I did, said, and believed things throughout my youth and marriage that were totally sexist—even though I didn’t view them as sexist at the time—and those things more or less turned my wife against me and ultimately cost me my marriage and family.
If you’d have told me I was a sexist, I’d have undoubtedly responded with defensive outrage and mansplained how you were wrong, all the while believing everything I was saying and feeling.
That’s the real danger. THAT is what causes all of these relationships to slowly turn ugly and then end miserably—that we 100% believe all of the bullshit we peddle. We’re telling the truth. We act like we’re right and like we know everything because we all actually believe it at the time.
Life’s worst things happen while we feel CERTAIN about things that aren’t actually true.
It doesn’t matter that I didn’t believe I was sexist. What matters is that I was sexist.
My mom more or less ran the household growing up with her and my stepdad, and was the alpha in regards to parenting decisions determining what I was allowed or not allowed to do, or to determine punishments, and all sorts of other things.
Most of my teachers were female.
The very best students—the most intelligent and top-performing kids in my class—were female. Anne and Colleen. I think both are doctors now.
I had close-knit friendships with a few of the girls in my class that at the time rivaled my close friendships with guy friends, a handful of which remain strong more than three decades later.
All of this to say that I NEVER believed that men were fundamentally better than women. Like, never. Just like I never believed being white was better than having dark skin because so many of my favorite athletes, actors, and musicians didn’t look like me—which conned me into believing I couldn’t feel racist things—a belief proven wrong by how my brain reacted to boarding planes with people of Middle Eastern descent in those first few years following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Fear Perpetuated my Sexism—Is it the Same for You?
I never disliked someone because they were from Iran or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. I’ve always liked pretty much everyone. Maybe that’s an ENFP thing.
I was AFRAID—irrationally—that someone from a particular ethnicity was somehow more likely to harm me than someone who looked like Timothy McVeigh or Robert Gregory Bowers. Which I think we can agree, in hindsight, is a pretty stupid thing to believe.
Where I came from, it was BAD to be a guy who did anything like a girl.
As recently as my 20s, I was giving major judgy side-eye looks to buddies who listened to Taylor Swift (“girl music”) or who liked watching romantic comedies (“chick flicks”).
It wasn’t BAD to be a girl. It wasn’t BAD to be a woman.
It was simply bad to do things “like a girl” if you weren’t one. Maybe that’s why we were also all little homophobic assholes as well. We spent so much time calling each other “gay fags” as a way to rip on one another that there’s no chance that any of the kids who actually were gay could have ever felt respected, accepted, or comfortable around us—which is undoubtedly a factor in them moving far away and waiting several years before coming out.
Where I come from, if you’re a man who does “girl things,” you’re less of a man. Which is bad.
And where I come from, women do the majority of housework, the majority of childcare, the majority of social calendar management, etc. There was no Right vs. Wrong judgment about any of it. It was just The Way. It was Normal.
And we, as human beings, tend to react to things outside of OUR Normal as being “wrong.” It’s because we’re assholes, but we don’t have to be.
It Was My Wife’s Responsibility to Fix Her Dumb Girl Emotions
Right? If my wife was responding incorrectly to things because she had weak girl emotions, how was that MY fault?
Is it really fair to ask me to adjust everything I do, think, feel, and say simply because it hurts my wife’s incorrect feelings when all she has to do is realize her mistake and simply STOP feeling bad about silly things?
After writing about marriage and divorce for more than six years, I’ve come to believe that THAT sentiment is the No. 1 marriage killer in the world.
I ALREADY did more around the house (I probably did the majority of cooking, grocery shopping, and kitchen cleanup throughout our nine-year marriage) than every male role model I’d ever had.
I was ALREADY compromising my Man of the House role, and was hell-bent on retaining my Man Card.
I was working and making the most money. I was doing more housework (“women’s work,” you might have heard it called) than any of the adult men I grew up around. I didn’t cheat. I didn’t do drugs or drink excessively. I didn’t gamble away our savings. I wasn’t physically or verbally abusive. I was a reliable caretaker for our son.
So, when I was told what an insensitive and shitty husband I was being (she never actually called me those things), my reaction was always one of high-and-mighty moral outrage.
How DARE you tell me I’m not a good husband!
