Good People Ruin Marriage

Comments 42


Any time I’d hear about a couple getting a divorce, I always assumed one of them did something bad.

I’d usually suspect the guy. Of cheating. Of hitting. Of being verbally abusive. Of having a problem with gambling or alcohol or child abuse.

But then I got divorced and started talking to lots of other people who are either divorced or in troubled marriages.

And that’s when it became clear that all the common “reasons” for divorce probably don’t cause most of them.

Good people ruin marriage. I don’t mean people, by virtue of being good, ruin marriage. I mean good people with the best intentions ruin marriage. All the time.

They are not bad. They are simply bad at marriage.

Not With a Bang

“This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.”

                – T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I think most marriages die with someone asleep at the wheel.

Some well-meaning husband or wife just obliviously caught up in the rhythm of comfort and routine. They believe they’re a good husband or wife by virtue of not committing all of those marital cardinal sins.

We do this a lot.

I go to work and church and don’t commit crimes, so my wife must think I’m a good guy!

I don’t do drugs or punch my wife, so she must think I’m a good guy!

I don’t gamble all our money away or stay out late drinking without telling her where I am, so my wife must think I’m a good guy!

We like to think: “Well, at least I’m not like… !!!” and then consider that virtuous.

Just because the worst student in class got Ds and spent a lot of time in detention doesn’t make you a great student just because you got Cs and sat in detention half as often.

Marriage isn’t graded on a curve.

More and more, people are emailing me and asking for relationship advice.

That’s how desperate they’ve become. They’re asking a guy who is batting 0-1 at marriage to advise them on their marriages. I don’t know how this happened.

I can’t fix your marriage. I couldn’t fix mine. What I am good at is asking myself the hard questions and drawing what I consider logical conclusions about things I did in my marriage that led to its demise.

Sometimes, when I write those things down, people recognize the same behavior in their relationships.

It’s Not the Big Things

It’s not.

It almost never is. It’s those little moments you didn’t know were big.

It’s the routine argument, and because it’s routine you don’t choose your words carefully. Because you like to win fights, you don’t take a deep breath and think about what you really want the outcome of the situation to be.

What if someone told you that silly argument over what song was playing on the radio (Shazam would have been helpful in 2003) would ultimately cause real fights and feelings of resentment and a lack of respect for one another and be something that haunted you 12 years later?

Wouldn’t you just keep your mouth shut and thank the heavens for another beautiful day to share with the person you love most?

I would fight with my wife and sometimes she would cry and instead of apologizing and not repeating that mistake again, I would walk away and then the next time we would fight, I would just do that exact same thing again.

Maybe it was pride. I think pride might kill more marriages than gambling or alcoholism or domestic violence.

I would abandon my wife when she was feeling most vulnerable. She just fought—(Fought! Why do we fight people we love?)—with the person who is supposed to be there for her. The person who is supposed to make her feel safe and lift her up during life’s toughest moments.

And I walked away because it was easier. Turned my back on her.

I let her cry instead of hugging because I was prideful and thought I was right.

Why did it matter to me who was right in a fight I can’t even remember?

Remember the topless mall psychic lady in Mallrats with the third nipple? What if a little mini version of her popped up on my shoulder during one of these fights and said: “Hey! Matt! You’re being a moron! 1. You have ONE job, and you’re currently failing. It’s easy to ‘love’ when everything’s going your way! Weak cowards can love on the good days. Real men love when it’s hard. When it’s inconvenient. When you don’t feel like it. 2. This is what’s going to break your marriage. In a few years, you’re going to have a little boy. Some unexpected life challenges will pop up, and because you haven’t built a strong-enough foundation with your wife, you’re going to fall apart. And it’s because of this, right here. You’re going to be in your mid-thirties. And your wife is going to live somewhere else and your son is going to be gone half the time and it’s going to be hard for everyone involved. You’re going to break on the inside. You’re running out of time.”

If that little miniature three-nipple lady said that to me (and I believed her), I truly think I’m prudent enough that I would have changed the way I was doing things.

The things that destroy our marriages are sometimes so small that we’re incapable of respecting the moment enough to behave differently. But if we knew that what we did and said in that moment would change our future one way or the other? Almost as if our entire lives would be determined by it? Wouldn’t we choose the right thing?

I think we would.

I think people do the wrong thing because they don’t know how important that moment is.

