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From the New York Times, I'm Anna Martin. This is Modern Love. Welcome to a new season. Happy Valentine's Day to all you lovers out there. If you listen to the show, you're clearly into stories about relationships. You may have heard of a guy named Dave Finch. There was a time when a lot of people wanted to hear his ideas about making relationships work because he seemed to have solved a big problem in his own marriage. As he tells it, the problem stemmed from his overpowering need for order and predictability. It came out in all kinds of everyday situations with his wife, Kristin, and their two kids.


Take this for example. I had it in my head that nap time was 10:00 and 2:00. If the 2:00 nap didn't happen because somebody dropped over for a visit or because they were fussy and not going down for a nap, I would start to almost spiral in a way. It was this sense of panic, and I would lash out and try to seize control. She would say, Why are you freaking out, Dave? I already have two babies who won't go down for a nap, and now I have a husband who's freaking out because babies won't... They're babies. They don't always take a nap. I remember saying to her, You told me nap time is 10:00 and 2:00, so if it's not 10:00 and 2:00, you have to tell me that. She was thinking, Why would I have to tell you that? Be an adult, don't be a third person in this house I have to take care of.


Tensions kept building between the two of them, but then they had a breakthrough. Dave went to a psychiatrist.


Five minutes into the conversation, was like, You can stop. You have Asperger's. This was in 2008, so they were I'm really using the word Asperger's. But it was so revelatory for me because for three years, the most important person in my life was saying things like, You just don't get it, Dave. In that moment, She saw me not as a husband who is a walking checklist of deficits, but as a human being who is wired a certain way, who doesn't mean to be making things difficult all the time It's not all his fault.


These days, the term Asperger's isn't used much, but it refers to an autism spectrum disorder. After that diagnosis, Dave began to understand all the ways his brain worked differently.


The autistic mind craves predictability. When that prediction doesn't match reality, it's considered a personal violation. That's why the autistic brain starts to spiral and feel very anxious and dysregulated regulated. I needed to understand what was expected of me, how I needed to show up in those situations. I really needed a sense of control, a sense of structure, a sense of predictability.


Dave couldn't get predictability, but maybe he could figure out how to be a better partner. So he came up with an idea. Every time Kristen got frustrated with him about something he did or didn't do, he wrote it down. So maybe he could get it right the next time. One rule he had was be present in moments with the kids, which meant playing with them instead of getting annoyed when they didn't follow exactly the rules of a game. Another rule was just listen. When Kristen had a problem, she didn't need a literal spreadsheet of solutions. All she wanted was for him to show a little empathy. Dave's list of rules got longer and longer.


Don't change the radio station when she singing along. Don't sneak up on her and surprise her when she's pouring coffee. She hates that. Apologies do not count when you shout them. Don't just take what you need from the dryer. Fold all the clothes and put them away.


He wrote all these rules down on post-it notes and little straps of paper and kept them in a drawer in his bedside table. Dave talked about all this in a Modern Love essay, which led to a best-selling book called The Journal of Best Practices, a memoir of marriage, Asperger syndrome, and One Man's Quest to be a Better Husband. And he became a public speaker.


Thank you. I am Dave, and it's really exciting for me to be able to come and talk to you this morning.


Sharing what he learned with other struggling couples.


The big game changer for people is adaptability. A willingness and an ability to change, to adapt, to unlear old behaviors, then it's hard. But it is possible. Thank you.


Seems like a happy ending, right? But listen to this one interview Dave did at the time. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, asked Dave how Kristen felt about one of his best practices. It was the rule about acting empathetic.


But wait, is that satisfying for I mean, if you say to her like, God, that must be terrible for you, and you're not really empathizing, and she knows you're just saying it by rote because you've been trained to do it, is that actually satisfying to her? That's a really great point. I can now surmise using intellect that, yes, that must have been very trying for her.


Still, Dave stuck to his best practices for a few more years until one day.


