You must pay attention to your spouse. Period. The end. Okay, you can stop reading now.
Just kidding. But seriously. Pay attention to your spouse, especially when they start asserting more independence from you. It either means something great is about to happen or your about to be on the backside of thirty, wearing rose-colored glasses, with the Friday night blues. Or at least that’s how John Conlee described divorce and failed relationships.
Are you emotionally mature in your life? In your marriage? If you’re not sure what the heck that even means, this article is for you.
The saddest divorce I’ve ever handled was also the easiest. Edward and Rachel, two successful, attractive, and friendly people with no children, watched their union fade. There were no angry texts or Facebook posts exchanged by the lawyers in a mudslinging fest. In fact, there was no mudslinging at all. We didn’t trace financials back to the date of marriage. They just agreed that the marriage was over and assets needed to be split. No one wondered why. Rachel felt like Edward had stopped listening and paying attention to her. Edward felt like he had missed the signs that Rachel was unhappy. Was she perfect? Nope. But did he ever once blame her? Nope.
At our initial meeting, Edward said, “I guess this is my fault. I didn’t listen to her and I worked too much. Now it’s too late.” It took less than five years of ships passing in the night to break the bonds. They each ran their own business. To Edward’s credit, he chose to pour into his business so that he could provide Rachel with a good life, including supporting her business interests financially and logistically. He believed by doing this that he was showing her affection and love. But Rachel wanted to go places and do things with him, be more social, spend more time together sharing thoughts and experiences. Edward missed the cues enough to permanently lose the connection.
One day Rachel told him she didn’t love him anymore and that nothing Edward could say or do would change her mind. She had grown used to being alone. This crushed Edward. They had more cash in their safe at home than many people will ever have in the bank. But he realized then that none of that money, the big house, or the assets would ever change her heart. Their split was amicable. Edward said he loved her so much he wanted her to be happy, even if that meant losing her.
I still use that divorce as an example of how smooth the transition can be if spouses are willing to do the work to be amicable.
Yet, why was it so sad to me? Because of the hurt I saw in Edward’s eyes when he reflected on how he may have prevented it. Had he read the signs more clearly, had he paid more attention to her words and actions, maybe they would have made it.
I’ve seen divorce from just about every angle. My client may be Edward or someone like Rachel. Sometimes I represent a spouse who finally worked up the nerve and borrowed the money to get out of a physically or mentally abusive relationship. Maybe I represent an elderly gentleman that lost his retirement to a scamming second wife. The list goes on and on with everything else in between. #divorcehappens.
The hardest ones for me to watch are those that end purely because two people that once loved each other forgot one simple fact: People change. In so, so many ways. A desire for more independence is one of the top reasons long terms marriages fail. The survival of a marriage may depend on rolling with the changes, rather than rejecting them. In the past 15 months, my wife, Faith, and I learned a lot about this.
Now what I’m about to tell you is classified. I mean, this is a big, big secret. Make sure nobody else knows about this or reads it, umkay? Ready?
Our marriage isn’t perfect. GASP! Really. Sometimes we don’t think it can be any better, while other times it’s a sh*t-show of epic proportions. Sound familiar?
Faith and I met in high school. I stalked-I mean-waited (did I type “stalked”? so silly of me…) for a year before she noticed me. Six years and a handful of breakups and bad dating adventures later, we married on a sunny and cool March day under the Texas sky. Well, I guess the people that stayed for the dance would tell you it was friggin’ cold.
Nearly 18 years after our vows, we have five children 14 to 3 years of age. We survived the rough days of multiple babies and no money during my time in law school. At one point, our mornings were three small children in three different size diapers, gurgling down three milk-filled sippy cups against the sound of George Carlin narrating Thomas the Train.
As the kids and the law practice grew from their infancy, Faith and I felt the strain of more bills and tougher work schedules. When sports and activities and school started, the strain grew exponentially. When we moved into a new home in 2016, the capstone cracked.
My goals were to provide a good life for my children and my wife, to be the best father I could be, to love my wife fiercely in every sense of the word, to take good care of my clients, and in the time that was left, to take care of myself. I was a lot like Edward. Her goals were to be the best mother she could be, to love me fiercely in every sense of the word, to take good care of our kids, and in the time that was left, to take care of herself.
How could any of this be bad?
Easy – because we didn’t always believe that about each other, and we weren’t paying close enough attention to spot the issues.
