Why Relationships Fail
Secret bank accounts. Illicit rendezvous with the babysitter. Biweekly fights that end in split lips and phone calls to the police.
We’ve all heard about “those” relationships, haven’t we? And maybe we’ve even witnessed something close to them playing out between people we know. It’s no surprise when unions with such obvious markers of pain and dysfunction go down in flames. They may even make us feel a little better about our own relationships, or the kind of partners we are. Sure, we’re imperfect, but we would never do that.
But, as a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, trust me when I say that most relationships that fail don’t go down in a big, dramatic burst of flames that everyone sees coming from a hundred miles away. To paraphrase Hemingway, they tend to end gradually, and then all at once. The little injuries that add up to a divorce or a breakup usually seem insignificant while they’re happening, until their cumulative damage is too much for the couple to bear.
When two people who love each other aren’t able to make their relationship work, it’s sad. Because “making it work” is usually a matter of building certain skills, which anyone can do with knowledge and practice. I created this article to illustrate that for you. My hope is that it will give you a clear understanding of what really tanks relationships, and how you can avoid that outcome in your own.
I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guest is Matthew Fray, a talented writer with some hard-won knowledge in this area. In his new book, “This is How Your Marriage End,” Matthew discusses his own marriage’s demise, and the lessons he wishes he’d learned before it was too late. We’re sharing those important lessons with you today, so you can keep your relationship alive for the long haul. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast, or continue reading the article below.
Why Do Relationships Fail?
Many of the moments that destroy relationships look like no big deal while they’re happening. They can take the shape of “petty” disagreements, too insignificant to pose a real threat to something as important as your marriage.
But over time, these minor disagreements certainly can pose a threat. They can carry more emotional weight than you might expect, bringing up questions about love, safety, trust, and respect between yourself and your partner. If they’re not handled with care, these “petty” disagreements will undermine your connection, and can eventually cause you to lose what you value the most in the world.
Here are some hallmarks of the destructive conflict cycle that causes relationships to fail. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can begin to navigate conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart.
Why Relationships Fail: Defensiveness
Imagine that your partner is furious about something that doesn’t seem particularly important to you. Maybe you wore your shoes in the house when they’ve repeatedly asked you not to, or you were ten minutes late meeting them for dinner.
What’s your reaction to their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished harshly for something that doesn’t mean much, considering how much you do for your partner every day? Do you remind them of all the sacrifices you’ve made for them or for the relationship, or of all the things they do that you don’t like?
That’s defensiveness, which is a totally normal reaction to feeling criticized or under attack. Unfortunately, when we get defensive, we can’t really hear our partners. We’re too busy arguing them out of their perspective to hear the hurt or the pain underneath their complaints, because what they’re saying feels like a threat to us.
When one partner is angry and the other is defensive, you get stuck. You can’t move forward into repairing the rift that’s opened up between you and deepening your understanding of each other, because you’re locked in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack.” Your partner gets the message that, when they’re upset, their feelings will be met with hostility. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing problems to you, and resentments will build.
So, what’s the antidote to defensiveness? Responsibility. When your partner is upset with you, try to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to assume blame that isn’t yours, or always let them “win.” But admit where you’re wrong, and take an interest in their feelings about the situation. You’ll find that you’re able to have a real conversation at that point, and to resolve small problems before they grow into something more serious.
Why Relationships Fail: Emotional Invalidation
Emotional invalidation is another common cause in failing relationships. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree with their perceptions — that we were late, that we did wear our shoes in the house — but disagree with their emotional reaction to what happened. We might tell them they’re overreacting, or that we can’t understand what they’re so upset about.
Invalidation happens all the time. I would bet that, at some point in your relationship, you have invalidated your partner, and that your partner has invalidated you. Invalidation doesn’t make you a terrible person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re being invalidating; we usually think we’re being helpful, encouraging our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from another, more positive perspective.
But chronic emotional invalidation leaves your partner with the impression that you don’t care about their experience, that you don’t take their emotions seriously, and that there’s no point in trying to resolve problems with you, because they’ll only be dismissed. If your partner comes to expect invalidation from you, they’ll likely begin to withdraw from the relationship. Eventually, this will destroy your connection.
To avoid invalidating your partner, practice listening to them, without trying to “fix” their problems or argue them out of their perspective. Practice accepting their emotional reality for what it is, rather than trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t reasonable. I use the word practice deliberately here — validating is a habit that we all must build with intention.
Why Relationships Fail: Broken Trust
Minor conflicts that spin out into defensiveness and invalidation have a damaging effect on your bond to your partner. That’s because they lead to broken trust, which is enough to take down even the most loving relationships.
Over time, if you dismiss your partner’s feelings and concerns as unimportant or overblown, they will stop trusting you. I’m not being dramatic when I say that — they will learn that you’re not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and perspective as valid and important. And that’s what we need from our partners, more than from anyone else in the world.
What happens when your partner stops trusting you? They stop being vulnerable with you, and they stop leaning on you in times of need. They might give up on trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level, and settle for a superficial relationship that begins to feel lonely and hollow to you both. They won’t assume that your intentions are good, and conflicts in your relationship will become more bitter and more damaging as time goes on. Eventually, if something doesn’t change, your relationship will disintegrate.
So how do you repair broken trust, once it’s been damaged? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, empathizing with them, and taking responsibility for your part in conflicts, rather than reacting with defensiveness.
This all might sound like I’m telling you to let your partner have their way, or to disregard your own needs, rights, and feelings in favor of your partner’s. That’s not the case — you also deserve to be heard, and to have empathy and validation when you’re upset. But you won’t get that by “winning” the argument or by being the most correct. You’ll get it by extending generosity and kindness toward your partner, which will make them more willing to reciprocate with kindness and generosity in return.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
If I could impart one bit of wisdom to every couple, from my many years as both a married person and as a marriage counselor, it would be this: When marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash and burn scenario. The kind of dissolution that makes for an intriguing TV plot line is rarely what I see play out between actual couples who arrive in my office.
Instead, marriages fail when two people who love each other don’t have the skills to navigate everyday conflict in a healthy, supportive way that helps their relationship grow. Over time, these conflicts turn corrosive, and their relationships become damaged beyond the point of repair until someone calls it quits in the relationship.
But you can build these skills, and your relationship will be stronger and healthier for it. I hope this podcast gave you some good ideas for where to start.
Music in this episode is by Nocturne Blue, covering “Ship of Fools” by World Party.
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nocturneblue.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Why Relationships Fail
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Lisa Marie Bobby: On today’s episode of the podcast, we’re talking about a topic that is very challenging. One that people don’t like to think about, but one that is vitally important for you to know about and to be thinking about really deliberately. That is why marriages fail—why relationships end.
Personally, I’m a marriage counselor; I’m a psychologist; I have sat with so many couples, many of whom very eager and motivated to repair their marriages, repair their relationships. We do great work. Over the years, I have sat with many couples whose relationships were ending. I can tell you that every single one of them went into their relationships with the best of intentions.
On their wedding day, they meant everything they said about sharing the rest of their lives, together, ‘til death do us part, and they meant it. But then their relationships eroded slowly. Over time, it fell apart. They kept falling apart. By the time they got to my office, they were past the point of no return. There wasn’t the fabric left to kind of knit things back together again.
