My 9-Year-Old Accidentally Explained Why His Mom Divorced Me
The truth was always hovering just a little over my head.
By Matthew Fray
“What do you want to have for dinner tomorrow?”
My wife asked me that a lot and I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like it on two levels:
Level 1 No-Likey: I have enough to worry about. Whether I have serious things to do, or perhaps am simply unwinding from a day at work, there are SEVERAL things competing for my time and energy, and what we’re doing for dinner TOMORROW was extremely low on my priority list. Maybe I’ll want pizza. Maybe I’ll want tacos. Maybe I’ll want seafood. I don’t know. Also, I’m not hungry, so almost nothing sounds appealing. This doesn’t matter right now. Can’t this wait until it does?
Level 2 No-Likey: This conversation often didn’t go my way. I don’t want to invest time doing something I don’t want to do, only to be told why it’s a bad idea or why it can’t or shouldn’t be done. I don’t want to say something that will require either of us to have to stop at the grocery store when we previously weren’t planning on it. As a general rule, I am against decisions that create more work when an alternative is available that doesn’t.
I’m sure she agreed to ordering a pizza a bunch of times when she probably didn’t want to. I bet she even went to the grocery store a bunch of times just to accommodate whatever dinner idea I’d suggested.
But my natural state of being — generally — is to worry about things when it seems like I need to. You know — “cross that bridge when we get to it.”
I wasn’t shy during my marriage about saying or behaving in ways that communicated how insignificant I considered the Future Dinner Conversation to be.
“What do you want to have for dinner tomorrow?” she said.
“I truly don’t have an opinion, babe. I kind-of don’t care. Whatever you want will be fine with me,” I said.
I thought I was being cool and accommodating my wife’s preferences.
It took me several years to realize just how incorrect I was.
The Little Things That “Don’t Matter” in Marriage
I don’t remember it being a big deal in our first few years together, but somewhere along the way, it evolved into a full-fledged “marriage problem.”
I eventually came around on the dinner thing.
I was certainly imperfect, because I don’t default naturally to Person Who Thinks About Future Meals, but I improved quite a bit through the years at being helpful with dinner. I’m a competent cook who seriously considered culinary school before choosing a writing career. My wife never seemed to figure it out, but I totally cared about her opinion of me. Me getting better at meal planning, volunteering for the grocery buying, and cooking most of the time seemed like a way for me to contribute positively and be a “good husband.”
It was easy for me to do it when I thought it was something she valued that I could take care of.
But it was hard for me when viewed through the “Do I seriously think this is important?” prism.
Five years post-divorce, I almost never plan meals for my son and I, and even less often for nights when it’s just me.
I don’t value planning future meals unless I’m going to be cooking for other people, like friends or a date. Otherwise, I just don’t think it matters. There are many important things in life. Many. Planning meals for three days from now doesn’t crack the high-priority section of my list.
My wife seemed to get irrationally upset about this lack of concern for tomorrow’s meal. In my mind, she was “overreacting.” In my mind, she was blowing things out of proportion. This was another example of my wife having mixed-up priorities in our marriage.
Our marriage = Important.
Tomorrow’s dinner = Not Important.
According to my math, my wife was willing to damage our marriage by “starting a fight” over something that didn’t matter.
I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with her emotional calibration.
But because I would never let something silly like that outrank our marriage, I loved her anyway.
This “selfless” act showed that I took my marriage vows seriously. I was a “good husband” because I had my priorities straight.
If I can move past my wife’s crazy and irrational responses to little things that don’t matter, why can’t she chill about silly stuff like me not wanting to plan for tomorrow’s dinner, or me leaving my drinking glass next to the sink to use again later?
Kids Say the Darndest Things
I was feeling a little frustrated with my 4th-grade son one morning.
First, I had to remind him to hang up his bath towel the way that I’ve shown him at least a dozen times.
Then, I had to take away his iPad that he’d inexplicably started playing with in the middle of breakfast, which was slowing him down.
He was intentionally making noises to annoy me while I was trying to hear a conversation on talk radio, even after I’d asked him not to a couple of times.
I gave him three tasks after breakfast: Brush his teeth, put his packed lunch inside of his backpack, and put his shoes on.
