what someone else is going through.

His wife is telling him that something he is doing HURTS her—not unlike him punching her in the face or stabbing her with a knife.

Only the smallest percentage of men would ever actually punch or stab the woman he loves. The VAST majority of men take seriously their role as “protector,” regardless of whether his wife or girlfriend needs protecting.

“I would never hurt you,” men say to their wives or girlfriends.

He says it over and over again, and believes it with all of his heart. He’s being totally serious and genuine.

This situation his wife or girlfriend is describing during this most recent silly argument is too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

She’s overreacting again. Making a federal case out of something that doesn’t matter. She’s saying this HURTS her? No way.

I don’t care when she leaves a piece of laundry on the bedroom floor, so how could it HURT her when I do it?

I don’t care whether she gives me a gift for our wedding anniversary, so how could it HURT her when I forget to do it?

I don’t care when she forgets something at the grocery store, so how could it HURT her when I do it?

I don’t care about Valentine’s Day and think it’s stupid that people make a big deal out of it, so how could it HURT her when I don’t agree to treat the day the same way she wants to?

I felt like my wife was getting lightly hit with a pillow but responding emotionally as if I was swinging a bat at her.

And I thought that was CRAZY.

I thought she was wrong.

I thought she was hard to please.

I thought she was acting like an ungrateful bitch for acting like nothing I did was good enough for her.

My wife thought I was either hurting her on purpose, or cared so little about her that I was refusing to change any of my behaviors that might help her.

When you tell someone that something within their control is HURTING you, and they not only demonstrate an unwillingness to stop, but also are telling you that you’re too dumb, too crazy, too WRONG to know what’s real and not real—what do you do?

Stay calm?

Put on a happy face and pretend everything is okay?

Decide to carry on as an intimate partner to the person who hurts you more than anyone else, and seems unwilling to stop?

Bad news, guys: You CAN’T make your wife or girlfriend happy no matter how hard you try. Not because they’re hard to please, but because all people must make peace with themselves before they can ever feel content and comfortable in their own skin. Until then, we’re all just fumbling around in the dark breaking shit.

But you CAN stop hurting her when she says “Hey. When you do that, it hurts me.” You can stop hurting her by treating her as if she’s insane for feeling hurt by something just because that same thing might not hurt you. You can stop hurting her by continuing to do whatever the thing is that she says is hurting her because you don’t respect her enough or take her seriously enough to eliminate the pain-causing behavior.

I’d like to see what happens when a sad and angry wife or girlfriend tells her husband or boyfriend about something that’s hurting her, and instead of telling her she’s dumb and crazy, he apologizes sincerely, and moves forward giving his best effort to not let that happen again.

I want to know how many of THOSE wives and girlfriends go “looking for something else to complain about.” I want to know how many of THOSE husbands and boyfriends feel disrespected and mistreated by a wife who never makes him feel like he’s good enough.

When you reduce your wife or girlfriend to a stupid, nagging bitch while she’s privately bleeding from hundreds of papercuts you’ve already forgotten about and never apologized for, maybe it makes sense for her to try a dramatic, emotional outburst to get your attention.

When you dismiss her plea for help repeatedly, maybe it makes sense for her to remove herself from the relationship in order to preserve her health and wellbeing.

And just maybe, when you take responsibility for the pain you might have accidentally caused, respect your partner enough to listen and believe her when she tells you about it, and LOVE her enough to make sure the painful thing stops happening—just maybe that’s where marital peace and healing live.

Just maybe that’s how you get to ‘Til death do us part.

I wouldn’t know, because I never actually considered that I might be wrong about her, and that I was not only capable of hurting her, but that I actually was.

I wouldn’t know, because I never actually took any responsibility during our marriage for hurting my wife. I never apologized, then followed it up with a behavioral change that would allow her to trust me again.

I wouldn’t know, because my marriage and family fell apart despite my insistence that nothing was wrong. My marriage and family fell apart long before I ever developed the humility necessary to ask the right questions.

If my wife repeatedly hurt me and every time I told her about it she blew me off and told me I could expect her to keep doing so, would I really agree to stay in the marriage?

