My friend, Ron, wasn’t a great husband during his first marriage. He wasn’t unfaithful and he was a good father, but he generally wasn’t all that emotionally present or available. From a distance, it was tough to see that he cared all that much about his wife.
Ron’s wife, in turn, often said she didn’t feel loved or valued. Despite what she said or how she said it, nothing changed. That is, nothing changed until the day Ron’s wife announced she was filing for divorce. Hearing that news shook up Ron’s world. He immediately promised to change. I will go to counseling. I will appreciate you more. I will do anything you ask. And, I believe he would have made changes if given the chance. It’s hard to say if the changes would have stuck, although I am certain Ron would have gone to great lengths at that point to save his marriage.
The Temptation to Take Things for Granted
Ron cared about his wife. He just didn’t back that up with any effort until it was too late. He took his wife, and his marriage, for granted. It’s a common problem, part of the human condition. We are all naturally inclined to want what we can’t have and take for granted that which we do.
We get used to our jobs, hobbies, homes and friends. It takes the introduction of something new to shake up our perspective. A friend you’ve known for 10 years is not as exciting as the one you’ve known for 10 days. Why? Because you are still getting to know the new friend. There is still a sense of mystery about them, and we love mysteries.
Too often, that’s how it goes in relationships. It’s easy to get comfortable and take the other person for granted. Comfort turns into apathy — a slide on a slippery slope that continues unabated until something significant shakes things up – a health scare, an economic collapse, insolvency, divorce.
Too Big, Too Great, Too Whatever to Fail
Prior to hearing his wife was filing for divorce, Ron didn’t acknowledge that divorce was a possibility. Yet, everyone has their breaking point.
Ignoring the possibility of divorce is a declaration that your marriage cannot fail. The inherent risk in believing that your marriage will last “forever, no matter what” is that, without fear of consequence, your unchecked behavior ultimately brings about the outcome you never thought possible. It is one thing to be yourself in your marriage; it is another thing entirely to be the worst version of yourself. When you ignore the consequences of your actions, you unwittingly invite the worst version to the party.
To put this into context, consider the mindset that emanated from the offices of major banks prior to the economic crash of 2008. A primary reason for the crash was the fact that banks and mortgage companies issued risky loans to people that lacked even a remote possibility of being able to repay their debt. The banks did this because the housing market had always been deemed a safe and relatively risk-free market. After all, people need somewhere to live. They are always going to figure out a way to pay their mortgages, right?
The problem was the bankers believed the housing market was invincible, unable to fail. They took the stability of the housing market for granted, making decisions that benefited short-term sales and profit at the expense of the overall health of their closed loan portfolios.
Ignoring the Warning Signs
Mistake #1 is taking things for granted. Mistake #2 is ignoring the warning signs that a wakeup call is coming. For the bankers involved in the housing market debacle, the signs were all over the place. They ignored the signs entirely, until it was too late. They believed that nothing they could do would cause the market to fail. Their collective false belief led them to make choices that ultimately caused the market to implode, eviscerating the economy and $2 trillion of American retirement assets overnight.
No matter the circumstances, humans have an innate tendency to ignore signals that something is terribly wrong. At the beginning stages of a problem, the warning signs are not glaringly obvious. At this point, they are easy to ignore. The next time the signs show up, our perspective is already slipping. Having already ignored the early warning signs, we are a bit desensitized. The signs become more obvious as our perspective further slips away. As this trend progresses, it becomes even easier to believe that the newest warning signs are something other than a harbinger of disaster. By the time the final warning signs appear, they are all but billboards on the I-95 corridor. No one in their right mind could ignore them, but that’s the point — the people who desperately need to heed the signs are no longer in their right minds.
An Elusive Little Thing Called Perspective
Even the most intelligent of us is human and flawed in this way. In February 2007, Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, reported:
We expect moderate growth going forward. We believe that if the housing sector begins to stabilize, and if some of the inventory corrections still going on in manufacturing begin to be completed, that there’s a reasonable possibility that we’ll see some strengthening in the economy sometime during the middle of the new year.
Our assessment is that there’s not much indication at this point that subprime mortgage issues have spread into the broader mortgage market, which still seems to be healthy. And the lending side of that still seems to be healthy.
If ever there was anyone that needed to get something right, it was Bernanke in 2007. But, he missed it by a country mile.
The reason The Big Short is a story worth telling is because very few people had the perspective to recognize the warning signs in 2007. Perspective is a challenging thing to measure. I’d argue that not one of us has the capacity to adequately gauge our own perspective. As the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire observed, “The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”
The Power of Acknowledgment
Ron made both mistakes. He became comfortable, eventually apathetic, and took his wife for granted. And, like the bankers, he ignored the warning signs as they became more and more obvious. His wife didn’t wake up one day, never having before mentioned her discontent, and announce she was leaving. The warning signs were all over the place, but Ron lacked the perspective to recognize them. Unfortunately for him, the government doesn’t bail out failed marriages.
I am not counting on having the perspective to recognize the warning signs if my marriage starts to decline. Besides, it’s far easier to avoid that path altogether if my marriage and my wife are important to me, and they are.
I am not innately entitled to anything, including my wife’s love. I don’t own her. As Belgian psychotherapist, Esther Perel, says, at best I have her “on loan with an option to renew.” Acknowledging this truth isn’t frightening. It’s empowering.
No, I don’t think Cathryn will leave me tomorrow. But, I like to remind myself that she may.