Author Matthew Fray’s (pictured) new book This Is How Your Marriage Ends is out on April 7
Just after my 34th birthday, my wife left me, taking our four-year-old son with her. I was utterly devastated. I cried and shouted and blamed her for ruining my life.
When she started seeing someone new, I was physically sick at the thought of this man playing happy families with her and my boy.
And yet today, nine years on, I believe she made a wise choice. Given her experience of our 12 years together, she did the right thing by leaving me. When someone feels mistreated and unloved, it’s sensible and healthy for them to consider whether choosing that every day for ever is the right thing to do.
So what terrible thing did I do exactly? How did I mistreat my poor wife? Well . . . I often left used drinking glasses by the sink. Occasionally there were plates, too, deposited on the counter just inches from the dishwasher. Sometimes I also failed to put my clothes away and instead left them draped on furniture or even on the floor. That’s what made her leave me.
Of course, when you put it that way, it sounds hugely unreasonable. I can hear you now: she walked away because you left dishes by the sink? Wow, she needs to get her priorities in order.
And that’s what I thought, too, while I was married to her. I thought she should recognise how petty and meaningless it was in the grand scheme of life, and I repeated that train of thought for the better part of 12 years, waiting for her finally to agree with me. But she never did.
The thing is, the glass by the sink did matter to my wife — she hated it sitting there — but it wasn’t just about the glass. It wasn’t about dishes left for her to sort, or laundry on the floor. My wife wasn’t some insufferable nag who had to have her way all the time.
It was about what these things said to her. And what they said was: I would always choose my feelings and preferences over hers. That she was married to someone who did not respect or appreciate her.
That while she rarely made a decision without thinking about how it might affect me or our son, I barely ever considered how my actions affected her. That not taking four seconds to put my glass in the dishwasher was more important to me than she was.
Of course, at the time I didn’t know any of this. I thought I was a good man. I am a good man — but the fact is, good men can be terrible at marriage and frequently are. That’s a harsh lesson but it’s one I firmly believe most — all? — men need to hear.
The truth is, living in a broken marriage or going through divorce is one of the most disruptive and painful experiences a person can encounter. And it’s not unlikely to happen.
In England and Wales, almost half of all first marriages (45 per cent) and a third of second marriages (33 per cent) end in divorce. Statistically, women initiate 62 per cent of divorces — often for the same reasons as my wife — and men are hit hardest by them. For men more than for women, divorce is linked to higher rates of loneliness, depression, heart disease and even cancer.
After my wife left me, it felt as though my life was in tatters. While she seemed happy with her new relationship, I was binge-watching Netflix through my tears and self-medicating with vodka.
One night, things felt so bleak, I phoned a therapist, who told me to start a journal and get it all out on paper.
So I did — and because I was drunk, I posted it on the internet. That’s how I started blogging about my divorce and how, finally, I started to ask questions about why my wife had left me.
Just after his 34th birthday, his wife left him, taking their toddler son with her (stock photo)
I read books. I listened to other people tell their stories. And as more and more men started to engage with the blog, I realised how much we all had in common. My wife and I weren’t weird or a statistical anomaly; we were the norm.
The fact is, when relationships become strained, it doesn’t happen quickly. The strain sneaks in slowly. Most of us legitimately love our spouses and want our marriages to succeed; we’re not intentionally sabotaging our most important relationships.
Instead, we’re doing it pinprick by pinprick. Love doesn’t die in a loud, dramatic way. It’s not bright or flashy. The ticking timebombs that destroy our marriages are often disguised as harmless, innocent, everyday behaviours — like leaving glasses by the sink.
The reason we can’t see this is because far too many of us lack the number one ingredient for a lasting marriage.
We lack empathy.
I didn’t realise my wife was moving incrementally closer to ending our marriage every time she saw that glass, because I stubbornly refused to look at the world from where she stood.
At root, I didn’t value her feelings. On the contrary, I treated them as silly, ‘girly’, an inconvenience. On autopilot, as a matter of habit, I defended my point of view and effectively called hers wrong, overemotional or crazy.
I think I believed that my wife should respect me simply because I had exchanged vows with her. I loved her but I didn’t regard her individual experiences as equally valid to mine.
Ohio-based author (pictured) says good men can be terrible at marriage and frequently are
You’d be surprised — or perhaps you wouldn’t — by how many men conduct their marriages in this way.
The sad fact is that far too many men invest more time in their hobbies or watching sport than in getting to know their wives as people.
As Mother’s Day approaches, they might decide to ‘give her a break’ by cooking breakfast or ‘help her out’ by taking the children for an afternoon. But that’s it. They spend one day a year thinking of her feelings.
After the success of my blog, I left a career in marketing to become a relationship coach — and I met many men like this. I had one client in his 70s, for example, who came to me frustrated that he’d been hearing the same complaints from his wife for nearly 40 years of marriage. (Feel free to laugh. I sort of did, even though it’s more sad than funny.)
I asked him to grab a pen and paper and, in two columns, jot down the things that mattered most to his wife. One column of positive stuff and one of negative. In other words, what were the things that moved the needle emotionally for her in either direction?
My client couldn’t name one thing. Not one.
‘I don’t really know,’ he said.
Which meant that he didn’t know his wife. And men who don’t know their wives can’t empathise with them.
I’m not here to tell anyone how to think, but I’m confident that a woman will find little marital satisfaction with a man who’s perceived to invest more time and effort in playing golf, say, than in knowing what his spouse thinks and feels.
