Diagnosing Relationship Failure is Not for the Self-Assured

Comments 19

check engine light
The white hair and calloused hands with a couple of missing fingertips darkened by sun, dirt and every type of automotive oil imaginable gives him away.

The mechanic.

A seasoned one, having spent fifty-some years wrenching under lifted cars, and lifted car hoods.

He owns a little shop downtown, and anyone with a classic antique or high-powered muscle car knows he’s the guy to see for repairs or new speed parts.

He’s brilliant. And every 70-hour week through the decades has taught him something new.

That’s why my father, a car enthusiast who started racing later in life than most drivers in motorsports, trusts him to build and tune his racing engines.

After winning a big race a couple of years ago, part of the prize was a brand new engine block.

In artistry terms, that’s a bit like giving Michaelangelo a 20,000-pound block of solid marble sourced from a Tuscan quarry and asking him to get to work.

A bare engine block is to the skilled auto technician what a blank canvas is to the talented oil painter.

Leaning on five decades of mastery, a not-particularly-restrictive budget, and the best performance engine parts available, this experienced and capable mechanic built a new one from scratch.

The goal: A 1,000-horsepower, fuel-injected engine designed to eclipse 150 miles per hour in a quarter of a mile, and cross the finish line consistently in less than nine seconds.

The engine builder and my dad succeeded.

The longtime mechanic built an engine using best practices he’d learned over many years.

And dad, the skilled driver, piloted the car using best practices he’s picked up through the years.

The guys did everything they knew how to do. They did everything “right.”

By all appearances, the car was bulletproof while performing better than it ever had before.

The car clocked its’ highest-ever speed and lowest-ever time on the run where it experienced catastrophic engine failure, requiring the master mechanic to pull apart every engine component, and start another long, tedious, expensive rebuild.

That’s what has to happen now.


Because, despite all of the knowledge and wisdom and expertise and experience and best practices and best efforts and highest-quality parts and tools to work with, something was missed or overlooked.

No one knows what.

But it wasn’t black magic that blew up the engine.

It was a miscalculation or a festering problem too small to notice, until everything fell apart, even when everything seemed to be functioning perfectly to the only people who could have done something about it.

You’re Misjudging a Situation and Doing Something Wrong

But, what?

I have a life-long history of being good with people.

I am pretty nice. I am pretty friendly. I have good intentions.

I loved my wife.

I loved my son.

I valued our family and our home and our future more than I valued all other things.

I think most who know me would tell you that they perceived me to be a good husband and father.

When I wrote the first Open Letter to Shitty Husbands post, I wrote about declining a spring-day hike with my wife and young son in favor of staying inside and watching The Masters golf tournament.

Most people seem to get it. Most people seem to understand that it was just one moment that was representative of a macro-level pattern of behavior and decision making which I’ve lovingly dubbed Shitty Husbandry (which you can read about here).

But others don’t get it, or simply disagree with the premise.

It seems like once a week, I see the same note: “But Matt! That’s NOT being a shitty husband! All you wanted to do was watch a golf tournament! She was wrong and selfish and bitchy to make a big deal out of it!”

Being nice isn’t enough.

Being friendly isn’t enough.

Having good intentions isn’t enough.

Being a reliable financial partner isn’t enough.

Avoiding criminal activity or substance abuse isn’t enough.

Not cheating isn’t enough.

Being home every night isn’t enough.

Not being verbally, sexually, or physically abusive isn’t enough.

Avoiding pornography and/or ogling attractive people in public isn’t enough.

Not sucking as much as that other husband or wife you know isn’t enough.

Being a good parent isn’t enough.

The hopes and dreams you think you share aren’t enough.

A fatal flaw or shortcoming or too-small-to-notice crack or untightened bolt flies easily undetected when things appear to be functioning—maybe even well.

But the truth is the truth, no matter what you want to believe.

Believing you are a good spouse DOES NOT make you a good spouse (just as someone else telling you what you are doesn’t necessarily make it so).

All I know is that the race car broke. Somewhat dramatically. While appearing to do well the very thing for which it was designed and built to do.

And that’s what our relationships do.

They break with one or both of us asleep at the wheel. Because we didn’t pay attention to a tiny detail, or because we have a higher tolerance than our partners for some discomfort or inconvenience, or because we didn’t know how to interpret the warning signs.

It doesn’t matter how skilled or smart or wise or experienced or certain you think you are.

It doesn’t matter whether something functions, or meets our expectations, or performs adequately to our individual set of standards.

Under intense pressure, something we didn’t notice, nor ever knew to be aware of can cause catastrophic failure.

It’s hard to care when you don’t even know to be afraid of it.

It’s hard to be vigilant when things feel comfortable and convenient.

And it’s hard to have your life blow up in your face when you never saw it coming.

Should we have seen it coming?

Are we responsible for breaking something when we think we’ve done everything correctly, even if we haven’t?

Are we willing to pull it all apart and put it back together again with even more thought and care and effort than before?