“Matt, would you please stop throwing your jeans on this nightstand? I try hard to keep the bedroom looking nice. Can you please just put them in the closet out of sight?”
How DARE she make a big deal out of something stupid like throwing my jeans on the nightstand that literally no other human being besides us will ever see! Why make a marriage fight out of this small thing?! This is all because of her dumb girl-feelings!
“Matt, would you please stop leaving that dirty glass by the sink? I try hard to keep the kitchen looking nice. Can you please just put it in the dishwasher?”
How DARE she make a big deal out of something stupid like setting that water glass by the sink that isn’t even dirty! I’m just trying to recycle the glass because it’s easier than washing extra dishes every time. Why make a marriage fight out of this silly thing?! This is all because of her dumb girl-feelings!
“Matt, would you please not make fun of me in front of our friends? It hurts my feelings. You’re literally nicer to total strangers than you are to me.”
Oh my God. How DARE she make a big deal out of something stupid like some playful mocking that everyone knows is a joke! I married this woman and chose her out of EVERYONE IN THE WORLD to love and commit to and have children with! Why make a marriage fight over this totally illogical thing?! This is all because of her dumb girl-feelings!
Because I was the more “emotionally stable” one—you know, because I handled things like a logical man—I was right, therefore my wife was wrong.
She was the one with the problem.
I believed she was the one responsible for maturing and simply CHOOSING to not feel hurt over things that were in no way intended to hurt her.
It’s a Respect Thing
I loved my wife. Maybe even more than myself. But I didn’t RESPECT her individual experiences as being equally valid to mine.
Things that were real and true—and often painful—for her didn’t affect me. Not outside of her complaining to me about it. My wife spent many years trying to recruit me to understand what was happening in her heart and mind so that her husband could work cooperatively with her to eliminate negativity in the marriage.
She tried every way she knew how to communicate to me that these “little, silly, emotional girl things” were important. Each and every time she tried, I made it clear to her how much I disagreed, and how certain I was that I was correct because of my wise man brain.
This idea can’t be shared enough times:
My wife HURT—down deep where the medicine can’t fix it—because of things I said and did. And for more than 10 years, when she came to me for help to make the hurt stop, I communicated to her that I thought she was MISTAKEN—wrong—to feel hurt, and even worse, that she was using it to cause problems in our marriage.
I seriously said that to her, like, a million times.
Every chance I had to respect my wife and live up to the vows I’d made on our wedding day, I instead communicated to her: No. Your girl-feelings are dumb. It’s not MY job to stop doing these things that don’t even matter. It’s YOUR job to stop caring about them so that you won’t feel hurt anymore.
This is why my wife could no longer trust me or feel safe with me. When you don’t make your partner feel safe and lose their trust, it’s all over.
I hope you’ll believe me when I say that if you’re someone who agrees with my thoughts and feelings from when I was still married, and feel as if my actions were justified when discussing it with my wife, your current or future relationships have almost no chance of succeeding. If you think what I did was right, we need to talk.
Happy International Women’s Day
I used to roll my eyes at things like today. March 8—International Women’s Day. What a bunch of hippie, liberal hogwash, I thought.
But then, I figured out what Accidental Sexism looks like, how I unwittingly abused my wife emotionally for a decade, and realized that I would have NEVER done those things had I known back then what I know now.
Being sexist is bad. Being a shitty husband is bad. But NOT all men (and/or women) who exhibit sexism and shitty husbandry are bad.
You can be—in your core—a good human being who genuinely cares about making this world a better place, and still innocently and unknowingly mistreat other people in ways you are blind to. You can be a good man who genuinely loves his wife and wants to have a long and happy marriage, and still innocently and unknowingly lack the knowledge and skills necessary to actually be a good husband.
To our daughters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, neighbors, bosses, friends, teachers, co-workers, nieces, cousins, and everyone I’m forgetting.
To our influencers and heroes.
And most importantly—to the women who voluntarily choose us out of all 7.7 billion people on earth—to love and trust and care for.
Your thoughts and feelings and experiences don’t matter because you’re women. They matter because you’re human, like me.
Thank you for all that you tolerate and give and fight through.
Thank you for helping me remove some of my blinders.
Thank you for being you.
Please don’t give up on us.
