When One Becomes Two

Comments 21
(Image by Nora Whalen.)
(Image by Nora Whalen.)

Ali asks:

You talk about the bottom being pulled out from under you a lot and how to move forward – I’m wondering if you think ur ex felt the same way? Like she tried and tried to get through to you and eventually made the decision to leave. I am the one who initiated the divorce from my husband, and I felt like you describe, but was still in the relationship trying to save it when I felt that way… Just wondering if you thought about that? I felt depressed, alone, experienced the deafening quiet, etc. that you discuss, but my husband was still in the house. Think both partners feel that devastation just at different times? I read your posts and I feel bad for my soon to be ex, and then I remember that I felt that way too, just years ago… When he’s probably feeling it now… Not trying to criticize, just wondering if u think she felt how you felt as well? I started reading ur blog from the beginning, and am up to Sept 2014, so forgive me if u discussed this already. I’ve been finding your writing really helpful in this horrible process. Especially the shitty husband posts – at least now my family somewhat understands why I made this decision, because they are hugely unsupportive of me…


I don’t think. I know. Long before I bothered trying to save my marriage, my wife was trying. Her only crime was not knowing how to effectively communicate with me. But, make no mistake, she was the better spouse for many years.

Maybe I was the worst kind of husband. Because I didn’t do that one big thing that totally ruins everything. And I’m nice enough and smart enough where one might have believed I was close to figuring it out.

But I never did.

Not really bad enough to leave. Not really good enough to love. Maybe she felt that way for a long time. I can’t be sure. But I can imagine it must have been hard being that half of the marriage. The one where you feel like you’re the only one giving a shit.

Because, yeah. It flip-flopped at the end. It’s so much harder being the one who cares the most.

The Me-First Only Child

I was an only child.

I have a couple stepsisters I only saw part of the year starting around age 7, and a “half” sister (I don’t like calling her that) who was born when I was 14.

For the purposes of personality and birth-order traits, I’m an only.

And I think that’s fine. Being an only child has its perks, but the older I get, the more I’m realizing how much my only child upbringing may have contributed to my marriage ending.

Here’s the thing: I spent my life having people tell me what to do all the time. My parents. My teachers. My coaches. And I had my bosses at work.

Once I became an adult, it became very important to me to feel liberated. To feel like I didn’t have someone telling me what to do anymore.

So, if I felt like playing online poker, or watching a football game, that’s what I did.

Sometimes, wives want husbands to participate in an activity, or to help with a project that we don’t feel like doing.

Sometimes, I’d fight. Because I don’t want to! AND. You’re not telling me what to do!

I made it a fight. She was going to learn, dammit! No one tells me what to do.

There’s not a lot of room for “I” and “me” in marriage.

There’s you. And there’s the other person. Two distinct identities. Two independent units. And when you’re single, that’s totally fine. Individualism is a nice thing.

Marriage is a union. Like a business merger. When XM and Sirius combined their satellite radio businesses, it was a lot like a marriage. It wasn’t an acquisition, where two companies continued to operate independent of one another. The two combined. Joined forces. Shared resources. And ceased to be just XM or just Sirius. They became something entirely new.

I thought marriage was two individuals agreeing to live together and share resources.

It took me a long time and a separation to realize how mistaken I was.

In marriage, X + Y ≠ XY. Not if you want it to work. If you want it to work, then: X + Y = Z. Something entirely new and different. (Let the record show that the second algebra equation here is incorrect math, but an effective visual aid. I beg your forgiveness.)

It’s We. It’s Us.

Sometimes young people don’t know that. They just think getting married is something you do in the relative near future after high school because that’s what they see everyone else doing.

We’re selfish, by nature. And it’s hard making that adjustment. And a marriage won’t survive without making the adjustment.

My wife spent about a year asking me to help her repaint the concrete floor that makes up half of our basement—the unfinished utility room with laundry and storage and a deep freezer.

No one but us ever went in there. I could not have cared less that the floor needed painted. So every time my wife asked me to make time on a weekend to help her get it done, I’d always find something better to do.


After many months of letting her frustration build, she just did it herself. The room looked so much nicer when she was finished.

And she did it all herself. Didn’t need me at all.

There were too many moments like that throughout our marriage. It’s an apt metaphor considering how the story ended.

Ali asks:

I felt depressed, alone, experienced the deafening quiet, etc. that you discuss, but my husband was still in the house. Think both partners feel that devastation just at different times?


Your husband left you alone in your marriage. Aside from the obvious like infidelity or violence, it’s the most-often cited reason women say they leave a marriage, and a husband’s most-often committed crime.

I left my wife alone in my marriage.

Because I let her paint the basement floor alone.