Is it possible that the same situation can hurt one person, and not another?

If I was hurting my wife and she couldn’t trust me or feel safe with me anymore because I told her a hundred times that she was crazy and mistaken instead of believing her, wasn’t she SMART and WISE to reluctantly end our marriage?

It took many years, but the truth eventually hit me hard.

I’m not divorced because my wife was hard to please or that she felt I was never good enough for her. I’m divorced because when my wife told me something was wrong, I treated her like a second-class mental patient and all but promised to never change.

Sometimes I wonder what might have happened had I not.

Instead of wondering, maybe you can actually find out.

Isn’t she worth it? Aren’t you?

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An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 14

(Image/hellopretty.co.za)

Because I failed to create any type of plan or structure to ensure preparation and acknowledgment of special occasions like Valentine’s Day, our wedding anniversary, my wife’s birthday, etc., my epic ADD-ness, procrastination and sometimes lack of money created a bunch of negative or lackluster moments in my marriage.

When two people are in a romantic partnership together, there’s always a little bit of give-and-take as it’s impossible and impractical for each partner to satisfy exactly half of all shared responsibilities.

But when someone doesn’t get anything back when they give, give, give, they eventually run out of energy. They eventually stop giving.

Until the final couple of years of our marriage that I should have (but didn’t) recognize as the End Times, my wife was always incredibly thoughtful and an organized planner about almost everything, including things specifically for me.

It wasn’t a courtesy that I returned. I’m prone to procrastination and poor calendar management because I’m all kinds of ADD that was undiagnosed and unidentified during my marriage. I got comfortable. Lackadaisical. And lost sight of the importance of investing in my wife and marriage.

She put effort and energy into doing things for me, and planning things for us to do together.

I did not return that same level of effort and energy. I very rarely took the initiative to plan shared activities for the both of us.

For YEARS.

And now I’m divorced, and this EXTREMELY EASY THING TO CORRECT is a significant reason why.

Here’s the simple truth: When you make conscious, mindful, regular investments in your wife and marriage, and create opportunities to do fun things together, and demonstrate as a matter of routine that you have HER and the BOTH OF YOU top of mind and are investing effort and energy in your togetherness… you probably have a strong and healthy marriage.

And when you don’t?

You end up like me.

It Wasn’t Always That Way

I was still 18 when I met the girl who would give birth to our son 10 years later.

A mutual friend had been talking about hooking the two of us up for months. My future wife was super-involved in school activities at the university we attended, whereas I mostly just drank beer and smoked weed at awesome parties.

She was the feature baton twirler for the marching band during football season.

She was a competitive ballroom dancer.

She was on the dance team for the college basketball season.

She always had practice or a part-time job to go to, or homework to do, so she was never at any of our parties. After months of being told we’d make the perfect couple, we’d still never met.

Then one night, I heard she was going to be there—at the off-campus apartment where most of our freshman-year parties took place.

I was drinking and smoking and having a great time with my best friends like almost any other keg-party night, so I wasn’t ready for her to walk in.

Insta-smitten.

She’s the kind-of pretty that makes your stomach hurt. Smiling eyes. Gorgeous cheekbones. The kind-of smile that makes you mirror one back to her, even when she isn’t looking.

She was smart. Funny. Easy to be around.

She was everything teenage-me could have ever wanted. Everything except available.

Our mutual friend didn’t realize my future wife was dating someone. And even if she wasn’t, she didn’t have free time to actually date, nor am I sure we’d have ever made it while she was being super-responsible and I was being super-irresponsible.

Our “perfect-togetherness” would have to wait.

We stayed in touch. A phone call here and there. A hug and friendly chat somewhere on campus whenever we’d cross paths.

I dated someone for a couple of years in there, and so did she.

But here’s why I’m telling this story: One random afternoon while I was riding around with one of my friends, I had him stop at a store because I wanted to buy flowers and a card for this gorgeous blonde I was crushing on.

Just something to let her know I was thinking about her.

The Framed Greeting Card

It was the kind of card that folded from the top down.

She’d kept it for a few years in between me giving it to her, and us getting together in a couple’s capacity when we were 22.

