Pain is History’s Most Effective Influencer of Human Behavior

Comments 27

I don’t know how many times I had to be burned by the hot steam that escapes a simmering pot after removing the lid before I learned how to do it without getting hurt.

Same with boiling water, or drinking hot liquids without giving them time to cool.

When I was in college, I had to drink 101-proof liquor while it was still on fire in order to learn not to do it anymore.

I’ve touched barbecue grills while they were still hot. I’ve burned myself while removing baking trays from the oven. I’ve burned myself with candles and lighters and the cigarettes I used to smoke in my teens and 20s.

I have no doubt that my parents, teachers, and other adult guardians such as my grandparents and babysitters regularly communicated to me that I shouldn’t touch hot things because I would get hurt if I did.

But, either through thoughtlessness, recklessness, or simple ignorance, I still managed to burn myself dozens of times in my life.

If I did something which resulted in a painful burn, I usually didn’t do that again.

If I did something which resulted in a painful cut on my hand, I usually didn’t do that again.

If I did something which resulted in a painful financial expense, I usually didn’t do that again.

Do you think there’s a chance that even one person in human history (after the invention of fire) truly learned to avoid touching hot things without experiencing a painful burn wound somewhere along the way?

I can’t prove it. But I’m thinking not.

My son didn’t learn not to touch hot things because his mom and dad are amazing communicators who beamed that critical life information into his head with our brilliant words.

It’s because he did a bunch of reckless little-kid shit like all of us did and got hurt a million times. Now, he’s marginally better at not hurting himself because pain-avoidance is what most living things are already programmed to do.

Something happens. It’s awesome. Do that a bunch more times.

Something happens. It’s horrible. Avoid doing that ever again.

Cause and effect. It’s how we learn pretty much everything that helps us avoid death and dismemberment every day.

Shitty Husbands Learn They’re Shitty the Same Way Kids Learn to Not Touch Hot Things

All of you knob sanders can save your whiny retorts.

But, Matt! I’m a man, not a child. I don’t like you comparing me to a kid!

Join the club.

Listen. You’re either:

A. A shitty husband who KNOWS he’s shitty and that he’s intentionally damaging his spouse and marriage every day, in which case you can go grind some more knobs and piss off, or…

B. A shitty husband who DOESN’T know he’s shitty and that he’s unintentionally damaging his spouse and marriage every day, in which case you’re EXACTLY like the kid who doesn’t know that touching the grill lid is going to burn him. There’s a difference between being a moron, and truly NOT knowing something you couldn’t possibly know. Not your fault at all. It doesn’t make you a kid. It makes you INNOCENT up to a certain point. Or…

C. You’re someone this doesn’t apply to at all, which makes you the least knob-cobbling person here.

Don’t sweat the technique.

This isn’t really for you guys anyway.

It’s for your desperate, crying, pissed-off wives who are trying to figure out why you don’t love them anymore.

The thing I know that they don’t, is that you more than likely do love them. Very much. And that you are largely unaware of the pain and frustration they’re feeling every day.

If both of you told someone the story of your marriage, it might sound very different.

Your wife and/or family mean everything to you. And whenever the subject comes up, you tell anyone who will listen how much you love and value them.

And you actually believe it. You feel it.

But your wife doesn’t feel it.

There isn’t just one reason why. There are dozens, including things that happened 10 years ago that you don’t even remember anymore.

It makes sense that you don’t remember. They didn’t matter to you at the time. They were the equivalent of room-temperature water sitting on the stove. They were the surface of a barbecue grill that hasn’t been fired up in weeks.


It’s your wife I’m talking to anyway. Because it’s getting harder and harder to write to you. You think you’re right. You think I’m wrong about your marriage. And that’s fine. Maybe I am sometimes. There’s no chance everyone’s marriage is just like mine was, nor that every married couple is just like my ex and I were.

I assume you will continue to keep touching stuff and getting burned until the consequences hurt enough to start doing something differently.

Telling someone that their feelings and perceptions are either right or wrong seems pretty useless, but we spend a lot of time doing or at least thinking it.

It’s really easy for me to stand up and walk to the other end of the room.

If a quadriplegic tells me that it’s hard for them to do that same thing, how valid or useful is my opinion anyway?