49 thoughts on “How Accidental Sexism Ruined My Marriage (and Might be Ruining Yours)”
Thanks again for a dead on piece. We each deserve to have our thoughts, feelings, and experiences respected. Not because we are “right”, or special. But because we are human.
Thank you, Lesli! Always grateful for your time and thoughts. I hope you’re well!
This is everything! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and being so honest. Your words are changing lives…
I think every man in America needed to read this!
Too kind. Thank you very much, Lacie. Grateful for your time.
Matt, your insight into the dynamics of your former marriage are remarkable. I’m sorry to admit that I think so because I’m coming from the belief that “men just don’t get it” – that understanding other people’s (your wife’s) feelings should matter to the husband. You could say I am stereotyping men, but the statistics prove this to be true. Maybe you are familiar with John Gottman’s research on the importance of spouses allowing “INFLUENCE”? His research shows that out of all divorces, 81% of divorces are caused by this very problem which you are describing. He says that, generally speaking, women are naturally inclined to allow their husbands to “influence” their decision making. However, he says, men have the greatest difficulty allowing their wives to “influence” their decision making. It’s really a very interesting dynamic. This is attributed to several things – hard-wiring (nature), upbringing (nurture), cultural influences/reinforcements. Gottman states that this is a bigger problem in heterosexual relationships than it is in gay or lesbian relationships. Very interesting research. It backs up your point exactly. Here’s a link to an article about his research in case you haven’t come across it yet: https://www.gottman.com/blog/manage-conflict-accepting-influence/
Matt, I’m sure many women have told you this. I just want to say that I find reading your blog cathartic. You’ve shown an amazing commitment to long term proactive consciousness raising, but more specifically, you model the unpacking that I wish my ex-husband was engaging in. I don’t think he will ever have the humility to do this. Not for one moment do I think he can set aside his fear of emasculation to consider any of this. And that knowledge keeps me in an emotionally abusive cycle that I’m still trying to work my way out of. It’s difficult to recover from 25 years of being disrespected. But your insights serve as a proxy for me. Your post hoc and hard-won empathy with your ex-wife’s situation make me feel heard and seen. Maybe not by him. Perhaps never by him. But by someone. And that helps ease the pain.
Nice thing to say. I hope you’ll believe that I take a little bit of pride in that in return. That this can provide some type of service matters to me. Thank you.
A very vulnerable admission to sexism (of both men and women) racism, and homophobia. I can relate to some of what you wrote and I have other stuff you didn’t include in your list.
(I am sure you are teaching and modeling a different “normal” to your son which is the silver lining of getting your heart broken and eyes opened.)
I wonder if part of the ease of this is thinking in terms of “good” or “bad”.
I can assure myself I am a “good” person/man/women/parent/husband/wife/son/daughter/worker/boss/etc
if I do or think x, y, or z.
It’s the certainty of “I am ok, I am not perfect but I am GOOD that is so comforting and hard to give up. Hard to give up the safety of certainty.
If we think about ourselves in good/bad terms it’s no wonder we are defensive and even hostile when someone questions our premise or requests more change. They threaten the certainty of our self esteem of being one of the good ones.
“How DARE they … as you said.
We turn it into THEIR problem because we just know we are one of the good ones. We have set ourselves up to need to know that to feel ok.
What if we leveled up and gave up seeing ourselves as good or bad? Gave up the certainty? One up over the “bad” ones that do it don’t do x, y, and z. Can’t they see I am not like *those bad ones?”
Giving up certainty takes courage and practice.
What if we gave up having to frame it in terms of “I was a good man but…
“You can be a good man who genuinely loves his wife and wants to have a long and happy marriage, and still innocently and unknowingly lack the knowledge and skills necessary to actually be a good husband.”
(And this applies to everyone, give up I was a good wife/mother etc but.. )
I mean. As an individual, this is a valuable exercise. Totally agree. As a writer, I think a bit of diplomacy and, for lack of a better word, compassion, is in order to spur someone to ask themselves the right questions.
I feel compelled to remind people—both victims and perpetrators of accidental relationship wounds—that fundamentally good people are capable of harming others if they’re unaware of what is actually harmful.
I don’t know a more productive way to frame it.
Oh well diplomacy has never been one of my strengths. ?
I am musing out loud in these comments.
