Hard Lessons

How To Save Your Marriage From Yourself

In his new book “This Is How Your Marriage Ends,” author and relationship coach Matthew Fray offers lessons from his failed marriage to prevent others from following a similar path.

In the final moments of ‘These Days,’ Jackson Browne sings “Don’t confront me with my failures, I have not forgotten them.” It’s a fitting last line for the beautiful melancholy ballad, and the lyrics likely resonate with Matthew Fray, author of This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships. Devastated after his divorce, Fray, a young father at the time, dredged the depths of his failed marriage to understand his role in its collapse. Happy marriages, he realized, often die a death by 1,000 cuts. In other words, it was the small, seemingly inconsequential infractions he made repeatedly that invalidated his wife and eroded her trust in him that ultimately led to his marriage’s demise. And his mistakes are very, very common.

Fray, a writer and now relationship coach, became well known for his 2016 Huffington Post article, “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By the Sink,” which was read and shared millions of times. In it, he discusses how he had a habit of leaving his drinkware by the sink because it wasn’t a big deal to him. But it was a big deal to his wife. Did his marriage truly end because of this infraction? No. Rather, it ended because on many, many occasions he failed to get out of his own way and play an active role in his relationship. But the cups on the sink played a minor supporting part, and that’s the point.

“I made decisions that I calculated to be harmless, but they weren’t harmless,” Fray tells Fatherly. “They were nearly harmless, but they caused the tiniest bit of harm. And then you add up hundreds, thousands of these, and that leads to the ruin that people experience. It happened so gradually, and I could have course-corrected it so many times. But I didn’t.”

Fatherly spoke to Fray about the hard lessons he learned about marriage, the importance of the right kind of validation in relationships, and what all of us can do to prevent our relationships from falling into disrepair.

What compelled you to dive so wholeheartedly into the demise of your marriage?

I was so miserable that I felt compelled to understand. Investigating it was the only way I could figure to protect my future self from having the worst thing that ever happened to me happen again. I concluded at some point that I had two choices: opt-out of relationships because I’m scared that someone else is going to do to me “what my ex-wife did to me,” or try to figure out what my role in the end of my marriage was. And that process unveiled things that I hadn’t been paying attention to in my marriage. It ended because of a combination of so many small things.

Your most well-known example of a minor infraction is your habit of leaving your glasses by the sink. What are some others?

Reading relationship books. I didn’t like the idea of my wife asking me to read relationship books. Because I made it all about me. I thought This implies that I’m a bad husband. This implies that you think I’m bad and need to become good. And I reject that framing, so like a child, I’m not going to do this thing that you’re asking me to do. That’s literally more or less the process that happened in our marriage. I was sufficiently motivated to read those books after my marriage ended.

Here’s another one that I’ve also written about: I rejected my wife’s invitation to go for a hike during the final round of The Masters. It was the Sunday round of the Masters, and I wanted to watch it. I’d prioritized a golf tournament on TV over my wife and very young son.

Now, I don’t literally think that if you’re a huge golf fan in a healthy relationship watching The Masters instead of accepting an invitation from your spouse is a big deal. Because in a healthy relationship, your spouse wouldn’t ask you to not do this thing because you would have already had a healthy conversation about it ahead of time. But it manifested that way in my life.

You essentially rejected what Dr. John Gottman refers to as a “bid for connection,” a little moment where she offered you a chance for closeness.

Exactly. I used to hang out in the basement and watch TV. I remember my wife would just throw down an invitation to come to bed. And she never tried to twist my arm, but it was frequent. It was just an invitation to go to bed. And the implication could be physical intimacy, or it could be just connection. It was an invitation.

And I said no so many times. I said, “No, I’m going to finish this episode of 24,” or “…of Mad Men” or “Monday Night Football” or whatever the hell I was watching. I didn’t like the same shows she did. So, I would hang out downstairs and consume just the stuff that I enjoyed. And whether her bid was asking me to just be in the same place at the same time as her, or whether it was to connect physically, I turned it down. The amount of shame I feel looking back on it is immense.

That’s a big point in your book: these little things add up.

To me, it’s akin to smoking back in the 1940s or ‘50s. Medical science was starting to catch up to the idea that it was bad for you, but the public didn’t know yet and so everybody was smoking with their windows rolled up and their kids in the backseat.

And I just think this is virtually identical as an analogy. These little things are so harmful to long-term relationships between people, and nobody calculates them to be harmful. And I don’t want to compare myself to the 1950s surgeon general, but it’s the role in which I try to think about the work that I’m trying to do. I’m trying to raise awareness about things that cause very real harm, but that appear harmless.

Your experience helped you become a relationship counselor. Now, when you offer advice to clients about their relationships, what do you emphasize?

Well, the biggest thing is that we need trust in our relationship more than we need any single other condition. Trust is the thing that has the most value to longevity and health in an interpersonal relationship.

The notion of all you need is love? It’s not true. People end relationships with people they love all the time because it hurts. People end relationships with people that they philosophically want to be with. But the real-world implications of being with them are so painful that they choose to leave.

We’re gifted trust. We inherit it freely when we first get together with somebody. And we need to maintain or grow it and we often don’t. We erode it so slowly that only one of us notices it. And then the other person sort of denies that anything’s wrong and proceeds to invalidate the other’s feelings by doing so.

We often don’t realize how hurtful it can be to write off our partner’s feelings or thoughts or things that upset them because we don’t feel the same way.

The example that I talk about is imagining a child, a four-year-old, being afraid of a monster under the bed. We don’t need to agree that the monster’s there to have a conversation that increases safety and trust between parents and children in that situation. In the same sense, we don’t have to agree with whatever our sad, afraid, angry spouse says to respond in a manner that increases safety and trust, or that at minimum doesn’t erode it.

