There’s direct evidence that I was a crap husband and that my ex-wife made the right choice in ending our marriage.
I left her alone and crying in the hospital the night our son was born. Fact.
When given the choice, I often chose myself and my preferences over her and her preferences. Fact.
During disagreements between us in which I felt confident in my beliefs, I treated her as if she was wrong, and as if her ideas or beliefs were stupid. Fact.
Because my ex-wife is female—and in my life experience, I’d seen mostly women handling the lion’s share of household tasks and childcare like laundry, dusting, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, decorating, and basically everything related to caring for babies and small children—my general behavior and state-of-being in our marriage was one of passively leaving most life and household management tasks and decisions to her. Men go to work, mow the lawn, take out the trash, and do the “big” jobs! Women do the rest, and it’s totally fair. Even if that’s not, and never has been, my actual belief, my actions—the direct evidence—reflected that. Fact.
My ex-wife is an attractive woman. Always has been. I’m a red-blooded male with the same primitive sex drive and cliché wants and interests as any male caricature depicted in cinema, music or advertising—or the same as most of the guys reading this, or the ones you know. Despite that, there were various phases throughout our marriage where my behavior communicated sexual disinterest in my wife. Fact.
Every Yin Tends to Have a Yang
Of course, there’s also direct evidence that I was—if not a superstar husband—a pretty good or decent one.
[NOTE: Let’s pause for a minute to acknowledge that we’re wading precariously into a neck-deep pool of relativism, and that the “direct evidence” referenced here—defined as “evidence that directly proves a fact”—probably is not ACTUALLY direct evidence in a legal sense. I’ll appreciate whatever latitude you give me here.]
I loved my wife. Fact.
I (given my then-limited understanding of what healthy relationships are made of) tried to put my wife first. In most situations in which I didn’t perceive Right vs. Wrong to be a factor, I went along with whatever she wanted. If I wanted to buy something expensive and she didn’t, we didn’t buy it. If she wanted to spend more money on something than I would prefer, I tried to be cool about it. I wanted her to drive the nicer of our two vehicles. I was happy to hand over to her all of the money I earned at work. We fortunately were never faced with such a terrifying scenario, but I believe with all of my heart I would have taken a bullet for her or otherwise chose certain death if it came down to my life or hers. Fact.
I was pretty nice (though I now understand it wasn’t, and could never be, enough). Friendly. Fun. Polite. Courteous. You know, in all of the surface-level ways we can be those things with people (even though there’s a Continental Divide-sized difference between “common courtesy” and the type of thoughtful, mindful courtesy one must have to foster love and healthy relationships.) I am what I believe most people would generally describe as a “good person.” Fact.
I am not a criminal or con artist. I did not try to manipulate my wife or otherwise knowingly behave in ways that would bring her harm so that I might benefit. When I asked her to marry me, and when I said “I do” 13 months later, I was quite sincere in both desire and intent. Fact.
I wanted our marriage to last the rest of our lives. I wanted to have at least one more child. And I wanted her to feel loved and wanted and secure, and for us to grow old together watching our grandchildren play in the backyard. Fact.
The Evidence of Feelings
None of us are perfect. Not as people. Not as couples. No marriage is perfect. I grew up learning that marriage was a commitment for life—a sacred one. Something spiritual. Something much bigger than our individual wants.
There will always be good and bad. And some might say my marriage was par for the course, and that there was sufficient direct evidence that I was a good guy and husband, and that my wife was selfish and/or “wrong” for choosing to end our relationship.
Every day—including right at this moment—wives and husbands are evaluating their marriages and lives, taking in all of the information available to them which is guiding their thoughts and feelings regarding the health of their relationship.
When people are deciding whether to stay married or get divorced—both of which are scary and stressful to think about in a suffering marriage—all they have to go on are their feelings and beliefs.
Evidence. Facts. We like to think they add up to what we KNOW. But what we “know,” is nothing more than our collection of beliefs, which may or may not be accurate (because we’re wrong a lot).
But the most powerful and important thing is our FEELINGS—which is probably a hard thing for all of the Spock-like emotionless Vulcan logic cyborgs out there to accept.
I’ve always been someone who felt. But it never made sense to me to let our emotions be our Life Compass. If we always acted on our emotional impulses, we’d all be road-rage monsters, child abusers, divorced or never-married, unemployed, and all kinds of other less-than-ideal things.
Facts aren’t feelings!
Facts AREN’T feelings. But the hard truth is, in real life, it’s how we feel in any given moment that tends to dictate what we do, what we think, how we speak, treat others, and ultimately guides most of our decisions. Ask anyone in the funeral industry how much money they’d lose if their customers weren’t highly emotional while grieving the loss of their closest loved ones when facing expensive death-related financial decisions.
For the same reason we will fork over tens of thousands to honor our deceased loved ones even though most of them would rather us spend the money on something more objectively practical, we will uproot our entire lives by ending our relationships because of our beliefs about our spouses and how those beliefs make us feel.
Circumstantial Evidence Doesn’t Lie
One of my childhood best friends—an attorney—said that to me yesterday.
He didn’t mean that circumstantial evidence can’t be misinterpreted or misused to paint a false picture in a court of law. He meant that direct evidence can sometimes lie in ways circumstantial evidence cannot.
But let’s not confuse courtroom procedure with what most of us experience in our daily lives.
Neither O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony were found guilty in court of the crimes they were charged with. But the circumstantial evidence in both cases is so strong that I’m pretty confident speculating that almost everyone you know assumes the guilt of both accused murderers.
Circumstantial evidence is evidence that indirectly proves a fact. It requires someone to make inferences based on incomplete information. The guilt or innocence of people are decided both in and out of court all the time based on circumstantial evidence.
It is circumstantial evidence that ultimately convicts us in our relationships and foretells their imminent demise.
When a wife discovers her husband looking at porn, she might feel like her husband thinks she’s ugly or as if he wants whatever’s on that screen more than he wants her, even if it isn’t true.
