We pulled into our parking space in Florida’s version of the “happiest place on earth,” and all of my insides were knotted up.
In my left pocket was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought—a pretty pear-shaped diamond engagement ring I’d been secretly paying off for months.
This felt like the place. Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. She loved Disney. This felt like the time. The Fourth of July. She loved fireworks.
I wasn’t tense because I was planning a surprise marriage proposal. I was tense because we were fighting over whether the song playing on the radio was Duran Duran. (Shazam didn’t exist in 2003.)
It was. The song was “Hungry Like the Wolf.” I knew it. She didn’t. She told me I was wrong. I knew I wasn’t. So we had a little fight and probably said dickhead things to one another.
It wasn’t that weird for us to have a little spat and be temporarily mad about something silly. We never fought about anything “important,” as far as I could tell. Just “dumb stuff.”
Everything’s totally fine, I thought.
While the fireworks lit up the night sky above Cinderella’s castle, I slipped the ring on her finger and she said yes.
Ten years later, she divorced me because I left dishes by the sink.
I can’t remember whether Duran Duran was playing in the background while she drove away for the last time.
The Important Difference Between the Two Types of Relationship Conflict
As recently as this week, someone commented on the dishes article that went viral in January 2016, minimizing the significance of dirty dishes and encouraging people to learn how to let go of “the little things” in an effort to avoid conflict and have healthy relationships.
While I appreciate the spirit of his comment and those of the hundreds of other people also touting the merits of “letting it go,” as a happy-marriage philosophy, I respectfully believe they all share the same toxic mental condition that ailed me throughout my marriage.
It’s a diseased belief called I Know That What I Believe is Right, Therefore Anyone Who Believes Something Else is Wrong.
That’s the belief that ends every doomed relationship, and is more or less responsible for starting every major conflict—including the deadliest wars—in human history.
My favorite writer Mark Manson categorizes conflict into two categories:
1. Conflict of Preference, and
2. Conflict of Values.
A Conflict of Preference is liking rap music more than country music, or tacos more than sweet potatoes, or attending a symphony orchestra performance more than off-roading in a lifted pickup truck.
A Conflict of Values is belief in God versus atheism as a guiding life principle, the intention to have children versus not reproducing, or behaving charitably or greedily.
Preference is “I like Rocky Road ice cream more than strawberry ice cream!”
Values are literally WHAT WE ARE. “Our values are constantly reflected in the way we choose to behave,” Manson wrote in Who the F*ck Am I?: The Ultimate Guide to Personal Values (which is the best thing I’ve read on the subject of personal values).
It’s silly to fight ugly and end up divorced over Conflict of Preference.
It’s tragic—but possibly healthy—to end relationships in which there are an irreconcilable Conflict of Values. (Though I have some challenging questions for you about WTF you were thinking when you said “I do.”)
But what about when we can’t tell the difference?
It requires high-level mindfulness and self-awareness. And it takes both relationship partners valuing their relationship more than their individual feelings (until it can be determined whether those feelings are a result of preferential differences, or value differences).
I think many people get divorced because they have difficulty identifying whether conflict is a matter of preferences or values.
And I think many people believe my article She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink is stupid because they confuse my ex-wife’s and my differing preferences for where to set a used drinking glass as NOT being about values.
It was totally about values. Values, masquerading as something that didn’t matter.
It’s Not About the Dishes
Everyone who cries foul at my ex-wife after reading the dishes article is hyperfocused on the relative merits of setting a drinking glass by the sink.
After all, children are starving in Africa. Someone at work was diagnosed with cancer. The family on the news lost their home in the hurricane.
It’s easy to point at the glass as a minor thing. It’s easy to point to that glass and convince yourself that anyone who makes a big deal out of it has misplaced priorities and probably some emotional problems.
It’s easy to say those thoughts out loud when your spouse is irritating you because she seems to be suggesting once again that something you do is making her life worse. And it’s easy to feel angry when you feel as if all of your shortcomings are being highlighted while all of your contributions and virtues are ignored.
Why isn’t anything I do good enough for her?
Where to set the dish is a Conflict of Preference. But the way in which we treat our marriage partner is a Value.
Most of the time when relationship fights like this crop up over disagreements which might seem minor from the outside looking in, the injured party isn’t feeling hurt because of this one thing. The injured party is feeling hurt because, for them, this incident is another reminder that they’re married to someone who believes that their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are more valuable—that they matter more—than their spouse’s.
I can’t relate to someone who cares whether a drinking glass is sitting by the sink.
But I can totally relate to someone who feels hurt, disrespected, or disregarded because of someone refusing to thoughtfully consider our thoughts, ideas, emotional experiences, etc.
You ever have a good idea at work? One that would make things better for the company, the customer, or the employees? And then when you bring that idea to the table, it gets ignored, or discounted, or otherwise rejected by some self-important anal-retentive?
I bet you have.
It’s shitty. But I can accept self-important anal-retentives doing asshole things.
I find it infinitely less acceptable for someone who vowed to love and honor me as their partner for life to do that.
When romantic partners (too often the men in male-female relationships) dispute, challenge, reject, insult, minimize, invalidate the expressed experiences of the other, they are communicating the following:
- My beliefs are true; yours are false
- What I feel is right; what you feel is wrong
- What I think matters more than what you think
- Because you’re wrong, and I’m right, I’m never going to change my behavior
- You say that this hurts, but I don’t feel hurt by it so you must be crazy. I’m not going to help you stop hurting because you’re wrong for hurting.
And the day I realized that I would never agree to marry or remain married to someone who said that or treated me that way is the day I made peace with my wife leaving me.
The day I realized THAT was what I had been saying to my wife every time we argued about glasses by the sink or fucking Duran Duran songs, was the day I realized that she did the right thing by leaving, and then I started writing the Shitty Husband letters. She owed it to her mental and emotional health to wake up every day and not have someone who had promised to love and honor her forever tell her over and over again that her real-life experiences weren’t worth my time and attention and effort.
A marriage is NOT a promise to endure neglect and abuse for the rest of your life.
A marriage is a promise to work cooperatively to mutually thrive for the rest of your life, and is currently the most successful model in human history for reproducing and raising healthy, socially adjusted children.
When someone refuses to cooperate to that end, then the marriage ceases to be a marriage.
It’s easy to miss because, after all, it’s just a stupid glass by the sink.
Or, is it?