Like this post? Hate it? You can subscribe to this blog by scrolling annoyingly far to the bottom of this page and inserting your email address under “Follow Blog via Email.” You can also follow MBTTTR on Twitter and Facebook.

19 thoughts on “Diagnosing Relationship Failure is Not for the Self-Assured”

  1. So in your opinion, what is the secret sauce to being a good spouse?

    I’m enjoying your writing and blog immensely, but not sure I’m grasping what the take-away is here.

    – A new fan!

  2. sometimes i see your word count at the bottom and choose to keep scrolling. but every time i take the couple of minutes required to read through one of your posts…i’m grateful. thanks for always writing so honestly.

  3. Dear God Matt – get out of my head will you? I’ve been going round and round the hamster wheel in there on just this:

    “Should I have seen this coming? Am I responsible for breaking something when I think I’ve done everything correctly? Were there other choices I missed that didn’t just lead here even faster? Am I willing to pull it all apart and put it back together again with even more thought and care and effort than before? Does it even matter if I am – Is he?”

    I’m so tired of the wheel and so tired of crying – I just want it all to stop for awhile.

  4. To make it even more fun, that small and hidden fault that can destroy your marriage:
    1. May not be a fault at all in a relationship with another person.
    2. It’s not always the SAME item that’s a fault – they shift and change over time and circumstance.

  5. To be fair, I don’t think that diagnosing relationship failure is for the self-consciousness either. To blame yourself, or your spouse is not the point I take away from your piece, but rather it is terribly difficult for those in the mix to see that minuscule flaw that blows up the engine. You are simply too close to the inner workings to understand the consequence of those actions in the moment. Now, with hindsight, it is much easier to see things that could have been improved on both sides. Maybe your dad and his mechanic needed a little distance between them and that engine?

    1. I’ve been thinking about your question for a while now, and I think I have my answer.

      “Enough” is what a husband or wife agrees is enough. Nothing more, nothing less.

      I’ve had three jobs, post graduating college.

      In my first office, I could come and go as I please, and didn’t have to tell anyone why or where I was going or anything. That was enough.

      In my second and third offices, I’m generally expected to be in the building between certain hours every day.

      In my first office, I could wear whatever I wanted. I wore shorts and jeans all the time (it was in Florida), except when I had a high-level meeting to attend.

      In my second office, we had casual days every Friday.

      In my third office, we only have casual days once per month, with some randoms thrown in.

      You will have your own personal opinion about those schedule and dress-code policies, and you are entitled to it.

      If you started a company today, you could establish the rule that made sense to you.

      If I wore shorts and jeans every day, and came to and left my office without telling anyone in my current job, it wouldn’t take me very long to get fired. A couple of weeks, tops.

      And that was TOTALLY okay, and part of the cultural norm in my job 15 years ago.

      There is no universal “Enough.”

      Just because your partner thinks it’s fine to snort coke and shoot whiskey in front of your school-aged kids, DOES NOT mean you have to think it’s okay.

      And just because your partner insists on home-schooling your future kids because he or she doesn’t want them exposed to kids saying bad words and talking about sex in junior high or middle school, DOES NOT mean you have to agree that that’s the best way to raise your kids.

      LONG, LONG, LONG before we marry, we outline our values. We communicate them VERY clearly through our words and actions.

      Every day of our lives, we have boundaries. Boundaries on what we will tolerate in terms of how we are treated, or in terms of what we are willing to be associated with, or in terms of what we are willing to subject children to.

      Marrying or even seriously dating someone with conflicting values is a recipe for disaster. Always.

      Marrying or even seriously dating someone who repeatedly violates your well-communicated boundaries is next-level foolish. Always.

      We communicate our values.

      We ENFORCE our boundaries. We walk the F away once they are violated and the violator KNEW it was a major breach of trust.

      I don’t care if that’s cheating, or speaking profanely, or leaving a dirty glass next to the sink.

      A boundary can be anything we determine it to be. It doesn’t matter whether it seems reasonable to the other person, but we damn sure better communicate those boundaries BEFORE exchanging “I promise to love you forever!” vows with them.

      Have a boundary. Enforce it dutifully.

      That process organically filters out the crap.

      What’s enough?

      You decide.

      And in a marriage *WE* decide. Two people. Together.

      With all due respect to the vast majority of humanity, discovering major value differences, and a blatant lack of respect for your personal boundaries AFTER marriage is a clear sign (*southern-twang voice*) you done effed up.

      What is enough?

      An honest and transparent person who won’t tolerate blatant disrespect pairing up with someone just like that who is willing to honor the agreed-upon boundaries simply because they love one another, preferrably more than they love themselves.

      1. My husband once casually observed, “People show you who they are; you should believe them.” It’s always stuck with me. And it’s so true.

  6. I like this, Matt. I really wish we could take relationships out of the realm of fault and blame. Actually, I wish we’d do that with everything. Stuff happens, it isn’t always our fault. Sometimes there are things we could do better and sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes it wasn’t us at all. Learning to figure out the difference is what it’s all about.