When a wife wants to have sex with her husband, but he declines, she might feel rejected as if he’s no longer interested in touching her when the real truth is he got himself off in the bathroom 20 minutes earlier fantasizing about her, and now physically can’t, even though he wants to.
When a wife finds a dirty dish sitting next to the kitchen sink, she might feel as if her husband doesn’t respect her since it appears he—at best, thoughtlessly; and at worst, intentionally—left another chore for her to do.
When a wife wakes up on her birthday, or a holiday, or her wedding anniversary to discover her husband did nothing—no plans or gifts to acknowledge it in any way—she might feel abandoned and unloved since it might appear that he doesn’t value her or their marriage enough to have put any thought into celebrating the occasion which might feel particularly meaningful to her.
I BELIEVED I was a good husband. I can point to all kinds of direct evidence to demonstrate that.
But it was the circumstances that found me guilty in her mind of being a shitty husband.
And that’s exactly what I was—a shitty husband.
I wasn’t a bad guy. I was just bad at marriage, and didn’t have enough respect for her, myself or our marriage to identify the problem and work hard to turn things around until too much damage had already been done.
The jury of one found me guilty, and sentenced me for life.
Not because of a bunch of things we can touch, taste, or see. But because of circumstantial evidence.
Because of the stuff we can feel.
And for everyone who values lasting marriage, we should work harder to recognize just how much that matters.
68 thoughts on “Divorce or Stay? Using Direct vs. Circumstantial Evidence to Decide”
This is a beautiful insight. Sometimes, no matter what we do or how much we love, divorce happens. It is one of the most difficult decisions to make, especially with children involved. It is the most painful experience there is. But, it is much better to take the decision in order to save the life, to keep respect… Often, marriage changes people to the worst versions of selves. Even when we know we are wrong, our egos don’t allow us to admit.
You write such honest and meaningful words. Your wisdom amazes me, Matt.
I was reading this article when my wife asked me to get some batteries down from the top shelf of the cupboard. In another marriage I would have told her to wait or ignored the request. Divorce is tragic enough. Not changing after divorce is criminal. The batteries were retrieved pronto.
Amen, Matt. This is well said, “Circumstantial Evidence Doesn’t Lie.” Yep.
So what happens to women a whole lot is that we get accused of lying. Perceiving reality wrong. Being crazy. Delusional. Having “feelings” which than means our testimony and witness is totally subjective and therefore invalid.
That’s not just in marriage, that’s also often out in the world as a whole.
Very insightful, though somewhat sad. You seem like a keeper if you had these revelations sooner.
I notice in your writings, you put the blame on the failure of the marriage directly on yourself. Has it ever occurred to you that you might have been played? What do I mean? Take a look at the height obsession the majority of women have. This can be easily seen in the ads of women in any of the online dating sites. The majority of women want a 6’ plus prince charming, even though less than 15% of men in the USA are 6’ or taller. Your wife may have wanted the same. She wanted taller and could not get it, so she chose you as a consolation prize. She could never be satisfied with you, for in her heart, she wanted something you could never give her. And you keep beating yourself up over the divorce, when the root cause of the failure was with her. You list your flaws that resulted in the breakup never thinking that she in her actions may have caused you to pull away. 7 out of 10 divorces are initiated by women, but women are the ones who accept or reject the advances of men. To me, there has to be a fundamental flaws in the dating parameters women use in selecting men to marry. If I make a bad choice, it is on me. It was my call. I have to live with the consequences. It’s not someone else’s fault.
I offer a suggestion for a future topic to write about, that being, women who chose a man based upon his height rather than his character. It would be interesting to see, if women were really honest on this, how many marriages failed because they rated a man by his inseam rather than his character for a marriage partner. And I know you have been evaluated by your height and rejected by women, not because of any character flaw, but because your inseam was not up to her standard.
I say this not to hurt you, but to offer a point of view to think about, that being the dating parameters women use in selecting a man, and don’t even get me started on the “Bad Boy” fascination women have. That is another topic on itself.
You think the woman I’ve known since I was 18, dated for three years, was married to for nine, and have a child with, might be so enamored with height AND unable to land a tall guy requiring her to settle for some 5’9″ dipshit, and that if that scenario were somehow true, that I wouldn’t know about it?
If you think so little of my intellect and powers of observation, I offer a suggestion: Read someone whose take on the world is one worth reading.
No. There’s no way what you’re suggesting is logical or based in reality.
And I’ve never been rejected for my height. Four years ago, when I tried online dating, I was annoyed at how faceless strangers who never met me seemed to value height more than all the things I perceive to matter. That struck me as foolish.
I agree with you that women can sometimes observably demonstrate poor partner selection, but I don’t think it’s rooted in superficiality most of the time. I think what too often happens is behaviors that are untenable in marriage are tolerated during dating and engagement because of a false belief that their partner will change AND because of a fear of being alone or having to start over again in the dating world. So they turn a blind eye. Tolerate things they shouldn’t.
Once children are born and life gets hard and/or horrible, what was tolerable as young, unmarried, childless people becomes intolerable.
Then people file for divorce.
It’s a sad story. And it’s my story. My height was not a relevant component to how things turned out, and near as I can tell, is not affecting my personal life today.
Matt, I agree with your observations. I shared your belated enlightenment. I was so wrapped up in building psychological defences and trying to PROVE through argumentation that I was not a bad husband that I failed to correct any of the small but collectively catastrophic failures that made my wife terminate the marriage. She told me at the end of it all that I needed to listen, really listen, in my next relationship. She was the love of my life, my high school sweetheart, wife of 15 years and partner for 20, who is now engaged to be married to another man.
In relationships, when things go off the rails, they really go off the rails. My wife was not innocent either. There are better and worse ways to communicate with people, there are better and worse ways to solve conflicts and to make sure your needs are understood and valued. Having an affair is a terrible way of ending a marriage (my unfortunate situation).
