This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
The things that destroy love and marriage often disguise themselves as unimportant. Many dangerous things neither appear nor feel dangerous as they’re happening. They’re not bombs and gunshots. They’re pinpricks. They’re paper cuts. And that is the danger. When we don’t recognize something as threatening, then we’re not on guard. These tiny wounds start to bleed, and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don’t recognize the threat until it’s too late to stop it.
I spent most of my life believing that what ended marriages were behaviors I classify as Major Marriage Crimes. If murder, rape, and armed robbery are major crimes in the criminal-justice system, I viewed sexual affairs, physical spousal abuse, and gambling away the family savings as major crimes in marriage.
Because I wasn’t committing Major Marriage Crimes, when my wife and I were on opposite sides of an issue, I would suggest that we agree to disagree. I believed she was wrong—either that she was fundamentally incorrect in her understanding of the situation or that she was treating me unfairly. It always seemed as if the punishment didn’t fit the crime—as if she were charging me with premeditated murder when my infraction was something closer to driving a little bit over the speed limit with a burned-out taillight that I didn’t even know was burned out.
The reason my marriage fell apart seems absurd when I describe it: My wife left me because sometimes I leave dishes by the sink.
It makes her seem ridiculous and makes me seem like a victim of unfair expectations. But it wasn’t the dishes, not really—it was what they represented.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, my wife tried to communicate that something was wrong. That something hurt. But that doesn’t make sense, I thought. I’m not trying to hurt her; therefore, she shouldn’t feel hurt.
We didn’t go down in a fiery explosion. We bled out from 10,000 paper cuts. Quietly. Slowly.
She knew that something was wrong. I insisted that everything was fine. This is how my marriage ended. It could be how yours ends too.
Every couple has their own unique version of The Same Fight. It could be any number of things. Throwing laundry on the floor. Tracking mud through the house right after your partner cleaned up. It doesn’t matter what the actual thing is. For us, it was dishes by the sink.
Sometimes I leave used drinking glasses by the kitchen sink, just inches away from the dishwasher. It isn’t a big deal to me now. It wasn’t a big deal to me when I was married. But it was a big deal to her. Each time my wife entered the kitchen to discover the glass I’d left next to the sink, she moved incrementally closer to moving out and ending our marriage. I just didn’t know it yet.
You may be wondering, Hey, Matt! Why would you leave a glass by the sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher?
A couple of reasons:
- I might want to use it again.
- I, personally, don’t care if a glass is sitting by the sink unless guests are visiting. I will never care. Ever. It’s impossible. It’s like asking me to make myself interested in crocheting or to enjoy yard work.
There is only one reason I will ever stop leaving that glass by the sink, and it’s a lesson I learned much too late: because I love and respect my partner, and it really matters to them.
I think I believed that my wife should respect me simply because I exchanged vows with her. It wouldn’t have been the first time I acted entitled. What I know for sure is that I had never connected putting a dish in the dishwasher with earning my wife’s respect.
I think sometimes these little things blow up into The Same Fight because maybe we don’t think it’s fair that our partner’s preferences should always win out over ours. It’s as if we want to fight for our right to leave that glass there.
The reaction might sound something like this:
You want to take an otherwise peaceful evening and have an argument with me over this glass? After all the big things I do to make our life possible—things I never hear a thank-you for (which I don’t ask for)—you’re going to elevate a glass by the sink into a marriage problem? I couldn’t be that petty if I tried. If you want that glass in the dishwasher, put it in there yourself without telling me about it. Otherwise, I’ll put it away when people are coming over, or when I’m done with it. This is a bullshit fight that feels unfair.
I wanted my wife to agree that when you put life in perspective, a drinking glass by the sink is simply not a big problem that should cause a fight. I thought she should recognize how petty and meaningless it was in the grand scheme of life. I repeated that train of thought for the better part of 12 years, waiting for her to finally agree with me.
But she never did. She never agreed.
I was arguing about the merits of a glass by the sink. But for my wife, it wasn’t about the glass. It wasn’t about dishes by the sink, or laundry on the floor, or her trying to get out of doing the work of caring for our son, for whom there’s nothing she wouldn’t do.
It was about consideration. About the pervasive sense that she was married to someone who did not respect or appreciate her. And if I didn’t respect or appreciate her, then I didn’t love her in a manner that felt trustworthy. She couldn’t count on the adult who had promised to love her forever, because none of this dish-by-the-sink business felt anything like being loved.
I now understand that when I left that glass there, it hurt my wife—literally causing pain—because it felt to her as if I had just said, “Hey. I don’t respect you or value your thoughts and opinions. Not taking four seconds to put my glass in the dishwasher is more important to me than you are.”
Suddenly, this moment is no longer about something as benign and meaningless as a dirty glass. Now this moment is about a meaningful act of love and sacrifice.
My wife knew I was reasonably smart, so she couldn’t figure out how I could be so dense after hundreds of these conversations. She began to question whether I was intentionally trying to hurt her and whether I actually loved her at all.
Here’s the thing. A dish by the sink in no way feels painful or disrespectful to a spouse who wakes up every day and experiences a marriage partner who communicates in both word and action how important and cherished their spouse and relationship are. My wife didn’t flip shit over a dish by the sink because she’s some insufferable nag who had to have her way all the time. My wife communicated pain and frustration over the frequent reminders she encountered that told her over and over and over again just how little she was considered when I made decisions.
When we’re having The Same Fight, positive intent, or chalking up any harm caused as accidental, can be just as much of a trust killer as more overtly harmful actions. It doesn’t matter whether we are intentionally refusing to cooperate with our spouse or legitimately unable to understand what’s wrong—the math results are the same. The net result of The Same Fight is more pain. Less trust. Regardless of anyone’s intentions.
This is how two well-intentioned people slowly fall apart.
If I had to distill the problems in failed relationships down to one idea, it would be our colossal failure to make the invisible visible, our failure to invest time and effort into developing awareness of what we otherwise might not notice in the busyness of daily life.
If I had known that this drinking-glass situation and similar arguments would actually end my marriage—that the existence of love, trust, respect, and safety in our marriage was dependent on these moments I was writing off as petty disagreements—I would have made different choices.
I could have communicated my love and respect for her by not leaving tiny reminders for her each day that she wasn’t considered. That she wasn’t remembered. That she wasn’t respected. I could have carefully avoided leaving evidence that I would always choose my feelings and my preferences over hers.
This article was adapted from Matthew Fray’s new book, This Is How Your Marriage Ends.