Someone asked: “I dont have a failed marriage, but I do have a failed engagement. We were together for 6 years, and I eventually called off the wedding and the relationship because, well, we had so many of the problems you describe here. I just couldn’t picture getting married to someone under those sorts of circumstances.
“Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts to women – sort of what can we do in these circumstances? I think a lot of your advice could really go both ways (because, lets be honest, we can be equally guilty of being terrible partners), but are there specific things women can do? I would love to hear your thoughts on preventing issues (since I’m just starting a new relationship) and then how to fix it (if I fail to follow the first set of instructions)!”
Dear Failed Engagement,
In the interest of being the anal-retentive, hair-splitting quibbler over semantics that I am, I would argue that you did not have a “failed” engagement.
Any fatally flawed relationship that doesn’t end in divorce, but still results in a bunch of introspection and personal growth, strikes me as a highly successful one. By saying so, I risk insulting your happy memories associated with said relationship, and disrespecting the emotional fallout following the end of any relationship, regardless of whether marriage vows were exchanged.
But so long as there’s an institution of marriage, public promises to love one another forever, and a formal acknowledgment of said promises, I’m going to draw a personal line in the sand between what happens before marriage, and what happens after. If marriage isn’t something more, then I fail to recognize its purpose for existing.
Thus, I enthusiastically applaud your recognition of a toxic relationship and calling it off, instead of doing the Sunk Cost Fallacy thing where people are too afraid to abandon something because of how much money, time, or energy they’ve already invested in a losing proposition.
Because I’m me and spend most of my life flying by the seat of my pants, I’m thinking about and writing this on the fly, when a lot of reflection and conversation with other thoughtful, self-aware husbands and boyfriends would be in order. But here’s what my totally-winging-it answers look like.
What Can Women Do to be Part of the Solution?
Let me start by saying I think MOST women are already part of the solution, by virtue of demonstrating a much higher level of competence and awareness about relationship dynamics than their male partners. I’m not saying women, by virtue of being women, are “better at relationships.” I’m saying, I perceive women to be more knowledgeable about, and more skilled in, the mechanics of successful relationships than men.
And I perceive MOST women’s greatest fatal flaw to be impatiently marrying their boyfriends (who couldn’t POSSIBLY have demonstrated high-level relationship knowledge or skill up to this point), and perhaps assuming incorrectly that their boyfriends understand things about them and about how to make them feel loved and safe, or maybe believing she can “change him.”
By “understand things about them,” I mean the whole Dishes By The Sink Thing. I mean empathy. I mean that too often we see a wife in a situation in which she thinks and feels one way about it (sometimes quite painfully), and her husband interprets the situation differently. Neither are wrong. And then both fight about it and usually end up feeling like their partner is “stupid” or “crazy,” instead of really understanding on a fundamental level that two people can experience the same event at the same time, and come away describing it differently without either being incorrect.
I don’t know that I believe there to be a more critical concept for young people to understand about their romantic partners. This is NOT taught to any extensive degree growing up.
At least, it wasn’t in my world where I had educated and conscientious parents, an upper-tier high school education, and then spent five years (don’t judge!) getting my overpriced and not particularly useful bachelor’s degree. And at no time between ages 5 and 23 did someone try to explain this worth-more-than-gold life secret to me.
Well, maybe my girlfriend did while crying after a fight, but I probably just told her she was a stupid emo girl before meeting my buddies at another keg party.
In my opinion, women could contribute more positively to their relationships by doing the following:
Enforce Boundaries Early and Often
Here’s what I see ALL THE TIME, including in my own failed marriage. Guy accidentally and obliviously sucks ass at his relationship or marriage. Whenever his girlfriend or wife calls him out, he gets defensive and tells her she’s wrong and stupid, and his evidence is that no one else in his life accuses him of making them feel as she claims he makes her feel. He resents it more than you might imagine because, in his mind and heart, he thinks by virtue of committing to her, and loving her (which he probably believes he’s appropriately demonstrating by not cheating, and supporting her financially or otherwise, and spending more time with her than anyone else in his life) that he deserves more credit and respect than her accusations of emotional neglect make him feel.
This goes on long enough, and both of them start to feel disgust, then a little bit of apathy toward one another.
I have to believe 90-ish percent of affairs begin here. Husband feels disrespected and unappreciated and unwanted, so he bangs a co-worker or the waitress at his favorite lunch spot because she looks up to him and makes him feel like a Man. She wants him and admires him. “Since my wife doesn’t want me and doesn’t fulfill my needs, I’m going to go stick my privates in this other person. I mean, is it really THAT different than when I jerk off thinking about her in the shower?”
