Must Women Leave Men to Get Them to Change?

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Learning the hard way flowchart (Image/David Colarusso)

“Would you have changed if she had not left you?”

Within an hour of answering this exact question in the comments of How to Change Your Shitty Husband, someone else sent an email asking the same question, and whether I’d written an article about it before.

I have answered this question many times—but I think thoughtlessly and too cynically. Maybe because I thought the question was actually about me. Maybe sometimes it is.

Wives and girlfriends, I think, are mostly asking this because they’re trying to decide whether there’s hope for their partner to experience the same emotional intelligence evolution that I did WITHOUT going through divorce, since divorce sucks more than shitty drivers trying to kill you and your 11-year-old at highway speeds.

People frequently ask whether my wife had to divorce me in order for me to make the changes that I did, and it’s easy to say yes.

For me, under my specific life circumstances, it’s easy to efficiently and truthfully say that it took the pain of losing my family to motivate me since to learn all that I have about human relationships.

But that’s a dangerously simplistic answer AND eliminates the opportunity for me to humble-brag about my coaching work with husbands and boyfriends, which sometimes results in clients demonstrating vastly improved emotional intelligence and relationship habits. You know, without all of the limp-wiener sobbing and vomit parties that accompanies the dark and scary early days of divorce when you’re still trying to decide each day whether you want to continue breathing and feeling things. (Or maybe that was just me.)


The Answer is Not Either Or

It’s not a binary choice. It’s much more than just one or the other. There are other possibilities to consider beyond whether to divorce/break up, or remain in a toxic relationship.

There’s nothing particularly special about me or the coaching work that I do. It’s unique, I suppose, in that only I can be me, and only I can think and speak the way I think and speak. People frequently reach out to me because of articles I’ve written which they say explains their relationship to them in ways that make sense where other self-help content had failed to connect or resonate.

I’m not for everyone. But I am for those people. The people who speak my language and think and feel kind of like how I think and feel. Those are the people I can help via coaching.

For other people, different coaches, or therapists, or marriage counselors, or even just some great books might be what can help them the most.

Like figuring out how to fine-tune your specific relationship with your specific partner by tailoring your behavioral and communication habits to THEIR individual needs in order to achieve balance and peace, so too should you use the tools and resources best suited to helping you succeed.

I didn’t have me to talk to.

But I think Now Me could have helped Then Me because I know how to say things in ways that make sense to me. My ex-wife did NOT know how to say things in ways that made sense to me. She said things in ways that made sense to her, and I was too ignorant and immature to put in the work necessary to help both of us learn how to say and do things in the ways that made sense to one another.

People don’t divorce on the reg because all these people who were once madly in love and super-connected to one another suddenly disagree about every possible thing.

People divorce because they don’t know how to explain what’s wrong from the OTHER person’s point of view. Unless you can clearly explain your spouse’s argument or feelings in a way that makes them say “Yes! You totally get it! That’s exactly right!” then it’s safe to conclude you STILL don’t get it.

It’s not your failure to understand it that will get you divorced as much as your stubborn unwillingness to legitimately TRY to understand. That usually ends with your spouse concluding (sensibly) that you don’t care enough about them for them to justify investing the rest of their lives in your relationship, which to them, feels bad every day.

The Right Words, the Right Way, the Right Time

The 5 Love Languages is a simple, profound, and useful way to frame relationship communication and behavior, which is why the book’s author Dr. Gary Chapman has more money than really good bank robbers.

There are five common ways in which people receive love—meaning when people do these things to or for them, they literally feel loved. What most of us do is show our love to others in the way that makes sense to us—in the way WE feel loved. But whenever OUR love language doesn’t align with our romantic partner’s love language (and vice versa), things can get super-hairy like the Elephant Exhibit at the Jimmy John’s Wildlife Preserve.

For many people, the simple adjustment to using words and behavior tailored to their partner’s specific love language can revolutionize the way two people communicate with and connect to one another.

This same principle can be applied to any kind of human connection or communication challenge.

We find answers to our problems when we ask the right questions.

There is a way THAT person learns things, hears things, feels things. It’s probably different than the way you and I learn, hear, and feel stuff.

So to get through to them, it’s our job to understand HOW things get through to them, and then using behavior and communication methods consistent with the way the other person absorbs new information.