You’re going to have a fight soon because you’re a human being. And you’re going to fall into the same behavior you always fall into when you fight because it’s almost involuntary. But at some point, sanity will prevail and you’ll have a chance to ask yourself the right question: What is it that I really hope happens at the end of all this?

I can’t go back and change anything.

But I can be more conscious of right now.

I don’t want to ever again say I didn’t see it coming. That I didn’t recognize the moment for what it was. Something defining. Something that would change everything. Forever.

The little things are the big things.

This is the way your marriage ends.

With a whimper.

42 thoughts on “Good People Ruin Marriage”

    1. Thank you very much for sharing. This is simply a life observation that has really stood out for me.

      What happened?

      “We just died.”

      Sometimes it’s hard for people to explain. Because it wasn’t this one, huge thing. Just a million of the teeniest little insignificant moments.

      We need to be vigilant. And it’s really hard.

  1. It’s because you are 0-1 that people come back to you. There’s a reason your letters to Shitty Husbands continue to be some of your most read posts. You are a good writer, that much is true, but more importantly, you the hard earned gift of perspective.

  2. I was saddened this weekend to learn of a couple of “good” people I know that are now getting a divorce. Very good people, I was shocked.

    Nice Mallrats reference:)

    1. 🙂 <– smiling at the Mallrats recognition, not your news.

      I'm sorry. A divorce by someone close to you (depending on how close) can be really disruptive and socially awkward.

      We don't like change. But it changes so many things.

  3. Nice post Matt – per usual. 🙂 Thought provoking and full of heart. Keep ’em coming.

  4. Oh my mercy!

    #1 – When I was going through my divorce, another dear, couple friend of mine was doing the same. And the soon-to-be-ex-husband said those very words. “I don’t understand! I don’t drink. I don’t smoke or do drugs. I’ve never hit her. i don’t understand why she is leaving me.” I was SHOCKED that he really believed this to be the matrix for deciding what a “Good” husband was.

    #2 – And (in the voice of the great Chris Traegar from Parks and Rec), Pride is LIT-erally at the root of every bad thing we do.\

    Let’s get our pride in check, people!

    1. I think maybe a lot of guys feel this way.

      We’re so used to hearing about the cheaters and hitters and drunks and addicts and sexual assaulters that when we are pretty nice and civilized, we want more credit than we deserve.

      Maybe it’s why some women would rather be with a verbally abusive jealous asshole.

      At least then she isn’t being ignored.

      1. This hit me hard. Why can’t couples (husbands) just live for each other? For the marriage and family? It seems so hard in practice but it really isn’t. Every moment of every day there is a choice to put the other person first. Or not.

  5. A lot of good people end up divorced because the person they were married to is really not that good. Because if “for better for worse” means anything it means that withoit those trumps like abuse and cheating, there really is no good reason. Big reasons to work harder, not reasons to get divorced. You take too much on yourself Matt. And cheats like isme take way too little. Good people don’t cheat. And good people don’t choose to get divorced for little reasons. Not that there aren’t shitty husbands. But we chose them. We had kids with them. There has to be a certain amount of acceptance unless and until there is cheating or abuse.

    1. Cheating is not something I’ll defend.

      But I’ve just been a human being for too many years now to kick everyone’s ass for being human.

      Every person messes up. Every person. Even the EXTREMELY good and righteous people. They mess up, too.

      I don’t want to get in the “sin ranking” business.

      I think we should strive to do the right thing all the time. I know we will fall short. When I fall, I hope my friends will encourage me to get back up and try again. And I want very much to do that same thing for others.

      I don’t want to sound sympathetic to cheaters and abusers. Those behaviors can’t be condoned.

      But I’m never just going to scream a bunch of Fuck Yous in their direction. I’m going to try to help them figure out why they do what they do and fix whatever’s broken.

      Nothing makes me feel quite as profoundly as a good redemption story.

      1. Oh I love a redemption story Matt, and as you know I hope my husband’s is one, but you’ve gotta be damn sorry first not “hey we’re human”. I don’t think that cheating is “hey we’re human” territory at all, no need for a ranking it just does not fall in that bucket. I stand by what I wrote, I think condoning isn’t the intention but cheaters cling to every scrap so it is the effect. As you know, I see it as zero-sum. Like terrorism. In fact the effects are very similar to terrorism.

        1. I admire your zero-tolerance policy on the subject and your all-around ass kickery.

          I’m going to think about this comment a little more…

          1. Love the verb. But I hope I am always 100% behind redemption too. But it doesn’t come free with a puppy to the not-really-remorseful.