I agree that what and how we present something to influence change might be different than accurate diagnosis.
I am trying to figure out if thinking about being good/bad is correct diagnostically if that makes sense. It seems to cause more problems than it helps. It commonly seems to create defensiveness to protect your goodness from what I see.
Having grown up in various Christian theologies that taught you were *not good* inherently presented some different ways of thinking about it other than you are a good person but… (although it can also cause problems on the other side of feeling unworthy so it’s hard to get a balance).
For what it’s worth, Terry Real uses the approach you do with men in different steps.
1. He will tell them plainly all the ways they are shitty husbands (no “50/50” to soften it if it is more onesided)
2. Then he will tell them they are not “bad men” but just weren’t taught.
3. And then he will ask them if they are willing to learn and change to be better husbands and fathers.
4. He does all this by telling the wife that she must use her leverage including being willing to leave.
5. So Real joins the wife and endorses what she is saying (as appropriate). He won’t do it unless the wife is also willing to risk.
6. And of course this goes the other way too if the wife is the “blatant” one.
So I agree that it is often helpful to use the “you are not a bad man” approach so that men can hear what you are saying. To reduce defensiveness.
When you get buy-in to change, it is important imho to change the good/bad framing. That is part of what Real does later. So that is what I am thinking about).
(I am reading Terry Real lately which is why I keep talking about his work ?)
I didn’t know that either.
I think it makes sense in coaching. But when I’m writing, I generally imagine the person who has only read one or two—possibly zero—things from me.
I understand what you’re saying, and I appreciate you saying it.
What is your favorite Terry Real book?
I missed your question earlier about my favorite Terry Real book. Marilyn has mentioned her favorite so I will throw mine out too.
His very recent audiobook Fierce Intimacy is an excellent summary of his ideas. And I like to have people read to me so I can listen in my car.
The New Rules of Marriage has a lot of excellent guidance in it of what both people need to change. He talks a lot about good boundaries and how to know and change to be in your adult self not your adaptive child self that causes the problems.
PS he uses an overt Feminist framing that some people may or may not like. ?
It’s the way that makes sense to me.
You know I think that is why so many want to use the 50/50 framing even when it is not diagnostically accurate.
Some people **cannot hear**unless you soften it to reduce defensiveness.
I think this is an excellent thing to do so I agree with you.
Where we may disagree (or maybe not?) is that I don’t think it is often diagnostically accurate or helpful to stay with that framing.
At some point we have to level up and fight the shame/defensiveness to see ourselves and our behaviors even if it means we are responsible for most of all of the damage in certain areas.
I don’t know maybe some people don’t need that? I am all for whatever works if it works for both people.
The only reason I think the accidental/intentional focus and good man but.. thing might be counterproductive is that it can *minimize* acknowledging the damage done to the other person.
“Oh it doesn’t “count” as much because I didn’t know, wasn’t taught, didn’t understand, wasn’t intending to hurt/ignore you” “ I am not like those bad men so it’s not as bad, you shouldn’t think of it as that bad.”
Sometimes when people focus on minimizing their shame, they minimize true remorse and acknowledging what they have done to the other person.
I have seen and personally experienced that a lot (from men and women) so that is where I am coming from to see it from both sides.
And if it’s not clear I don’t think you are saying that men shouldn’t own their shit. I get you are trying to present it in a way to reach men.
I don’t know if this would be helpful for your mission, but my thought would be to present it in levels.
I heard a podcast recently from a marriage therapist who wrote a book called “Black Belt Husband”. He talked about it as learning and building your relationship skills on levels. Each skill level is like different colors of belts.
Each skill level is foundational to the next harder level mastery.
Imho the good/bad intentional/accidental belt is like the yellow belt. It helps as a foundation to “get it” but you need to level up and in higher level belts you don’t focus on that but on owning your shit without the need to protect your goodness.
It’s only a problem imho if one doesn’t know that need to level up. If they think the yellow belt level is black belt level.
And I forgot to add that Terry Real tell BOTH people what they are doing wrong. In the typical heterosexual example the wife is responding with anger/criticism or alternatively is not willing to risk “standing up” to bad behavior. And they have their own unhealthy bad behavior that needs to change.
What if we were able to let go of needing to frame it as “accidental”?
It’s still using a good/bad framing to separate “accidental” vs “intentional”.