Would You Have Changed if She Had Not Left You?

It’s easy to say no. It’s easy to say my wife had to leave me for me to hurt badly enough in order to motivate me to learn WHY, thus developing the emotional intelligence and empathy necessary to learn how be less of an asshole in life and relationships.

But I can’t be sure that’s true.

I might even say I AM sure that I would have changed if I’d had the requisite amount of information I needed back when I needed it.

You can’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The key difference between me now versus me then, is then I believed I knew a lot, and now I’m pretty committed to never assuming I KNOW things. If I ‘know’ things, I can’t learn. If I ‘know’ things, I won’t ask good questions. If I ‘know’ things, I’ll be wrong the exact same amount as I always am, but a much bigger asshole along the way.

We just need the right people, the right conditions, and partners willing and able to speak the language and use the vocabulary that we understand.

It’s a choice.

And no matter which side of the broken-translator crisis you live on, I hope you’ll choose it.

35 thoughts on “Must Women Leave Men to Get Them to Change?”

    1. Not easy at all, Irene. I’ve long thought the biggest problem was that people don’t actually realize that they’re not speaking the same language.

      Great to see you here. Hope you’re well.

    2. I don’t think I want to be with someone who has to be taught basic human emotions like empathy. I also find it very odd that men can manage to fake it long enough to put a ring on it, then suddenly lose all emotional intelligence upon wedding day. That just screams “manipulation” to me. Something doesn’t add up.

      1. Yeah, it does seem like that. And certainly you have the absolute right to choose what kind of person you will or won’t be with.

        Do you have an idea as to why or how that sudden switch on wedding day happens?

      2. Not all people learn about empathy, when they are kids. Sad but true. As we are different souls, we do also act different and mostly of us bring with us, what we have been taught from family. It is much more difficult to learn about empathy, when first people are adults.

      3. Everyone who has ever lived has had to be taught everything they know, Adalia. There are a lot of good people out there who will be better tomorrow than they are today.

        I would be interested to see the example of the man who demonstrates a high-level of emotional intelligence during the dating part of a relationship, but then doesn’t seem to possess any within his marriage. I’d definitely argue that a married man lacking emotional intelligence never had any to begin with, and that whatever positive vibes and experiences were felt by his partner during the pre-marriage dating phase was something other than authentic emotional intelligence.

        I think it doesn’t add up for the same reason that half of American voters think Donald Trump is a great president, while the other half despises him, and for the same reason that some people go to one kind of church while other people go to a different church, or none at all. Some people garden for fun. Other people race go-karts, and other people knit sweaters.

        What makes sense to one person does not always make sense to another person. I think it’s dangerous to apply maliciousness to the differences from one person to another.

        The choices for humanity are: Everyone gets to be who they are and we seek to compassionately and respectfully understand why they think and feel as they do, or… the strongest and most violent group of like-minded thinkers takes over and punishes anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

      4. I think some of the switch in behavior can be explained by the stages of love.

        When we are in the first stage called Limerance we are affected biochemically to behave in ways that are harder when the second stage (in this case marriage) changes the difficulty level.

        Some people have enough empathy and other skills when turbo boosted by limerance but it harder or more confusing after the feel good novelty phase is over.

        For women it often shows up as disappointment and criticism in response which sets off a bad pattern of him responding defensively to protect himself.

        1. Husbands often equally wonder why their wives have changed after marriage.

          Why is she never happy with me as she was before?

          Why is she so critical/angry/disappointed/controlling/emotional etc?

          Why is she not as interested in sex as she may have been?

          Why is she so DIFFERENT?

          Both people have to figure out how to navigate their differences and lives in very new ways than they did before.

          I don’t think it’s just men that change. But wives, of course as humans, only focus on their part of the change in him. It’s harder to recognize how you have changed objectively. That’s part of empathy too imho.

        2. My husband is the man who demonstrated a high-level of emotional intelligence during the dating part of the relationship, but then didn’t possess any within the marriage.

          I won’t get into all the fine details to make that case…I’ve already spent years doing that in my head. It was all very confusing because I often wondered if I just saw the things I wanted to see in him or if they were actually there before marriage and it is a bait and switch situation.

          I spent years telling him what I need in a very gentle but direct way – had to be gentle because I loved him and didn’t want to hurt him. Each time we spoke, I thought he got it and I was hopeful for change but it never happened.

