In my last post about not losing yourself in retirement, reader Steve posted an interesting question in the comments:
“Any thoughts on the FIRE couples that get divorced? One would think that not having money issues (the #1 stressor for married people) and achieving a monumental goal together would strengthen that bond, but apparently there is more to it.”
This got me thinking. If money, which is the #1 reason why couples break up, is no longer an issue, why are FIRE couples still getting divorced?
Now, I’m no relationship expert and this is me taking a wild stab at it, so feel free to take it with a grain of salt. Having seen some friends and family get divorced for reasons other than money, I’ve noticed that marital problems don’t just drop on a couple by surprise and then explode their marriage like a grenade. Instead, they pile on gradually like a gentle snowfall. And because it sneaks up on you, you don’t realize until it’s too late that you’re trapped in a blizzard, praying you won’t die a horrible frostbitten death.
I’m not sure how I stumbled on this, but marriage counsellors recognize something called the “Four horsemen of the marriage apocalypse.” These are patterns they see over and over again in seemingly predict marriages that are destined to fail. Intrigued, I started reading up on them and realized, yup, in pretty much every divorce I’ve witnessed, the patterns they describe are eerily familiar.
Curious? Well, here they are…
Horseman #1: Criticism
No relationship is perfect, and we’ve all playfully criticized our spouses from time to time. In fact, “taking the piss” and mocking your spouse just shows how much you love them. For example, Wanderer loves it when I make fun of his weak, little girl arms (Wanderer is glaring at me for some reason as I write this). And I love it when he laughs at me for not being able to figure out how to unlock a door.
But when that criticism happens on a daily basis with the intention to hurt the other person, it’s a sign that a relationship could bite it. And when I say criticism, I don’t mean complaints, which are related to actions, like “you didn’t do the dishes!” or “you forgot to take out the trash again!” I mean, nasty, soul-destroying insults that stab you like a steak knife straight through the heart.
Eg. “You’re so lazy! All your friends are more successful than you and all you do is bum around the house.”
Eg. “You’re so selfish! You never think about anyone else but you!”
If your spouse is bombarding you with more criticism than an overbearing tiger mother, this is one of the first signs that your marriage is in trouble.
Horseman #2: Contempt
One of the biggest aspects of marriage is forgiving your spouse for their flaws. For example, Wanderer’s self-proclaimed biggest flaw is “being too humble” (“I’m the emperor of humbleness”, he says), and he’s happy that I forgive him for that, and I appreciate his strengths (like sarcasm).
But when you have contempt for your spouse, you no longer respect them and think everything they do is wrong.
Eg. Your spouse buys new lingerie and wears it to impress you. You roll your eyes and think, “ew, you’re trying way too hard. Gross.”
Eg. Your spouse tells you they got a promotion. You think “that’s only because your co-workers are dumb, and your company has low standards.”
Eg. Any sentence that includes the phrase “You’re holding me back.” Is a HUGE red flag.
If you find yourself thinking your spouse can’t do anything right no matter how hard they try, this is another sign your marriage is toast.
Horseman #3: Defensiveness
It’s normal to be defensive sometimes but if your spouse completely stops taking responsibility and blames you for everything, or keeps making excuses for their behaviour, this is a third nail in the marriage coffin.
Eg. “Ok fine. I forgot to take out the trash yesterday, but last week you forgot to empty the dishwasher!”
Eg. “It’s not my fault I’m not happy. You’re the one who decided we should retire.”
Defensiveness is a natural human reaction but when the # of times your spouse takes responsibility is a big fat zero, your marriage could be headed for a big fat divorce.
Horseman #4: Stonewalling
This one is the most surprising one of all, because it always seems to come out of nowhere.
Stonewalling could look like your spouse ignoring you and pretending you no longer exist, or it could look like the exact opposite. The latter method of stonewalling is much more sinister. On the surface, your spouse might appear perfectly agreeable and be ok with everything you say or do. In fact, they’ve suddenly stopped arguing with you for no reason at all. This causes you to drop your guard, thinking everything’s fine. You might even feel grateful that you have the world’s best spouse and “wow, they’re so accepting of everything I do, and we don’t ever fight anymore! This is great!” For the record, every couple fights. It’s normal and healthy. If you stop fighting completely, that’s a red flag.