We use “accidental” to avoid shame because we can still think of ourselves as “good” and not like those “bad” intentional people.
Because accidental vs. intentional is relevant to me.
Every justice system in the developed world evaluates wrongdoing in a manner of degrees, and intent is a major factor.
Accidentally causing a car accident, and intentionally causing one has always, and will always be two different things, with one being a graver offense than the other.
I’d be surprised to learn you disagree.
I am surprised that you are surprised that I disagree. ? since a couple of years ago it was hotly debated with the whole Steve/Bill thing. All the women commenters were trying to get the focus off “accidental/intentional”.
I actually don’t disagree that accidental doesn’t matter. I agree with you that it does matter in certain ways.
I disagree somewhat that it is the thing to *focus* on in relationships. That the *focus* should be on criteria for who is a good or mad person as I said.
But hey I am still learning and thinking. I don’t want to present it as if I am “right.” Just throwing it out there as my point of view and something to think about. I appreciate hearing your point of view. It is good for me to shake up the old brain.?
Typo but probably pretty accurate as mad too.
That the *focus* should be on criteria for who is a good or bad (not mad) person as I said.
I agree with you. I just think there’s a line.
How you and I discuss things isn’t the same as how me and a guy who has never even thought about concepts like empathizing with his wife before.
That’s how I think about it, at least. If there’s a better way, I always want to be looking for it. So, I appreciate you asking the questions.
So I am going to take my own advice below about being more flexible in language and agree that “accidental” is overall a good way to approach this stuff. I truly believe that most people most of the time can’t figure out how to get out of these cycles, and are acting to protect themselves and/or try to improve things however misguided.
It helps more than it hurts. I appreciate the dialogue.
You are so spot on with ruining their theory of being a good husband/person/wife.
Hmmm,I’m going to just slip this link in here Matt, because somehow I think it’s relevant to what you have just said. Sexism is real enough, but I think it goes even a bit farther than that, to not just disrespect for women, but disrespect for the emotional,intuitive, and supernatural in general.
I love reading the things you write. It’s a crying shame that your marriage had to end for you to come to see some of this stuff, but, on some days – like today, your words somehow manage to renew the dying embers of what’s left of my faith in marriage as a whole. God bless a lesson learned. Thanks for sharing.
I’ve been following the conversation here for a couple of days and I noticed that you and Gottmanfan were at one point discussing Terry Real and you asked which was her favorite book by him — though she didn’t answer directly here, I thought I might suggest something because I am huge fan. In his book, “How Can I Get Through To You”. he describes (in the introduction p. 20) a type of unacknowledged sexism that he calls psychological patriarchy. “Both men and women participate in this tortured value system. Psychological patriarchy is a ‘dance of contempt’, a perverse form of connection that replaces true intimacy with complex, covert layers of dominance and submission, collusion and manipulation.” He continues on page 21: ” As a culture, with no malevolent intent, following strictures we have all been raised within, we force our children out of the wholeness and connectedness in which they begin
This is my 1st time reading a blog of yours, and I think it was amazing you finally cam to this realization. What I’d like to know is, after 10 years of your ex-wife trying to communicate this, what finally made you aware of the issue?
Matt, I’d also like to know the answer to the above question – if you’re willing to share. My husband of 5 years (been together for 6) struggles with the very same issue you described in your blog, and I am doing everything I can to figure out how to reach him.
Reblogged this on My Rants, Dreams, and Thoughts on Everything and commented:
I love this man’s blog. What he writes so often resonates with me. This is a perfect example. Maybe my ex didn’t realize he did these things but I was often so dismissed for my feelings. I was told I shouldn’t feel this way and that way though I was hurt terribly. Just like when he actually poked on a huge bruise and asked if it hurt. The emotional things were worse. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have my own feelings.
Matt, once again what you have written so resonated with me. This is a perfect example. Maybe Brett didn’t realize he did these things but I was often so dismissed for my feelings. I was told I shouldn’t feel this way and that way though I was hurt terribly. Just like when he actually poked on a huge bruise and asked if it hurt. The emotional things were worse. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have my own feelings. I am so glad you have grown. I hope my ex has to as he is about to get remarried. I am still damaged. I don’t know if I can ever trust completely again
Here is a very interesting approach that I think is congruent with this blog’s mission. He wrote it, he said, because most men don’t relate or feel defensive by the way most relationship books present things.