I liked that she kept it. I liked it a lot.

It sat in a little horizontal frame on a dresser or nightstand throughout our years together. I read it a few times, but I can’t remember what I wrote inside, and I don’t think it mattered.

What mattered was me taking the time to get a card and flowers, to write a thoughtful, personal note to her. There was no particular occasion or reason to.

I had just wanted to.

Call it a broad generalization if you want, but I think girls like it when you do something for them—just because.

For more than a decade, that little card sat there.

Once a cute, heartwarming reminder of a thoughtful guy who would call a Life timeout simply to invest in making the woman he loved feel good. For no other reason than he wanted her to feel good.

But later, I think that little card became a disappointing reminder of what might have been. Not a symbol of goodness. A symbol of a guy who is capable of making her light up and feel good, and who day after day after day, seems to choose stuff he cares about, and doesn’t seem to think much about her at all.

A little card that’s almost certainly not hiding in her nightstand drawer—but decomposing in a garbage landfill somewhere.

Waste.

Which is fitting, because a waste is exactly what this was.

Just an everyday text: “Thinking about you.”

A weekly phone reminder to plan a mutual (or family) activity for the weekend.

A conscious effort to prioritize this concept of investing in and giving energy to things that benefit our partner, or actively demonstrate that we value and appreciate the person to whom we promised Forever.

That we want them.

That we love them.

That something we do for them is worthy of sitting out as a reminder of something good and meaningful. Something that won’t be discarded to rot in the ground, buried and forgotten forever.

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The Cancer of Misunderstanding

hieroglyphics egyptian

(Image/Pinterest)

Remember when we were kids?

Afraid of getting on the big roller coasters. Afraid of jumping off the high-dive at the local pool. Afraid of the person we liked at school finding out about it.

We think back now, and if you’re anything like me, you might wonder: Why did I care about all of that lamer crap?

I think the answer is: Because we were entirely different people then. Through the prism of hindsight and years piled on top of years of life experiences, we now laugh at our naïve, immature, foolish selves.

We were mostly doing the best we could. In any given moment, we were mostly just acting on whatever our beliefs were at the time. We still do that today. We believed things based on what we were taught as children, combined with our limited life experiences.

We were just kids.

True story: My son in third-grade lost a tooth a few weeks ago, and I half-expected him to tell me that he no longer believed in the Tooth Fairy. We also just had Easter, and while the words “Easter Bunny” were never spoken aloud, I’m not under the impression he knows I put the candy, toys and baseball cards in his Easter basket.

As an aside, I do question whether we are doing the right thing feeding our children stories about imaginary magical beings they will later learn were totally made-up. I wonder how that breach of trust and shattering of innocence that occurs might negatively impact them in other ways, but that’s beside the point.

My son is just a cute little kid.

How I think and feel about his words and actions are totally different than how I think and feel about the words and actions of other adults who I believe should know better.

Imagine if I talked to my son the same way I might talk to, say, a friend at work…

Me: “Hey buddy! Did you have a good weekend?”

Son: “Yeah! I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow, and the Tooth Fairy came and left me money! Awesome, right? But then it got even better. When I went downstairs Easter morning, I saw that the Easter Bunny had visited overnight and filled my Easter basket with some presents and my favorite candy.”

Me: “You’re shitting me, right?”

Son: “Dad. Language.”

Me: “Right. Sorry. I mean, are you being serious right now?”

Son: “Yes! The Tooth Fairy AND the Easter Bunny both came to my house in the same weekend! Isn’t that amazing, dad?”

Me: “Wait. Just wait. Let’s back up the Sanity Truck to the beginning of this conversation. You’re seriously not messing with me right now? You left a tooth under the pillow you sleep on, and you believe a supernatural fairy magically flew into your bedroom, pocketed your shitty old blood-crusted tooth, and then gave you money for it?”

Son: “Yes. That’s what happens, dad. When you lose a tooth and put it under your pillow at night, the Tooth Fairy comes and leaves you money.”