I spent so much time trying to justify the horrible things she had done, or her failures in the marriage, that I spent very little time owning and accepting my own failures. When I finally was willing to look at and own my own failures, the emotional impact was devastating. How do you process the guilt, regret and pain that comes with knowing you are responsible (even if only in part) for the failure of the most important relationship in your life? I have still not, after 4 years, fully come to peace with that reality and the accompanying emotions.
I would like to understand how you have managed to do so. How do you live with yourself, without self-hatred, regret, guilt and depression, when you write these long catalogues of failures and shortcomings for yourself? I ask not because I am criticizing you, but because I am looking to find peace myself and a way to end the cycle of guilt, regret and depression.
My therapist has asked how my wife would fare if I were to apply the standard I judge myself by to her own conduct. How would your wife come out? You have listed and shared all of your own failings. Did she have some as well? If she had behaved differently with you, could some of these issues been solved, or would they have been ameliorated?
It’s a hard question to answer. Like you, there are some things that are simply not excusable (like texting your friends while your wife was giving birth). I have my equivalent failings (zoning out on television or playing video games during my week of paternity leave, doing nothing to help my wife who was overwhelmed with a newborn). We have our excuses (I worked 100 hours the prior week simply to have the luxury of taking a week off of work, and I was exhausted / stressed myself). But for every outright dipshit failing we have, aren’t there instances of falling short that with another woman, might not have been catastrophic? Isn’t this really, rather than a catalogue of your failings, a catalogue of the ways in which you were incompatible with a particular woman, rather than defective as a man? Couldn’t your wife have helped resolve these shortcomings, as other women do, in a way short of abandoning you? And whatever your failings, isn’t the act of abandonment infinitely worse than being clueless and insensitive?
I’m asking, because I’m struggling to answer these questions for myself.
Short reply to a long post, but I hope not inapposite…here goes.
If I could nominate one thing that has really become the hallmark of good (and bad) communications (in general, but most critically between my wife and me), it is this: do I or she respond with some kind of defense or excuse, or do we really LISTEN and HEAR what the other just said and ACKNOWLEDGE their truth.
There are a lot of different takes on this dynamic. My two favorites right now are those articulated by David Burns and by Hendricks/Hunt. For me, right now, the critical point is are you listening to hear and empathize, or are you “listening” (and I have to put that in quotation marks) to defend and excuse?
I think if you get nothing else right other than this your marriage and other relationships will change significantly for the better.
“do I or she respond with some kind of defense or excuse, or do we really LISTEN and HEAR what the other just said and ACKNOWLEDGE their truth.”
If I am getting critizised, and while acknowledging and empathizing with her, also stating a reason why I was physically unable to perform the task I was assigned (e.g. I got home from work an hour later than our agreed-upon time, *because* of an accident/got stuck in traffic much heavier than usual. Or I didn’t fold the laundry *because* I had to go clean the gutters before the rainstorm to avoid flooding the basement.)
Would you then label my actions as still defending and excusing myself, and how do you think I should have acted differently?
My thoughts on this – communication is the key. In a conversation explanations can be made. In avoidant/hostile relating it is accusation and defence. I know well of which I speak ?
I take that to mean, basically “It’s in the eyes of the beholder”, right?
Which translates to, “If your spouse already made up their mind about the distribution of guilt and responsibility, any effort for an explanation is just an exercise in futility”.
Exactly. And the challenge is mindfully stepping away from our feelings, history, and “righteous stance of the wronged”. I say this humbly being both the wronged and the one doing wrong. I guess the true challenge in marriage is stopping the cycle before the piles of wrongs are so big we can’t get out from under them. It’s not about not making mistakes. It’s about making amends and coming back together when we do. That way the next misstep is easier to come back from.
Thank you for your sober reply.
I’m sorry if I sound bitter about it, and to some extent I probably am bitter about it.
But it seems like whenever I’ve been in a relationship (although the last time was quite a while ago now) I was always expected to do at least two things at the same time, and I was never able to get it right.
Ditto – and the really sad part is I know my husband feels the same way.
Ouch, and I know some of that feeling.
I am reminded of a question that Esther Perel asks the man in a couple in one of her recent podcast therapy sessions:
What’s it like to be someone’s disappointment for 20-something years?
Wow, just wow. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to undo making him feel that way – sincerely and with compassion. I don’t know that he can see that choosing anything but me including screens and secret/private friendships has said the same thing to me. Over and over. Okay, can a girl make a boy see that ? I’ve done my best to be soft and all those wifely things along with supporting financially and organizing household. And I’m still feeling like I’m not good enough (for him). Maybe I never will be.
You’ve put a very interesting concept into my head for the day.
Oh Lord. I guess the awful truth is that I’m still so self-concerned that I don’t think about the thousands of ways I’ve made her feel that way over the last 36 years. I do it very differently but I’m sure I do it many ways.
This is really existential for me. I think about what one of us will do or say at the other’s funeral. I feel we were and still are a gift to each other but I feel that we, and I in particular, have done a very bad jobs recipients of this gift. And having done so much work over the last couple of years I am getting to the point where I’m not sure whether the things I’ve dug down to can change, ever. And this is just horrifying to me. One step at a time.
Didn’t mean to distress you. Maybe we’re all distressed. Or just too sensitive ? Do we complicate things too much by having feelings ? Are our expectations all so unrealistic we will be chronically disappointed or is it simple hedonic adaptation ? Have we forgotten how to show we are grateful for the other ? When and why did it stop being important ? I could do this all night. I’ll stop now.
You are spot on, Matt, and a blessing, too !
Don’t listen to him, Matt. He’s probably one of those red pill guys that thinks everything is the woman’s fault. You’re a nice guy; you were just careless in some of your actions. I can’t say I understand them all, but we all make mistakes. I was married for nearly 40 years and didn’t realize until after my husband passed away that I had done some things wrong. We cannot change the past; we can only move forward and change our future and it sounds like you are trying to do that. I hope that you will find healing in yourself and don’t listen to all this negativity. Strive to build you a new future.
