Humongous drops of rain were pounding on the windshield in the way that only southern rainstorms do, and I held my phone to my ear wondering if this job and this trip were going to end my marriage. I had left town without fixing the storm door, the one thing Sarah needed me to do with her mom coming to help her for the next two weeks. She had called to check in and unload the stress of the last week, and the last six years, and as I drove past Tuscaloosa I listened to her break down, to realize that how we arranged our lives and our roles since we procreated didn’t work for her and needed to change quickly.

I have always considered myself a feminist. It has always been intuitive that gender equality is as unquestionable as racial equality. But it turns out in my life there was a disconnect between my beliefs and my actions due to my ego. Not in the sense that I’m a complete fat head (I am) and that I could stand to be more humble (I could). But ego in the sense that I was allowing my self-image and my boundaries of comfort to supersede how my beliefs directed my actions. I had convinced myself I was doing the right things simply because I believed the right things.

It’s not that I wasn’t listening. I heard the complaints, but I gave myself permission to dismiss them. She was asking too much. I was already doing it, and she just didn’t see it. She is asking me to do it, but then she’s doing it for me. She’s not giving me the space to do it how and when I think it should be done.

And then things started to change.

On that work trip to Alabama I started reading a book that I thought was about work. But it was really about human consciousness, and it gave a new understanding of how I had been trying to make relationships to work. It also included a warning: ego — the kind of ego that values self-image and comfort — can prevent the realization of deeply meaningful relationships. Before reading this book the actual way my relationships worked was clouded by my intentions. Reality was happening mostly outside of my awareness. Now I saw it, and I realized I had to clear out ego to make it better. But I had no idea how.

So what came next? A long, hard look in the mirror. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fun, but I had to work through every single critique with honesty, with an open heart, constantly slaying my ego. It was very difficult to have all my flaws laid out in front of me with nowhere to hide, but it was also liberating for both me and for Sarah. She had these very legitimate complaints that she was holding back for fear of hurting my feelings or, especially, of making me angry. And while theoretically I wanted to be a better version of myself, theoretically I wanted to hear the complaints and act on them, in reality her fears were well founded. I was much more likely to be dismissive, to blame her, or especially to become angry than I was to actually hear and act on her criticism. But with my predilection for comfort sidelined, I found ways to listen and hear her, no matter how difficult, and she was less and less afraid to open up with plenty of real and actionable criticism. (More on angry men and fearful women in another post.)

I had A LOT to fix, and it took A LOT of work to go through it all. It was an embarrassing reflection of my capacity to ignore reality in the name of comfort and the preservation of my self-image. But we started the process, and the collapse of our marriage was at least postponed. In the next post I’ll go through how being home with our two children while also starting a business helped me understand the ways I was taking advantage of Sarah without even realizing it, and how we figured out ways to transcend the models set for us by our parents and and the culture we live in every day. Thank you for reading.

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