How "weaponized incompetence" is killing marriages

"How do we reach the men? I think they have to hurt": Author Matthew Fray on divorce and relationships

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 20, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Couple engaging in tug of war with rope (Getty Images/Malte Mueller)
Couple engaging in tug of war with rope (Getty Images/Malte Mueller)

It wasn't really about the dishes, of course. Six years ago, when Matthew Fray wrote his viral essay "She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By The Sink," he knew it, too. It was about everything that had preceded the death of a marriage, every missed opportunity and misread expectation. It was, as he wrote at the time, the poignant metaphor of "making her feel sad, alone, unloved, abandoned, disrespected, afraid, etc."

Fray eventually turned his experience as a bewildered, newly single father into a new career as a relationship coach, and now, as the author of "This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships." In a marketplace teeming with relationship advice aimed squarely at women, Fray offers a frank and refreshingly modern view, one that never makes dated, flippant assumptions about love languages or Venus and Mars. It's instead the story of hard earned lessons, and how to be a truly present, active partner in a healthy relationship. It also truly delivers on its title promise of hopefulness. I have never read a book about marriage that makes a better case for it than this one, an achievement all the more impressive for being written by "the guy who found out too late."

Fray will be the first to acknowledge that his perspective is that of a cis man who was in a heterosexual relationship, just as I knew going in to our recent conversation for Salon that we would mostly be focusing on those dynamics. Yet his insights into conflict, love and what he calls "the art of getting to tomorrow" have resonance for anyone who's ever had a broken heart — or labored to keep one from cracking. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

One of the things you say early on in the book that hit me like a punch in the face is that every single one of us is directly affected by divorce and by bad marriages. We've all had the impact of that in our lives. It informs our relationships with our friends, with lovers, with our kids, with ourselves. Talk to me about the impact of bad marriage and divorce — which are not the same things.

The way that I think about it is the way that I experienced eighteen months sleeping in a different bedroom than my wife, where I was living in real time the death of my marriage that I really believed was going to be forever. I don't know how to articulate it with brevity. It was trying not to cry at a conference table at a work meeting. It was staring blankly at the screen at my desk for hours. It was not accepting invitations to go places because everything felt wrong. This was not only just the end of the relationship, it was the beginning of not being together anymore. 

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It's almost weird to talk about now because I'm eight, nine years removed from that and it seems like another life ago. I do remember being dejected, despondent. It didn't feel like every other moment of my life up to that point. Nothing felt regular to me.

And so performance suffers across the board. It suffers at work. It suffers socially. It suffers with a parent-child relationship. At the time, my son was four. I was less of a father, less of a friend, less of a son, less of an employee back then. I imagine academics probably suffer when your parents are getting divorced or when you yourself are. By the way, this doesn't have to be marriage. This can just be toxic or unhealthy relationships and the end of relationships you believed to be this central, stable thing in your life.

It doesn't have be your own relationship, either. We watch our parents, we watch our friends, we watch our siblings, our kids, our bosses. All of that directly impacts all of us in ways we can't even necessarily connect the dots to.

Purely conjecture, because I have zero data to back this up, but what percentage of troubled youth, of mental and emotional issues, struggles that people have in life, are correlated with being part of an unhealthy relationship, either as a child or as a member of it? I think there are negative societal consequences to bad relationships. The real tragedy is I don't think most people are mindful of how their behavior adversely affects the relationship.

My overarching premise is that people don't even know that things they do in their blind spots harm themselves, the other person, the relationship itself. It's like we send millions and millions of people into this thing that they believe is going to last forever, and they're not armed with the knowledge or the skills necessary to navigate it effectively. I find that scary, with children involved too, and with all of the people that they interact with and affect in their lives.

I have so many concerns around the fetishization of weddings to the exclusion of actually understanding marriage. You're going to live with someone who is not perfect and is going to get some things wrong. How you maintain respect, day in and day out? Your book is examining what that need for respect looks like, and how men and women are trained differently to show that respect and consideration. You say that you can be a good person and not necessarily a good spouse. What's the difference?

I don't perceive myself to be qualified to decide what's good or bad. My general idea of good is simply, intention to be a positive force in the world. Always trying to avoid harming others. I think that is the default state of most people. "Good person" is such a generic term, but I don't really know another way to talk about it. I think people, generally speaking, know what that means.

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We send millions and millions of people into this thing that they believe is going to last forever, and they're not armed with the knowledge or the skills necessary to navigate it effectively."

In my experience, men more than women — but again, this is all anecdotal — are quick to defend themselves when their partner is upset or hurt in a relationship. It's on the merits of decency, on the merits of, "I'm trying to do good. I'm never trying to harm you. You always complain about these negative things that you perceive me to do, but I never get credit for the good that I do." 