      2. Matt, there is a whole other territory that is being left out.

        I do not subscribe to the ‘everyone messes up’ belief because some people do shitty things to other people and it’s calculated. Think Bernie Madoff. What he did was calculated deceit. If I had to guess, I’d say he is a sociopath because he lacks remorse for what he did (no doubt he regrets it — regrets getting CAUGHT that is!).

        Keep in mind 4% of our population are sociopaths. They are cold, calculating people who do not care who they cause harm to. Why? Because they lack a conscience. (FYI: Not all sociopaths are psychopaths but all psychopaths are sociopaths)

        There are well written books documenting how even trained psychiatrists and psychologist can be taken-in by a sociopath.

        What my Ex did to me was ‘calculated deceit’ which does not fall into your “every person messes up” bucket. My Ex didn’t mess up. He planned. He strategized. He spoon fed me lies… He will never change because you cannot fix a sociopath. They are beyond fixing.

        Just sayin’

    2. @Nephila – you should check out Her site brilliantly illustrates why cheating should never be excused. Matter of fact, she has a whole section entitled: *stupid shit cheaters say*. It’s a riot (and true).

      1. Thanks for suggesting this site– I’d not seen it. Very funny and smart. I appreciate Matt’s public soul-searching, from which we can all learn. ChumpLady has a different take that’s equally valuable.

        1. Yes. And she’s infinitely smarter and more hilarious than me.

          I’m a new reader of hers (a couple weeks). She’s brilliantly entertaining.

      2. I’m familiar with Chump Lady and not a fan, simply because she a) thinks judging Betrayed Spouses who reconcile is fair game (and I think it is as bad as judging victims of other abuse for staying) and b) she does not leave ground for real remorse. I am much more generous than she is. I realise most remorse is fake but not all.

  6. “More and more, people are emailing me and asking for relationship advice.”

    They do that because you have a good head on your shoulders 😉

    Not long ago there was a study that suggested that contempt is the number one reason people break up. It was a good point, but another problem is that many of us don’t really know what contempt is. Men often think they’re just being “right” or being “rational,” when in fact what they’re really doing is expressing contempt. Women are capable of being so passively contemptuous, so subtle, sometimes we can’t even see it ourselves. Contempt kills respect faster than anything else. The alternative however, can be really hard because you have to remain soft and open to somebody who is capable of hurting your feelings.

    1. This was really well said.

      Love, in its purest form, is letting another person hurt you and forgiving them and resisting the urge to lash back and being willing to continue loving them anyway.

      In a marriage, one cannot let their partner REPEATEDLY hurt and disrespect them, so efforts must be made by the other person to stop the hurtful behavior.

      Here’s where a guy like me comes in.

      When you’re being “right” and “rational” and not respecting your spouse’s feelings? You keep waiting for them to get with the program rather than making changes yourself.

      Just because I didn’t mean to hurt her doesn’t mean I wasn’t.

      So I just kept doing it.

      And then it died.

      If we just learned how to talk to one another…

  7. This. Yes. 100x this. I’m so glad IsMe shared your post today so I could find you.
    I know this, but I don’t know if it’s on time to save my marriage or not. Sigh. I do to know if I can convince my husband of this either.
    Thanks for writing and sharing..

    1. Matt is not talking about cheats though 🙂 That is quite another matter and you forfeit the right to pontificate about your “needs”.

    2. You’re welcome. And thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to read and visit here.

      Marriage is extraordinarily difficult during the really hard times. I think it’s important to find other people that understand so everyone can help one another persevere.

      Hope you have a great day.

  8. I completely agree!!!!! Great post, i noticed the same thing, in fact it’s what happened in my marriage.

    My favorite line was “I think most marriages die with someone asleep at the wheel.”

    …. I’m totally going to steal that quote 😉

    1. Thank you. Always nice when another guy validates these things. And by all means, steal! There’s no possible way I can be the first person to ever write that sentence.

  9. Some more T.S. Eliot (from 4 Quartets)

    And so each venture
    Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
    With shabby equipment always deteriorating
    In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
    Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
    By strength and submission, has already been discovered
    Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
    To emulate – but there is no competition –
    There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
    And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
    That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
    For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

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  11. I went MGTOW after the last go-around. Got tired of being blamed because I’m the guy, even though she was the one actually doing the shitty stuff.
    So– reckon I’m on the flip-side of the coin.

