This one time, I was a bad husband who mistreated his wife in dangerously subtle, accidentally sexist, and emotionally neglectful ways. Then she divorced me (for all the previous reasons), and I freaked out because I didn't know how to be an adult without her.
But I did some serious work on myself, and now, six years later, even though I'm a divorced, single guy who was a not-great husband in my only marriage, people pay me actual money to coach them in their relationships. I'm as surprised as you are.
While my work mostly centres on romantic relationships, it occurred to me along the way that the tenets of healthy relationships transcend romantic love and sexual intimacy.
The most obvious parallels showed up with my only child. My little boy is growing too quickly into a big boy, and I need to help him become a man who won't wear the same blinders I wore into his future relationships. These are the life-changing lessons I've learned to help me do that.
Be aware of how your words affect your loved ones
Most of the behaviours that destroy romantic relationships are not things that both partners recognise as toxic. In my marriage, I wasn't aware that certain things I did adversely affected my wife's emotional health.
I would never hurt my wife on purpose, but I couldn't even see the hurt I was causing, which was the root of the problem. And I find myself sometimes falling into the same pitfalls with my son.
Nothing creates more stress in my house than the rush to get my son to school on time. While I'm not guilt-free in the poor time management department, my soon-to-be sixth grader is largely responsible for holding us up on school mornings.
He's slow to clean. Slow to dress. Slow to eat. Slow to brush teeth. Slow to put on shoes. Slow to NOT play with toys he shouldn't be playing with because we're trying to get to school on time.
I used to raise my voice, tell him I was disappointed, on and on and on. But after enough bad mornings of dropping off my son at school, not seeing him again for another two or three days (while he was with his mum), thinking about how awful both he and I were feeling, and what either of us might think or feel if that was the last interaction we ever had . . . I decided to change.
I bought a little black rubber wrist bands with the word "FOCUS" on it. I wear it on my left wrist to remind me that I love my son and value my relationship with him more than him doing exactly what I say, when I say it. Now, instead of spazzing when he's making us late, or participating in an escalating fight that results in me punishing him or making him cry, I make choices that reflect my mindfully adjusted priorities.
Forget the competition
In my marriage, I sometimes used conversations with my wife to "win." Maybe I disagreed with her. Maybe I was defending myself. Maybe we were having an innocent debate about something arbitrary, but it was always a competition. I never recognised how much damage I was causing by not checking my competitive ego at the door.
Sometimes people view these moments in isolation. But every conversation with someone you love is an opportunity to increase your connection with them, or decrease it. Even if you could somehow be objectively "correct" or "win" in some opinion-based debate with your spouse, is the damage caused by verbally beating them into submission worth the victory?
Though I learned the lesson too late with my ex-wife, my goal when talking to my son is never to "win." My goal is to have a great relationship with him. For him to know he's loved. For him to know I have his back. For him to know that most of what I do revolves around what a precious priority he is for me.
So instead of yelling, I hug him. Instead of telling him that I'm disappointed in him, I remind him that he's my favourite person. I tell him that I'm proud of the young man he's growing into. I tell him how much I appreciate it when he helps me accomplish our goals — the big ones and the little ones, like getting to school on time. It's the single most important and specific change I've made in an interpersonal relationship. If I'd done it in my marriage, I'd still be married.
Devote attention and energy to the people you care about
I believe my wife felt emotionally neglected because I would too often prioritise other things over spending time with her. I left my wife alone in our marriage. It's a common theme in failing relationships. The two easiest and most obvious ways I could have communicated to my wife how much I valued her was to intentionally plan activities for she and I to do together and to more attentively listen to her during conversation.
Today, I intentionally plan activities for my son and I to do things together. (Even if it's something I don't enjoy, I do it because it matters to him.) And today, I intentionally focus when he's speaking to me about whatever middle-school kid thing he wants to talk about that might not interest me in the least.
He might be talking about some YouTuber he thinks is awesome, or about some random thing he and his friends laughed about at school. Because I'm ADHD, things that don't interest me historically cause me to drift off during conversation.
I learned that my wife felt disregarded whenever that happened. It communicated to her that she wasn't important to me. I won't make that mistake with my son. I don't have to care about whatever he wants to tell me, I only need to care about him. I only need to value that he values it, and because he values it, I'm going to give it my full attention and respect — because that's one of the ways he's going to know how much he matters to me.
Respect your differences — and allow some room for growth
Any time my wife had a different opinion or interest than me, I would say how much better my thing was than her thing. Oh, you like marching band more than football? How dumb. Thousands of people show up for these football games.
The half-time show is when people go to the bathroom and buy concessions. Thus, football is better than marching band. That's how you can use confirmation bias and faulty logic to be a huge a*shole to your wife and make her not want to be married to you anymore.
The respect I didn't show my wife, I do try hard to show our son. I do my best not to make value judgments about whose preferences are "better" or "more correct" — something I didn't do for my wife. My son is his own person. He doesn't have to be like me.
He doesn't have to do or be ANYTHING that anyone tells him he should. He's going to be whoever and whatever he is. My priority is not having him know how much I approve or disapprove of his values and interests. My priority is having him know he's loved and respected regardless of what his values and interests are.
In this same vein, I also have a strict policy against saying "Because I said so." The "why" behind every rule or decision provides important context for my son to achieve greater understanding and perspective. I don't deny his requests to disappoint him, or to wield power over him.
I sometimes deny his requests for very specific reasons related to his well-being (caffeine or sugar at inappropriate times on school nights; starting two-hour movies one hour before his bedtime, etc.)
Sometimes, when I tell him the "why," he questions it respectfully and offers an alternative viewpoint. Sometimes, I change my answer and tell him how proud I am of him for having a healthy discussion and using his smart brain to help me consider a different perspective. It's a mature and healthy response to not getting what you want.
At the core of it, I'm not happy I'm divorced. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But it has taught me things I could have never learned otherwise, so in a twisted sort-of way, I'm grateful for it. Because now, I can see all the things I was doing wrong. And not because of some miracle cure. But just by shining a little light into the darkness.