“I think what too often happens is behaviors that are untenable in marriage are tolerated during dating and engagement because of a false belief that their partner will change AND because of a fear of being alone or having to start over again in the dating world. So they turn a blind eye. Tolerate things they shouldn’t.”
I can definitely relate to this. I knew there were things we didn’t necessarily agree on before marriage, though certain behaviours didn’t show (or I maybe I ignored the signs) until after we were married. I do remember around 7-8 years ago wondering if I still wanted to be married and clearly thinking at the time that if I left, I might not meet anyone else. Now, our son is 5 and I have no tolerance left for those once tolerable behaviours. We’ve been married 14 years.
@Matt–As I was praying this morning, I was considering a very specific part of your story and something came to me in the Spirit. I didn’t catch in your story whether you have a faith to support you, but I would like to at least offer that to you as a hope for rebuilding your life. With that said, something in your story spoke to me. Yesterday, I mentioned that women are looking for value. I wondered Matt whether you had questions about your own self-worth and just wanted to reassure you that despite your failures as a husband, you do have value. Don’t let your self-examination override that, but while you are seeking the future, seek the potential of who you can be in that future. I’m not a pscyhologist, but I have personally struggled with pornography, self-worth, and managed to find hope through it all in Jesus Christ. I am praying for you.
This week, I started working on paperwork to divorce my husband of almost 22 years. I am so sad, and hurt, and frustrated.
We have 2 little kids (the oldest just started kindergarten) who we went through a decade of hell to have. Ironically, his ability to completely emotionally withdraw and detach is probably what helped us keep going through that process until we got to where we wanted to be.
I don’t want a divorce, but he has no interest in any sort of emotional, social, or physical interaction. He pretty much never has. We were very young when we got married, and I didn’t know that “shy” would translate into “you take all responsibility in the marriage” once we got married.
He’s perfectly happy to stay married as long as I continue to bring home my salary (similar to his) and do all the kid-related stuff I do, and I don’t require him to engage in the marriage in any way. (To be fair, he’s very engaged with and involved with the kids – it’s just adults he doesn’t like to interact with.)
I had him read the Shitty Husband letters. He read the first couple and decided that you are “harsh”, so that was that. His best friend (who BTW printed out your letters to read and discuss with his teenage son because he thinks you’re right on target with everything you’re saying about marriage) has put more effort into trying to save our marriage than my own husband has.
We tried marriage counseling. At one point, the counselor (a man) looked at my husband and said “Dude, you sit on your A$$ in this marriage!! You know that, right?” After 9 months of weekly appointments (my husband was willing to go, just not willing to do anything to change), the counselor looked at me and said “Why do you still show up every week? He’s not meeting your needs in any way, and it’s obviously causing you great pain.”
That should have been a clue, but instead I encouraged him to go to a therapist who was very helpful to me during our decade of infertility. He wanted me to attend, but she told him there was no point in marriage counseling right now because it would be ineffective until he deals with a lot of his stuff. He keeps saying he’s “going to”, but it’s been 18 months since we started marriage counseling, and as the saying goes, “tomorrow never comes”.
I wish I could get him to see what he’s doing, not just to us but even more so for our kids sake.
But he feels like the victim in all this. He feels like he was just driving along, perfectly happy, life was all rainbows and unicorns and butterflies and sunshine, and a jet engine fell off a plane in the sky and came crashing down on him, and there’s nothing he could have done or could ever do to prevent that from happening.
I, OTOH, feel like after years of flashing warning lights on the dashboard, smoke coming out of the tailpipe, the car starting to make jerking motions, and steam coming from under the hood, a piston finally just dropped out of the engine, and the car simply won’t go one block further.
Meanwhile, he’s standing there, scolding the car, telling it “But you drove just fine for almost 22 years without a complaint, so why can’t you just keep going??”
Anyway, I know this is super long. Thank you for your blog. It helps me to feel validated (not in the divorce, just my feelings in general) more than you will ever know.
Rebecca, I feel so sad reading your post, your frustration just jumps off the page. I am sorry you are having to go through this. For what it’s worth, I would have killed to have my own wife be able to articulate, as you have, her needs and desires. You have asked to go to counseling, forced attendance, invested years and years highlighting the issue and then behaved in an adult manner and filed for divorce rather than jumping into another relationship.
Your husband is going to have to face really uncomfortable truths about himself, the only question is whether he will do it before his divorce, when he (possibly) still has a chance to salvage his life, or afterwards, when his regret and remorse will be useless.
I don’t know why so many men have a hard to expressing their feelings and their emotions. I think oftentimes we get trapped into this mindset of being a “provider,” or expect that we need to act stoically and detached from our emotions. We spend all of our energy psychologically preparing ourselves to physically or financially defend against assaults that never occur, and zero time nurturing emotionally a relationship with our wives and in some instances, children. The mental models we are programmed with are deeply flawed. And it is very, very hard to let down one’s armour when the person across the table from us is, rightfully, exasperated and frustrated beyond measure. It is truly tragic.
I hope the act of filing for divorce is enough to wake your husband up, if there is in fact enough emotional reserve left for you to consider taking him back if he changes. The sad part is that from what I can see, once women detach emotionally, it is very hard to reverse the process.
“I don’t know why so many men have a hard to expressing their feelings and their emotions.”
You diagnose this correctly a few sentences later, but I want to underscore the point. Many men, and virtually all men over the age of 50-ish, have been raised in a culture that clearly, intentionally and forcefully focuses them away from coming into any contact with emotions (theirs, and others’).
Actually, it’s probably a miracle that any of use, certainly any of us over 50-ish, get there at all. That’s an observation, not an excuse or a suggestion that we leave things as they were.
I’m 38. And despite growing up in a small, conservative Midwest town, I don’t think I was particularly repressed or exposed to an exorbitant amount of hyper-masculinity.