A husband’s or boyfriends’ incessant dismissal of his wife’s ‘complaints,’ or frequent invalidation of the things she says matter to her—it’s a marriage killer.

Regardless of gender or marital status, a spouse or romantic partner on the losing end of those exchanges over the course of several years will FEEL as if their spouse doesn’t love them. Maybe even hates them.

After all, why would someone who loves me repeatedly do things that hurt me even after I said they hurt me?

I don’t know how to stop it.

I’ve been writing the same crap for more than five years. If I had the words that actually moved the needle, I’d use them.

Every day, several thousands more people end their relationships, and at the root of that split is THIS dynamic.

I want to encourage your wives to be patient with you like we’d expect them to be with children. Moms understand that their children weren’t intentionally running around trying to break things or burn themselves.

Those same women who are exceedingly loving and thoughtful and patient with their children frequently demonstrate an inability to provide that same level of patience and forgiveness with their spouses.

Which is sensible enough.

She didn’t marry a kid intentionally.

She’s not sexually attracted to children.

She had the expectation upon exchanging wedding vows that having an adult partner for the rest of her life would enhance adulthood. That it would be better to have a built-in support system. A financial and sexual partner. A parenting partner.

People get married because they believe their lives will be better afterward.

And then, like touching an extremely hot surface, sometimes we learn the hard way that that isn’t true at all.

When marriage makes your life harder and shittier, you start to believe that your life will be better if you stop being married.

And once someone starts believing that? Party’s over.

Just maybe she’ll actually buy the idea that you honestly don’t know that what you’re doing hurts her, and just maybe when she truly understands that you’re innocent of trying to cause intentional harm, she can find the right words and tone to reach you.

To convince you not to do that thing that’s going to hurt later.

Someone asked me recently whether I could have learned how to stop hurting my wife WITHOUT her leaving me. If there was some magic combination of words that might have worked.

The answer is no.

I was certain—CERTAIN—that I had a firm grasp on things. That I was smart. Decent. Good. Correct.

That if something didn’t seem painful to me, then it must not be painful to anyone else.

And if they tried to tell me it was painful, then they must be mistaken.

And if they’re mistaken, I must help them see things more clearly.

I ran up to my wife every day for several years and kicked her in the shin, and then when she said “It hurts me when you kick me in the shin,” I treated her like an asshole incapable of evaluating for herself whether something actually hurt or not.

I can’t be certain that had my wife changed her approach and communication strategy that it might not have more effectively helped me understand then what I know today. But I’m certain that nothing was ever going to change without someone trying something different.

She finally did when she took off her ring and found a new place to live.

Divorce Insurance Premiums are Expensive

I did things which resulted in a painful divorce. I can’t prove that I won’t do some of those same things again. After all, I’ve burned the roof of my mouth with hot food or drinks several dozens of times.

But for the same reasons that I’m intellectually aware of all of the potential burn hazards out there that I mostly succeed at avoiding in my daily life, I feel pretty confident that I’m unlikely to repeat the same behaviors I believe are directly linked to the slow and unpleasant death of my marriage.

And that’s awesome. I feel pretty empowered, actually.

But the cost of acquiring that knowledge was really expensive. And I don’t mean money.

I felt burned everywhere. Inside and out.

And for the first time in my life, I felt enough pain where death didn’t feel like such a bad thing. I was more scared of hurting that much forever than I was of dying.

Perspective is a powerful thing.

Before I put my hand in fire, I didn’t know it was hot, even though someone warned me about it.

Sometimes, maybe you just have to hurt bad enough to learn what not to do anymore.

I hope someone proves me wrong.

27 thoughts on “Pain is History’s Most Effective Influencer of Human Behavior”

  1. Well…in six decades I have learned that you can learn in one of three ways.

    You can learn by being told/taught.

    You can learn by watching others eff up.

    You can learn by effing up yourself.

    Those are listed, in my opinion, in order or preference and in reverse order of effectiveness, or at least the usual order of effectiveness. Sadly, some of us don’t learn even after repeatedly putting our hands in the fire…and most of us occasionally have that problem.

    Sometimes the only way to appreciate gravity is to step off a cliff unwittingly. 🙁

    1. Humans are just so DUMB sometimes. All, not just the male variety. Why do we so often have to experience something for ourselves? I agree with your order of things.