          There were times he made me feel silly and shallow for needing his attention. He often told me that this is just how life is and that I am a depressed personality because I can’t accept that this is what marriage becomes – two people coexisting.

          I loved and trusted him so I took his feedback seriously and I spent the last 8 years in therapy, in groups and on medication in attempts to make myself ok with the state of our marriage. He watched me go through this long and painful journey and never participated. If I could just be fixed we would be fine.

          Then, in one brief conversation, he revealed something I never knew. I was talking to him about feeling confused about who I thought he was and who he became almost immediately after we got married. We have been married for 18 years and he has never asked me or our children to do anything. This is not an exaggeration. Everything we’ve done has been at my urging (and it took urging). I was explaining how sad I felt knowing that my husband would never be excited to do anything with me and how I was having trouble accepting that.I couldn’t understand how the man who did such thoughtful things during dating would now say that he is just not that way.

          He said, ‘This is marriage, not dating. I think that if you ask most people, they would agree.”

          So, there it is – his deep belief that you only do those things while you’re dating and once married you no longer have to. When I told him that we need to separate he said “You said that this was for life!”.

          And that’s the trouble with wedding vows. Many people do not understand that it is an if/then statement. (IF) I promise to love, honor and cherish (THEN) until death do us part.

          He will be moving out in a couple of weeks and I am heartbroken. In many ways I still love him but he backed me into a corner. I have been in that corner for a long time and he has forced me to choose – him or me. For the first time in my life I am choosing me.

          If you got this far, thank you for reading.

          1. Me,

            I am sorry you have had so many years of confusion and pain.

            I can understand why you are heartbroken.

            I sincerely hope your new chapter will be healing and healthy.

          2. I’m sorry to hear about your situation; it must be incredibly painful.

            Clearly you don’t have to say what your husband told you, but I wondered if he was on the autistic spectrum.

            Some of the behaviour you described reminded me very much of my late father, who although undiagnosed (wasn’t really known about in the 70s), seemed to be in hindsight, a textbook case of being on the spectrum.

            The one thing that came out at me was not wanting to do anything with the family; that was my dad down to a tee. We rarely had family outings. Even when we got older, my parents rarely socialized as a couple or even individually.

            There was an absence where a relationship should’ve been. I say that as his daughter; maybe you felt the same about your husband.

          3. Prospect,

            I strongly question the idea that the husband might be on the autistic spectrum. My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s and the idea that he could ever demonstrate emotional intelligence is almost laughable, and I doubt he could sustain the appearance for any length of time (such as extended dating).

            I think it more likely that he appeared to be more social while dating (whether intentional or not), but after marriage he made little effort that way. I could be wrong but I think a lot of men are “wired” that way.

          4. That’s true. But it IS a spectrum and so it is quite feasible that they can go through the courting process, then get married and drop the act. This is a theme running through the stories of women married to men on the autistic spectrum.

            Of course NT men often do the same thing.

            But what caught my eye was the reluctance to do ANYTHING with the family, not just the spouse. This again echoes the stories of women married to autistic men who basically feel like single parents as their husbands show absolutely no interest in their children.

          5. Prospect,

            But what caught my eye was the reluctance to do ANYTHING with the family, not just the spouse. This again echoes the stories of women married to autistic men who basically feel like single parents as their husbands show absolutely no interest in their children.

            If both NT men and autistic men are capable of having no emotional connection to their spouse after marriage, then it seems eminently reasonable to suppose that both groups could be the same way with their children. (Note: I think it would be easier to be disconnected from one’s children than from one’s spouse.)

          6. Why do you think that? It would seem to be the other way round. A husband could disconnect from his wife MUCH more easily than his children. A man might be reluctant to divorce his wife (if he no longer has any feeling for her), but be reluctant to do so for fear of losing his children. Biologically this would make sense, as his children carry his genetic lineage whilst his wife does not, of course.

          7. Prospect,

            I don’t know exactly why I think that. Perhaps it is just a reflection of my personal experience. I fully committed to my now ex-wife for life, but I view my commitment to my children to have been a full commitment only until they are adults and then greatly reduced. In other words, I consider the spousal commitment to be more important overall than the parental commitment.
            As to the biological argument, I think the general agreement is that, in the absence of constraining factors such as “mating for life”, males prefer to increase the odds of their genes continuing by producing many children rather than in protecting a few children.