I was just a reasonably normal kid (for my area). I played and watched a ton of football and basketball. I ran track and watched baseball.
I chased girls. Played video games. Dabbled in golf. Had a paper route when I was young, and a part-time cooking job in high school.
And to this day–right now–I feel INTENSE discomfort when I’m surrounded by 14 other guys for a fantasy football draft (ages 26-60) and someone wants to talk to me about the writing I do here.
I’m not ashamed of it. I think it’s incredibly important that we have these conversations. And I’m not afraid, per se, to discuss this kind of stuff in-person if the situation calls for it.
But when it’s boy’s night out, telling jokes, calling each other names, ragging on each other’s picks in the draft, laughing about everything, drinking beer, playing cards, etc… when it’s THAT — a fairly common social scenario for guys — I much prefer to not discuss my writing, the subject matter, etc. because I don’t want to have to explain it, or possibly get shit about it. And MOST of the guys in that room and I go way, way, way back to childhood.
These are people who mostly like and care about me a lot.
It’s the Man Card thing. The shame thing. And it’s rooted SOOOOOOOOOOO deeply into most of our subconsciouses, that even though I live and breathe all the stuff we discuss around here–AND firmly believe there’s ZERO shame in wanting men to think more critically and empathetically about their closest personal relationships — I find myself still affected by it.
Old friends’ family members are asking me out loud about how my blog writing is going, and I quietly say that it’s going well, keeps me busy, and then I change the subject as quickly as possible.
Hell. That might be a blog post in itself.
But I haven’t spent enough time thinking about what I think any of that means. I don’t know.
I only know it’s bad, and it’s a function of the systemic problem we have that often trickles down to one home and family that eventually breaks from an unpleasant — and unnecessary — divorce.
I think there are some real biological differences between men and women,Matt. It’s not all culture, it’s not all about being hyper-masculinized, to some extent it is simply hardwired into us. There are some variations, of course.
Someone smart once told me “men are modest about feelings in the same way women are modest about sex.” There is some wisdom there. A bunch of guys get together, their actual preference is usually NOT to start discussing their emotional lives and how they feel about stuff. Women get together and tend to do this same thing quite naturally.
Just as many men wouldn’t make inappropriate sexual cracks around women, women wouldn’t get all touchy feely and personally invasive with guys around emotional stuff. If we can take an awareness of those difference into marriage with us and honor them, it becomes a lot easier to empathize and communicate.
Someone else smart once said, “respond to her need, she’ll respond to your lead.” I love that because if you validate women emotionally, we have a tendency to happily follow you anywhere. In general, not always but often,women aren’t trying to “win” anything, we’re just trying to get heard.
I agree with IB that there are specific gender differences and most men would find it difficult to do this much soul searching online. The important thing is never about placing blame on others, but seeing where you personally failed, and that takes a lot of courage.
As IB said, communication and understanding are definite plusses toward making things work. Women essentially want to feel valued by and feel affection from the person they love the most.
Biological differences aside, I think (most) men just aren’t raised to expect to have their emotional needs met in marriage, hence the reluctance to even bring it up.
I was in a relationship (not marriage but very similar to one) where I routinely, and quite out-of-character, expressed some of my needs, only to just as routinely have them dismissed.
Then One day she suddenly brought up the idea of seeing a counselor. Not that she had ever expressed the desire to see one, but one of her friends had just seen this particular counselor and thought it was such a great experience that she totally sold my then-girlfriend to the idea.
Anyway, I got along, and lo and behold when the counselor told us neither one of us were meeting the needs of the other, and that we both had issues we needed to work on!
That was enough that, after two sessions, my girlfriend decided it was pointless to go see the counselor again because “she (the counselor) was obviously taking my side of our issues” (much of which I didn’t even know we had…)
Osvaldo, thank you for your response to my post. I am sorry your marriage ended, and I hope you find great happiness in your next relationship.
I hope my husband will face the uncomfortable truths at some point, but I’m not confident he will. I’ve learned not to underestimate his ability to stuff things down. 🙁
I agree that I probably don’t have the emotional reserves to consider taking him back, but I don’t them, because he’s not going to ask for that. Saturday morning, he stood over me as I cried in bed (upset over him once again being distant and unwilling to step in to the relationship emotionally in any way) and announced very matter-of-factly as he watched me cry, that he has “decided to withdraw from this marriage.” As if he was ever actually engaged in the marriage in the first place!
I just need to accept what is and figure out the math. It’s horribly sad, but true.
Rebecca, thank you for your kind comment. I can only tell you what my own experience has been, and it might not fit your circumstances, so please ignore me if that’s the case. Your husband is in great pain. What you are seeing is an ego defence. Relationships fail because people become wrapped up in their own heads and not aware of what their partner is feeling (your husband’s repeat failure). He is doing what he has always done — miss what you are feeling because he is too preoccupied with what is going on in his own head. He is hurt, as you said feeling like this came out of the blue because he is arriving late to the self-awareness party. He is angry, and focused on ego defences (What is wrong with her? I’m not a bad husband!) Much easier to blame you than to face himself and accept responsibility for having been a shitty partner.
I believe that my wife, as you are likely doing, meant to send one final, shocking wake up call. I responded but in my case the pain and shock of adultery made it hard for me to address her pain because I became too wrapped up in my own anger and hurt. Maybe your husband is in the same spot — abandonment is a primal, deep trigger. But you could fairly say, as my wife did, “You abandoned me first.” Your husband just hasn’t realised it yet.
His ego defences will crumble. If you can manage not to involve a third party in your break-up until AFTER the divorce is finalised (which will also make the divorce easier if nothing else) there is a very good chance he wakes the hell up when the reality of what is happening dawns upon him. The ego defences are brittle and they run out of steam very quickly. By that point you will probably not want him back, but for your own peace of mind know that what you are seeing now is likely not a sign of his not caring, just a sign of his being an emotionally underdeveloped man-child throwing his toys out of the pram and effectively saying, “Fine, if you don’t like me, u don’t like you, either!”