Because I’d go watch what I wanted in a separate room of the house without trying to engage her to do something together.

Because I’d sometimes decline invitations to go to bed because I was too busy doing something for myself.

Because I was a selfish, me-first only child who took more than 30 years to grow up. And I still have plenty more to do.

Yes, Ali. We both feel the same thing. You just feel it first. When you’re abandoned during the marriage. To the outside world, everything’s fine. He doesn’t cheat or hit you or drink too much or gamble all your money away. He’s nice, so your friends and family don’t understand.

But you can’t take it. And you know you’re not crazy, but no one is validating all of these things that are crushing you.

The marriage train runs out of steam and stops dead on the tracks because one person can only shovel coal into the furnace for so long. If he’d been helping the entire time or started shoveling as you were winding down to keep the pace, the train would have kept moving. But he’d abandoned the job a long time ago. So when you did, too? It was over.

Because a marriage isn’t two separate things. It’s one thing made up of two things mixed together.

I didn’t get it. I was selfish. And I poisoned the one thing I was supposed to be an integral part of.

You see, Ali, we didn’t know what abandonment felt like until you chose to leave.

We never understood that you were feeling that way. It’s excruciating, and now we get it.

Selfish. Dense. Stubborn. Oblivious. Lazy. We are.

And then everything breaks.

And then everyone dies just a little on the inside.

21 thoughts on “When One Becomes Two”

  1. I don’t buy it, Matt. That’s what “for better for worse” means. It doesn’t mean you have to stay through abuse, violence, cheating. It means you stay through the loneliness and the failure to get through. Because it was her failure as much as you take it on yourself. I’ve been there. It is one of the reasons I probably won’t ever revover from his cheating, because I had a period when I felt alone and unable to get through and I didn’t cheat and never would.

    It just makes me roll my eyes at people who give up without any big reason.

    1. I understand. And I appreciate you saying it. I do. I even agree to a certain extent.

      That IS what “for better, for worse” means. You’re right.

      In my experience, when you point fingers at others and say: “It’s your fault!”, nothing good really ever comes from it.

      But when you accept responsibility for what you did wrong, and work to do better, positive things can come from it.

      I have been apologized to by a variety of people for a variety of things. I don’t want to be in the business of writing about things other people feel bad for doing.

      People usually know where they went wrong. I don’t help anyone by pointing fingers at them for it.

  2. while I don’t necessarily agree with Nephila – I do understand the point she is trying to make. AND if Ali’s support system isn’t supporting this decision, then maybe there is a chance for redemption. I remember a post you wrote not that long ago. The premise was something like “maybe she should leave…to get his attention?” I don’t know. I know that I didn’t love that premise but I have to wonder if Ali is in a situation where the real threat to save herself, just might save them both! Obviously my rosy-tinted glasses are a permanent fixture because I HAVE TO BELIEVE that some of us are going to have the awesome redemption story. Why not Ali?

    1. The glasses do seem particularly rosy-tinted. 🙂

      A really common story I’ve heard post-divorce is that some people divorce, are single for like 10 years, and then get back together.

      I think most of the people who participate in these conversations here are recently (three years?) divorced. Perhaps a small percentage will rekindle those relationships one day.

  3. Wow, insight is such powerful thing. I think I know what you are trying to do. You want to show others what can happen before it’s too late for them. To stop even one other family from breaking apart would be such a triumph. . . but. . .can insight come from others pain? Or are we doomed to only gain it from experience, is our own pain necessary for growth? Ah, for all our sake, I hope the former is true. God speed Matt, I hope your words and sentiments reach as many hearts as possible!

    1. You do know what I’m trying to do, with a little self-reflection, accountability and personal growth tossed in for good measure.

      I appreciate your support very much.

  4. I can 100% relate to Ali. The pain and loneliness felt after years of begging someone to pay attention to you only to be left feeling like the enemy in his eyes is devastating and life changing. There was more to it than that in my marriage, but those feelings… they change you. And once you have come to a point where you know that nothing you do will make the situation better, and you’re left empty and hollow with absolutely nothing left to give to a person who took it all and gave nothing in return…well, yes like Nephilia said, it is technically a failure on both ends. But sometimes walking away is the only option you have to save yourself.

    I don’t know if my ex later felt the pain that I did earlier on, but I 100% relate to a lot of the things you write about. Like Ali mentioned, I just felt them at a different point in my marriage timeline.

  5. Good post, creatiing good discussion. I’m conflicted. I think I have given up, but now he’s trying harder, so maybe I should try harder too. But not sure I want to. Anymore.

    1. Hi Dawn. 🙂 Been a while.

      It’s funny. People in your situation is usually who I’m thinking about when I write this stuff because it so closely mirrors my experience.