    One of the most harmful things to a marriage is actually having a child, either a disabled child, or losing one to illness or accident. The divorce rates are through the roof. Part of that has to do with the fact that no matter how powerless we are, how blameless,we will still blame ourselves and/or our spouse. There is often grief there that just has nowhere else to go.

    There is a whole lot that we can do to make it all work out, but then there is also just life that often deals us some tough cards.

  7. Finally, an analogy a girl can get! Both my husband and son race. There is a lot in racing that is pertinent to marriage, if one would apply it. Like “the accident in turn 10 started in turn 1”. Yep, the old glass left in the sink, the little stuff that snowballs with by not paying attention to execution, proper handling, the rules of the road, end up in a crash. Then there is the “red mist” which describes the character of the fellow racer that no one wants on the track because they are so determined to “win” that they lose their head to arrogance, anger, the win at all costs. Then there is the accidents – who is to blame when one car hits another? Both. The one who hit, and the one who failed to get out of the way.

    I took a car control clinic when my son worked at a racing school. We ended the two day course with a relay race in Vipers, one team against the other. My team was me, the middle aged woman, a girl of 16 who crashed within 3 weeks of getting her license, a 73 year old widow and a middle aged man from Greece who just wanted to survive getting down the mountain switchbacks. The other team were all the young guys who showed up in sports cars along with a less than middle aged guy who excelled at driving. They all high fived right in front of us, saying they may as well celebrate victory now.

    I, however, know about racing. They went first. After one lap, they stopped hitting their apexes. The fastest way around a turn, because a car shares its steering and braking capacity, is to hit the apex – run straight, while braking to slow, to the outside center of the turn, then get off the brakes and make the turn, steering like a madman, then hit the gas as you exit. To this this runs contrary to habit. Listen up right now, husbands.

    I turned to my motley crew and reminded them to hit those damn apexes.

    When it was over, the instructors, all racers, took us to the clubhouse to announce the results. The fastest lap went to the guy who excelled in his skills. The race went to what they now reveal they call “the Nerd Team”. The Nerd Team, they said, won, as the Nerd Team always does, because the Nerd Team pays attention to technique and does not succumb to the red mist. They deliberately pit the hotshots against the Nerd Team every time, and the result is always the same.

    Racing. Maybe that is an analogy a guy could understand. It sure would help in the marriage department.

  8. Fromscratchmom

    Matt, I also read some from other blogs of folks who comment here and thanks to Anitvan I found some interesting YouTube resources.
    Because of previous discussions that have been had here I thought you and Travis and a few others might be interested in this idea that I’ve been looking into a bit of the covert narcissist and the effect that such a person has.
    And the point of it doesn’t just appear to be for diagnosable cases. I’d say that my soon-to-be-ex isn’t really a fit for all the 9 traits of malignant narcissism. He fits three of the traits super strongly, like over the edge wildly how do you survive fits them, one of them fairly strong, then a few others in descending levels of significance, and two not at all. But when you look at discussion of covert narcissism then it really starts turning the wheels in my head of how much I can relate to of what’s being said. Everyone has faults and everyone needs to own it and improve. True of him. True of me. In my healing journey I need to look at those similarities and allow myself to see who he really is and what he’s really done.


  9. Hmm. Seems to me that it’s less specifically RACING, and more general optimum performance. Because you need a car that can go the distance, in ALL weather conditions, on the freeway AND in stop-and-go traffic. No matter the route, there are potholes and you need to be able to navigate them in any road condition….and you gotta keep your engine in shape just in case you encounter an unexpected road trip on an unpaved path.

  10. Thank you for another interesting post. These questions remind me of the novels by Anthony Trollope. He often captured the ambiguity inherent in the “mating game”. For instance, a perfectly wonderful man may fall in love with a lovely young woman but because of their different contexts and history they may still have problems. Because he is writing fiction, these are usually resolved in a positive manner.

    But in real life? You’ve said it yourself many times: hedonistic adaptation sets in. We want someine who is familiar and comfortable AND someone who challenges and excites us. If we were to suddenly face a horrible situation that imperiled our life, we might see our partner in a new light because our context has changed. We could fall madly in love or run for the hills.

    Sorry about the excessive literary references but there is a great quote in one of Julian Barnes’ novels. (I wish I could remember which.) At the point when the “hero” (or antihero) has won the love of his former best friend’s wife and he is starting to exult in his success, he says “At last the dangerous time is over.” And someone (his mother?) says “It is always a dangerous time.”

    I guess I’m talking myself back to your point. Marriages require more than a passive kind of “maintenance”. You need luck and tenacity to find someone who can make you laugh, and whom you can make laugh, on a daily basis. If you’re laughing more than you’re fighting it will probably work out. At least that is my hypothesis.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. Pingback: How to Have a Good-Enough Relationship | Must Be This Tall To Ride

  12. Pingback: It’s Hard To Be | martha0stout

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
Matt Fray

Get my latest writing!

Sign up for my free weekly email newsletter as I continue an on-going exploration of love and relationships.