The tragedy of—virtually all of these situations and I have felt this many times sitting on the couch in my therapy office with these couples—is if only you had seen what was happening and intervened a little bit sooner. The truth is that so many couples have opportunities to mend their relationships, but they miss the opportunities because, in the moment, they often don’t realize how serious things are before it’s too late.
The truth is that there are small micro-moments that happen in relationships that are much more damaging than people think they are. By understanding this, really truly appreciating it, you become empowered to make changes sooner rather than later so that your marriage endures. Understanding what failing relationships actually look like and actually feel like is what can help you identify these moments, the ones that you need to take seriously and not minimize them, because that’s such a natural tendency to do.
So with me today, to take a deep dive into what you really need to be noticing and paying attention to differently, is the author, Matthew Fray. His new book is called This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships. Matthew learned these lessons the hard way and is here with me today to share his hard-earned insight with you for your benefit.
Matthew, thank you so much for being with me today. I’m really excited to have this conversation.
Matthew Fray: Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here. I really appreciate the invitation.
Lisa: Well, thank you again so much. I have to—I think I mentioned it to you, but I’ll share with my audience. I read all the time when I’m not working. Basically, I have my nose either in a book or an article about something. It was just a couple of weeks ago I was browsing around online, and I came across an article that you had written that, for The Atlantic, an excerpt from your book.
I just remember reading your words, and first of all, just being struck by what a beautiful writer you are. I was reading it, it was like, “Wow, I wish I could write that as well.” But also, like, the message that you conveyed in this article was just like dead on. It was like, “This is what I’ve been trying to tell people for years and years.”
If it’s okay with you, I thought maybe we could start with just this little excerpt from what you wrote to kind of orient our listeners to your message, and then we can go from there. Is that okay?
Matthew: Yeah, yeah, that sounds great.
Lisa: The title of the article was The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late with the very intriguing subheading of—you said, “The reason my marriage fell apart seems absurd when I describe it: My wife left me because I sometimes leave dishes by the sink.” Very intriguing, right? But when you go into the article, I mean, you just so beautifully described, I think this phenomenon that’s so real and true for so many couples.
You write, “The things that destroy love and marriage often disguise themselves as unimportant. Many dangerous things neither appear nor feel dangerous as they’re happening. They’re not arms and gunshots. They’re pinpricks. They’re paper cuts. And that is the danger. When we don’t recognize something as threatening, then we’re not on guard. These tiny wounds start to bleed and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don’t recognize the threat until it’s too late to stop it.”
You go on to say, “I spent most of my life believing that what ended marriages were behaviors I classify as Major Marriage Crimes. If murder, rape, and armed robbery are major crimes in the criminal justice system, I viewed sexual affairs, physical spousal abuse, and gambling away the family savings as the major crimes in a marriage.
Because I wasn’t committing Major Marriage Crimes, when my wife and I were on the opposite sides of an issue, I would suggest that we agree to disagree. I believe that she was wrong—either that she was fundamentally incorrect in her understanding of the situation or that she was treating me unfairly.
It always seemed as if the punishment didn’t fit the crime—as if she were charging me with premeditated murder when my infraction was something closer to driving a little bit over the speed limit with a burned-out tail light that I didn’t even know was burned out.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, my wife tried to communicate that something was wrong. That something hurt. ‘But that didn’t make sense’, I thought. I’m not trying to hurt her; therefore, she shouldn’t feel hurt. We didn’t go down in a fiery explosion. We bled out from 10,000 paper cuts. Quietly. Slowly.
She knew something was wrong. I insisted everything was fine. This is how my marriage ended. It could be how yours ends too.”
Whoa. What powerful words, Matthew. I mean, I read that and I was like,” Yeah, that’s exactly what happens.” Most people have no idea that it’s even happening when it’s happening.
Matthew: Oh, I was really flattered. Nothing has propelled book sales since launch. The book’s been out six or seven weeks now. March 22 in North America was book launch. Nothing had as significant of an impact on those sales as that Atlantic excerpted, so I was extremely grateful for it. As a former journalist, too, being in a publication that I respect as much as The Atlantic was, like, just personally, like a really cool opportunity to have a byline in it.
As you said, it was an excerpt from the book. It was really more their work than mine to be fair. They took the lion’s share of that excerpt from a section of the book, which is based on a blog post that I wrote in 2016, called She Divorced Me Because I Left the Dishes by the Sink. That was far and away the most popular thing that I’ve ever written. If anybody has ever, like, heard of me or anything like that, it would be almost certainly because of that article.
Millions and millions of times that thing’s been read and shared, and I just—nothing else in my world had that level of reach. I’ve just come to understand that it’s a popular conversation for people to have. Although I fear, a great majority of the people miss the point of the conversation because the lion’s share of the criticism I receive as either a blogger or now as author of the book, This Is How Your Marriage Ends, is the idea that a dish by the sink.
It’s the same argument I made in my actual marriage. The argument that that is such an insignificant thing and our marriage is so important and the idea that “I love you” is so important, “so let’s not elevate this dish by the sink to a marriage problem.”
That’s more or less the arguments that I’m getting from predominantly men in heterosexual relationships with women who I assume say things similar to the things my wife said in regards to the way the dish by the sink caused her to feel. How like her experience with that dish, her thoughts and feelings about it.
They make the case that their desire to leave it there—that’s well thought out, and that their individual experiences should weigh equally. I’m very interested in your take on this idea, and I’m fine with people thinking that. Like, I’m fine. The way that I think about it is that putting a dish in the dishwasher and having to take it out again or having to get a new one from the cupboard or finding some new system that—it was a glass by the way.
I think people imagine, especially because The Atlantic had the sink full of, like, all these dirty dishes, that’s not what it was. It was and I still keep it there. It’s a clear drinking glass. One glass that I put water in once a day to take vitamins and medicine and things like that. It just bothered her because she liked the kitchen a certain standard and clean.
People take great exception to the idea that my opinion—men who I think identify with me of 10 or 15 years ago feel like we need to defend our position. That our desires, our wants, our “needs” should matter as much as our spouses, and I think they should. I think they should matter the same, but I don’t think we’re having the same conversation.
I don’t feel dishonored, disrespected, not considered small and visible, because of my wife’s desire to have me put the dishes in the dishwasher. The alternative is not true, me leaving it there does, in fact, result in pain, and feelings of disrespect and feelings of being unheard.
Instead of having a conversation about the merits of that dish being there, I want to have a conversation about the merits of behaving in such a way, speaking and acting in such a way, where the math result is showing up effectively for our relationship partners. You may very well be married to somebody who does not care about that dish by the sink.
They may share your lack of enthusiasm for that, but there will be a different conversation about something because we’re human beings, that will matter to them, that will not, like, resonate intellectually or emotionally with you. You will simply not care the same. I don’t know how to say it sort of like more precisely than that—you won’t care as much. It’s that disagreement that I think is the epicenter of like the common conflict pattern in relationships.
I just think for the person who feels unheard, who feels as if I can never go to my relationship partner and communicate something’s wrong because it seems as if they don’t agree with me, they will always choose what they think and what they feel over me for the rest of my life. It means I have to deal with that and accept it and voluntarily subject myself to that or have to leave.