And this is a hard lesson you learned.

I habitually invalidated. I did not think of myself as somebody trying to invalidate my wife, but the thing is, I wouldn’t even validate my wife saying I invalidated her. I thought that was such a stupid thing to say to me. I was like, “No, I’m an adult who thinks things differently than you and I resent the implication that I’m not allowed to think a different thing than you.” That’s what I used to say basically all the time.

And this is something all of us can, accidentally or not, back ourselves into.

Yeah. And when you do that, the person in a relationship with you learns that the math result of being with you means that if they’re hurt by something, and you don’t think they should be hurt, every time they come to you to say something’s wrong — to help you so you understand it, or to try to recruit you to help them not hurt anymore — the implication is that they’re crazy or stupid or emotionally weak. Or it means that you defend yourself no matter what and don’t really care what they think and feel at all, and that you’re just going to go keep doing what you’re doing. And what it means is their relationship partner has to rubber-stamp what they think and feel in order for anything to get better.

That’s what my wife learned about being with me. If I didn’t approve of the things she thought and felt, she was going to leave the conversation feeling as if I implied that she was stupid or weak and that I would always, always choose the things I believed and the things that I felt over the things she believed and the things she felt.

That’s a devastating lesson.

And it’s such an often-missed concept for people. If we’re not really, really careful about it we spend all our energy telling the human being that there’s no monster under the bed so they shouldn’t think and feel the things they feel.

What’s another lesson you explore with your clients that you think is important to understand?

The notion of consideration. Meaning, that you remember to include your partner in your decision-making tree.

Say I’m going to send a text to my wife letting her know that I’m going to be two hours later than she’d originally expected me tonight because some people flew in from Germany are at the office, and we’re taking them out tonight. And so, I’m going to be home a little later and I’m just letting my wife know.

But the thing that I’m forgetting is that four days earlier she said, “Hey, can you make sure Thursday night that you’re here with the kids so that I can go do X, Y, and Z thing?” And you said, “Yeah, yeah, of course, no problem.”

The first real promise wasn’t even on your radar.

And that’s the problem. Because I didn’t prioritize it, because I didn’t make it a calendar appointment. All of a sudden, she’s upset but I’m just trying to be a professional and a good host to these people from this other country, right? And that’s such a common way two people can have a knockdown drag-out argument in a relationship.

And nobody really did anything wrong. But if you were going to pick on somebody today, you would say, what happened was, I simply did not prioritize this thing that my wife asked. Not in an overtly harmful way, but I didn’t prioritize.

I get the point. But also things happen. It’s so innocent.

The thing is, what’s so interesting to me about that scenario, is that the text message to the wife does the damage. You don’t even have to follow through. She can say, “Hey, you promised you’d be home with the kids.” And you’re like, “Oh my God, of course, I did. I’m sorry. Okay. I’ll figure something else out and I’ll be home.”

But you still did the damage. You still eroded trust. You still demonstrated that she couldn’t count on you without the reminder and that something would’ve happened. One of the kids wouldn’t have gotten to their practice or she wasn’t going to be able to do whatever work thing or social thing that she’d committed to. These are the little ways I think that people accidentally destroy their relationships.

What’s the advice that you would give people to increase their awareness of all of this? This is a hard question to ask because it requires fighting against yourself and reframing everything and the answer just might be…therapy. What do you recommend?

I love to talk about breathing. We breathe 23,000 times a day on average. It is the thing that we mathematically do more than anything else in our lives. And we are not conscious of the fact that we breathe. It happens in the background on autopilot. And I think the things that happen in the background on autopilot are the things that destroy trust and love in relationships. And so, the same process one uses to become aware of their breathing, to focus on something that happens all the time that’s quote-unquote invisible, is the same work. Can we pay attention to the conversation I’m having with my partner? Do we both walk away feeling good after there’s a disagreement?

The therapist Terry Real says that every relationship goes through the following cycle: harmony, disharmony, and then repair. I used to think fights and arguments were these negative things in relationships. And they can be depending on how toxic and unhealthy they are. But what they represent is the opportunity to successfully execute the repair process. And that is everything in relationships. That is where the trust blossoms and strengthens. That’s where we do it, when it gets uncomfortable, and our other person says, “Hey, I hurt.”

I used to think, Oh God, not this again. What did I do this time? Or What is she making me responsible for this time? And it’s uncomfortable if you think that way. But I embrace it now and teach clients to do so because that’s where we regrow the trust. Our capacity for successfully navigating uncomfortable conversations is, I think, the metric by which our relationship partner will feel trust in us.

And that’s what you, in retrospect, realized you lost.

My wife couldn’t trust me. She couldn’t trust me to come to me with something that hurt and have a successful conversation or have any faith that I would do things differently moving forward, to protect her from the same hurtful thing happening again, she had no faith that either of those two things would happen. And she had every reason in the world to believe that. Because every attempt to recruit me to help was met with invalidating responses and me implying that I would keep doing what I wanted to do because I didn’t do anything wrong. That was always sort of how that conversation went.

What’s a final point you’d like to make?

I never thought of my relationship as a thing to actively practice and work on and hone my skills and develop my knowledge. I always just thought it was this thing that would sort of automatically just run in the background. It doesn’t work like that. There was this dangerous belief that the ease with which we dated in our early twenties was just going to be what married life was like. I didn’t have any delusions that it was going to stay easy. I knew life would throw punches at us because life does that and because I’d met married people and I’d heard every single married person talk about how it gets more difficult, not easier. But I didn’t know it meant I had to get to work on learning something new, on practicing something new. I just thought I had to be tolerant of the bad that would eventually come. And I trusted that I could do that. But that’s not what they meant.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.