In my own case, I can tell you I was in precisely this kind of Mexican stand-off emotionally with my wife, waiting for her to cave first, love first, etc., because I was so sure that I was right and she was wrong, that I was effectively just stuck in a destructive and stubborn pattern. When she finally gave up instead of fighting or pushing back I collapsed, because the opposing energy I had come to resist just disappeared. I would have equally collapsed emotionally like a baby in her arms if she had only told me she loved me and appreciated me. I was so calloused from her constant critiques and anger (though they were justifiable) that I just came to think of this aa being the way she was. I doubt she is this way with her new partner.
Our stupid loss, at the end of the day. Delphic-like, my wife also told me, in her final explosion of anger, that part of the reason she could not forgive me was because she knew me well enough to know what when the penny finally dropped, after our marriage collapsed, when I finally woke up to what had happened, that I would be the perfect partner for someone else. And that all her suffering would only have served to make some other woman’s life better. It makes me cry to this day because it was true. I wish I could go back in time and change what happened, be the man she deserved back then. But she won’t even talk to me now. Your husband, if he is a halfway decent man, which it sounds like he is, is in for a world of pain. Try to be compassionate with him, even if it’s hard to, because I can tell you on the other side he will have a very, very hard time proportionate to his own failures in the marriage. Look at Matt. Or me — two years after the divorce and I still wake up crying a few times a week. And nothing we can bloody well do about it except grieve, and try to help others avoid the same mistake.
Rebecca, you have wisdom and good judgment. You’ll survive the inevitable; rally your support system to get you through the legal stuff and rest, knowing you did your part. Your kiddos are your most treasured ones – let them fill your love bucket for the time being. “This, too, shall pass…”
Thank you, hulagirl. Your words are spot on.
I just “liked” your post but it’s really a vote of empathy rather than cheeriness. 🙁 It’s hard to say this correctly, and I’m going to use a metaphor to keep this very concise.
Sometimes the patient can be cured with a therapeutic response; sometimes surgery is required.
It sounds like your husband’s healing, if it is going to come, will need to take place in a different relationship. I find that very sad (and I’m sure that in various ways all four of you will, too), but surgery is the only available path to healing. 🙁 Matt’s blog shows that sometimes great pain is required to produce great growth. At least there is growth…which is better than no growth at all.
That is a very helpful analogy. Sadly, I think what you say is very true. Thank you!
Another heartwrenchingly insightful discussion of how a marriage between two ‘good’ people can go so devastatingly wrong …
Your writings have helped me understand — often with excruciatingly uncomfortable clarity — exactly what happened in my marriage … MY part in it, as well as his …
THANK YOU, Matt …
Reblogged this on A Walk with God, through Marriage, Family and Personal Life.
Thought provoking as always. And frustrating for me as well. As individuals, we need to start talking about these things. The dissolution of marriage is damaging to us, despite all the talk of “conscious uncouplings” and “it’s for the bests”. It is hard and painful and, often, unnecessary. But part of why people don’t learn when they are in the marriage is because talking about its challenges is uncomfortable. It’s like getting into a conversation about race or privilege. Unfortunately, nothing will change if no one is willing to step into the awkward spaces.
Thank you so much for your posts. They are honest and focused on the only thing we can change — ourselves.
Always so good to hear from you, Lesli. Thank you for reading and saying hi.
I think I owe you an email you never received that was supposed to communicate my availability. [Insert closed-eyes, pursed lips emoji here]
Book writing is actually happening now. In a visible, measurable, tangible way. You’re on my list of people I’d love to ask questions to in an effort to take a deeper dive on some of the much-written-about topics we talk about here. Hopefully you’ll be up for that.
I’ll look forward to the next chat, regardless!
Yes…so, as the complementary other side of my post about the importance of not attempting to communicate with our relationship partners (especially our spouses) by defending and excusing, I would add this.
You have to, simply must, be willing and able to open your mouth and express what you feel and think and want. With out this, you are going nowhere (except to disconnection and resentment and all kinds of other toxic things).
I don’t think this is a male/female issue (though I could be wrong). I grew up in a household where my father made it clear (and still does – I’m 58 and he’s 86) that there were no opinions, only his personal “facts,” and where any kind of disagreement or “conflict” (in the healthy sense of that word). I think the hardest thing for me to do (in my marriage, or anywhere else) is to speak plainly and naturally about what I feel and what I would like. One of the results has been using “unenforceable rules” to avoid having to ask – because it felt safer for me to blame you for not obeying some non-existent rule than for me to expose myself to ridicule or disappointment for expressing myself on my own terms. This has been, in my opinion, the biggest issue that I have contributed to our joint clusterf*ck over the last 36 years, and it’s totally my fault. Trying to fix that…
Gak, got interrupted and lost a sentence:
“…where any kind of disagreement or “conflict” (in the healthy sense of that word) was essentially forbidden and resulted in very harsh treatment, both during childhood and even today, and which led me to avoid constructive differences and conflicts like the plague for nearly all of my life. I think the hardest thing…”
Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..
Thank you for this honest look at marriage and some of the seemingly minor, ways we can unintentionally hurt each other and the relationship.
“Spock-like emotionless Vulcan logic cyborgs” ….oh, so you’ve met my husband.
Right. Feelings don’t matter until something triggers their’s.
= Me six years ago.
How true Matt.
Funny, today I heard the song “Karma Chameleon” on the radio and never thought a Culture Club tune could be the theme song to my marriage. This tag line really brought it home for me: “everyday is like survival; you’re my lover, not my rival.” I do feel like we are rivals most of the time. Do all married couples feel like enemies at some point in their marriage? I know we sure do. We fight each other instead of fighting for each other. This makes me so sad.