The thing that I've worked really, really hard to do in this last decade is take a measure of the result of my actions or inactions in my relationships, rather than get too hung up on what I was attempting to do. I'll always invalidate people if I want to be evaluated based on that. If I take responsibility for what actually happens to them in their heads and their hearts, then I can start to be the kind of person that can show up effectively in a relationship.

These are not ideas we discuss in our youth. I don't know how many people grow up to understand that. When you fail to calculate for how our actions or inactions affect another person, and we don't take any responsibility for that, we are going to absolutely lose the trust and then the critical amount of safety necessary to maintain relationships.

I don't think most people do it. I think more than half don't actively, mindfully practice that habit of accounting for the other person in the relationship. If we are going to pick on anybody, we'll pick on men, because women's capacity for taking the temperature of everyone's emotional state and then adjusting what they're doing or saying is something that many women are brought up with.  

Late in the book you talk about priorities, and where men put their social circles. A man will say, "My marital family comes first," but in reality it might be outside interests and my friends.

And yet men don't have friends. Especially as they get older, it is a real crisis. So you have a situation that I can imagine is very difficult in marriages where men are often looking outside at their "interests," but they don't have those other deep sustaining relationships. Their wife is their "best friend," but they're not really valuing her as a best friend. What do we do then?

Another element of that is also this notion of the female partner being responsible for managing the social calendar in the relationship as well. It's not just, "My wife is the person I lean on the most for emotional support," but "Without my wife, I have no active social life. I don't accept any responsibility for forging new relationships or for maintaining the existing ones or for scheduling social activities to do together." A lot of guys, I don't know if they opt out of that process on purpose, but they leave their wives to do that— along with so many of the other things that go on in terms of inequality in the home, shared domestic responsibilities, parenting, house cleaning, all of the things.

The only way I know how to think about it, specifically in the context of marriage, is to accept radical personal responsibility for all of the things I do or don't do that place some unfair burden or result in pain for my partner to be responsible for my husband's social life, to have somebody to talk to, to be his companion and do things with. If a guy values his marriage and values his wife, but failed to understand that doing this was taxing her, was eroding feelings of safety and trust in the relationship, I think that guy will actively do things to try to eliminate the pain points in his relationship.

If somebody conveys that idea in a way that resonates with him, he's like, "Okay, I get it now. I now understand what she's been asking me to do or not do all these years," which is pathetic by the way. I learned this pretty late actually, that it is common for women to feel as if they communicate certain ideas to men, but until it's repeated by a man, the guy that they're trying to communicate this to didn't hear it, didn't listen, didn't take it seriously. That's an upsetting idea to me. Especially being a guy, it's upsetting to me that men will praise me for saying it a way that they'd never quite heard or understood before. But the great majority of their female partners will feel as if they've been very clear on these issues.

It's like, I've been saying this for years, but you needed to hear it at a lower register.

I've been asking you for 25 years, and now some divorced asshole on the internet says it and you think you're ready to change? It's unbelievable. I feel really awful about it. I have this lovely little dream of someday, somehow finding a way to get relationship skills, emotional skills, relational skills into some form of the educational process, whether that's enlightening parents on a grand scale or finding ways to get it into schooling somehow. When men are as skilled as women, relationally, you won't have them struggling with friendships in their adult years. It's again, conjecture, but I believe that to be true.

I want to ask you about a phrase I really like — "weaponized incompetence."

Just learned it myself.

It's always alarming when I hear other women say, "My husband doesn't know how to empty the dishwasher. He's so ridiculous. I have to do everything. He doesn't know how to fold." I think, "You are so being played." But there is something about the ways in which women are guilted into having everything running smoothly, that if the dishwasher isn't loaded correctly and if the laundry isn't folded right, that's your failing as a woman. It's not the couple's failing. It's not the family's failing. And that does get weaponized. What can women do about that?

I'm always super hesitant to say anything that sounds like advice for women. I was on a speaking panel for a women in science group. Somebody asked me a question like this, and I'm thinking, wow, I'm the only guy in the room.

Matthew, I promise I'm not going to ask you a question and then say, "Oh, thanks for mansplaining."

Here's my answer to that question. I'm not currently married, but I'm speaking in a past tense way, in a hypothetical way. If my wife, without outside influence, really values this idea of a tidy home or things being a certain way, that falls squarely into the work that I do. It's truly knowing your partner and being able to consider their emotional needs and wants in real time, and then being able to validate their emotional experiences.

Those are these key ideas my coaching work focuses on — I consider my partner all of the time in my decision making and I validate them when they communicate that something's wrong and that something hurts. If I'm married to somebody and I'm actively doing that, I'm simply as a default measure going to participate in these things. For me, it just keeps coming back to the core idea of how to show up in a relationship.

