Couple divorce over dishes left in sink
Imagine something as petty as a chat about doing the dishes and then elevating it to a marriage problem.
I thought she was crazy. You know, in the hyperbolic way, but just maybe a tiny bit in the clinical way too.
I was unable to make any sort of meaningful connection between the drinking glass I would leave next to the sink and the depths of frustration, anger and sadness that it would incite in my wife.
Imagine being the kind of person who gets upset over something as silly as dishes?
After 13 years together, nine married, and with a four-year-old son, my wife decided she'd had enough.
I started writing as a means of working through it all, and in January 2016, I wrote a blog post called "She divorced me because I left dishes by the sink".
The post was read more than three million times in its first month on my site (which previously had fewer than 1000 visits a day).
I was a nobody blogger sitting in my small, quiet house in Ohio, and suddenly I was deluged with emails from not just the United States, but also Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Philippines.
Some men and women thanked me for saving their marriages. Others called me a moron and accused me of betraying my gender.
It turns out relationship arguments related to things like a dish left by the sink are the sort of disputes a lot of couples have.
And it tends to be an argument that never ends, because the two participants are never actually discussing the same thing.
I tried to help my wife around the house, so I thought. I'd wash a load of laundry, put it in the dryer and maybe even fold the clothes too.
Once I left an ink pen in the pocket of her jeans.
She got really mad about that. Like, really mad.
I thought she was being unfair again, as it was an honest mistake.
If she had accidentally got ink stains on my clothes, I'd never have been this angry.
I'd never be this mean to you over an accident, I thought.
Secretly, I always believed I held the moral high ground in these conversations. Because I was so "nice". I believed - seriously - that I was a nicer person than my wife. I had a more cheerful disposition. I was more polite.
My self-identity was one of being kind. So when she would angrily talk to me about something upsetting her, I was quick to defend myself against what I perceived to be unfair attacks.
There are a lot of nice guys out there who are accidentally bad husbands.
After the reaction to the blog post, at the urging of a friend, last year I made myself available for some one-on-one coaching conversations about emotional labour - a term I hadn't even encountered until that post went viral.
Since launching, I have coached people in America, the UK, Spain, Austria, Africa, South Africa, Singapore and Canada, and now I have a book deal.
Most of my clients are men trying to restore trust in a fractured marriage.
Often clients are unable to explain how their relationships deteriorated to this point.
The most common thing I see is that instead of listening to their partner, digesting the information and caring about why they feel bad, men tend to invest their energy in one of three ways.
They dispute the facts of the story their partner just told; agree with the facts, but believe their partner is overreacting; or defend their actions by explaining why they did it.
In all three cases, their partner's feelings are invalid. Men, just as I did, often don't seem to recognise the taxing mental load of organising life for multiple people. School projects for the children. Transportation to extracurricular activities. Future family events and social outings. Holiday plans.
It's exhausting, as I discovered for myself when my wife moved out and for the first time in my life I had a house, a job and a child to care for without the support of another adult.
Without my son's mother supporting me even after divorce, I would have missed parent-teacher conferences, I would have failed to send our son to school with properly completed projects, I would have dressed him in the wrong clothes, and hundreds of other things already forgotten.
My early memories around emotional labour began when I was four and my parents divorced. At my mother's house, I had a few chores, but my food was deliciously cooked, my clothes were clean and folded, and the bathrooms were always spotless, no thanks to me.
At my dad's house, chores were more of the "man chore" variety, such as gardening and washing cars. In either house, the lion's share of domestic housework fell to my mother or stepmother. Neither of whom demanded more from me, my father or stepfather.
This cultural modelling of mothers, grandmothers and our friends' mothers all carrying the burdens of most domestic house duties has long-lasting effects.
It has resulted in men in my general age range (I'm 41) entering marriage with the belief that their wives will manage the same tasks that they watched their mothers perform growing up.
However, a husband or co-parenting father unable or unwilling to participate actively, mind- fully, competently in the business of childcare will quickly become like a second child.
Sexless marriages do not just result from the loss of physical attraction - it is the loss of emotional intimacy because one of them begins to feel as if they're married to one of their kids.
There may be examples of couples rekindling passion once this begrudging parent-child dynamic has set in, but I've never seen it.
I remember my wife often saying how exhausting it was for her to have to tell me what to do all the time. I always reasoned: "If you just tell me what you want me to do, I'll gladly do it."
But she didn't want to be my mother. She wanted to be my partner, and she wanted me to apply all of my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our lives and household, to doing the work of seeing and taking stock of all that must be done in order for our home life to function.
When men actually do step up to "help" their partner, it's all too often accompanied by the expectation of praise or gratitude.
As if we went above and beyond because we folded a load of laundry or cleaned a bathroom on one occasion. Even the use of the word "help" implies that your partner is responsible for or obligated to manage the laundry.
The men I work with struggle to understand how something that does not bother them can actually be hurtful and worthy of an emotional, stressful conversation. They view it as keeping the peace versus complaining about petty things, and place a higher value on peace than dealing with confrontation.
They miss how the constant deflection, defending and invalidation will prevent real peace from ever setting in. Change - real change - first requires buy-in. Things that seem minor can be important to someone else. Second, it requires consistently speaking and behaving in ways that show that.
My wife and I shared values, hopes and dreams. Had I mindfully engaged in the business of household management and not been a serial invalidator, I truly believe that we would still be together.
Sure, I still fall short, but, finally, I am someone who is at least aware there are things happening in my blind spots that are affecting other people.
Now I'm a better partner to my son's mother in divorce than I ever was during marriage. I wish a different outcome for you. The happily ever after kind.
Matthew is a writer and relationship coach. Follow him on Twitter @MBTTTR
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission
Originally published as Couple divorce over dishes left in sink