Matthew: We leave, in my case, I left my wife with an exceedingly difficult choice, which was keep her son 100% of her life. Like, have him at home and have to deal with that, or leave and give herself a chance for a relationship or not having—regardless whether she was going to be single or whether she’s going to see somebody else—not being subjected to the approval of someone to feel a certain way about something because that’s essentially what that story is about.
I didn’t give her permission to hurt. I didn’t give her permission to think that dish by the sink mattered. Go ahead and insert any example from your personal life, dear listener, because it’s not always a dish but metaphorically it is. Everybody has their own dish by the sink story in their relationship. Everybody, I think—most people I encounter are savvy enough to recognize it.
I talked to somebody a day or two ago where it’s he’d wore shoes in the house all the time, and his wife just repeatedly would ask them not to. Most of the time if he was, like, coming home for the day, he’d take them off.
But what if you, like, went outside really quick to, like, go to the garage for something, and there’s like, “Oh, I forgot something in the house. I’m gonna sprint over to the bedroom, but I’m not gonna take the time to take my shoes off.” But those were the moments that, like, drove her really. She got really upset with them. Again, it’s not about the relative impact of, like, wearing shoes in the house. It is, “I will always choose me over you whenever we disagree.” That destroys trust in relationships.
Lisa: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. We could crack into that further. But I love that message of really being able to think about your behaviors, our behaviors in the context of what they mean to other people because it’s different for other people than it is for us. In some ways, it can be the definition of love, right? Our partner’s needs and rights and feelings are just as important as our own, and how do we show them that?
Matthew: I think it’s reasonable for people to not want to accept responsibility for that. It shows up, I think, particularly in, like, sociopolitical conversations and religious differences. It’s the idea that “What I believe is right and true, and if that offends another person, that’s really their problem.” That mindset, I think, is fine. I don’t adopt it. It’s how I used to be. It is exactly the mindset I used to have that I think resulted in the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, which was the end of my marriage and family.
That’s why I’m not in favor of showing up in the world that way anymore. But I don’t begrudge people doing that. I don’t think it’s immoral. I just think if we’re not cognizant of what happens to another human when we do that, it’s not about you being bad. It’s not about that behavior being bad. In my estimation, forgive me, I’m not trying to speak for you or anyone else. But for me, the thing to value is the math results.
The math results of showing up that way in our interpersonal relationships are really probably with anybody, I believe, means that we won’t have as much trust. We will not be trusted as much with the hearts and minds of other human beings. People want to trust that being in our sphere, whether that’s being close friends or professional colleagues or best friends or whatever.
But certainly, when we share homes and bedrooms and money and children, and our lives are super intertwined, the way they are in marriage or long-term cohabitating relationships, and again, particularly when you’re raising children together, the stakes get even higher.
When somebody can’t trust you to—what I would sort of, like, say is—act in their best interest on account that we don’t think the dish qualifies, right? We know we’ll walk with you in the parking garage and that will keep you safe from an intruder or whatever it is that people think about what it means to, like, show up lovingly and caring for someone else. It’s this miscalculation that something that doesn’t matter to you is somehow not able to matter to somebody else. That is such a significant blind spot, I think in relationships. I think I understand why it is because I’ve sort of lived both sides of it now.
Lisa: Yeah, it was about the glass on the side of the sink, but it also wasn’t. The glass just became a symbol for how your wife felt. It was a symbol for the relationship unraveling because it wasn’t about the glass. It was about what the glass meant. It was interpreted as, “Do you care about my feelings? Am I important to you?” That’s what we lose sight of when we get into power struggles about where the glass goes, isn’t it?
Matthew: Yeah, that’s—I mean, I think that’s it. I think it’s reasonable for somebody to who has successful relationships. This is something that I talk with a lot of. I work as. like, a relationship coach per se. People come to me. Guys that are like, “Wow. You sound exactly like me,” and I’m like, “I understand.” I try to help them understand that there’s no judgment and that, in a certain respect, it really makes sense.
When all of your family relationships are solid, when you have a bunch of friends, when you’re successful at work, when you’re liked and respected and appreciated, it’s so frustrating when the only person in your life who like levies charges of like mistreatment is the person that you feel like you love the most and sacrifice the most for. It does not compute.
Then sort of like math data analysis terms, if she’s the outlier, she is the statistical outlier. A data scientist eliminates the statistical outlier as the thing that’s not like the rest. I just think that is the, like, autopilot thing that so many people do. Again, often men in heterosexual relationships, it would seem that just dismiss these concerns of the other person because they’re so unlike any of the feedback that they’re getting from any other part of their life.
So I always want to defend these people. There are certainly people with ill intentions that cause a lot of harm. I don’t mean to overlook those or trivialize the struggles of being in a relationship with somebody who you feel sort of tricked you or conned you into a life together and then emerged as something really, really awful, and like tyrannical in either subtle or overt ways.
But I think the majority from a math standpoint of these relationships are exactly as you described at the beginning, where two people voluntarily chose one another and absolutely are in this to go the distance and then are fundamentally confused five, seven, 10,15 years later as to how it could have deteriorated and how it can feel so bad. Because all along the way, it just seemed like nothing rose to the level of being important.
I equate it to what the American Cancer Society had to do in the 1950s, the 1960s on their campaign to convince the public of the dangers of tobacco smoking. Because back then the societal norm was to smoke in a car with the windows rolled up and babies in the backseat with no meaningful—
Lisa: “Not a big deal. Everybody does it.” Yeah.
Matthew: Yeah, maybe not even in, like, some sort of, like, safe car seat. Just riding on somebody’s lap and it’s just—that was how things were. We didn’t know. If you don’t know smoking is harmful, I think it makes sense to smoke.
Matthew: In fact, I used to do it in my youth and I’m so glad that I don’t , right?
Matthew: People, like, make mindful changes once they understand that this thing equals harm. Not all people but many people, and that is to me the mission is, can people understand that this thing they don’t calculate to be harmful is in fact harmful. I don’t necessarily know how to do it except just keep doing what I’m trying to do. What so many people in the streets are trying to do.
Lisa: Totally. I mean, even just talking about this, you’re exactly right. People literally do not understand that these small things are dangerous. It’s the equivalent of smoking a cigarette, they have no idea. One of the things that I’ve been on such a mission about like, premarital counseling. We do a lot of, like, that preventative stuff, but also just talking about this, so that people can just have that mirror. Because who talks about this? Like nobody teaches you how to have a healthy relationship, right?
We just—our own divorced parents were the role models, and it’s, like, somebody has to be talking about this. That’s why I’m thrilled for this. To even crack deeper in this, like, in your book, one of the first chapters that you write and I think that this is such a nice idea too. Good people can make bad spouses.
Because we think about people who aren’t good at relationships as being uncaring or unloving, and that is not true. Lovely people are unconsciously making these mistakes that they don’t even know are mistakes in the moment. But can you say more about that idea? Good people can make bad spouses.
Matthew: I can. It’s one of my favorite things that I ever thought of. Because one of my sort of, like, hallmark traits in my marriage was defensiveness—feeling unfairly criticized, unfairly attacked as if my wife wasn’t giving me the benefit of the doubt. Because it’s like, “Goodness! I do all these things. It’s like, why are you interpreting this in the most negative, cynical way possible?” is often sort of how I responded to whatever was, like, happening in her life.