I just gotten out of the shower, and And Kristin marched into the bathroom and said, I have a revelation to share with you. We're done being married. We're just done. And I said, Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean we're done? She's like, This marriage, this thing we're doing, the thing we've been doing, and it's exhausting for both of us, we're not doing that anymore. We're done being married. I said, Wait a minute. I've been doing the best practices. I've been working the method. I'm about to go give a lecture in Missouri about how to be a great partner in a marriage. I said, So we were separating? She said, No, more like we're detaching. I remember asking, Detaching? What does that even mean? Because to me, it sounds like we're not married anymore. She said, You know what, Dave? We'll call this unmarried. And then she just turned around and left the room.


We'll be right back. Kristen had just dropped this major bomb on Dave, right as he was getting out of the shower, no less. So was this the end of their marriage or just another bump in the road? I asked Dave to sit down and talk with me about it. Dave, welcome to Modern Love. Thank you so much for coming on the show.


Thank you so much. I can't wait to have this conversation together.


Let's pick up where we left off. What did you do after Kristen told you she wanted to be unmarried? You were literally heading to give talk about how to have a successful marriage.


I had to climb in the car and drive all the way down through Illinois to get to Missouri. No. And then drive through Missouri. I had given so many talks at that point. I wasn't worried. I knew I could get my way through the talk, the bigger picture was like, I'm about to go tell these people this, and my wife just said, I don't want to be married anymore.


Yeah, what was going through your head on that drive?


I just replayed that moment over and over. What could she mean? I didn't go to a place of positivity when she said that. The eight or nine hours I had in the car right after that moment were catastrophizing and trying to imagine new scenarios of what our life would look like. But really, it was just replaying with deafening loudness the conversation that we had had that morning.


Oh, Dave, I'm feeling really crushed.


It was a moment where I felt I had lost my partner. I was starting to feel what must have been grief.


What you thought it meant then was, We're done.


Yes. It just sounded to me like, This is the first step in what is ultimately going to lead to divorce. I thought, it's not even that I need Kristen to be my wife. The scary thing for me was everything I was doing, it's still not good enough. How is this person going to stay in my life if I can't be good enough even after all this work. That was the scariest part for me.


In the days and weeks after that conversation in the bathroom, you started to see what Kristen meant by unmoved. Marrying. What did you see her doing as she put unmarrying into action in her own life?


I was very confused. Since she wouldn't give me a definitive, We are terminating the marriage, I knew that we were still in a relationship. I remember even asking her at one point, I was like, Am I supposed to be dating other people? She's like, God, no. I was like, Okay, so we're still faithful to each other, right? Which is good because I don't want to go out there and start dating people. I'd asked her, Does that mean I don't have to do household chores? She's like, No, you still have to do the dishes. You still have to... I was like, God damn it. But as I started observing her, What she was doing was going out and having long coffee dates with friends. She was treating herself to leisurely strolls in the mid-morning. She was journaling. She was reading books by Brené Brown and Annie Lamotte and all these great thinkers. She was like, Dave, go mountain biking, take trips by yourself, go whatever. I started aping her work.


Okay, Dave, I got to know what that meant for you.


I started saying, Well, I've noticed that she's really gotten into essential oils and burning white sage and energy clearing the house. I could do that, too. So check this out. Here's my white sage that I still- Well, there you go.


Oh, my God.


I went full woo for about three months where I was like, my chakras tested. That didn't feel right. I was like, I'm not experiencing the joy that she seems to be experiencing in her new Kristen Renaissance of just living her life outside of the marriage. Then I tried to get myself some friends, and I architected how to get friends, and I went out there and I experimented. I was needing from them all the stuff I was needing from Kristen, which was this constant brotherhood, companionship, awesomeness. After a while, I was too much for them, and they were like, Dude, No, I don't want to be macho with you anymore. This sucks.


During this time, if you went somewhere together and you had to introduce her, what would you even say? How would you explain your situation to someone?


At this time, I was meeting a lot of new people, a lot of philanthropists, a lot of business people. I had to go to a bunch of different functions and stuff, and sometimes Kristen came along. When we went somewhere and I would introduce her, I would introduce her awkwardly as my not wife anymore.


Oh, my God. Dave.


I'd be like, Hi, I'm Dave. This is not really my wife, Kristen. We're married, but apparently we're not. She would get so angry.


What would she say?


She would roll her eyes and go, Oh, my God. I'm his wife. I'm Kristin. She did not love that I had taken off and put away my wedding ring and put that in a drawer, and I replaced it with a skull ring that I had bought from an artist in Spain.