I don’t remember which incident of non-compliance finally made me snap, but my response made it clear that he’d finally succeeded at pissing me off.
To which he responded: “Dad, why do you get mad about dumb stuff?”
Zoose, the ironic god of sky and thunder, had just face-blasted me with a bolt of ironic lightning.
I wasn’t pissed anymore, even though he was totally being a dickhole again. (Sorry, lupushope.)
I wasn’t pissed anymore because this was funny.
My son doesn’t know enough to know WHY it was funny, and I wasn’t going to get into it with him right then, but I did try to teach him something important that he clearly hadn’t learned yet.
(I’m probably not quoting myself with 100% accuracy. Sorry.)
“Listen, kiddo. I understand why you think I’m getting mad about dumb stuff that doesn’t matter. I really do,” I said. “I’m giving you a hard time about how quickly you’re putting on shoes or eating. I’m angry because you’re making silly noises, or not hanging up your bath towels in the way I’ve asked you to. I get why that seems stupid. Those are all things that don’t seem very important.
“But I’m not really upset because you did a less-than-stellar job hanging up your towel, or because you’re making weird mouth noises for no apparent reason, or because you don’t have your shoes on yet.
“I’m upset because I’m your dad, and I’ve asked you to do a few easy and simple things this morning, and then you didn’t do them. You chose to not help me. Not only did you not help me, you kind of sabotaged my efforts to get us ready so you can get to school on time. Towels and school shoes and you making noise are NOT important. But you obeying your mom and dad IS important. I’m not upset about dumb stuff. I’m upset because you’re not listening to your parents.”
Flashing Neon Sign: I Was a Child Throughout My Entire Marriage
The irony wasn’t lost on me, and anyone who has read anything I’ve written probably knows that I figured out much of this long ago.
But this still felt like a breakthrough moment with my son.
I get comments from people who read She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By The Sink and then accuse my son’s mother of being a control-freak nag because she was making a big deal out of a dish.
I get comments from people who read An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands, Vol. 1 and tell me that I’m better off without my wife, because at least now I can watch The Masters golf tournament on a Sunday without anyone giving me crap for doing so. “All you wanted to do was watch a little golf from a tournament that only happens once a year! What’s wrong with that?”, they ask rhetorically, believing they see the world as clearly and correctly as I used to believe I did.
I just wanted to watch golf and football instead of work on some home-improvement project or go to an event at the in-laws. What’s the big deal?
I just wanted to let my wife choose what to have for dinner, because I didn’t have a preference. Why is that a problem?
I just wanted to leave my jeans that I wore one time on that little bedroom stand because it seemed more efficient than hanging them up again, or putting them in the laundry before they actually needed washed. Why is she acting upset about this silly crap?
Our marriage was effectively over long before I was capable of behavioral change in this arena, and was logistically and legally over long before I could see the WHY underneath all of the frustration and sadness my wife had expressed during these disagreements that seemed so insignificant to me at the time.
I spent my marriage kind-of acting like my 4th-grader: Why is she always getting mad about dumb stuff?
The truth was always hovering just a little over my head.
Just a little out of reach, kind of like I wasn’t tall enough.
Some people grow until they’re tall enough to see and understand.
Others find a way to climb up, sometimes because they’re crawling out of the darkness after hitting the floor.
I love my son so much, but if I can’t find a way to effectively communicate and help him understand the WHY underneath my requests or expressed frustrations over “dumb stuff,” he may spend the majority of his life believing that his father treats him like he’s never good enough, or that his dad is always looking for reasons to criticize him.
Can you imagine a son carrying that with him his entire life? As if his father doesn’t think he’s good enough? All because of a little nuanced misunderstanding?
But what if he learns all the things I didn’t know?
Also by Matthew Fray:
Finding Yourself After Divorce (and Other Trauma)
There’s no shortcut to reclaiming your life.
The Worst Thing Wives Do
Long before I was accidentally (but egregiously) a shitty husband, I was just a young guy trying to figure things out.
The story was previously published on The Good Men Project.
About Matthew Fray
Matthew Fray is a relationship coach and writer who leans on the lessons of his failed marriage and divorce to help others avoid making the same mistakes he did. He got divorced because he left dishes by the sink. Fray writes about that and more on his blog Must Be This Tall To Ride.