This is super stereotypical what I'm about to say, and it might not be true. But I think that the average man in a heterosexual relationship does not go visit someone's home and then run his finger across the window sills and look in the corners for dust bunnies and then make judge-y side eye comments about the state of whatever home that they're visiting. I think there's pressure from mothers and sisters and friends and other women who perhaps in an unhealthy way perceive there to be this great pressure to keep up with everybody and have the most perfect home possible.

What values are your values, versus what values are the ones that you're trying to keep up with so that you're not rejected by your peers or your family or whoever? We do a lot of things as human beings because we want to be liked or respected or accepted by other people. At somewhere on that spectrum, it becomes unhealthy when we're living for other people and not ourselves.

As you know if you have ever walked inside a bookstore, the work of and the problem solving of relationships is directed towards women. It is very hard to sell to men the idea of, maybe you need to work on your communication skills. Maybe you need to be a better partner.

This is a book where you're saying, "I'm not a man telling women how to talk to their men. I'm a man talking to men. Here's how we can share a little bit of that burden to make better marriages."

The only way I know how to think about this is from a place of eliminating pain points in our lives. I don't think the average run of the mill dude in a comfortable marriage — comfortable for him — might know yet that he's only three years away from his wife being like, "I don't know how many more days, weeks, months I can take of this." The conversations that pop up when we don't tend our marriages well.

How do we reach the men? I think they have to hurt. When you're asking a comfortable person to make significant uncomfortable change, I don't think that's a practical ask. I think it has to hurt. The sad reality of relationships is it has to hurt. We talked in this panel earlier about power dynamics in relationships. The person that was sitting on the panel with me really brought this up — if you want to find out what's going on societally, culturally, or within a relationship, you ask the person with the least amount of power.

In a lot of heterosexual relationships, women have less power. You might be in a better position to even help me understand from patriarchal standpoint what that feels like, because I'm so blind to it. We're so blind to the male privilege part of heterosexual relationships, I still have a hard time seeing it sometimes. My wife had all sorts of power at the end, but that's when the dynamic shifted — when it started to hurt, when I felt like I was in jeopardy of losing this thing that I valued so much. That's when I tuned in.

The way the internet works is people hurt and then they try to problem solve. They go to Google or wherever and they ask the internet for things. Some percentage of the time they're asking about relationships, they're finding my work. Then they're like, "Okay, this guy talks about it in the way that I lived it, in the way that I experience it. So I'm going to take it a step further and see." I have real concerns about how many men are going to pick up a book with a bold yellow cover that says, "This Is How Your Marriage Ends" on it. I have real concerns about what percentage of them will sit in a coffee shop or on an airplane and read that. But I am very hopeful that enough people read it to realize that this isn't any sort of indictment on men and this isn't anybody claiming to have all the answers.

I just believe I've told a story that explains how people accidentally fall out of trust and love in their relationships. The real tragedy to me is the degree to which we accidentally ruin the most valuable things in our lives. If there are people out there that can benefit from thinking about how they show up relationally in this way, I really hope they'll take a look at it. We'll find out.

But I think the average guy has to hurt enough to say, "Okay, clearly I don't have an answer to a question. I better go try to find it." It's just things his wife already said, but tweaked a little bit to say, "Hey, I know that you're not trying to hurt your partner. I know that you don't think about it like that." A great empathy lesson in all of this to me is learning how to respect the pain others report feeling.

You talk about that invalidation triple threat. Just because I didn't mean to hurt your feelings doesn't mean that I wasn't hurtful. It's not that you're a bad person. It's not that you're a bad communicator. It's in a moment when someone tells you, "Hey, this is how feel, this is my experience," to just believe them.

I'm okay even with not believing, to be frank. Just value a person you care about feeling something bad and try to restore safety, restore trust in the relationship actively, mindfully. When we impulsively don't agree with somebody, we have a tendency to invalidate in our response patterns. I ask anyone I'm working with to set aside this assumption of correctness or being right. I don't think it's useful in relationships.

It blows me away, and I really believe this is the answer to the question of why do so many relationships fail. It's because when one person communicates that something's wrong, that something hurts, the other person doesn't take it seriously and do anything about it. That's the story of why relationships end. It can apply to dishes and laundry and house cleaning and what time we get home after work or the frequency with which we text, a million things. I don't think that when we're getting married for the first time that these are the sorts of things we identify as landmines in our relationships.

I want people to be able to do that. I want people to recognize the threat. Recognize that if I have an invalidation habit or if I am very forgetful in my relationship and it causes lots of inconvenience and disrespectful moments for my partner, my relationship's going to suffer if I don't mitigate that somehow. I wish there was some way to give that idea to young people entering their romantic relationships. And I do think that's universal.

More on love and marriage: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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