      When the pain of nothing changing is greater than the pain of the effort needed is the unfortunate scale that often determines a person’s next steps.

    2. Jack,

      I would add a few ways to learn.

      You can learn by observing others doing it right.

      You can learn by observing others doing it wrong.

      You can learn from novels/movies/music/history/biography that we can emotionally experience without having to burn our hands directly.

      You can do your own soul searching and research of the science Etc

      I think there are lots of ways.

      1. Yes! 🙂

        Though I would categorize (in my own head – not yours) observing as part of my second category. Just a personal view…

        I really like your last two points – great thoughts, from the left brain? 😀

        1. Jack,

          Yes my “observing others doing it wrong” is the same as your category “watching others eff up”. I just added it because it sounded Dr Seuss musical paired with “you can observe others doing it right.”?

          1. Smile and sigh! If only were were as easy as Dr. Seuss!!! Think of the places you’d go! 😉 And since Matt hasn’t (I think?) said it in a while, I’ll say that if some of us had had appropriate learning and observation opportunities when we were the prime age for Dr. Seuss books, we would not be learning very bitter lessons much later in life. 🙁

        2. I have been reading about a Piaget’s stages of cognitive development from birth to adulthood. Having to directly experience things is helpful of course but is not a requirement for a healthy mature adult.

          As an adult we should be able to learn through hypothetical situations and abstract concepts like the things I mentioned.

          We are supposed to also become less egocentric than we were as children so that we can understand that what we experience is not the experience of other people.

          So per the theme of Matt’s blog, why do so many adults seem unable to do these basic things?

          I have lots of thoughts as usual. ?

          But imho at the very least I think it’s important to acknowledge that if we require something to be experienced directly to be learned that is not a healthy mature adult.

          It’s not “normal.”

          1. Emphatically agree on that last!

            And at the risk of vectoring off the flight path a bit, but on a bearing resonant with your post, I am strongly feeling what you said about direct experience not being essential to learning, I want to say that, with a lot of hard work and thought, and quite a few gallons of tears, I think I have come to a place where I can live in an earned (or maybe it should be learned) secure attachment style (at least on my decent days). I now really believe that it’s possible to learn/earn your way out of insecure attachment.

          2. Dear G-d, it is so empowering. I have never used drugs (personality defects, not personal virtue), but this must be what taking some drugs is like. 🙂

          3. People who had shitty childhoods are not destined to the results of that for the rest of their lives.

            We can “earn” our way out of a LOT of stuff.

            I think another important marker for mature adulthood is when you can recognize the areas you were born on second base while others have to work hard to get out of the dugout to bat.

            When can recognize how much harder some people have in certain areas even as your life is not “easy.” And when you can have self compassion for ourselves because we have to learn what others were given.

  2. Matt,
    I first read your blog when your “dirty dishes” post came out…it resonated with me 100% while I was stuck in a crappy marriage where I felt like I was banging my head against a wall over and over and over again while trying to help my then husband understand my feelings. I felt sad and alone and pissed honestly, why could he not be bothered to understand where I was coming from???? I really like your analogy of running up and kicking your wife in the shins…that is exactly how I felt. When I could no longer take beating my head against the wall since there was no change, no improvement, no effort—I divorced him. We were together for almost 13 years. While saddened that he couldn’t be who I needed him to be, a husband who cared, a father who was attentive, a partner in life, I am now with someone who GETS IT. He has made me realize what I have been missing out on for all these years and just how ALONE I was, even in my past relationship. I thank God for this relationship, not only is it showing me how things should be, it is giving my children an amazing example of what love, partnership and friendship truly look like in a relationship instead of them only seeing how things shouldn’t be. Great post!