Just habitually invalidating and dismissive, which is awful when I’m claiming to love ready —again, please understand I didn’t. I know you know, but listener.
Lisa: No, no. It happens together.
Matthew: Yeah, I didn’t associate how—I just fundamentally thought I was being mistreated, truly, in that moment, even though I really recognized today she was. But it’s—that’s the danger is, I think it to humans in a shared life together can very honestly believe that they’re, like, sort of doing the right thing, that they’re on the unfair receiving end of this.
Matthew: So I want to sell people on the idea of—particularly people prone to defensiveness and a relationship from negative feedback from the relationship partner—that it doesn’t have to be about good/bad, doesn’t even have to be about right/wrong. It is completely disassociated with character. It is good people can be bad partners. I thought it was useful to think about.
I described my grandmother as a person that I think is above reproach from a character standpoint. She’s incredible, just the nicest human being, and just, I’ve never, ever in my 43 years seen my grandmother speak ill of anyone or mistreat anyone. She’ll make excuses for, like, the worst people actually. She’s like that kind of lady and loves humans.
But I make the case, despite my grandmother’s impeccable character, I don’t think that’s who you’d want to contract to build a skyscraper to fly an airplane or to fix your watch or whatever. Anything that’s difficult in life to do. Developing expertise and mastery of something is about knowledge and about skill building, about practice. So we learn things, and then we practice doing things, trying to execute best practices over and over again.
That’s how we develop skills, mastery, knowledge, things like that. I did not know how to associate. I was so busy thinking: because I was a decent human that I was automatically a decent husband, a decent spouse. I just—to me that belief alone creates so many blind spots, so many ways of defending oneself and deflecting responsibilities and things like that.
If I thought of marriage and relationships as something that I needed to develop expertise and mastery about, and this is nobody’s fault, this was my responsibility. But I do think we’ve raised generations of people without some of the building block, knowledge and skills necessary to relate effectively.
Matthew: Again, I think the most important skill that I didn’t understand—I say empathy, I think and I don’t necessarily mean that organically feel how others feel. When I say that, I mean, this idea of like intentionally choosing to view a scenario through the experiences of someone else that you love, and then sort of modifying words and actions accordingly because you care about them.
But more to the point and I don’t think I talked about this in the book because I don’t think I had awareness about the relational cycle of harmony-disharmony-repair is that capacity for repair, like, in that moment was a big, big mess for me in my marriage that I try really hard to encourage people to think about today.
Lisa: Yeah, the repair is so important. But you bring up such another great point—that I think cannot be understated—is also just the power of systems. On this show, something that we talk about a lot is how relationships are a dance. I mean, people aren’t just being individuals in the system, right? They’re being influenced by each other.
It’s very, very easy to perceive your partner as being out to get you or in the wrong, which then allows you to feel entitled to be not very kind to them in return. That the relationship system can kind of take on a cycle of its own. But, also, even those repair attempts, while they are so important, if there’s so much—John Gottman calls it negative affect priming—that if it gets to a certain point, repair attempts don’t work anymore.
It’s just so key to get into this sooner rather than later. I think what I’m hearing you say is that to have had the humility, I think to consider, like we all do, “Maybe I do have some learning and growing to do in order to be a good partner for this specific person,” right? As opposed to that kind of global message around, “I’m a good person. I can have relationships. I know what to do. So there’s something wrong with her.” That’s like the easy, the easy default to assume. Yeah.
Matthew: I may very well end up in a long-term romantic relationship with somebody that doesn’t care about a dish by the sink, that doesn’t care about certain, like, idiosyncrasies that my son’s mother, like, may have had, or pain points that she’d felt. But there will be new things, there’ll be other things, and it is incumbent on me to learn those, to understand them if I am to effectively, like, prevent negative experiences on her pardon and vice versa.
Again, I don’t mean to sound like I don’t think both partners. If we’re talking again, heterosexual relationships, men, I don’t mean that their needs are also important. I just only know how to approach this from my side of it—the personal responsibility side of it. I trust that it’ll be reciprocated in a healthy relationship.
Like, I don’t see how being unhealthy will in any way yield a positive result. Another point of negative feedback is mad. Didn’t your—surely your ex-wife was imperfect. Surely she did stuff you didn’t like. Don’t you think maybe you’re taking all the blame here. I’m like, I don’t like the word blame. I don’t finger-point. I’m like, I’m for personal responsibility.
I’m like, even if I only did 20% of it, just maybe all of the things that I might not have liked, that my ex-wife was—maybe how can I fairly calculate for what she would have said, done, felt, had I eliminated my portion of, like, the pain that was being caused? I just, I really want people to think about that. It’s so critical.
It’s not fair to hurt people, and then be angry with them for behaving as a hurt person does, is my take today. Where I used to—that’s exactly how I used to act, though. I did things. It hurt my wife. She would say it hurt, and then I would be angry that she was creating a relationship conflict. It was awful. I really see it so clearly today in a way I didn’t when I was stuck in it. I hate it for her, I really do, and for everybody who’s stuck in like that cycle.
Lisa: Right. Well, you can’t see in them. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with couples, and they’re waiting for the other person to change, waiting for the other person to take responsibility. Well, if they stopped doing that, right? To, like, help people wrap their heads around the idea that you actually have to take 100% of the responsibility for whatever happens in your relationship.
Ideally, you’ll both be taking 100% of their responsibility, but that’s absolutely the only thing that you can do is keep your side of the equation clean. So yeah.
Lisa: I wonder if that was kind of what you were getting into in the next section of your book where you talked about invalidation triple threat. Can you take us into that idea?
Matthew: Yeah. I’d be curious how you—because I think I value your thoughts and opinions and experiences, frankly, more than mine in the context of the way couples relate to one another.
But I make the claim in the book that I believe this—literally this invisible, it’s certainly not invisible to the person who feels invalidated—but I think to the end-validator who genuinely loves the person and wants to live with them for the rest of their lives, I think this is the greatest blind spot, the greatest source of accidental inadvertent trust erosion, and therefore, the greatest threat to relationships, the leading cause of relationship failure.
Since whenever speech started happening between romantic partners—I just perceive this to probably be the thing that’s ended more relationships than anything else. I don’t mean marriage, there’s a million—a million relationships never get to marriage. There’s so many that never get there. I still think this is probably at the epicenter of so much of it.
So yes, in the invalidation triple threat, as I call it, are the three distinct ways that I believe somebody with this habit that I had, and I find it’s very common in the people that, like, find me and want to work with me. We don’t intend to invalidate. As I recently learned from somebody in your line of work from Australia, she said, “Intention does not equal experience.”
That’s a more efficient way of saying what I try to say, is that doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do, pain can still happen on the other side of the equal sign. It disguises itself as harmless disagreement. It disguises itself as a disagreement between two adults. It’s reasonable for human beings to feel as if they’re allowed to have a difference of opinion, a different experience, a different desire than the other person.
I was so offended that it seemed like my wife needed me to agree with her all the time. But that’s not what validation is. It’s not about agreeing. It’s not about thinking the same things my wife felt. It’s not about feeling the same things my wife felt.