For years, we didn’t talk to each other about it. We just “assumed” the other person knew how we felt. But in reality, our inner monologue didn’t matchup so well with our outer-diatribe. Sound familiar?
We stopped being vigilant. Those assumptions could have killed our union. Taking each of our inner feelings into consideration, here are some of the incorrect beliefs we each held about each other:
Does that read anything like our actual goals? Nope.
What are your goals? Does your spouse know that? What do you each believe about each other? Do you think those beliefs are accurate? Are you comfortable bringing that conversation up over drinks or dinner? Or would you rather slam three shots and dance the night away in blissful ignorance? I challenge you to write them down and share them with each other. It may save more than you realize.
I turned 40 the year after we moved. I realized a lot about myself. For one, I wasn’t using my most creative talents much at all. I’m a writer, musician and speaker. As a lawyer, it’s hard to be creative in any of those avenues. It affected how I handled myself in my marriage to Faith. My true self was hidden deep down. While I was working around the clock to help children and my hurting clients, I was suffering immensely. I can attest to the fact that sometimes the divorce lawyer has the most ignored marriage.
The truth is—I had changed. And I didn’t have the slightest idea I had changed or that I was about to throw a giant wrench in our marital gear box. I didn’t realize how emotionally immature I was about that particular thing.
I learned that communication really isn’t the issue. Rather, communication is a symptom of a deeper problem: Emotional Maturity. And remembering, as the Marriage Laboratory says, that marriage is not a validation factory. Dr. David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage, says that to really improve a marriage, you need to:
1) develop a clear sense of who you are;
2) self-soothe, regulate your own anxiety;
3) learn to control your reactivity; and
4) be willing to tolerate discomfort for growth.
You can get your hot little hands on Dr. Schnarch’s book here.
I think right now Faith and I are smack in the middle of learning to control our reactivity and to tolerate discomfort for growth. We couldn’t see it at the time, but in hindsight the issue precipitating many of the conflicts between Faith and me was so simple. We agreed to take the proactive step of getting counseling on our own, and then later, we got into marriage counseling. Some people call it “couples therapy” and while not everyone agrees with it, success rates are high. Respondents to a study by American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists stated that couples therapy was highly effective, as high as 98% reporting the therapy was good.
I’m not sure about anyone else, but it was the greatest thing we could have ever done for each other. We didn’t solve all our problems and we never will. But we’ve seen improvements. Making time for each other, resolving disputes more constructively, making romance and sex a bigger priority, taking better care of ourselves, and giving each other alone time are but a few of the tools we put into practice to improve our marriage.
If spouses are comfortable with who they are, can self-sooth, and are willing to control their reactions, paying attention to each other is a lot easier. Edward’s divorce, and the many others that I have handled, taught me that if I want to avoid a communication breakdown and “slow fade” in my own marriage, I need to be paying attention. So, I’ve been watching her. I’ve seen the changes she’s making. More importantly, I’ve seen the strength she’s developed in the last 15 months of growth. Sometimes I wonder if she knows just how strong she really is.
In paying closer attention to her, I have come to realize one very true fact: This is a kick-ass woman who can seriously tolerate discomfort for growth. #keepher
Reading the Signs Suggesting Growth
Last Spring Faith started working out at Lifetime Fitness. In all the years we have been married, we had always worked out together, either at the same club or at home. At that point in time I was on hiatus from working out at all. She came to me about joining Lifetime and getting back into shape. I agreed that it would be a good decision for her. From the spring until August, 2017, she made a real effort to get to the gym at least 2-3 times per week. She made friends there and established a routine for herself that didn’t include me at all. (That was pretty sexy, BTW). She even put our baby in the gym daycare (a thought unheard of in her life before). I saw that she was using this opportunity to break out of the “mom life” and establish more independence, which was good.
When August rolled around, it was clear that she was not being challenged enough at Lifetime. By then I had been back at Iron Antler Crossfit for a little over 5 months. You can hear Faith talk about her transition from Lifetime to Crossfit on Episode 4 of Cause of Action. She was nervous about doing Crossfit again (she talks about why in the podcast). But she showed up and within a few weeks was killin’ it. Another roadblock gone.