It could mean that they’ve given up.
They don’t see the point of arguing, because there’s nothing left to fix. They just want out as soon as possible and they’re hatching an escape plan. Maybe there’s another person involved, maybe not. But whatever that plan is, they’ve excluded you completely.
This is the last nail in the relationship coffin.
By the time the 4 horsemen of the marriage apocalypse have arrived, it’s probably already too late to save it.
That’s why Wanderer and I have to be super vigilant to make sure to solve any issues as soon as they crop up. We never want to let it fester.
Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I want to share some insights from being in the same relationship for 17 years and working out our relationship kinks:
1. Communication is key
By far the most common issue is communication. Sometimes it’s not even obvious why you’re not communicating because you’re clearly trying hard to get the message across, but the other person just isn’t receiving it.
Even though we’ve been together for nearly 2 decades, Wanderer and I are still not immune to communication breakdowns. In fact, our biggest fight happened last year at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.
Our big fight
For the past 6 years, we generally take public transit when we travel. This is pretty easy since Europe and Asia have cheap and efficient subways. At the start of the pandemic last year, though, we had to rent a car. This is so that we could safely get a COVID test at a drive-through test center and go see Wanderer’s Dad, who’s immunocompromised.
Not having driven much for the past 6 years was bad enough but combine that with having to do the mental gymnastics of trying to navigate the downtown streets of Toronto, which is a series of complex puzzles that you have to solve on the fly, while dodging cyclists, parked cars, dangerous impatient drivers, and streets that go in opposite directions depending on the day of week.
Wanderer drove while I navigated, and we quickly learned that driving downtown in Toronto is NOT conducive to a good marriage.
“Left! I said, left!” I screamed while Wanderer made a turn to the right.
“STOP! STOP! STOP!” I yelled as we zoomed through an amber light.
After several panic attacks from me, Wanderer pulled to the side of the road, threw up his hands, and said “That’s it! You need to shut the hell up! We’re going to get in an accident if you keep this up!”
To which I immediately yelled back, “then don’t drive like a maniac!”
After taking a breather to both calm down, we realized that the real issue is that my risk tolerance is lower and reaction time slower than his. So, in order for us to be aligned and communicate properly, he would need to let me know what he plans on doing, so I don’t freak out from not having control over what was happening.
He started narrating what he was going to do, similar to how soldiers acknowledge (or copy) instructions over the radio on the battlefield. I’d say “turn left,” and he’d copy it back by saying “turning left.” I’d say “stop” and he’d say “stopping.”
That did wonders for my nerves, because I no longer needed to panic and get louder when I didn’t think he heard my directions the first time.
Now we can drive in downtown Toronto without breaking a sweat. Well, okay, maybe a light sweat. But now I’m cursing at the roads rather than at him.
Did I mention we hate driving in Toronto?
2. Aligning Values
One of the things we’ve continuously been doing throughout our marriage (and especially since quitting our jobs) is checking in on each other to make sure our values are aligned.
We both still don’t care about having a house, a job, and living the traditional life. So, whenever anyone throws shade at us for our unconventional lifestyle, we both just laugh. Not caring what other people think is a value that we continue to share, and it’s been the main reason why FIRE has worked out so well for us.
3. Don’t let One Person be in Another’s Shadow
It’s never fun to be in someone else’s shadow. This can happen to anyone, regardless of whether they are FI. When one person is successful and the other is struggling, there’s always resentment and jealousy. This happened to us when we were trying to publish our children’s book, Little Miss Evil, and watched other writers leapfrog us and sign with our dream literary agents. Not fun.
We try to mitigate this by working on projects together.
The blog, the book, speaking engagements—everything’s more fun when our success is shared. Sometimes we branch off and do our own thing, but for the main passion projects, we tend to stick together.
So, to answer my own question, which is the title of this post, does FIRE prevent divorces? The answer is no. Because even though money is one of the top reasons for divorce, it’s not the only reason.
Marriages shouldn’t be hard work. But you do have to be careful to avoid creating situations where one or more of the Four Horseman are likely to rear their ugly heads.
What do you think? For those who are married, do you have any advice to share? And for those who are single, if you’re perfectly happy being single and don’t feel the need to get married, how do you push back against societal norms?
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