Here’s what it looked like in my life. She would come to me and she’d say, “Matt, a bad thing happened and I feel bad about it.” Version one of this triple threat is I would disagree with her intellectual experience. The thing that she believed had happened, I would have believed something else happened. So I’d reframe it, and say, “That’s actually not what happened. What happened is this.”
But the math result of that exchange is your feelings don’t matter because it’s based on something that wasn’t real. That’s version one. Version two is my wife comes to me, she says, “Matt, a bad thing happened. I feel bad about it.” This time, I completely agree with her that the event happened exactly as she says it did.
But this time, I’m confused as to why she’s reacting so sensitively or angrily or whatever it is. I’m like, “Okay, that’s what happened. But why are you making such a big deal out of it?” So in version one, her brain’s wrong. She’s—I don’t say this but the implication is that she’s dumb—
Lisa: Think about it this way.
Matthew: That she’s wrong—
Matthew: That she’s crazy. Version two— I don’t say this—but the implication is that she’s weak, that she’s hypersensitive, that she’s, she’s being dramatic, something like that. Version three is just classic defensiveness, which is why I think that character conversation that good people can be bad spouses idea is so important.
You can be an amazing human and still not be awesome at some function. So think about it like that when somebody’s coming at you maybe with some negative feedback or criticism. My wife would say, “Matt, you did something that hurt me.” My instinct was to, like, defend myself to say, “Wait a minute. I did not mean to hurt you. If you understand, like, what I was trying to do, you won’t be mad at me anymore. You won’t feel bad anymore or something.”
Anyway, all of these response patterns are inherently invalidating to the person who’s trying to communicate, “Something’s wrong. Something hurts me. I’m trying to let you know because you’re not psychic. I’m trying to recruit you to understand it, so that tomorrow and next week, and next month, next year, the same thing won’t keep happening.”
That’s the goal of the conversation where person whose hurt comes to the other partner, and just wants to let them know, “Hey, something’s wrong. Help me.” But if my brain did not align with my wife’s brain, I didn’t respond in a manner that suggests that tomorrow I wouldn’t do the same thing over again if my feelings didn’t align, if my intentions didn’t align.
Here’s what my wife learned. She learned after 12 years with me that if I didn’t agree with what she believed, or I didn’t, like, agree that she should feel the way that she felt, that I would always choose what I thought and what I felt over her, even at the expense of her, like, emotional experiences. That’s what she learned.
If we want to talk about trust in a relationship, and trust in my estimation being the most significant condition required for relationship health and longevity, and I just think a lot of people think love is. I think a lot of people painfully leave a relationship with somebody they love. I just think the absence of trust, the erosion of trust is the greatest predictor of relationships that will end.
We can do this as a decent human who loves his or her relationship partner, but just fails to validate over and over and over and over again. Because the message is simply, “I’ll always choose me over you,” even though, like, that’s not philosophically how I thought about it. It’s the math result of the conversation pattern.
We have to take ownership of that and learn how to eliminate what I’ve come to believe this is very unhealthy, toxic, conversational dance that we do in our relationships. I coach people to begin a new habit of validating—replacing the habit of invalidation with validating.
I like talking about it as habits, because I’m not smart enough and I’m not good enough as a human being to help somebody make some spiritual change, so to speak, or to grow intensely. I do know how to encourage somebody to change a small behavior and practice it over and over and over again, and the hopes that the math result will be trust restoration and a relationship.
Lisa: Definitely. Well, I mean, at the end of the day, it is ultimately all about that behavior change. I think what you just shared is so important and understanding, helping people understand the why.
It’s so significant because I am certain that if I had been in the room with you, and that was happening, and I’m like, “What’s going on?” You would—you loved your wife. You had nothing but good intentions. You’re probably trying to help her. In that moment, if we had to crack into your point of view, it wasn’t—
Matthew: Certainly sometimes.
Lisa: Ill intention. But that result of really understanding the way that people feel, and I think also understanding what the priority is in those conversations, is that emotional intimacy. It’s attunement. It’s feeling cared about. That’s how adults express that and receive that is often through sharing feelings, and feeling important and emotionally safe with others when they do.
To be able to learn how to do that is just such a crucial relationship skill. Unfortunately, not to gender stereotype, but you’ve mentioned several times in our conversation so far, that can often be men in heterosexual relationships who struggle here.
I firmly believe that this is largely due to just a lack of socialization. That these kinds of skills aren’t prioritized in boys and young men as they’re growing up, so they literally don’t know how, don’t know what’s a thing, don’t know why it’s important. “Why would I do that anyway?” Until they experience the consequences of it and start having these conversations.
Matthew: Dr. Bobby, do we have time to talk about this funny little, like, monster under the bed analogy that I like to share?
Lisa: I’d love to hear about the monster under the bed.
Matthew: Do we? Well, it’s the thing that helped me. So I went from, like, guy, just like all these other guys, and I now—try to help people not practice this invalidation habit anymore. This is the thought exercise that, like, broke through for me. I honestly don’t remember how I even thought of it. It’s just the thing I eventually concocted that worked.
My son is thirteen, but he used to be four. When he was four, he was a threat to wake up in the middle of the night—afraid of a monster hiding under his bed. I like to think about how I would have shown up in that scenario ten years ago, fifteen years ago.
The way is, let’s pretend I’m watching Monday Night Football, and I hear my son crying. So I’m gonna pause it or just run upstairs or whatever. I’m going to open the door and I’m going to discover that my son is crying and feeling fear, because he thinks there might be a monster under his bed. And my default instinct back then, as his father would be, I know there’s no monster. I don’t want my son to feel afraid. I want him to stop crying selfishly because I want to go watch football again. And the way I’m going to solve this problem is to sell him on this knowledge that I have that he doesn’t have, that there isn’t a monster under the bed.
And so I might say something really careless and not very good from a parenting standpoint, in my estimation, but many of us maybe grew up like this. That says, “Dude, there’s no monster under the bed. There’s no reason to be crying right now. You know, you’re afraid for no reason. Settle down. Everything’s fine.” I might say something super toxic. Like, “Be my big boy. Toughen up. Everything’s okay. You know, this has been your bedroom your whole life, like go to sleep. And you know, I’ll see you in the morning.” I don’t have time for invisible monsters that might be some like gross, selfish thing that I might have done, you know, ten, twelve years ago.
Anyway, I just think there’s like really critical ideas to think about for like the guy that’s me in this scenario that didn’t grow up with relational skills. Because I understand why we know the harmful, the threat isn’t there. And if we can just implant that knowledge in this other human, then problem solved and we get to go back to doing whatever we were doing before. I think that’s like the way we’re thinking about it. And I think there’s like if there was a judge in the room, I’m right, in this instance, right. Not all relationship conflict is so demonstrably provable. That a lot of times, it’s more nuanced than that. But in this case, I’m right. And I love my son, and I would never, ever try to hurt him.
Despite those three things, what’s the math result of this example? My son’s alone in the dark, he’s afraid, he’s crying. And he just learned that if dad doesn’t think the thing that’s adversely affecting me, is important. If he doesn’t think my sadness, or my fear is worthy of his time, he abandons me, literally or metaphorically to cry alone in the dark after implying that I’m stupid or weak for acting the way that I’m acting right now. And it doesn’t mean this child in this example, doesn’t know dad loves them. I think it just means trust eroded, I think it means the quality score of our relationship just took a hit. And that if that’s how I always show up when he’s suffering through things large or small, over time, I’m going to lose all of the trust that I just earned that I was gifted as his father.
