“Why men great ‘til they got to be great?”
I’ve heard the opening lyrics hundreds of times (I’m from Minneapolis and been up on Lizzo for a minute) but that morning it felt like a personal attack.
I was great, damnit!
I had never cheated. I never lied. Wasn’t abusive. Cared about things other than myself. And still, my wife let me know that she no longer loved me and didn’t want to be my wife.
Was it possible I wasn’t great?
I turned up “Truth Hurts” and rapped the words while the tears swelled in my eyes. How did I get here? By the time the flutes hit I was a mess.
That was about two months ago and what I’ve learned since then is I actually wasn’t great, but not in the way you are probably thinking. It isn’t in the self-deprecating, woe-is-me, god I suck kind of way that makes everybody around you want to shake you and tell you to get your stuff together. I mean I did have, and continue to have those moments, they tell me it’s part of the process, but those aren’t what I’m talking about right now. I’m talking about the real reflection and growth that comes with the most devastating news I’ve ever been told (and if you listen to Terrible, Thanks For Asking you know I’ve dealt with some devasting news).
No, what I mean is that I wasn’t great to myself. I wasn’t taking care of and loving myself so I couldn’t be great, not in the way that I wanted to be.
Yup, I hear you “it takes two to tango!” You’re right, it does. And I promise you I can tell you the things that my wife could/should have done, but that’s kind of the point, ain’t it? I think lots of us are so scared to do the work we need to do to be healthy and fully human that even when we think we are “great” we end up missing the mark.
We end up focusing on what other people could have done to make us happier or facilitate our health, and that’s not their jobs. I’m still struggling with this part. I’ll be honest with you since you are spending part of your life reading about mine, one of the things my ex cited was that I knew I needed to go see a therapist and I never did. I am still mad that she didn’t give me the ultimatum, but she shouldn’t have needed to. And that’s the point.
As I work to understand how I got to this point the importance of doing my own work kept coming back around like a fly that keeps landing on the TV during the best parts of your favorite show. Particularly insightful, (or infuriating depending on the day) was learning about a super common pattern in relationships, all relationships not just romantic ones, called the pursuer distancer dynamic.
In a study of over 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples stuck in the pursuer-distancer dynamic were at the highest risk of divorce. I am for sure a pursuer and she is most definitely a distancer, but that part is less important than the reality that the only way to interrupt this, or any other unhealthy pattern regardless of your role in it, is to have the courage to do your own work. While this is difficult for everyone regardless of gender identity I think it’s especially difficult for men.
I resisted getting help because it was something “I could handle myself.” I believed I had the capacity to reflect, name, and change the things that I needed to in order to be my best self. I was wrong. I was reminded of this by the adage “the eye can’t see itself.”
We, all of us, but particularly men, are not socialized to accept this truth, to ask for help. We are socialized to believe that if we can’t do it ourselves then there is something wrong, that we are weak, and worse, not really a man. When I’m the most honest with myself that is where I was at. It’s not where I want(ed) to be. It’s not where I will stay.
I want to get over the crippling isolation our society thrives on. To reach deep down into my own trauma, and we all have trauma, and face how that manifests in my relationships. The other day I was at happy hour with a friend and we were talking about how I was doing. After hearing me go on for a minute she asked: “had you two not taken the time to talk about your traumas and how they showed up?” I couldn’t believe my answer was “No.”
It seemed like such an obvious thing to discuss and be aware of. Yet here I was facing the end of my marriage having never had a real conversation about how the baggage we carried presented challenges and blessings for us. More importantly, never saying because of X I need Y. Thinking about my situation and learning about this pattern it no longer surprises me that half of all marriages end in divorce.
We have not created the social conditions necessary for healthy individuals to then enter into healthy relationships. What’s scarier, though, is how this inability to truly take our well-being seriously as men perpetuates the toxic masculinity that we see manifest in mass shootings and the rape culture that defines American masculinity.
Within days of being told my marriage was over, I called the therapist a good friend recommended. I was determined to heal. Not just from the hurt of my marriage but from not being whole and healthy.
I’m not yet whole or healthy, but I am on my way. And I know that the work I’m doing right now will make me better. Not just as a romantic partner but as a friend, co-worker, parent, brother, son, and friend.
On the days that are particularly devasting, I try to refocus on that truth. The only thing that is in my control is my own health and being the man I want to be. My hope is that it doesn’t take the end of a meaningful relationship for folks to engage in this work.
I hope we are great even when we don’t got to be great.