Me: “Rrrrrrright. A. I can’t believe you actually believe that. And B., I can’t believe you don’t think it’s TERRIFYING that some creeper fairy is buzzing around your head collecting gnarly old teeth and actually paying money for them. It’s pretty illogical, across the board. I can almost understand believing in Santa given how much we’re inundated with Santa stories and images around the holidays, but the Tooth Fairy? Good God, man. You’re like a Cro-Magnon special-ed student. Are you high on drugs right now?”

Son: “What’s a ‘crow magnum’?”

Me: “Don’t worry about it, Copernicus. I’m more concerned with the other thing you said. You think a giant-ass magic bunny that either looks like an actual rabbit, or possibly just a large two-legged rabbity mascot-looking thing ACTUALLY snuck into our house like Santa Claus and left you presents?”

Son: “Yeah.”

Me: “And this doesn’t terrify you, why?”

Son: “The Easter Bunny isn’t scary, dad.”

Me: “Whatever you say, genius.”

I would never speak to my little boy the way I talk to my adult friends or buddies at the office. And that’s because I’m intellectually capable of understanding that it makes sense for my young son’s perceptions and life experiences to be much different than mine, or pretty much any adult.

And here’s where I think it gets interesting: As easy as it is to recognize these totally sensible differences between what’s expected of children’s behavior vs. adults and adjust our language and emotional responses accordingly; we often appear HORRIBLE at recognizing that it is equally sensible for other adults to have radically different beliefs, opinions, and emotional responses than us to any given situation we happen to be in. Others’ unique life experiences can lead them to thinking and feeling differently than us, and that is in no way strange when you go through the mental exercise of how different you would have been had you been born with THEIR DNA, and born into THEIR family, living in THEIR town, going to THEIR church or THEIR school, and being taught THEIR beliefs.

Other people are different than us for various reasons.

The people we marry or have romantic relationships with are among those very-different people.

The Things We Don’t Teach Men: EVERYONE Loses Right vs. Wrong Debates in Relationships

Sometimes I’m smart and know things. Like indisputable fact sort-of things. And I’m capable of getting frustrated or overtly angry if I hear or read someone “being wrong” about this thing I know.

Sometimes I just think I know things, but actually don’t. A false belief like I used to have about the Tooth Fairy, or how afraid I should be of getting on a ridiculously fun roller coaster or of jumping off high-dive boards into swimming pools.

When we believe we are Right or Correct, or that our opinions are Better or Worth More Than, we often argue or debate the point with anyone who disagrees.

And that is often the person we married or have a serious relationship with, simply because they tend to be around the most often.

And I’ve come to believe that these arguments—which often turn into fights—frequently destroy adult relationships. Not only does it erode while we fight, but our poor sense of how to communicate and help manage our partner’s emotions can poison everything further.

I think the things we, societally, are directly and indirectly teaching (or not teaching) boys, and later reinforcing in men, are the primary drivers of these marriage-ending, family-breaking behavior patterns.

Men often demonstrate the desire to be right. Correct. Smart. Reliable. Trusted. Skilled. Best. Respected. (This is not all men all the time, just as there are millions of women who ALSO demonstrate these traits. We’re talking in broad generalities here.)

It happens to me all of the time. In friendly conversations at work, or with friends, or even right here with MBTTTR blog comments.

I still trigger easily into “I Am Right, Therefore They Must Be Wrong” mode, but fortunately I recognize this assholery much faster than I used to.

But most people don’t seem to think it’s an asshole move to debate Right vs. Wrong. About politics. About sports. About music or movies or restaurants. Some people LIKE debating. I’m one of them.

There are others who DON’T like debating because it makes them feel uncomfortable.

And this is where, in my experience, the VAST, VAST, VAST majority of men seem to totally miss the boat.

The Undetected Cancer of Not Understanding Each Other

If a wife or girlfriend is upset about us leaving a dish by the sink, we may spend hours—and even weeks, months or years—arguing the merits of the dish.

And this is a frightening symptom society should treat like cancer because THIS moment is the beginning of The Great Misunderstanding at the root of why couples always have the same fight.

Two people CANNOT get over a fight involving a major violation of trust when neither person actually understands what the other person is saying or feeling.