And in the future, when he hurts, he’s not going to invite dad to be part of those conversations. So right when he’s offered drugs, when he’s experiencing bullying, when he’s whatever, some really unpleasant things in his life that I as his father really want to be included in, in order to like, be like a decent, connected, loving father, he won’t invite me to. I’m no longer I’m no longer a safe person to include when life’s hard. And so I’d really like the guys that I’m working with to think about that.
And hopefully, they get that this is like a metaphor, our adult relationships in the way that we respond to people when we don’t when we think that they believe something that isn’t real, or when we’re somehow disagreeing with their emotional reaction to something, because there’s a better way. Because it’s not about agreeing with your relationship partner. It’s not about agreeing that there’s a monster under the bed. That’s not the thing that makes your relationship better. And in fact, being right, I think in this instance, proves to harm the relationship, increases disconnection, increases mistrust.
There’s another way to show up, and it’s who I want to be today. And I hear my son crying, I’m going to run up, I’m going to open the door, I’m gonna sit on the bed, I’m gonna hug the kid. I’m going to find out what’s going on. And I say to him, “I don’t think there’s a monster under the bed. But I’m really sorry that you’re afraid right now. I have been afraid. And it’s just about the worst experience one can have. And I’m so sorry. Let’s turn the light on to make sure there’s no monster under the bed.” And the idea that I really want the guys I’m working with to like, embrace and latch on to for dear life is the following.
This is me talking to my hypothetical son in this example, is: “When life’s hard, when things hurt, when things scare you, I want you to know you can always call mom. You can always call Dad, and we’re going to show up for you. And even if we can’t fight your battle for you, or fix what’s wrong, you never have to feel alone. You never have to feel like you’re the only person suffering this bad thing that you’re experiencing. That’s what you can trust to happen over and over again, when you call dad, when you call mom.”
And that is the lesson that I really want the guys that feel like I did 10-15 years ago, to walk away from this conversation with to set aside feelings of correctness, feelings of certainty, feelings of I gotta fight for what’s right. Because I know that I know more about this than she or he or they do value the quality of your relationship. And the way it’s done is by communicating that in the future, when bad things happen to them.
You might not be able to fix what’s wrong. You can just try to understand, you can care. But most importantly, you’re not going to neglect and abandon the people you love to suffer alone. And I think that that really nuanced behavior change, mindset change. And Brene taught me right like that idea. Brene Brown’s work taught me about like the metaphorical idea of sitting with your friend in the dark, so that they didn’t feel alone because I hadn’t really I was always like, who just sit still and doesn’t do anything. You feel so helpless.
But it’s not about that. It’s not about it at all. It’s about communicating that today and tomorrow and always, if you’re suffering. I know that I can’t fix it’s not about that. You’re just not alone. I’ll give you space if you need it. But if you want to not be alone, you’ll never have to be. I wish I’d given that to the people that I loved. My entire life, but nobody had imparted on me like the wisdom of like, right that that behavior that messaging. And so the only person who’s ever really truly gotten it’s my son, because I know it’s a thing that I’ve learned and he’s about to go to high school and I think he is going to trust me.
Lisa: Well now you can teach him differently. But I totally agree. We don’t attribute a lot of value to just simple connection. I think we’re socialized into doing or fixing or problem solving. And it’s really just being there together in those moments. That’s the most important thing. But it’s so easy to miss.
Hey, can I ask? I don’t know if this would be too personal of a question. And if it is, we can scoot over. But I’m thinking right now of people, couples, individuals who might be listening to the show. And in my experience, it is so easy for people to talk themselves out of doing something, getting help for their relationship.”It’s not that big of a deal. It’ll be okay. It’s just we’ve been stressed.”
Lisa: But looking back at your own experience, if you had a time machine, can you identify some of those fork in the road moments that if you had done something or taken action at that time, it could have led to a different outcome? I’m wondering what your advice would be for somebody who’s maybe who, for whom that fork in the road is still a little bit ways ahead of them, just to help them see it more clearly than you were able to?
Matthew: I can think of several of them. But the problem is they present small. And so I feel they’ll seem so undramatic to everybody. But a quick list would be what I mentioned in the book, and it’s one of the things I’m most ashamed of in the world is a couple of these that I mentioned in the book, that some of them that I’m most ashamed of in the world.
But the very beginning of our dating relationship. Early, I was still really interested in autonomy, and not feeling trapped in a relationship because we’d only been dating, I don’t know, a couple of months or something. And I would make plans to like, go see friends and things like that. And then I’d get some negative feedback about that. I don’t know if you remember this, but she gave up—she was going to move with three of her friends to a different state. And she completely changed her life plans to remain in the city, just so she could pursue a relationship with me.
And then what she got in return was me continuing to fight to be like the single quasi-bachelor guy. And I don’t literally mean that. I don’t mean like, so I could go date other people, but I mean, I had no—at 21 I had no desire or context for this idea of inclusion of consideration of thinking about, if I make plans on a Thursday, or Friday or Saturday to go to this bar, keg party, or whatever I’m doing, I should absolutely be checking in with my person to see how it might affect her.
It was just not an idea that had fully cemented yet. But anyway, we’d fight about it, and she’d get really upset. And I wish I would have just sat whether I wish I just would have sat with her instead of the like cold, quasi-angry, defensive, “I can’t believe this is your reaction to this totally normal thing that I’m doing.” Because it started there. That was like the seed planting for how I was always going to show up in relationships. Man, there’s a ton like in our marriage.
Oh my I hope these don’t make her sound ridiculous, because she’s really not ridiculous. She really wasn’t. She liked white gold better than yellow gold. I haven’t talked about this very many times. It’s not in the book. And I buy her yellow gold jewelry sometimes. We didn’t have a lot of money. So they weren’t particularly extravagant things. But most of the things I got her, including her engagement ring, were yellow gold, despite her affinity for white gold. And I just was so dismissive of her preference for white gold on the basis that I thought it looked like silver.
And silver is like the inferior precious metal to gold. And so it’s like you’re gonna get like the thing that is and looks valuable. And I know that might sound so ridiculous, maybe to somebody listening, but it’s right. It was another piece of evidence that I will always choose what I think and why I feel over her. It was just another and so you take a beautiful gesture, a gift and you castrate it somehow. You cut it off at the knees, whatever. You make it a negative event.
And then that same guy, and I’m really talking about me, gets defensive at the quasi like negative reaction to it. The lukewarm reaction you’re sort of offended by, because it’s like, “Goodness, how ungrateful can this human be?” And then you almost get like mad about I mean, stuff like that happened with us, I would fail to consider and fail to validate, and then be angry with her for feeling hurt, for feeling dismissed and unheard. And so I mean, just all these tiny, tiny moments, the vast majority of which I can’t remember.
And so we talked about forks in the road, they were the two lines were just like, going by a half degree each time, but over 12 years, you end up out here. And I didn’t know how to think about it like that. I kept waiting for her to evolve into somebody that would think and feel about stuff the way that I did, which is really ignorant. But I guess I kind of thought something like that was gonna happen.