Three conversations that can kill a marriage
The world’s number one marriage killer — I believe — is a sneaky little conversation pattern that I call the Invalidation Triple Threat.
You may participate in this poisonous verbal merry-go-round too, but women are on the receiving end of it far more often than men. This must have happened several times a week in my marriage, and each time it effectively told my wife I didn’t consider her feelings or opinions equal to mine.
Scenario 1: ‘Your Thoughts Are Wrong’
Something happened that led to my wife experiencing pain or another negative emotion — anger, embarrassment, fear, sadness. Say, I made a joke at her expense in front of friends. The first version of the Invalidation Triple Threat involves judging other people’s recollection of events or perception of reality as flawed.
‘But wait,’ I’d say. ‘Everyone knew it was a joke! You’re getting the facts wrong. What really happened was . . .’
If the event didn’t happen the way she said it did, there was no longer any reason for her to feel bad about it or keep making me responsible for her feelings. Problem solved!
Scenario 2: ‘Your Feelings Are Wrong’
Say I left my clothes on the floor. The second version of this involves judging other people’s emotional experiences as unfair or inappropriate.
‘You’re overreacting! If you recalibrate your feelings to not care so much, you’ll magically not feel bad. Just like me!
Scenario 3: ‘The Justifiable Defence’
This one is scary because I believe it’s the most damaging and most common.
Something happened. Say, I was late handing in a form for my son’s nursery because on the due date, something unexpected happened. My wife feels angry or embarrassed. I defend my decision-making on the grounds that my actions made logical sense to me, even though if I hadn’t left it until the final day, I would easily have made the deadline.
‘Wait. If you understand the situation as I do, you’ll clearly see that I’m innocent of all wrongdoing, so you shouldn’t feel bad. It was all a big misunderstanding.’
In all three responses, there is no empathy or remorse. While I explained how I was in the right, my wife was hearing me more or less promise that, in all similar future scenarios, her pain would matter less to me than whatever super-smart calculation I had made. I thought I was intelligently sharing a different way to think about it, so my wife could adjust her silly feelings.
No wonder she left.
On the contrary, she’ll feel profoundly abandoned and neglected by him.
And the end result of this — of men failing to empathise or even notice what their spouses are feeling and doing — is that wives are left to carry the full burden of responsibility for making the marriage and family work on a day-to-day level.
My wife spent most of her life working 40-plus hours per week at a day job, only to come home and have to manage and perform the lion’s share of the household tasks, too.
No one said thank you. My son and I frequently undid whatever nice thing she’d just accomplished (cleaning floors, wiping pee dribble from toilet rims, rinsing toothpaste from bathroom sinks) and I completely failed ever to acknowledge it.
I didn’t refuse to help. I always reasoned: ‘If you just tell me what you want me to do, I’ll gladly do it.’ But my wife didn’t want to have to tell me. She didn’t want to be my mother.
What she wanted was for me to apply all my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our household. In the back of my mind, the thought was always there: I’m a man. She’s a woman. She’s good at this stuff, I’m not. Therefore she can handle it and I should stay out of her way.
But that’s just sexism. I was perfectly capable of doing many of the things I abandoned my wife to do alone. Blind to how mentally and emotionally frazzled she was, I effectively checked out of the marriage.
Now, too late, I can see it all. Having fallen almost by accident into coaching and self-help writing, I’ve learnt a lot about human relationships because I’ve studied them, thought about them and talked about them. And it’s my firm belief that male behaviour is mostly responsible for the current crisis in the divorce figures. Divorce is a problem of men’s making.
From childhood, men are told that the very skills which make relationships work — above all empathy, but also disagreeing without having to ‘win’; communicating feelings, and really caring about who our partner is — are not only feminine skills but skills that emasculate men.
It’s nonsense, of course, and it’s disastrous for us all. Women aren’t inherently better at empathy or housework or expressing their feelings. And as long as men collectively believe that The Things You Must Do To Have Healthy Relationships are ‘girl things’, I think the outlook for heterosexual marriage will remain bleak.
It’s why we have to ditch the idea that when women tell us something pains them — like a used glass by the sink or socks discarded on the floor — they are nagging or being irrational.
A dirty dish isn’t meaningless. I’ll never care about a glass by the sink, but my wife did — and because I wouldn’t or couldn’t respect her feelings, it caused her real pain.
Why do women care more? Not all of them do, of course, but I do believe boys and girls are raised differently and have different behaviour modelled for them.
Girls are often encouraged to behave in ways that contribute to healthy relationships. Boys, too often, are not. They are not taught that behaviour that’s ‘acceptable’ for boys will inadvertently erode trust in their future relationships. Boys are set up to fail.
In the end, it’s simple. I should have communicated my love and respect for my wife by not leaving tiny reminders each day that she wasn’t considered or respected.
Caring about her should have equalled putting the glass in the dishwasher, and reliably taking care of an equal share of child-related stuff so she could chill out and worry about one less thing.
It should have meant picking up the washing and thoughtfully not treading dirt into the floor she had worked hard to clean.
Loving someone exists in a million little things that say ‘I love you’ more than speaking the words ever could. If I’d worked that out years ago — and how I wish I had — I would still be married today.
Adapted by ALISON ROBERTS from This Is How Your Marriage Ends, by Matthew Fray (£16.99, Profile), out April 7. © Matthew Fray 2022. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid till 31/3/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.