Oh, my God. You're taking this. You are confused, but you're taking it to a different level.


Yeah, I was very chipping about this. I didn't sign up for unmarried. I didn't work this hard for the last six years to be floundering like this. Yeah. But I wasn't introducing Kristin as my not really my wife anymore. To get under her skin, I truly thought that I couldn't introduce her as my wife anymore and that I didn't know what else to call her since we were both clearly married.


I mean, through all this, you're watching Kristin seem comfortable with your new relationship dynamic. She's having a life, she's having fun outside your relationship. When you try to do similar things, It's not working. Was it confusing to you? Was it painful?


Yes. What I was observing was Kristen doing the work that was helping her to thrive, and it was bringing her online. It was bringing her joy back into the world. She was alive again. She was flourishing. I was still struggling, and I felt very lonely in that. There were periods where I even felt resentful, where I was like, So she has moved on from trying to be somebody who the marriage is all that makes her happy. She's moved on from that. She's running a different playbook now, and I felt abandoned in my ridiculous best practices, and frankly, felt like I was floundering.


How long did it take for being unmarried to start making sense to you?


One of the very first times that I understood what she meant by unmarried, probably four or maybe five years after she introduced the idea to me, was that she was done managing my energy.


Wait, four or five years? Yes. Wow.


The next phrase that she coined after unmarried was energy manager. She was done running 10 steps ahead of me, making sure that the environment that I was in was something safe, feeling, and predictable, and within my control. Because if I got into a bad mood, then she would get into a bad mood. To avoid me getting into a bad mood and her ultimately feeling that same way, she would prevent the things that she knew would trigger my bad moods. It was exhausting for her, and I didn't even know that she was doing this. She was this unwilling participant in my grand experiment to create the best possible husband. What she was saying was, I'm out of the experiment, and neither one of us needs to be working this hard all the time. You stop trying to be this perfect husband. I'm going to stop trying to manage your moods and your energy and being your partner in this big experiment. I'm going to work on making myself happy. I suggest you do the same. If we're going to stay together, I really need you to be happy for yourself by yourself, and then we come together in the middle and share that happiness.


Wow. I mean, that feels like progress. I totally get what she's saying, too, about energy manager. That's so real. But I mean, now you have to manage your own energy. How did you do that?


A fellow classroom dad, the parents of somebody my kids went to school with, pulled me aside and was like, Hey, you ever been mountain biking? You want to go mountain biking with us this weekend? Me and a group of guys are going. I was like, Oh, yeah. Okay. I was immediately addicted. First ride, I was like, I need to do this every day for the rest of my life, and I am all in. Kristin said, Perfect, Dave. That's the heat that you need to follow. Follow that. Chase that feeling. What does that feel like? You don't need me to be part of that. Go find a hobby that lights you up. I was like, All right. One of the first times where I thought, Maybe this unmarried isn't so bad, I was flying weightlessly down the side of a mountain in Park City, Utah, having the time of my life laughing out loud, hooting, hollering, feeling every turn and every jump and every near-death experience with a tree or a rock and laughing the whole way down the mountain. I got to the bottom and I thought, You know what? I'm here by myself. This feels like my soul is alive and on fire, and I love it.


I texted Kristen, and I was like, I think I know what you mean.


The previously married you, not the unmarried you, would not have done that, would would not have leaned into this hobby, would not have leaned into this freedom?


No, because my Asperger model for faithful good husband was you do everything with your spouse, everything that you do that you enjoy, every hobby, every undertaking, every lawn project, every whatever is with your partner. I had become someone who was determined to be Dave relative to his marriage with Kristen. If it's a good marriage, then I'm a good guy to be around. If it's a bad marriage, then I suck. But behind the scenes, Kristen had a different take. She was looking at it like, he's going to all this trouble, all this effort, living and dying by rules. Kristen was like, Why don't you be Dave Finch? I'll be Kristen Finch. We'll have our marriage. Dave, your hobby cannot be our relationship. I started to see that what Kristen really meant, and this is semantics, she probably meant anti-married. The way that we are married is not working. We're going to flip it. It was more of a divestment from all the things that were really holding us up in our relationship as opposed to a termination of a marriage.