Lisa: Very common.
Matthew: So yeah, it’s really that the big one that I feel morally obligated to say is that sometime, within a week or two, prior to my son being born, our son being born, a couple of dads had told me, “Listen, she’s gonna be so exhausted. If her labor is anything like my wife’s was, she’s going to be so exhausted. It’s critical, it’s imperative that you get adequate sleep. So that when you have to make all these decisions about tons of stuff—shots and circumcisions and birth certificate spellings and all the things, you need to be as with it and lucid as possible.”
I had it in my head, that I was gonna go home, we live really close to the hospital. I was eight minutes away, I was gonna go home, and get a decent night’s sleep after the baby was born. Well, what actually happened was, there was an induced labor, it lasted more than 24 hours. And then she had to have an emergency C section. And she was a wreck, understandably, a wreck.
And sometime around 1:30 In the morning, about five hours after surgery in the birth of our son, I was like, “Hey, I’m gonna go.” And then boom, all of a sudden, there’s this conflict. Imagine not having the conversation ahead of time, by the way, like, imagine not having it. So that everybody’s expectations were met, I have no earthly idea why I was the way that I was. But I was insistent that everything was okay, that she had a nursing staff, and they all knew how to do things. And I was worthless. I couldn’t help with any of this. And it wasn’t about that, right? It was about sitting alone in the dark with somebody.
And that, in my estimation, was my greatest abandonment, and the biggest trust killer, by far. I just really think that’s the one that really did me in and I didn’t know it at the time. And I don’t think I ever recovered from that. And I think any thoughts she might have had about having a second child with me, went out the window. Really if not, then very quickly after bringing our baby home and being the default parent from day one. To all the moms out there. I’m so sorry.
Lisa: Oh no, it’s so important for people to hear. It really is. Because there’s the little things lie the little snowflakes that kind of pile up into a drift. But what you were talking about after birth, there’s actually a technical term for that sort of thing and it is an “Attachment injury.” And there are some of these moments that where people are particularly vulnerable, after birth, they’re sick, a parent just died, something major is going on.
And how we respond to our partners in those moments do carry more weight, and they are either opportunities for connection, and you use the word abandonment. That is how it is experienced in those moments, and they can be their traumas, their injuries, they persist long after the event and I hear that that’s a hard one.
Matthew: It may still be something she carries. I wouldn’t doubt it. She’s very kind to me. She doesn’t behave in a resentful way with me.
Lisa: Oh, no, yeah, no, I’m understanding but for the relationship.
Matthew: Yes, I would not be surprised if deep down there was still a lot of anger and resentment about that. Despite she lives a very, very near as I can tell, happy, healthy life. She has been in another relationship for like, six, seven years, to an exceedingly decent human being and everything’s great. Like her son and I, but that’s the one I think, and then we did lose her father.
And I think this is an important idea for people too. We lost her father a few years later. And it was obviously very traumatic. And I think the single greatest like shock, loss, grieving moment of her life and what’s interesting about the loss of her father is, I was all in. Like, I felt it too. There was not any disagreement about the severity of this incident, I was fair, present, locked in, supportive. And after the initial sort of wave, the first two-ish weeks, there was a really hard sort of like, shift and pull, pull away that happened. And she was never the same. And it wasn’t terribly long after we ended up in separate bedrooms.
And then 18 months after that our marriage officially ended. But when I tried to diagnose my marriage, early, as it was falling apart, I believed wholeheartedly that my wife suffered major shock and trauma and grief from the loss of her father. And that she was allowing those intense and understandable understandably intense emotions to usurp the seriousness, sacredness, importance of our relationship, of our marriage. And so she was allowing an understandably horrible thing to in an unhealthy way, infect, our marriage and not want to participate in it. And that’s the reason we fell apart and ended. I truly believed that narrative, and felt like a victim of unfair circumstances back then.
And what I understand today is that through a series of micro infractions, and a couple more major ones, like the hospital incident, I had demonstrated myself to be someone she could simply not trust when life is hard. I treated her the equivalent of the child that I said, “There’s no monster under the bed, get over yourself, everything’s fine.” So it wasn’t about, “he doesn’t love me”, it was, “he probably does but his behavior never feels like it. He doesn’t feel safe, he doesn’t feel like somebody I can count on when life’s hard.”
And so I think that is such a common narrative in relationships, where the slow erosion of trust occurs through all these, like tiny betrayals, and all these tiny invalidations, so to speak, but then when the major event hits, the person in suffering, realizes that the other person is not a person that mathematically results in safety, and love and care. It’s just not it’s not an oasis of peace and togetherness, “It sucks this person is not safe for me. So I’m gonna go seek refuge elsewhere or alone, because it’s better.”
And I really want people to become aware of the severity of the micro infractions, because the collection of those is what yields those relationship ending moments down the road.
Lisa: Definitely, you hit the nail right on the head. That’s always why relationships end. It’s one person stops believing that it could ever be different, and what is happening is no longer acceptable. Were you surprised at the very end or did you think you had more time? Did you think it could still be better?
Matthew: I slept in the guest room for 18 months. And that’s when the work started by the way. I was probably about three ish months before she left, I read a book called How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. And it was the first book I’ve ever read, when I think the title is a misnomer. Because I don’t think anybody believes you can have a healthy marriage without effective communication.
But it was the first time, that was like less the point then I had for the first time the experience of, “I’m not alone.” If two like longtime therapists can write this book, and tell these stories about random people, whether they were real or concocted scenarios, honestly can’t remember. But they look sound and feel so exactly like my life, which is the beautiful thing.
I get the feedback I get today that my stories feel like that for other people. And I’m so delighted that that’s the experience people are having. I think it’s so powerful if you’ve not had it before, to experience that I’m not alone, because I don’t think most people talk about the scary, vulnerable, sad stuff that’s going on in our relationships. I mean, we frequently suffer in silence.
But I think men in particular are afraid to tell people. We’re like afraid to announce it to our parents or our best friends or coworkers. Like we don’t look, I don’t know if we don’t look like failures or why or if we’re just not comfortable talking about like the hard scary stuff. But to find out that millions of people have exactly the same dynamics and their relationship was so liberating and empowering because it was like “Wow, we’re not this anomaly. We’re not these like statistical freaks that we’re just like a lot of people. Then that means the inverse of that is there’s a path out .”
You said it already that it was too little too late. The damage was done. So was I surprised? I wasn’t surprised intellectually that she left. I was surprised at what my body did when it happened. I was surprised at the loss was really severe for me, the combination of her, and then half of my son, he was only four at the time. Losing the—and I know there’s a lot of people that you met, you should be grateful you get to see him half the time, well, probably.
But when you’re a dad, and you love your kid, all you can think is I only have 14 years left with them. I’ve just now, now I have seven. Like, that’s how my brain where I’m like, I lost seven years with this little human that I love more than anyone. Anyway, the combo of those two things was brutal. And I know, I didn’t like it. But it was the fuel necessary to begin this work. I had to learn how to protect my future self and my son from having things like this happen.
I felt like this sort of great moral responsibility. And the process gave me so much humility, as I slowly uncovered what I believe is the true story of why marriage ended. And it was a series of miscalculations and blind spots. And I very strongly believe that the vast majority of the pain and disconnection and mistrust and the relationship was a result of things that I did. Not because I’m a terrible person, because I did not execute effectively what it means to love somebody in a healthy relationship.