      You’ve gone through EXACTLY the same situation that my ex-wife did.

      And now you have choices to make. Choices that are none of our business. I can’t thank you enough for reading and thinking and self-reflecting and sharing and participating in the conversation.

      I know your heart hurts. And I’m so sorry that adulthood has to be so hard.

      It’s just really difficult sometimes without any soothing explanations as to why.

  6. The only way to learn is to experience it ourselves. We cannot learn from others. I appreciate your “learn from me” stance Matt, but no one can learn from what you went through. Yah, sure, you can guide people. You can offer advice. But you know what the proverbial *they* say, You can lead a horse to water…

    Sometimes people just stop giving a sh*t. They mentally check out and look outside the marriage for what they believe is missing. They can’t handle it when the going gets tough.

    How different would you be Matt, if your wife hadn’t left you? She left and you were served a huge wake-up call. Based on the short time I have been reading your blog, you’ve been working through what happened trying to learn from it… or are you? The purpose of your writing is so that you can learn from what happened, not us. It is not important if we learn from your mistakes.

    So are you a changed man now? If your wife asked you to take her back, would you be a different man to her? Or, if you meet someone new and remarry, will you be the husband you should have been in your first marriage?

    Just wondering…

    1. “How different would you be Matt, if your wife hadn’t left you?”

      Good question. I don’t know. I think I’d be better.

      “It is not important if we learn from your mistakes.”

      You’re not me. And you can’t be. I think our gender and role-reversal differences also make us dissimilar. It might be impossible for you to learn from my mistakes. But a guy? Some dude just doing the same things I did? Do you have ANY idea how common this story is? I think it’s more prevalent in my generation than any other. Guys are OBLIVIOUS. We have no earthly idea why you think and feel and react the way you do. Our wives and girlfriends SURPRISE us constantly.

      Our mistake is blowing that off. “Aww, she’s just being hormonal” we think.

      If men can find it within themselves to take her seriously. To LISTEN, and decide “Well, shit. This REALLY matters to her so I’m going to make sure it matters to me, too” then I think healing and reconciliation can begin.

      “Are you a changed man now?”

      I think so. But I’ve been wrong before.

      “If your wife asked you to take her back, would you be a different man to her? Or, if you meet someone new and remarry, will you be the husband you should have been in your first marriage.”

      I’m not psychic. But, yes. I believe I will be an infinitely more-evolved and better partner in my next go-round than I was before.

      Only time will tell.

  7. “We never understood that you were feeling that way”

    Probably an Italian thing but we tend to just throw teacups. There is no withdrawing when you marry a raging psycho 😉

    I’m laughing a bit here, but women have a responsibility too, to communicate what we are feeling, to make our needs known, over and over again if necessary. Men cannot read our minds. I don’t want to sound harsh, but if a wife is feeling alone in a marriage, she must find a way to effectively communicate that. Men are often caught of guard, they had no idea.

    1. I’m so glad you recognize that truth. Some men are total pricks and deserve to be left.

      Some men? They ACCIDENTALLY push their spouses away through negligence, sure, but they WOULD change their behavior if they just knew how and that the stakes were so high.

      I don’t think it makes sense to break up a family in those situations.

      Men are often caught off guard, indeed.

      Men talk to women like they talk to men. And women don’t get it.

      Women talk to men like they talk to women. And men don’t get it.

      As soon as people figure this out, life is going to get better. Learn the OTHER language. Critical.

  8. So, here’s the responsibility question again, connected, as usual, to the question about gender roles. About six months before he told me he wanted a divorce (and about 7 months before I found out about his affair), my then-husband told me he felt alone in our marriage because I did homework (I’m a teacher) every night after dinner, whereas before our daughter came along, we used to watch TV together. He said he wanted to watch more TV together b/c that had brought us together, and without that he felt alone in his life, since he didn’t really have any other friends in our town. While I took seriously his claims about feeling alone, I admit that a fair bit of my response was basically WTF??

    He was frustrated at his job and seemed haunted by a pervasive sense of aloneness. I encouraged him to make space in his life for cultivating friends– I’d take on more childcare, etc., to free him up to go out to play music etc. I had a lot of empathy for that. And I like to think I’d have had a lot of empathy for his feeling alone in our marriage if he’d been able to “effectively communicate,” as insanitybytes2 calls it above. He used watching TV as a proxy for a bunch of other things he didn’t know how to say. When he finally told me he wanted a divorce (w/out mentioning his affair, natch!) he said it was because “you put a lot of celery in the soup tonight, and you know I don’t like celery.”