          8. Feeling that your commitment to your children end once they are fully adult is very different to having no interest in them when they are dependent on you.

            And whilst male reproductive strategies may be to have many children by different mothers. The restraining factors (culture, contraception, opportunity for eg) that for most men who become fathers, they are more likely to be invested in the smaller numbers of children that they DO have.

          9. Me,

            And that’s the trouble with wedding vows. Many people do not understand that it is an if/then statement. (IF) I promise to love, honor and cherish (THEN) until death do us part.

            That’s an interesting interpretation of wedding vows. Trying to see them as a IF/THEN statement, my interpretation runs more along the lines of “IF we are both still alive, THEN I will love, honor, and cherish”.

            It seems you view wedding vows as more of a social contract than lifetime vows meant to kept except in extreme cases. That said, your view probably reflects the vast majority of marriages today and, in my opinion, provides much of the explanation of why so many marriages end in divorce.

  1. Very good explanation of the language barrier between human beings and their ability to have successful relationships. The other book is Mars and Venus and the author has an awesome Ted talk on topic. It’s pretty simple. Speak with love and respect. Don’t be an ass no matter which side you’re on, give the other person an out, apologize even if you’re not wrong because neither one of you is right or wrong you’re both right and wrong. The one little operative word makes all the difference in the world. It’s not rocket science unless you’re trying to land on Venus when you’ve taken up residence on mars. To me it’s not about winning but it’s about not losing a generally good relationship by inserting love and compassion where once lived resentment and anger. No reason for either even in divorce. Unless you erroneously married a narcissist or a BPD, then run like hell as far away as possible and change your address, phone numbers and email.

  2. I think part of the clue is in the title: “to get them to change”. Trying to change someone else, or trying to get them to change, is rarely the answer.

    One book I often recommend to people is “It takes ONE to tango” by Reilly. Here’s a brief quote: “change in a marriage is created unilaterally, not by agreement and never by threat. Change comes about when one person makes a commitment to change him or her self. Trying to change the other person is a complete waste of time”. I’d add “… and often makes things worse”.

    1. People spend a lot of energy trying to force or unpleasantly persuade other people to change their beliefs, their tribes, their personalities, their behaviors, etc.

      It’s what instigates human conflict, small and large, and might ultimately be the greatest source of human suffering.

      One wonders why we bring that into our romantic and family relationships, and then expect any kind of positive result.

  3. “it’s not your failure to understand…as much as your stubborn unwillingness to TRY to understand”.

    My husband is so determined not to be “blamed” for anything that he refuses to even try to see things from my perspective…while at the same time being quite critical of my personality flaws.

    And yet, we carry on.

  4. I disagree. I don’t think men will change unless forced to. At least mine wouldn’t. I’ve talked, yelled, cried, begged, stayed silent, talked some more. There was a time I would have sent him this article, hoping. I briefly thought about sending him this and decided against it. It would be turned around on me. He’s even told me everything is all my fault. It’s never his. Not even a teensy tiny bit. I’ve joked that by his third wife, he’ll get it. I’ve said his second wife will still be completely wrong ALL the time too and that if he’s lucky, if his third wife is lucky, he might start to see that it is indeed him. Maybe. Who knows. All I know is that at this point I’m done trying. I’m exhausted. And I let him tell me he’s right. Why? Because it just doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing I do/say/write will change the fact that he doesn’t see it. He’s an adult. I’m an adult. It’s not my job to change him. It’s his job. If he doesn’t want this marriage, he didn’t have to have it. Unfortunately he is the kind of person who will take he does want it when I’m out the door. When I do that, it won’t be for show or dramatics. It will be because I have completely exhausted every avenue. And in case you say try counseling, did that. With 4 different ones. There was a problem with each of them. I even scheduled one with a man thinking it would help since I’m swaying all women to agree with me. He was the hardest on him. Got in his face. My husband only lasted one appointment with him and somehow ‘forgot’ about the next two and at that point the guy told me to get a divorce. That was 7 years ago. I probably should have listened then and saved myself a lot of grief. But, we have kids and I couldn’t do that to them. Now, it’s a matter of saving myself because I am drowning. I have lost every bit of who I am.