I didn’t know better. And my biggest crime was not doing the work, when she was trying to sound the alarm that something was wrong. And just continued to dismiss and invalidate just like all the other things.
Lisa: Did you guys ever think about going to couples counseling at some point along the line?
Matthew: We did a couple of times. But it’s—I don’t really know, I don’t think maybe what a particularly skilled therapists look like, I think that a lot of couples will forgive me, please, if this implies that I—
Lisa: Oh, please speak freely.
Matthew: People use marriage counseling wrong, in my opinion, they wait till things are horrible and then they go to a third party. And it’s why I refuse to work with two people at the same time in the same conversation. Because I remember what it felt like to have both of us speak and to have your mis—you’re never even having the same conversation. I am arguing about whether the dish should matter. And she’s arguing about being seen and heard.
When you’re not having the same conversation, everybody hurts and everybody’s invalidated. And I just feel like, you drive home and you’re more pissed. I remember just how like wound up and awful it felt. And it was not the fault of, of the marriage counselor, the therapist, that was the fault of me allowing this to have built up to where it did. What I really wish people would do. I wish people would go to marriage counseling all the time, as maintenance.
Lisa: Did you know that most marriage counselors—I shouldn’t even call it that—most therapists who offer marriage counseling, have no specialized training or experience in couples therapy. 98% of their affiliates who are doing couples counseling, do not have the training and experience to help, what happened to you two sounds like you had the same fight just in their office instead of in your living room. Like why did we go pay for that?
A truly expert marriage and family therapist who knows what to do in those moments would have handled it very differently. And so I am hearing just another layer of tragedy. Not— I don’t know, maybe it wouldn’t have been different in that moment. But that is really just crappy. And I’m mad for you that your experience
Matthew: Thank you. I don’t know, I’m certainly not disparaging the profession. And I think it really matters
Lisa:I feel annoyed about the profession for that reason but people are practicing outside their scope of competence and it has very real consequences for families.
Matthew: I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here. But I want to work with one human on personal responsibility, and habits to show up differently for the other person that is like my charge, if you will, and nothing else because I don’t know how to navigate so many of those complexities that occur between two people and right. And there’s often, there’s traumas.
There’s like legitimate traumas that people need to work through as individuals, not just the relationship traumas, but the individual traumas from childhood and things like that. And right that’s, I don’t even know how to identify or name those things. But in the spirit of consideration, in the spirit of I need to mindfully calculate for my relationship partner, so that I do things that serve their best interests instead of harm them.
If we’re unaware of a trauma, of a pain point. Again, you’re just you’re constantly flying blind. So I think there’s a lot of pitfalls for a lot of people out there. And I did not have the wherewithal ten, fifteen years ago, to say any of the things I just said. To think about the way my wife at the time had dynamics with her parents and her older brother, those family dynamics might have contributed to choose the baby.
And the thing I know today that I didn’t, that I knew back then but I didn’t appreciate what she always felt like not, like she didn’t have a voice in the family. She was least likely to have any sort of like power in the family or that if her brother picked on her, her parents would and her brother’s awesome. I get it, but her parents like didn’t save her, didn’t rescue her. She felt like this, she had this like residual sort of disrespect, mistreatment, cast to the side. And this is like a concept that I understand how I was perpetually triggering that through a series of things that I was doing. And I used to poke fun at her a little bit and she’d ask me not to.
Lisa: But we all have our wounds that we’re carrying into our relationships, and that’s the work, is understanding what those are and what our partner’s wounds are, so that we can attend to them. And it sounds like you understand things now that you didn’t then and, and I know that we probably need to glide to a stop here soon. But I also just want to commend the work that you’re doing. Now I’m hearing kind of between the lines that when things finally did come apart, it was, as it is, for so many people, I mean, when you lose your primary attachment, it’s in your family, it’s incredibly traumatizing.
But that you used this painful experience to to really like become an activist to say, “Okay, what what happened?” and really are so committed to doing good work and communicating things that you didn’t know, then but that you do know now to other people so that they can hear and understand, and have the opportunity to do something with this sooner than you did. And not that I’m happy for anything that you went through. But I always admire people who are able to do something so positive, not despite of their adversity, but because of it, and you’re doing that.
Matthew: Thank you, I feel the same way. I love the guy that gets out of prison, and then spends the rest of his life helping troubled youth. I love those kinds of stories. And it’s almost similar, like sort of metaphorically, sometimes this like regular guy way that I talk about things is useful to another quote unquote, regular guy out there.
Matthew: If there is such a thing, at least what my brain calculates to be, “regular guy” they don’t know either they they don’t have the awareness and the relational skills, and they love their spouse, and they love their children and can we get to a place. And so the feedback sometimes from guys is “Thank you, because your life sounds like my life. And now I’m able to, like, avoid some of the mistakes that you did.” And I love hearing that.
And then from wives, from girlfriends, I’m frequently hearing, relationship partners, because again, as you know, it doesn’t always fall in gender lines. It just sort of statistically commonly does, and but, to feel heard and seen and validated. And it gives me hope that the men in my life might be able to come to some of these realizations. It’s just really cool that I get to be like a part of that, considering that the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, and in my estimation, the worst things that I’ve ever done, are rooted in the exact opposite of all of that.
I am frankly proud of it. I don’t want to sound like back patty. Like, I think I’m really great. I don’t, but I am very proud of what you said, we’re trying to, like, leverage pain into something positive. Because that that’s very real. And it’s a passion project. I don’t know if you know that my parents split when I was four. And then I split, my son was four. And it just been this like life-defining thing.
Divorce has been like, in the background, my entire life, making everything a little bit more painful, a little bit more inconvenient. And then to learn that in highly over simplified terms, so much of it is blind spots and misunderstandings, a lack of awareness, a lack of skills that nobody has ever taught anybody to come to believe that it feels like such a crisis tragedy. It’s like, can I be part of just—I don’t know, I think of myself as somebody who raises awareness.
I just want to raise awareness that things you’re not paying attention to are probably the things that could cause you the most harm. So please pay attention. And I’m delighted to be invited to these conversations. Thank you so much.
Lisa: Thank you so much for sharing this message. And I completely agree it’s raising awareness, paying attention to things that you might not not think to pay attention to are actually the important ones. Thank you so much for spending this time today and you guys listening so Matthew Fray. His book isThis Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships.
And you have many more stories and personal insights and also a fair number of strategies and tips throughout that book. So thank you so much for consolidating your wisdom into a manual.
Matthew: Thank you so much for reading. It’s embarrassing almost when someone like you does it. I just think about all the times you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” But it’s so nice. It feels really good to have someone like you sort of like, sign off on it as being like a legitimate piece of work in the world. I value that really highly. Thank you.
Lisa: Thank you and you’re 100% spot on. It’s right on the money. It’s that attachment and connection and emotional attunement and how you create it or not. So anyway, I’m so glad that we got to chat today, Matthew, thank you again for taking the time to do this with me and let me know if you’d ever like to come back if you have other other books coming out in the future. No, we’ll talk again sometime.
Matthew: Thank you anytime you’d like to, I will be here.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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