    Having been raised as a man in our culture (be strong, don’t let people push you around, don’t show vulnerability, etc.) meant that when the going got tough, my ex had little to no ability to communicate on the most important issues at the heart of our marriage. Was it my responsibility as a woman– raised to think constantly about other people’s feelings, to learn to interpret their body language and subtle cues, to anticipate their emotional needs– to understand that “I want to watch TV with you more” meant a whole host of other things? I guess so: hard on the heels of the celery soup disclosure, my ex stated that he wanted a divorce b/c “I told you I was unhappy in our marriage and you didn’t do anything about it.”

    This post is about Matt failing to see that painting the basement floor was sufficiently important to his wife that he should get off his lazy ass and help her with it. He frames it as a personal issue– the result of his only child mentality. But there’s also a social, structuring set of forces at work here, namely the training we receive in how to do our male and female identities. Matt’s ability to blow off painting the basement in order to “do what I felt like doing” is a very male privilege. Constant tiny micro lessons about how to be a successful “man,” delivered over the course of a lifetime, trained him that way, just like they trained my ex be so out of touch with his feelings that he could say “I want to watch more TV together” and think that this was a perfectly adequate statement about his sense of aloneness, one that I should understand and respond to.

    It’s easy to shrug this off as “boys will be boys” behavior. Men are stupid, women are crazy; whaddaya gonna do about it?! I applaud Matt’s commitment to change at the personal level, re-imagining himself and teaching his son to be a different kind of man. What do we have to do to create change at the macro level, so that as a society we teach boys to be men, and, beyond that, to be human?

  9. This is one of my favorite comments I’ve gotten here in a very long time. It’s very thoughtful. And you ask an incredibly important question at the end that I thought WAY more about when I was in agony every day 18 months ago, and seldom do now:

    This is BAD. What can we do about it?

    I personally think incorporating interpersonal human relationship training into school curriculum would be a good start.

    We teach home economics. How to cook and clean or whatever. We teach sex education. We teach manners. Which helps.

    But we don’t teach people the really gritty stuff about long-term relationships.

    The only people teaching you how to be married are your parents and your friends’ parents growing up.

    And they shelter us (in most cases) from all the turmoil and chaos that might be happening behind the scenes.

    The result is we are woefully unprepared for marriage.

    It’s a major societal problem that no one is doing anything about.

  10. I am with Nephila here. I don’t buy it.
    One point of observation is that you say that marriage is supposed to be X + Y = Z, that it is a union and not two individual people living together sharing resources. It is interesting because that is what our marriage was like. X + Y = Z. We were bonded together like glue so that we worked and lived in tandem. The three years of self-psychoanalysis since he left suggests to me that I should have made my marriage more of a X + Y = XY. That is what I did wrong. I gave in too much. I lost my individuality and gave myself to him. I lived too much for him and changed myself for him and he eventually became bored with me. The point I am making is this. When a marriage crumbles you can always look back and find something to blame yourself for and things you did or didn’t do. You can always say in retrospect ‘my marriage failed, therefore the way my marriage was …. THAT is the formula for failure’. Yet in point of fact, in other marriages what you had and what you did could have been the very formula for success.
    Another observation I have made is that many people claim loneliness and unhappiness when they leave. My husband did (He told me that AFTER he left me. Before that I was supposed to read his mind.) I seriously think now, that people who come out of a marriage and cite ‘loneliness’ or ‘unhappiness’ as the reason for a marriage collapse, are the reason for the marriage collapse. Happiness needs to come from within, not from the marriage or the marriage partner. Stop blaming yourself Matt. It was not your fault.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth, for the supportive comments and for sharing some personal stuff there.

      You’re so right. Happiness comes from within and people need to accept responsibility for their own emotions and their own happiness. All true.

      But a marriage is unique. A special thing. A marriage by definition, is ONE thing, made up of two intertwined, interconnected parts.

      To be happy in a marriage REQUIRES some give from the other half.

      My marriage ending was not ENTIRELY my fault. But I believe strongly I need to at least be aware of, and own all of the parts that were.

  11. There is a lot of valid points in the post. Even more in ttravis’ comment. (And more again in Matt’s reply.)

    Marriage is taught through examples, such as our parents, relatives and other adults…television and film. Sadly. But unfortunately we are behind the looking glass…

    We do not see the inner workings of these relationships. We are not aware of the dust on the baseboards, because we are drawn to the pretty pictures on the walls. In most cases, happy or sad, we do not really know what is going on. Only what we are privy to. (Shelter, shelter, shelter.)

    But. While we may be “woefully unprepared for marriage” I do not think that it is totally up to society…change can come from the smallest of places…we as individuals must determine the value of our relationships and from that decide whether or not (and how much) we are willing to fight for it.

    Regardless of the examples we have been shown, there comes a point when we have a responsibility to both our partners and ourselves to seek out the answers.

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