    1. Yeah, refusing to engage in counselling is a good indicator to leave, if you can leave.

    2. That sounds extremely painful and difficult. I’m sorry it is how it is.

      How are you managing along? And, if I may ask, where are you with God?

  5. You hit the nail on the head when you talked about a “stubborn unwillingness to legitmately TRY to understand”. In my situatuon, my other half is always so worried about protecting his good guy image. Generally, he is a good guy. But I just wish he’d make more effort to see things from my perspective. But then, maybe I’m not saying it in a way he understands.

  6. I’ve been off WordPress for a year and wanted to check in to see if you were still writing and with what content these days. It’s super cool to see you at this level, and what a step. I feel like last year was still heavy with emotion-driven radical posts, and now I can see a mature coach, football clutched in two hands, looking much more sure of his role on the field.

    Stay curious, my friend.

    1. What a kind note. I appreciate you checking on me. I hope you’re still making art, and that it’s bringing you joy. Excellent to see you here. Thanks for making time for it.

      1. It’s my pleasure, really. I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs over the years because they’re personable, and I always learn something.

        I am indeed making art still. Not to the level at which I used to, but art has a tendency to ebb and flow. I’m back to blogging, but this time trying to add that “personable personality” which I admire in others so much. 🙂

        I’ve focused more on travel and journeying the past year. Nothing extravagant, just exploring the locals. It was refreshing to “get outside of myself” for a season.

        So very nice to converse with you again, Matt.

  7. It’s funny I just heard a podcast a few days ago with Quentin Hefner who is a marriage therapist.

    He said that he had to get left and divorced before he could “get it.”

    I agree with you Matt that another wake up call earlier might have gotten it without getting divorced. You felt pain, you just couldn’t figure out what to do differently.

    If the marriage therapy you attended had been more skilled too.

    I think of it like smokers.

    Some people quit when they have kids to protect them from second hand smoke.

    Some people have to get a big medical diagnosis before they get the motivation to quit. And even then many need help quitting (patches, e-cigarettes, hypnosis).

    Some people don’t quit even when given those horrible diagnosis. Even knowing the people they will leave crying by their early death.

    You need both motivation to change and the ability to change.

    I think men can often be given more EARLY warning wake-up calls before the women is exhausted and done. That’s why imho it’s important to women to have good relationship skills to have the motivation and ability to do that to “get” her husband to change.

    He may not choose to change of course but you have given him more motivation early enough to have a better shot at learning how to change.

    1. He said that he had to get left and divorced before he could “get it.”

      I agree with you Matt that another wake up call earlier might have gotten it without getting divorced. You felt pain, you just couldn’t figure out what to do differently.

      If the marriage therapy you attended had been more skilled too.

      My version of “getting it” after divorce is that I’m not even remotely open to the possibility of dating again, much less remarrying. I’m not willing to take the risk myself or, for that matter, risking hurting another woman.

      As to the idea that changing my own behavior would have resulted in a decent marriage, I think it’s possible. However, let’s suppose my behavior was okay (not perfect, of course), but that my now ex-wife was incapable of ever being satisfied. That is, her expectations were unrealistic and no level of effort on my part would be enough. If true, then she did me a favor by getting a divorce.
      While that scenario may not be true, I have no way of knowing, so I choose to live without any romantic relationship because it is the safest way. And, honestly, I am okay with it because it is far better than the intense frustration of being in a marriage that was constantly deteriorating.

  8. I believe there needs to be an acknowledgment that sometimes there is no real wake-up call. Communication issues are so fraught that one spouse decides to end it and walk away – usually women. An opportunity to address the issues is never presented. I envy the men whose wives openly asked to go to marriage counseling or straight up said what the problems were that needed to be fixed by the man, before ending the marriage.

  9. Five Love Languages backfired on me. My Shitty Husband used it to decide that his love languages were acts of service and physical affection, so I needed to do more around the house – and him even less – and initiate more affection. He just turned it into a tool to rationalize his shitty behavior. Household work is women’s work, even though I’m the primary breadwinner, and he gets to put the responsibility for any romantic contact on me. Anytime he starts browbeating me about something, he gets to remind me that I MADE him read “that Love Languages book,” and I’m still not giving him what he NEEDS (so I deserve the verbal abuse).

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