By September, she was scheduled to come on a two-day and two-night backpacking trip. We did that trip and in November I posted my article about taking Faith backpacking for the first time in Colorado. That trip was huge for her because she broke through some more serious barriers. In the post, you can read about her challenges on the trail (we had some very cold weather for September) and how she battled altitude sickness and some hefty mental blocks. About a week or so after the trip was over, she talked to me about the experience and how she couldn’t wait to go back. Right then I knew she had grown.
On Christmas Eve I wrote a blog post called “It’s Only a Relationship, Just Go With It”. I had scheduled and prepared my wife for her first ever deer hunt (at her request). This is a big deal because just a few years ago I couldn’t even get her to eat wild game. I’ll let you read that post to get the details, but the day we planned to go hunting didn’t work out. So, we rescheduled for another day. On the day of the rescheduled hunt, it was beautiful (I have so much to say about it I will cover it in another post). The point is, now she’s harvesting her own deer. A few nights ago in the kitchen she was preparing a meal with meat from her deer, telling me she finally understood how rewarding it is to feed your family with something you hunted. More growth that I may have missed if I was too involved in my own inner circle.
In January 2018, Faith launched her own Rodan + Fields Independent Consultant business. This was a decision I had absolutely nothing to do with. In the past, she would have kicked the can down the street for days, weeks even, before pulling the trigger. We had been talking for a while about making some changes so I could pull back from working so many hours. She wanted to help me with income besides just working with me in the office. We had been through so many scenarios on how she could do that. One day we had a pretty decent row about finances and time, and the next thing I knew, she was scheduling a conference call with people about this business. And in two weeks, she’s already making money and people in the business are telling her she’s blowing it out of the water.
I stop and ask myself: Would she have started that business if she hadn’t been forced to spend a cold second night on that trail high up in the Rockies? Would she have even gone on that backpacking trip if I had not given her my full support to get a gym membership back in the Spring? Would she have hunted her first deer, helping her achieve even more courage and strength?
What if I had missed it by not paying attention?
Embrace Positive Change – Don’t Fear It
It would be easy for me to stay in my comfort zone and see these changes that Faith is making as a “threat” to my masculinity or to my role in the family as the breadwinner. It would be easy for me to diminish her efforts or to ignore them altogether. Because these changes are very different from what we’ve lived for 18 years as a married couple. It’s change. And change can be uncomfortable. Like having to put MY stuff down to watch the baby so she can work her new business. Or doing without something I wanted to allow her to invest in her business.
To be frank, if all of this had happened a few years ago, I probably would have missed the signs. I would have let her do her thing and I would have done mine and we would have grown apart.
Seek the information! Learn what your strengths and weaknesses are. How do you respond to change? How does your spouse respond to change? I don’t want to see you in my office for a divorce consultation unless you’ve tried every thing available to stay married.
Fortunately for both of us, the changes we made over the last 15 months led us down a path to strengthen our marital bond, rather than sever it. These things forced me to change my perspective, to shift my entire paradigm. Now, I’m paying more attention. And what I see is a positive change in my wife that is going to help our marriage and family succeed for years to come. We created a plan that will allow her to supplement our income and help me speak and write more and take less cases.
Emotional maturity is key. Be comfortable with who you are so you aren’t seeking validation from your spouse. They are there to support you, and you them, which is much different from basing your whole self-worth on what your spouse thinks of you. Let that go. But be willing to tolerate the discomfort that comes along with change, because as both of our counselors told us: It’s BEAUTIFUL on the other side.
Truer words have never been spoken.
From how she treats me and talks to me, I know Faith is giving me the same support in return. She’s paying attention to me. She knows when I need to spend a Friday afternoon fishing or hunting—she does not question my scheduling of free time. She knows now that it’s my way of letting off the steam so I can be a good husband, father and lawyer.
It wasn’t one major change that happened overnight. It was a series of changes that occurred over 15 months. And in that beautiful mess we learned to be more emotionally mature. React less. Listen more. Pay attention. These tools facilitate better communication.
I challenge you to stop what you’re doing (which you can, because this post is over), sit down, and write a list of the things you feel you are doing for your marriage, for your spouse. Ask your spouse to do the same. Then you each write down your perception of what your spouse is doing. Be honest. Compare the lists. If they’re not close, you may have some work to do. Do it.
Pay attention to each other. Work on your emotional maturity. Accept the changes in your spouse as part of marriage, rather than a chink in its armor.
Fight through the discomfort of change and discover the beauty on the other side.
Thanks for stopping in.