Male clients have told me again and again, "I wish I'd known sooner. I want other men to know. Here's a composite of what they told me they wanted you to know:
Listen to her now. Hear what she’s trying to tell you:
Take it from me. My wife is gone. She’s done. Still loves me. But she’s not in love with me. I just KNOW I can make the changes she needs… but I’m afraid I heard her too late.
Now I see my role in the death of our love.
Is it ALL my fault? No. But in all the time (And it was a long time. Years.) she was trying to invite me to create a different kind of marriage, I didn’t hear her. And I wasn’t asking for what I needed either.
I felt secure in our life-long commitment. So secure it blinded me.
I knew we loved each other. That we’d promised forever. I thought that part was settled. I was really proud of that: that neither of us questioned it.
now I see: confidence was part of my downfall.
I don’t want you to make the same mistake. Don’t assume that the forever-kind-of-devotion you both feel implies that you can take her for granted. Don't assume that your being "pretty happy" in your relationship means your wife's complaints aren't substantive.
I know you don’t think you’re taking her for granted.
I sure wouldn’t have said I took my wife for granted. I was trying to be a good husband and doing what I thought was a pretty good job. But I remember now… I remember that she was… Well, at the time I’d have called it “complaining.”
She was asking for more.
She was inviting me to revive some passion. She was asking me to grow with her. She was pointing to our potential to become something more than we were. She wanted to go deeper. With ME.
I was busy. Simple as that. And so much more than that.
Busy defending my own status quo. Busy with work. Busy trying to be a good dad. Busy trying to stay out of trouble with her.
I’m realizing now: “not in trouble with her” is not a recipe for a happy wife… or a happy husband, for that matter.
She asked me to go to a workshop. She asked me to consider a couples’ coach via videoconference. Or a therapist in-person. I said, “it’s not that bad!” I thought crisis would be the only reason to do those things. And we weren’t in crisis.
We weren’t in crisis, were we?
Looking back, I don’t think we were in crisis… but I think she was feeling the early rumblings of the crisis we are most definitely in now. And, like a pet who starts yelping and growling before an earthquake, she was trying to warn me… trying to avert disaster.
By refusing to hear her until the house was on fire, I seem to have brought that disaster upon us. Me. Her. Our kids. The future I thought was so iron-clad, and that I was working so hard for.
It looks to me now like I was saying “show me a crisis, and THEN you’ll have my attention.”
I REALLY wish I hadn’t insisted on a crisis.
I didn’t mean to, but now I see that I did. This crisis is the last thing I wanted.
I’d have chosen a dozen gut-wrenching weekend marriage workshops over the very real possibility of divorce.
I’d have had a hundred hours of uncomfortable conversations about what I wasn’t doing romantically… sexually… around the house… to have prevented the very uncomfortable (understatement of the century) conversation where she told me she was done.
My wife is not a threatener. Yours probably isn’t either.
My wife didn’t “threaten” divorce as a ploy to get my attention.
Get my attention, she did. But my deep fear now is that it’s absolutely too late. That she didn’t utter the words until they were already real for her, until she was already, in a very real sense, gone.
If she is lost to me, if I have broken the things that mean the most to me in the world: my marriage, my children’s home, my wife’s heart, and my chance to make her happy for the rest of our lives… Then I want to grab by the shoulders every other man whose wife is now saying to him what my wife said to me 3 months ago, a year ago, a two years ago, and tell him: LISTEN TO HER.
If she’s asking you for something new sexually, don’t defend your approach.
Be curious about her desires. About what’s changed in her body and mind and heart since you first made love to her. Those changes are real.
Your approach to sex, like mine, was built on a foundation of misinformation from teenage friends, from the wham-bam plots of porn movies, from the responsive bodies and insecure voices of the young women we first had sex with.
Sex at this stage of life is a different thing entirely than it was when you learned how to have it. If you need to learn new approaches, don’t defend the old ones: jump at the chance.
If she’s telling you there’s something she yearns to feel: more love, more passion, more romance… Don’t dismiss that request as a pie-in-the-sky fantasy stoked by too many romantic comedies.
Her desires are real and they matter and they aren’t going to go away.
I’ve come to understand that women are the thought leaders in most relationships. I always knew my wife put more imagination and creativity and research into parenting than I did… that my own learning was second-hand, through her. And I appreciated that.
she tried to do thAT same kind of idea-propagation with me when it came to OUR relationship.
I was defensive. Dismissive. Derisive.
I’m embarrassed about it now: I love her so much, but when she told me she was missing something important to her in her life and she needed me to do something about it, I wrote it off as a girlish fantasy of hers.