  3. You are writing my story Matt my wife is trying to love me again and I’m listening to her pain response, couldn’t be more sorry for my shitty treatment of her and everyone else that matters to her she was going too leave me cause I couldn’t accept the reality she was giving me “ I am depressed and have been medicated.”I was a shorty husband I’m going to do whatever it takes to have her feel safe and secure . I’m getting better now and I’m so thankful for her considerable kindness

  4. Good to read your stuff again, Matt. We are long lost WP buddies (maybe you’ll recognize me eventually haha) – thought I’d drop by and say hello and to say I still follow your story avidly ^^ Also, did you get the subject quote from “Inferno”? I literally just watched it yesterday for the first time and I’m almost positive he said the same thing hehe – very cool. Anyway, glad you’re keeping well Xx

  5. Matt, your initial blog was my polestar to enable me to see why it was right for me to end my marriage almost 3 years ago, and that no more could be done with it thru positive or constructive efforts on my end. I am almost 2 years into a relationship with a new man who is my rock and “gets it”. Lucky me! (Ladies, yes, a man who is a man and not a child can be found!
    Here’s a little something I found on TED Talks recently that is a jewel and I think fits beautifully with a lot of what you say. Weirdly, it’s also from 5 years ago, around when you started your blog.

    1. Sorry – I posted the link with the Italian title (though she speaks in English, with a Belgian accent. The name of the talk is: “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship”.

    2. 🙂 I don’t want to sound too politically doctrinaire, especially on election day, but one of the insidious influences of patriarchy is that it promotes (or at least enables) men acting from a one-up power position while simultaneously being children in large parts of life – and wives are expected (by both men and women) to pick that end up…which just doesn’t work well for anyone: husband, wife or children.

  6. Matt,
    I read it somewhere that most of us won’t make major changes until our emotional pain meter hits 10.

    I got really comfortable living at a 9.5. The problem was my wife felt like it was a 10, and kept trying to get me to understand.

    Eventually, she got my attention by talking divorce or separation. Those words cut through the crap and got me to start working. However, I kept wanting to stop when we got back to 9.5, obviously she did not.

    Now just to sound wise, I will quote Confucius
    “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

    1. Ouch – another take on the conversation Lisa and I were having above. That’s a good lens. Great food for thought – thank you!

    2. Excellent!

      Another Confucius quote that explains a common block to learning:

      “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

      If my attitude is that I know everything including what YOU should feel/think do that explains a lot of shitty relationships.

      Being strong and mature enough to admit you don’t know. Being willing to ask and learn even when it doesn’t make sense to your experience. Even when it is inconvenient and requires you to change.

  7. My mother is 75 years old. And even though she has a multitude of experience burning herself on a kitchen pot or oven plate, as well as being told multitudes of times as a child to be careful around hot stuff, she still manages to occasionally burn herself.
    That doesn’t mean that she’s neither dumb nor ignorant about the danger or the pain that follows a burn mark. Sometimes people make mistakes.

    1. Kal,

      You are so right that we can fully understand that hot things can burn and yet still get burned.

      In relationship terms that is why we should learn and know how to apologize and repair human mistakes or moments of failings.

      There is a big difference between being unable or unwilling to learn something and insisting the other person is wrong and knowing it is wrong and making mistakes imho.

  8. Hi Matt,

    I also started reading your blog after your first post about the dirty cup. I shared it with my husband at the time in hopes that it was the answer to our problems. But he rejected it wholeheartedly. Shortly after that we through a very ugly divorce that lasted two years.

    I think you’ve nailed it on the head, no one wants to admit that they’re the shitty one (my ex told me that I was the shitty one after I showed him your blog and insisted he was just fine). But what if you did have the right words, like you said? What if you really could move the needle, “cure” divorce?

    Everything you talk about is what I’ve recently come to know as the marriage box: expectations that each partner has of the other, and the ultimate expectation that neither one will leave. That feeling of the marriage being solid, like a box, is why husbands (or wives) are so comfortable staying the shitty one. And you’re trying to show them how much it sucks for the wife not getting her needs met and feeling stuck in the box.

    But what if the answer isn’t meeting the expectation of the box (ie, not being shitty anymore), but is getting rid of the box all together? And not by divorcing. The box is what currently provides the commitment, but what if the commitment was more like a bungee cord? Holding us together but allowing us to move; letting us live in the inevitable discontent of our relanionship, and letting that distance teach us how to better respect the other. What if you had the words to show someone how to do that?

    My marriage failed. I’m now newly married again and I don’t think it will fail because we have a bungee, not a box. And having that bungee is the answer to not being shitty.

    This website says it better than I can: And I’d love to hear your take on it. You have a lot of great insights that have resonated with me for years… What’s your perspective on this idea?

  9. Fascinating metaphor, and the premises sound solid. Is this more or less an online forum?

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