    1. I don’t want to act like I’m an expert on the Manosphere. I’m not.

      It certainly has merit from a male-empowerment standpoint. When men are getting overtly fucked with, I have a real problem with it. Just because some men in power have abused that power, doesn’t mean all men should be punished for it.

      A human being deserves to be measured and evaluated on his or her own merit. Not because of gender or skin color or faith system or nationality or sexual orientation or whatever.

      I couldn’t believe anything more strongly than that previous sentence. We are so quick to label everyone and then fight with them because they’re loosely connected with some group that we disagree with.

      Stop me when I say something that’s total bullshit.

      The Manosphere creates an environment for men to be men and to not feel ashamed of it. It celebrates the MANY great contributions men have made in world history and toward today’s society.


      1. It is also misogynistic. And anyone who thinks they are better than someone else for any reason that isn’t merit-based is, in my opinion, something of an asshole.

      2. It actively promotes and encourages a battle of the sexes. It wants to perpetuate conflict between men and women.

      I KNOW that women are often shitty. I’ve broken up with or never pursued relationships with dozens of women for a variety of reasons I’m cool with generically labeling “Shittiness.”

      And I know that when I write things, I’m overly critical of men.

      That’s not because I don’t think men have a TON of great virtues.

      It’s because on this ONE particular subject (marriage and relationships), I believe strongly that men fuck it up more than women.

      Many, many, many times, women just want to feel validated and respected. Really simple things. And men won’t do it. They refuse to validate their partner’s feelings because they think they’re “crazy” or “irrational” or “needy.”

      And then their partners get “bitchy” or “overly emotional” because they’re now in a relationship with someone who says they love them but can’t even muster the kindness and compassion necessary to look their partner in the eye and take her seriously during a disagreement.

      Millions of marriages end because of THAT reason alone.

      Because the guy can’t take a deep breath and think “Gee. This is REALLY important to her even if it isn’t important to me. Perhaps I should give just a little bit of a shit more about it because of that.”

      And then they grow further apart and resentment builds exponentially until someone cheats or leaves.

      Over and over and over again this happens.

      Not to evil, super-fucked insane people, either.

      To really typical, well-intentioned people with a couple kids and a mortgage who are really trying their best, but maybe don’t know how.

      Men don’t want to be bothered. Or hassled. Or nagged.

      So they retreat and essentially tell their “bitchy” “needy” wives to go fuck themselves when all their wives really want is for them to be intimately connected and build something that can survive anything.

      The irony is the guy wants that VERY SAME THING. But he’s going to do it his way! His selfish, stubborn me-first way.

      And over and over and over again, couples in that 5-10 year marriage window call it quits because they simply run out of energy to keep the same fight going. It’s exhausting.

      I’m not asking men to sacrifice manhood. I’m not asking men to worship women or put them on pedestals and not hold them accountable. I’m not asking men to ALWAYS sacrifice their wants and needs on behalf of their spouse, or to be doormats.

      I’m asking men to do ONE thing. Whenever you think your wife or girlfriend is being CRAZY. Stop. Slow the fuck down. Take a deep breath. And understand that you will never understand.

      You’re a guy! She’s a girl! And you experience the world differently.

      It’s why half the country always hates the president. We’re just–different.

      And it’s okay.

      So long as we’re going to keep trying to have sex with one another and pairing up?

      It seems to me we should do it in the most sensible, least-painful, most-fulfilling way possible.

      I think if men can find it within themselves to just listen a little hard to their spouses and respect them just as much as they want to be respected themselves, the divorce rate drops 75% overnight.

      It doesn’t have to be about dominance.

      It doesn’t have to be a power struggle.

      Everyone can have mutual respect for one another and live contently and peacefully in mutually beneficial ways.

      People not interested in those relationships should not get married.

      People who are interested should stop trying to build conflict into these relationships by pitting men against women.

      I have about as much in common with the hardcore Manosphere crowd as I do with hardcore feminists.


  12. I think people come to you with questions because you DID ask yourself the tough questions. The best help I’d received when going through my ordeal was from a dear friend asking me to think long and hard about those tough questions -the same things you mention in the majority of your posts. Unfortunately, mine wasn’t because one of us was asleep at the wheel; mine fell into that other, more obvious catagory (abuse). I applaud anyone that can try again – I don’t have the courage to do so.

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