The other tag line “you come and go” is more in line with my husband’s personality (I want to say failures or shortcomings here….but I’m trying to be nice). My first marriage was 20 years of being a doormat. That marriage ended because my husband passed away. When my current husband and I were dating, we would talk about everything. He knew how I was treated and thought it was atrocious (he personally knew my first husband). He assured me this was not going to happen in our marriage. He wanted me to have a voice – to speak up for myself. I trusted him. He lied. He doesn’t want to hear about the failures in our marriage; he doesn’t want to hear about how he treats me like crap a lot of the time; he doesn’t want to hear how self-centered he is; he doesn’t want to hear how he is so critical of everyone else but he can do no wrong. The list could go on and on. And, yes, Matt, you nailed it….he gets his poor little feelings hurt. Doesn’t give a rat’s behind about mine. He just doesn’t.
I am so glad I found your blog Matt. I’m not much of a writer….but damn, it helps to write about my issues. Thank you for giving me a voice.
In truth, dismissing and invalidating one another’s true feelings was something that both of us were guilty of…we just had different ways of expressing it. I was more like you, direct and upfront – “Why on earth would you think and feel THAT?! That’s dumb!” And then I would proceed to tell him how he *should* think and feel about it, aka how *I* would think and feel about it. My husband took a more passive-aggressive approach. Both were equally destructive.
I don’t think these destructive ways of relating to one another occur in a vacuum – we each play our part. Whether we do it intentionally or not, we establish our own dysfunction; our patterns of relating to each other become habitual and engrained.
The only way that I know of to break the cycle of dysfunction is to focus on my own part – I have no control over how my husband chooses to respond to conflict, but I have full control over my choices.
And yes, it is super-hard to be the one to “take the high road” and keep your baser instincts in check while your partner continues to let theirs rip. But you still only have two choices: you can allow yourself to fall back into your old, destructive patterns (which you already know DON’T work) or you can continue to take the high road, if only because it’s the right thing to do. It’s never wrong to choose NOT to behave in ways that will you know will hurt your partner. Hard, yes; wrong, no. If you’re very lucky (and very patient) your partner *may* soften towards you and begin to change…and they may not. There’s no guarantee, and the marriage may still end. But at the very least, you will be able to leave the marriage with your integrity (not to mention your sanity) intact, knowing that you owned your shit and did your part. If your partner didn’t, that’s on them.
I needed to read that this morning.
Sweetie, I need to read it EVERY morning…
Owning my shit hard at the moment and endeavouring to communicate it in calm, non judgemental and non threatening manner. The blank stare and crickets are what kill me. Am really seeing I can only ask for so much and expecting more is unrealistic and unkind. It’s a tough reality to face. And it makes me very sad.
STH, there is a lot I could say, and probably should say, here, but I really want to pick up on your comment here. I have no idea whether your current situation with your husband is really like what we have going on, so there’s a huge discount factor for what I’m about to say (in other words, the following might be irrelevant to you).
One of the things you read about is how men are “slow” compared to women in processing emotional discussions.
My wife and I finally named this phenomenon some months back. We would go on an hour walk with the dogs, and she would say something near the start, and I would process, and not really say much. She would interpret the silence as her not having been clear, so she would reiterate and maybe expand. I would then try to process the original piece plus the new information and/or presentation. She would interpret the silence as her not having been clear, so she would (again) reiterate and possibly expand again. Lather, rinse & repeat until your hair falls out.
We have not solved this problem, and a comment from my wife recently left me with the impression that she thinks it’s a pretty significant limitation.
It’s hard for me to do anything about that, though. I can try, but it’s literally like my CPU runs a lot slower than hers.
You might be surprised. I am 58 years old, have very high-end undergraduate and graduate degrees, and have made a very good living as a professional in a very complex and technically intricate transactional world with large numbers of participants and work streams. And I don’t have any limiting emotional or psychological conditions. So the empirical evidence is that I do very well in other situations. There are just some limiting conditions, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Would love to hear how that reflects for you.
Your take is valid and quite accurate. I left it with a thanks for listening to me and I’m not expecting an immediate response as I know that’s hard for you.
The problem is the content of the conversation. Weeks on end of being lonely until I lose it look like an idiot. And there’s a few days of connection but then he’s back to his TV, his phone or his iPad. I told him I thought that I would be important 24/7 because he married me. That doesn’t mean needing attention 24/7 – it means being partners and sharing priorities and being connected other than when watching the same tv show or when naked. I have a lonely marriage and I can’t don’t want to fill that space with other stuff. It doesn’t work for me.
Thank you. I actually feel like maybe in our marriage I’m the “you” and my wife is your husband, though in this case it’s work (college prof) rather than sports/tv/ipad.
Trying to reevaluate/test my expectation.
I highly (x10) recommend a book I stumbled across, possibly the single best book I’ve read on married relationships, called “Love in the Present Tense.” Available on Kindle, but I also bought the paper version and think that in this case the content comes across far better on a printed page, but that might just be me (the dino).
Jack, I’m prob gonna get clobbered for saying so, but it’s been my observation that men and women “process” along gender lines. Men process and digest stuff internally and THEN they can talk about it; women, on the other hand process THROUGH talking. Recognizing that there are gender differences at play here can be helpful in managing expectations.
And my experience goes along the same line as “Jack”. Being silent while processing my thoughts and emotions and trying to articulate a response (that didn’t/couldn’t be interpreted as a defence or an accusation), my then-girlfriend would perceive this as a void or a vacuum that immediately needed to be filled with additional information.
That I was also raised to be respectful, and listen to and not interrupt people while they are talking, didn’t exactly help in these situations either.
I think I’ve said this before – right now I’m so stressed my memory is a little faulty. I was raised in a family where it was explicitly not ok to disagree or have another opinion on anything. It’s taken me *forever* to even recognize the problem, and dealing with it is not as easy as I would have thought. In fact, it’s quite hard to shake that way of thinking about things. (:-(
I think people are coming and going here. Not everyone reading exactly every comment, so it must be OK to sometimes repeat oneself, I think!