Black Belt Husband by Quentin Hafner”
“Why most guys aren’t interested in mainstream relationship books
How your actions are a choice, your feelings are not a choice
How marital bliss will naturally subside in between 6 and 24 months
How to stop judging your own feelings
How having uncomfortable feelings about your marriage is common
How everybody has the feeling of hating their spouse at some time
How negative feelings doesn’t mean your marriage is broken, only that a problem needs to be addressed
Quentin’s mission to normalize these feelings so men don’t panic
How not to react to your feelings, but instead correct your course
The two main things that silently destroy a marriage
Apathy – being too casual, leaving the relationship on cruise control. Marriages are like a living organism that needs nurturing and tending to.
Understanding the importance of offering your wife an emotional connection – Marriages from 2018 are hugely different from 1975. Women have an expectation of emotional fulfilment. Being a provider is not enough and most guys struggle with how to do that.
How to understand your own needs as a man
How to communicate those needs to your wife
Why listening to your wife is only half the equation
To offer the full emotional connection requires you to share
Women are desperate for men to share, to find out about the person they are with
A man’s options in an argument
Why shutting down emotionally is like drinking your own poison
How taking risks and being honest about your feelings is like magic to your marriage
How being “the rock” for your spouse is the biggest myth”
(Messed up the bold font above)
“The similarities between the journey through marriage and jujitsu
Quentin’s belt system for becoming a great husband
White belt – being coachable and open minded
Blue belt – building self-confidence and internal strength
Purple belt – becoming well-rounded
Brown belt – being a great leader in marriage
Black belt – mastery
How sex for women is a completely emotional experience and they need to feel extremely secure and attached to have a healthy libido
Advice to men in a sexless marriage
Why you shouldn’t hesitate to get professional help”
One of the things I found interesting about Hafner the way he approached “leader”
A lot of men hear or are taught they are supposed to be the “leader” of the marriage or the family.
Instead of arguing with that framing, he uses the language they are familiar but introduces additional ways of thinking about what “leadership” can mean.
I think I can learn a lot from that communication approach.
I think a lot of people can.
Forgot to link the book if someone is interested.
This would be a book I would recommend especially for Evangelical Christian who don’t like Terry Real’s feminist framing.
Or lots of other men that believe or have absorbed that men should be “leaders” or who relate to “masculine” framing.
And who would resist reading a book with like Johnson’s Hold Me Tight (good book, terrible title).
Thank you for the pointer about this book. I’ll try to get my hands on it and read the entire book as soon as possible.
Regarding the excerpt about self-awareness that is published above, and the three things I do that get in the way of having a better marriage (or in my case since I’m not married, a better “platform” for relationships in general, as I interpret it).
One of the things I do, that I would like to do less of, is that I worry too much. Especially about what other people think about me.
I think this goes back to my experience of having to play along with the rules of others to be accepted in any group, experience and fear of “abandonment” in group dynamics, etc. I usually don’t mind doing things by myself, but sometimes it’s nice to have friends, and sometimes you outright need’em. I don’t know?
I think “worrying too much” can often be multifaceted for the cause in relationships but is helped by tools for social anxiety (at least for me).
If you can find a good therapist that might be a great help in finding ways to soothe the fear of judgment and abandonment. Is that something you think might help?
There are a lot of books, podcasts, etc that might help too.
And I say all this because it’s something I have had to deal with. ?
You’re so full of resources, it’s incredible 🙂
I am full of resources because I have had to use them for myself. ?
There is coaching available too.
I really think you are an ideal person to get much better and change your life to have more healthy relationships.
You are self aware and motivated to change. You have many of the required social skills already. All you need is the right resources to guide you for a new future different than your past.?
Here is a quick video from Dr Aziz
Here is an example of a podcast I like.
you are amazing. we often forget our true strength pride in honesty and human conciusness. before our gender, identity, names and sexual orientation and labels, we are one as human race and were born equal. that’s the basic fundamental human right. treat people the way you want to be treated yet we all divide and choose which category is better than others yet we are more connected than we could possibly imagine. what good is human without humanity and only peace and love for our human race. we are stronger as one.
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