Or, wife feels like her husband is doing this on purpose. She’s told him, literally, hundreds of times the exact same thing, but he just keeps doing it. “He doesn’t love me. He doesn’t want me. He doesn’t make me feel safe or desirable in any way. But Brad at the gym? He makes me feel 20 again. He’s always so eager to listen to me talk about my feelings or ask me how my day was. I love his arms and scent. I bet they’d feel good wrapped around me. Since my loser husband doesn’t want me and doesn’t fulfill my needs, I’m going to let Brad do anything and everything he wants to me because he makes me feel so good. I mean, is it really THAT different than when I touch myself thinking about him in the bathtub?”
Even without an affair, shit has totally hit the fan in a relationship and the wife (in two out of three cases, statistically) has had enough and wants a divorce.
She says it out loud, and the husband acts like someone just told him he’s living in The Matrix and nothing he knows is actually real. As soon as the husband realizes she means business, and the previous thousand instances of brushing off her complaints as inconsequential were actually things she was serious about, he tries to transform overnight into Super Husband Mode®.
He’ll start doing a bunch of things she had wanted him to do all along. See! See! I can change!
Maybe he really has. Maybe he really hasn’t.
Most of the time, she thinks it’s too little, too late. When a wife is prepared to end her marriage, she has usually thought about it for a LONG time. It only feels rash to the idiot, oblivious husband who failed to trust her sincerity in all of these previous conflicts.
She often sees his behavioral changes as insincere. The marriage is over.
But if young women would enforce these boundaries EARLY in relationships, young men would have their Come-to-Jesus moments with their girlfriends so much earlier. Are they less inclined to put in the work to change than a husband with shared children and property? Probably. But those who would make sincere changes would make for great husbands and fathers, and those unwilling to probably weren’t worth keeping around and having children with anyway. And if that rejection happens to them enough times, maybe they’ll figure some shit out and more quickly mature into a man capable of being a great husband and father than most of us do.
This has the added benefit of improving the collective self-esteem of women, and reducing instances of children being born to crappy fathers.
Become Near-Experts on Relationships
Men generally respect and respond well to logic-based arguments rooted in demonstrative knowledge and expertise.
Don’t read ONE relationship book, and then the second you find some passage that validates your feelings, sprint to your husband or boyfriend yelling: “SEE!? SEE!? You’re a stupid asshole just like I always say! I’m right and you’re wrong because this one sentence from this one writer says so!!!”
That’s a poor communication strategy.
Instead. REALLY become highly knowledgeable about relationship dynamics. Learn how to make your boyfriend’s or husband’s argument FOR him. Articulate it with precision, proving that you understand and respect it fully, and even realize why he feels that way.
And then explain to him the truth. With love and respect, where he’s not made to feel like a big, fat, stupid asshole for not knowing these things (which MOST of humanity doesn’t know).
That would help.
Take Ownership of Your Emotions
This happens as a natural byproduct of enforcing strong boundaries, but I believe many (I won’t venture a percentage guess) women spend much of their lives showcasing a power-draining You Made Me Feel This! philosophy, and blaming everyone around them when they experience negative emotions.
Certainly, it’s reasonable for us to expect our close friends and family, and romantic partners to demonstrate concern for our emotional wellbeing, and make an effort to respect our feelings.
But to lay the responsibility of our emotions at the feet of another human being? THAT is the epitome of not enforcing our boundaries. That’s giving someone else total control of our lives, and not accepting the all-important job of being in control of ourselves. Remember being little kids? “You’re not my boss!!!”
When we hand over our emotional health to others, we make them our boss. It’s a bad life strategy, and it’s one of the few areas of relationship dynamics where I perceive men to generally outperform their female partners.
Focus On Good and Demonstrate Gratitude
It can’t be said enough times: One curse of the human condition is that you WILL bore of everything sooner or later. It’s called Hedonic Adaptation, and every one of us deals with it. We take our health, and money, and safety, and homes, and cars, and jobs, and whatever else for granted once we are accustomed to having them as a matter of routine.
It happens in love, too. We feel all those lovey-dovey infatuation feelings early on and it’s great. We feel all those lusty, achy feelings early on and that’s pretty great, too.
But then time marches on.
And that stuff goes away. And it’s not because you’re not soul mates, just like having your house and money and health isn’t less awesome than it was when you first acquired them.
It’s because it is a psychological inevitability that you will take things (even really important things) in your life for granted.
There’s nothing you can do about it. It won’t go away.
The only thing you can realistically do is vigilantly combat it. And the only way to do that is to wake up every day (and maybe before you go to sleep at night, too) and express and feel gratitude for all of the great things in your life.
Everyone should do this every day, always, always, always. It’s a prerequisite to happiness. And happiness is pretty freaking important when it comes to whether being alive is a good experience, or a bad one.
Wives and girlfriends are often viewed as “complaining nags” by their husbands and boyfriends. Daily demonstrations of gratitude (combined with strong boundary enforcement) would seem to be a surefire way to make sure a relationship never falls into the too-common cycle of shit so many do today.
Speaking of gratitude, I had no idea what I was going to write today.
And you, Failed Engagement (but not really), helped me think of something.