Yes, getting the “Kids should be seen but not heard” philosophy of being raised, is pretty hard to shake off for some people once they’ve grown up.
I (too) became a grade A people-pleaser and also a grade A student to try and get some recognition and appreciation from my parents. But not being academics themselves, they’ve never really understood or cared what it was all about.
And however many women out there who complains about their husband isn’t listening to them, I’ve found that neither one of those characteristics seem to be very helpful in trying to maintain a relationship, anyway.
I know, sometimes, that I really should have interrupted her and said something. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, because it’s really “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” in those situations.
I know I went into marriage with a lot of unspoken expectations (and so did my husband). It’s kind of unfair to hold somebody to a particular expectation when the other person is unaware of it, so for my own sanity I keep my expectations low, and I keep them spoken. And yeah, it’s sad, buts it’s reality and we have to operate according to how things *are*, not according to how we *wish* they could be.
Good for you for facing reality.
Wisdom – but you know that goes both ways (I know you know that, but I want to say it). The timing here is coincidental. I have spent the last couple of weeks beginning to try to grapple with the fact that a lot of my expectations simply may never happen. In our case, I am wondering what happens if the two of us can just never get out of what has been basically a roommates/financial partners relationship that really doesn’t have a lot of emotional connection.
It gets horrifyingly existential. I am sort of freaking out when I try to envision what either one of us would say at the other’s funeral. I have to say that again, this is really freaking me out. 🙁
Jack – I’m kind of in the same boat – my husband and I are a great team together but we struggle to stay emotionally connected. I can tolerate a fair bit of disconnection and still feel secure in our relationship, but like you, my hubby freaks out; every time we experience a period of disconnection he’s sure the hammer is about to fall. As frustrating as the cycle of connection/disconnection can be, I don’t see it as a reason to panic – I suspect it is simply a normal part of long-term relationships and must be managed. If we can’t prevent periods of disconnection from occuring, at the very least we need to acknowledge when it does, and work towards repairing it. Again, it’s about accepting and dealing with reality *as it is*.
Being the 60/hr a week breadwinning/mortgage paying household organizing woman I resent feeling weak for asking for adult non physical connection but I do. That’s my shit to work. His ability to avoid or “forget” our relationship is his I guess. I’ll check out the book but I’m feeling kinda “studied out” on this topic. Tomorrow however is another day ?
Error alert: the reference to the first Perel/Audible podcast should be to #5!
I don’t freak out, at least not any more; at least, I don’t think I am…
I spent a lot of time after I woke up from twenty years of slumber being very angry at my wife. Actively angry, demanding that she change. Well, you know how well that works…
I then spent a lot of time being what I guess I’d call sort of passively angry. Something like this: if we can’t be connected at the level I want, I’m not going to try to be connected any other way. That’s also a great formula for success and happiness (not)…
Very recently I, well, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. I think I’m realizing that if we stay married, at a minimum, we may never (probably will not ever) connect at the level that I would like, at least when I think about what I want. This is really painful. It’s sort of a death of dreams, but more like ideals or goals, not something that I think should be an unachievable happily-ever-after fiction.
My wife actually remarked on this today. I haven’t really tried to explain it because I’m still processing. The last few days when I’ve been alone I’ve had these periods where I just start crying. It hurts. But I don’t really know whether I’m giving up something that I should let go, or whether I’m looking at giving up something that we could really have achieved if we had not gotten totally derailed after our second child was born.
How do I feel about saying “we’re married, I believe in the “us” that you and I can do in real life, now – I am committed to staying in this with you and doing our best even if it’s not what I thought (and not what other real life married people do actually live)”?
Have you, has anyone, listened to the Esther Perel/Audible “podcast” series? Most of them are actually chilling, to me. At the very end of the first one, she reports getting an email back from the wife in the marriage some time later, saying that she (the wife) remained “more resigned than hopeful.” Perel then talks about how some of her clients go on to achieve relationships that they never thought they could have, but others leave “with the humility of realizing that this is the relationship that they are going to have and they are going to choose to stay in that.”
That idea makes me so sad. I fear that the latter may be us, might be the best we can do now, and it just breaks my heart.
Me too Jack. We got derailed too and though we have recovered from the devastation of it, our marriage has never been the same, and I suspect it never will be. Like the Jack Nicholson character, I had to ask myself, “What if this is as good as it gets?” If this is the best I can hope for, can I love with it for the rest of my life?
And here’s my dirty little secret…it’s not. I yearn for so much more. The truth is Jack, I don’t stay for me, I stay for him. He’s a hard guy to love, but I DO love him, so much so that I would never, ever leave him because for so flimsy as a reason as “I’m not entirely happy”. I could never hurt him that way. I choose to stay and though I grieve what I feel I’ve lost, I guess I’ve come to terms with it.
Sorry to be so depressing! Just being brutally honest…
Well put ?
Sort of speechless. Massive empathic identity.
But I don’t stay for her. She doesn’t need me. I think she’d be far better off without me, or rather, with someone who could lover her better than I probably ever will be able to.
She was gone for a few weeks this summer, taking care of her 92 year old mother. The reality is that I was fine. Too much, actually. It would be easy to say we should break up and easier to say stay single, don’t marry again. But I know in my bones that the dings and dents and friction of living with someone can make you a much better human being. And I guess that’s true even in the cases that you and I are describing.
But (in no particular order) giving up what really could (I think?) be, and reconciling yourself to not giving someone you do really love what they really should be given.
And then I think: crap, where’s the gratitude for what you DO have? Why do you think you can be so selfish? Why are you so focused on what you are not receiving instead of on what you could be giving? But, and this is true though I don’t know how to put all this together, at some point it’s like trying to compete in an Olympic sport while eating Doritos and Diet Coke.
And I have no idea what to do about any of this… (Sound very depressing. I’m not. BTDT and learned how to accept sadness and move on – actually the first adult skill I learned, maybe around 50…so slow…)
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