I wrote that a wife will ABSOLUTELY leave her husband and end her marriage over something as seemingly simple as him leaving dishes by the sink.

And a common reaction to that is: “What a petty, control-freak bitch! Why does HER opinion about where the dish should go rank higher than his? What gives her the right to break up a family over something that insignificant? Marriages are more important than debates about dishes! She’s the one who is wrong!”

Over and over and over again, people (mostly men) read about the dishes by the sink and the countless marriages that ended because of them or some other seemingly insignificant “crime,” and over and over and over again they fail to make the connection I’d hoped for, which is probably because of substandard writing on my part.

So we’re trying again.

I agree with you, Person Who Says Marriage is More Important Than Dishes, Thus Something So “Minor” Should Never End Them.

I’m on your side. I promise.

However. This has never been, and never will be, about who has the most valid opinion. We’re measuring Right vs. Wrong like morons. Like if we tried to measure human weight in Celsius degrees or sound decibels or kilometers per hour. We have bullshit data because we’re not using the right filters.

The Big Secret That Shouldn’t Be a Secret

It will never matter who makes the best or most-convincing or most-skilled argument.

That’s NOT why she’s leaving us.

You couldn’t out-debate her because Correct vs. Incorrect never even came into play.

It’s about this really important secret, and nothing else:

Something you did, said, or are actively doing, HURT her or is HURTING her.

Like if you were throwing rocks at her face, or striking her with a belt. Like if you were calling her vile names and telling her she was ugly and that you didn’t love her anymore.

Something you’re doing or saying is causing actual pain.

And the scary part is that you don’t know. We don’t know because it would never hurt us. Because it would never hurt us, we act like she’s weak. We act like her response is crazy or illogical or out of line with reality.

Then when she tells us about it, we don’t apologize and stop the hurtful behavior like we would if we were accidentally hitting her with rocks or belts.

Moreover, we pile on more hurt in the form of us puffing our chests in all of our “correctness,” defending our behavior, and implying or saying outright that she’s stupid or mentally unstable or a bad or mean person for feeling all of these illogical things on account of our perfectly reasonable and justifiable actions.

First, we inflict pain without realizing it.

Second, we are informed of the pain we cause, and we wave our hands dismissively and tell her she’s full of shit.

Third, we get angry when she won’t let it go, and flip it around into a “This is actually YOUR fault for being such a miserable and ungrateful bitch all the time” discussion.

Fourth, we stay angry that she keeps bringing it up and “nagging” us about something we think we’re “right” about, and make everything about us, and how she’s the unfair person ruining the marriage.

Don’t you see it?

I’m not blaming anyone for this. These aren’t the behaviors of evil people. These are the behaviors of two people who emotionally harm one another over the course of five to 10 years with little to no awareness of it.

We accidentally cut and bruise her with our stones and belts without ever realizing we’re striking her.

Then, not only do we NOT apologize for it, or attempt to change the behavior, but we often defiantly blame everything on her, and tell her that nothing is ever going to change because she’s got this whole thing wrong.

And if you keep saying it enough times, maybe you believe she’ll figure it out too.

Ironically, she feels exactly the same, right up until she can’t take the hurt anymore.

She might be able to handle the metaphorical stones and belt lashes. Because the years have scarred and hardened her.

But she’s sure as hell not going to take the blame for it anymore, nor dedicate the rest of her life to an intimate partnership that rewards her with: “Why don’t you cry about it, you nagging bitch? And by the way, I love you, honey. Wanna have sex later?”

Neither person meant to hurt the other. It just happens, and most of these guys have no idea how it’s perceived by his wife or girlfriend. Not until it’s too late. Not until she’s heartbroken and gone.

It’s one person being hurt and the other person saying through their actions, “I don’t care about the same things you care about. Also, I don’t even care THAT you care. Your stuff doesn’t matter to me.”

Because THAT ends marriages. Thousands of times per day.

And I think it’s tragic.

Because it’s essentially just a big misunderstanding.

And I don’t believe kids should have to cry and spend every night missing one of their parents for the entirety of their childhood because of a misunderstanding.

We can do better.

We must.

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