I swiftly defended myself and deflected her requests.
Since I didn’t understand what she was saying, I thought it didn’t make sense, didn’t actually matter. I thought she’d get over it. I thought she’d learn that she was asking too much. I thought I could decline to engage in the conversation and keep my life intact.
“She’s being unreasonable,” I told myself.
It made perfect sense to me at the time. "She asks too much of me. She’s not seeing how hard I’m working.” I knew that the things she was pointing to for us were different from other marriages we saw around us. I knew there was emotional risk involved.
I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to say yes to what she was asking.
On the basis of all that, I sidestepped or deflected or out-and-out attacked her during every conversation we had. I sure as hell felt attacked by her, so I felt utterly justified in attacking back.
From where I stand now, I see I was missing the point.
I feel like a guy who had thought that homeowner's insurance was too expensive and that double-checking that the stove was off was a waste of time... Except now I'm staring at the smoldering ashes of my house. I’d give anything to go back now and turn toward those conversations I turned away from.
She was asking me to ante up.
The emotional risks I wanted to avoid were actually investments my wife was asking me to make into our relationship. Those were big checks she was asking me to write, discomfort-wise. But she thought those investments would pay us both back. She told me so.
I refused to see that.
Now I’m writing even bigger checks…
Not only in discomfort (again: a euphemism for the agony of looking at what a divorce will do to me, to my wife, to our kids and extended family and friends and future), but literally financially. The cost of those investments looked huge, and now it looks like I bargain I wish I’d jumped at.
If you haven’t listened to your wife, please listen to me.
If you can see yourself in the way I describe my past self, get this: You haven’t been hearing your wife. I didn’t hear mine until it was too late. Please let my loss prevent yours. I’d give anything to be back in your shoes. Don’t waste your opportunity.
The very fact that she’s talking to you about what she wants tells us two things:
1. It's been rough for her for a long, long time.
Talking to you now means she’s been thinking about and wanting these things for a long time already, and has buried the desires, told herself she didn’t need them if you couldn't easily give them, but finally, she couldn’t keep them down any longer.
She’s suffered a lot already. If you experience aspects of your relationship as difficult, or if you feel like your wife has changed, those things are a result of this long-term malnourishment she’s been feeling.
2. She’s still fighting FOR your relationship.
However defensive or attacked or criticized or nit-picked you feel, your woman is turning TOWARD you, not away. She wants a relationship she doesn’t have, and rather than kicking you to the curb to go be with someone else to have that relationship, she’s doubling down on her vows and saying “make this new thing with me."
I know I’m a good man.
I know I have loved my wife every day of our marriage, and since before that. I know I was trying, as best I could, to be a good husband all that time… But those three arguments, defenses, deflections:
I’m good, I love you, I’m trying… True though they are, they didn’t meet my wife’s needs, her emotions, her requests.
Just like showing up every day at work won’t get you promoted or having a great product won’t get it sold if no one knows about it… I have to actively invest in being a deeper friend, a more present and potent lover, a more heart-stirring romantic partner. If that sounds like a lot of work to you, it does to me too! But it’s looking very worthwhile to me now.
I used to think marriage was supposed to be my safe place… That sanctuary where I could let down my guard at the end of the day, and change into my sweatpants, literally and metaphorically. It can be, I think… but not all the time. I used to give my work my best, give my kids what they needed, and expect my wife to understand that I was exhausted when I turned on the tv or answered those last few emails at the end of the night.
My wife only got the “sweatpants Joe” for longer than I really want to admit.
It makes sense she lost interest in being the “safe place” for someone who never gave her his best attention and energy. I’m learning to give myself better breaks and better stress-reduction so that I can, at least a bit every day, be fully present and active with her. It’s a lot of work. They’re new skills. But it’s worth it.
I’d much rather share my thoughts with her, plan a date for her, take the risk of doing something new with her… than start all over dating someone who’s not the mother of my kids and the love of my life.
Every great aspect of the life you have now was brought to you by someone else.
It was a new and unfamiliar idea at one time. Your favorite foods. Your best ways of relaxing and exercising and finding peace. Your career and your education. Your friends and your kids. Once, every one of those things was foreign to you, unknown. And quite possibly scary. But you walked through that newness, that excruciating “conscious incompetence” phase. Those once-difficult learning curves ripened into blessings. I hope I get the chance to have my learning curves about love and sex become the blessing of a lifetime of love (and learning and wanting her and her knowing it and being wanted by her and knowing it) with my wife.
I hope you get that chance, too. Hear her now.
Note from Michele: This post can't be signed... It's from a composite of my male clients who wanted you to know.