Every marriage therapist has heard it dozens of times. The tearful wife says, "I'm not sure he really loves me anymore," and the bewildered man drops his jaw in astonishment.
"What do you mean I don't love you, I go to work every day!" he protests.
"You would do that anyway," she says scornfully.
He sighs in frustration, ready to throw in the towel, because she seems to hold the trump card. What he is unable to say is this:
"It's true; I would go to work every day if you left me, but it wouldn't mean the same."
Chances are, if she left him, he would be a shadow of himself, merely going through the motions of living.
Men have a hard time giving the reasons why they value their wives because their wives are the reason they value everything else. We men tend to live in our work and routines, but we live for our families. In general, wives provide the meaning of life for their husbands.
The Toll of Divorce and Widowhood on Men
In terms of physical and mental health, as well as job performance and concentration, divorce and widowhood are more devastating to men than women. (Just think of the emotional well-being of your male friends whose wives have left them.) The following are a few of the elevated risk factors to the health, well-being, safety, and job performance of divorced and widowed men:
• Impaired problem-solving
• Narrow and rigid focus (can't see other perspectives)
• Lowered creativity
• High distractibility
• Higher error rates at work
• "Heavy foot" on the gas while driving
• More car crashes
• Hair-trigger reactivity
• Anxiety, worry, depression
• Resentment, anger, aggression
• Poor nutrition
• Shortened lifespan
Make no mistake, women suffer in divorce too, but in general the benefits of marriage and the psychological harm of divorce skew considerably toward men. This is partly because women maintain and nurture the family's social support structure. They remember people's birthdays and anniversaries, which friends like which kinds of movies, and whose turn it is to go where for dinner. When women leave the marriage, they take that support network with them, while their abandoned men sit by the phone and wonder why no one calls. Divorced women rarely face the same kind of emotional isolation as divorced men. (There is no need for an aphorism like, "No woman is an island.") They are less likely to develop mental health problems, alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies, and are extremely unlikely to engage in high-risk behaviors like speeding and playing with guns. By almost every measure, marriage is more essential to men than to women.
The Invisibility of Meaning and Purpose
We are not accustomed to thinking about that which provides meaning and purpose to our lives. Meaning and purpose rarely take the form of everyday goals and aspirations. Rather, they result from fidelity to our deepest values and are, therefore, more noticeable in their absence than in their presence. Men tend to under appreciate the value of their wives until it is too late, after she is exhausted from coping with her perceived isolation in the marriage. A great many men then fall in love with their wives as they're walking out the door.
Leaving Your Comfort Zone
To flourish, committed relationships require both parties to come out of their comfort zones for each other. In the realm of meaning and purpose, men need to appreciate the importance of their wives before they lose them. No man ever regretted on his death bed having told his wife too much how important she was to him.
Women need to appreciate the difficulty, indeed unnaturalness, of perceiving (much less articulating) meaning and purpose. Your husband will not do it as easily or as often as you would like, but he must do it more often than he would like.
Put another way, successful marriage requires that you both leave your comfort zones in order to grow into the love that rises from your deepest values.