A Husband's Plea — Men, We Need To Do Better In Our Marriages

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Happy couple kissing

I recently read two articles by women coming to vastly different conclusions about staying in tough marriages. One advocated pushing through to a better place, and the other to just quit.  

Making the case for working through troubled times and staying with a partner you feel you can't stand, Frimet Goldberger wrote The Case for Staying Married to a Spouse You Cannot Stand, a guest essay in The New York Times.

Hers was an arranged marriage in the Hasidic tradition. She talks of the anguish and anger of the situation: “I might have left then if not for his ineffable patience with my brutal disquietude, a still flickering love — and therapy,” she writes. But in the end, through years of painstaking hard work on both their parts, she found a way to remarry her husband and find happiness.

"Recently, on a quiet Sabbath morning, the sun moseying up and around our living room windows, we drank coffee and nibbled on babka, as on Sabbath mornings. The conversation rolled from our dream home to our teenagers to this story I’d read and that bit of work news he hadn’t shared, and I leaned my head on my husband’s shoulder and whispered, 'Isn’t this nice?'

"I do not possess the language to describe the kind of easy rapport and mellowed love that flourishes after so many years of marriage. I do not know how or why it happened. Still, it did, and I am grateful to the marrow — not only because I love and respect my husband more deeply today (which I do), because our children have both parents under one roof, or because divorce might have been a lateral move. I am grateful because, to riff on Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson), what does not kill your marriage makes your love stronger."

And isn’t that worth fighting for

I have had two vastly different marriages, too. Reading these essays brought me back to the husband I have been, and I have a plea for other husbands as a result.

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The big decision: stick it out or call it quits

In the second piece, Zawn VIillines suggests on Substack: “Maybe it's time to quiet quit your marriage.”

Villines points out that women are twice as likely to say that their lives are better after a divorce than men, but there are some situations in which it is financially or physically impossible to get divorced. Or perhaps an abused wife is not ready emotionally to take that step.

Villines's advice is just to quit while staying married. And she has a 12-point plan to do so. Her summary is:

The hardest part of quiet quitting is going to be emotionally detaching. Unequal relationships are inherently abusive and usually weaponize emotional abuse to extract free labor from the woman. Your husband probably tells you you’re a bad mom if you don’t do it all, guilts you for asking for help, or throws a fit if you have him take the kids so you can relax. Maybe on top of that, he criticizes your appearance, friendships, and voice. Perhaps he tells you you’re crazy or tries to make you think you’re the abusive one.

This is painful stuff from someone who is supposed to love you.

Quiet quitting requires reframing his abuse so it doesn’t cut so deeply. This is so hard. People can be traumatized even by abuse from strangers. So if you’re struggling to disconnect emotionally, don’t feel bad.

As I have said repeatedly, I do not know, and will never know, what it is like to be a woman, to be subject to sexism, misogyny, and sexual abuse as a woman by a man. So at the outset, I cannot comment directly on these women’s experiences. All I can do is listen.

I can say how the two pieces make me feel, however, when I read them as a man: in the one case, inspired, and in the other, so incredibly sad.

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I realize that I come to this topic with idealism which is unrealistic. I cannot generalize anything from my experience.  

I always want to be hopeful that as men and women, we can get along, find common ground, and walk the tightrope of romantic love in ways that fill each other up despite our dramatically different needs. I have seen many cases where this became impossible, and the marriage ended in a shipwreck (and then divorce or prolonged agony). It is almost unbearable to watch such yearning and suffering.  

My suspicion, though I have no way of proving it given my small sample size, is that the isolation of men, our unwillingness to be vulnerable, our unhealthy relationship with sex, and our general fear of intimacy means that, on average, as men, we contribute more than our fair share to failed marriages. I can say, for my part, I certainly had a ton of work to do, and I still do.

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A tale of my own two marriages

My first marriage lasted four years. I was a terrible husband in many ways, not the least of which was an active alcoholic with a total loss of moral values. My wife rightly threw me out 26-plus years ago. Thank God because it motivated me to get sober. It took me many years to see what a lousy husband I was and make formal amends.

It turns out my first wife was and is an amazing woman. We now get along and have two awesome kids together. My contribution to that marriage was financial and nothing more. I was a big shot and acted like one. I was utterly absent emotionally.

I was married a second time for 20 years last December 28. My wife, Elena, has always been fiercely loyal to me through many ups and downs. But for a long time, I played the big shot with her too and, without knowing it, feared true intimacy. It took digging very deep after my mental health crash five years ago to start to figure out the childhood trauma that made it so hard for me to accept love and withstand true intimacy without running away.

Finally, I had a breakthrough on our 20th wedding anniversary, somewhat like Goldberger. In my case, I realized that this woman had stood by me through thick and thin. That 99.9% of women would have bailed on my sorry ass. But for some reason, Elena didn’t.

And she was gorgeous, intelligent, and loving in ways that had been there the whole time, but I had never taken in fully. And finally, I did not have to run from intimacy. With her, I could be fully present. Nothing wrong or bad was going to happen. Something wonderful was and did happen. And still does.

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Men have work to do

In listening to the voices in these two articles, I realize just how many women are in abusive marriages.

In many ways, my efforts to talk about positive masculinity are specifically aimed at addressing how poorly and systematically we, as men, treat women. And even if we are not overtly abusive, we as men have to break character and show our emotions, be vulnerable, and learn to be fully present in our most intimate romantic relationships. In this sense, I do think the onus is on us to show up in our marriages, not just go through the motions.

And finally, I am with Goldberger in believing the hard work is worth it — the grass is not greener. The exit is not generally the answer. As men and as humans, we bring our baggage with us. And we must do the work if we ever want to be happy. And sometimes, when you get to the other side of all that, you will be as lucky as I have been to have an amazing partner there waiting for you.

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Tom Matlack is on a mission to help men. His weekly speakers series and writing on Substack help men connect with one another and their own emotional well-being. He adores his wife of 20 years and his three children. 

This article was originally published at Substack. Reprinted with permission from the author.