I just want to be clear, unmarried, anti-married, it looks a lot like just being married married?


Yes. We are still totally subscribed to the traditional trappings of a marriage, meaning we still live together. We are intimate with each other. We are exclusively faithful. Neither one of us has any intention, design, desire to go outside of the marriage for anything other than friendships and hobbies. It's more that we have parted ways with the other traditional trappings of marriage, which is expectations and me needing you to be this thing that will never materialize, me needing the relationship to feel a certain way. We are anti-married because by throwing those things aside, we actually have more room to enjoy watching each other flourish, supporting each other, cheering each other on, being there when things are hard for each other, the aspects of our marriage that we wanted in the first place, which is that joy of being together. The marriage she was done having was the marriage where everything was a project. She was looking at it like, he's going to all this effort. I just want to sit on the couch with him and watch TV. I just want to take a road trip with him and the kids to an amusement park and just have fun together.


I don't want everything to be a homework assignment. But now, thanks to Kristen's wisdom, we are committed to our own happiness first so that we can bring our happy selves to this relationship. When Kristen said, Hey, Dave, we're detaching, we're unmarried, she knew that I wasn't going to organically feel my way through a very gray situation. She knows that I need parameters. I need language, and I think she needed the language, too.


So, Dave, have you gotten better at navigating those gray areas? Can you give me an example of what it's been like for you to ease up on your project of having rules goals for everything in your life with Kristen?


I have. Here's an example. This past Thanksgiving, Kristen decided, Hey, we're going to do a Friendsgiving with her closest friend, basically her sister, her ride or die, down in Texas. I said, Sure, we'll do a Friendsgiving. But behind it, what I'm thinking is, Well, wait, Thanksgiving is a very specific set of events that happen, and now we're changing that, is this even going to be a Thanksgiving? Or is it going to be just a complete nebulous, undefined, scary fest for three or four days? It wasn't even defined how long we would be there. That's tough for you. It is tough for me. The first impulse that comes in to my mind is, All right, we need some parameters on this. I need to understand how do they prepare their turkey. Is it brined? Is it deep fried? This is Texas, it's Dallas. So is it going to be barbecued somehow, like under the ground with some seasonal on it? I don't know how they do it. So then I decide, All right, You see what you're doing here, self. You could beat yourself up for the next three or four weeks and try to understand this and be miserable by the time you get in the car to go to Dallas.


Or you could set one rule. And that one rule is there really are no rules. When we go down there, if you're having fun, then things are going in the right direction. Wow.


Did your hack of the one rule is there's no rules, did it work?


It did. I knew it was working the next morning on the drive because normally, I insist on driving always, and I actually let Kristin drive for a couple hours, and we all just had fun in the car. I think if you're on a family trip and you're all having fun, by the time you reach your destination, you're still having fun and laughing, and it's going well.


That's a miracle. Yeah.


After this 12, 13-hour drive, we pull into our friend's driveway. What I didn't know is that things were just going to get even better. These are exceedingly decent people, which means that they do not tart up their Thanksgiving dinner. It was a turkey. It was perfect. Everything you want in a turkey. It was just a turkey. The best thing was The moments when Kristen would come over with either a glass of wine or a cup of tea or whatever, Kristen would come over and just sit down next to me and lay into me like a blanket. I was like, All right, I I could do Friendsgiving if that's what this is. I could do this every year. The whole thing from start to finish, as much as I wasn't sure about a Friendsgiving, I'm not sure I would do it any other way now.


Dave Finch, I truly feel like I took a master class in Relationships and Emotion and Marriage. After all this, do you still stand by your list of best practices?


All of the best practices amounted to surface clean to fix myself so that I would appear to be the world's greatest partner. My bigger work then, my deeper clean, is to be somebody who goes out and creates for himself a life that they can then share with that chosen partner. But I stand by it, and so does Kristin. There were a couple of plunkers. Some of them were truly, admittedly- We all got some plunkers. Some of them were aspirational. The two that come to mind are the laundry thing, right? I still, to this day, root through the dryer for the one or two things I need and leave the rest in there.


I wish you hadn't told me that. Oh, we'd come to such an understanding.


I'm so sorry, Anna. You just hurt my heart, but okay. I have my limitations, and that's one of them. I'll take it one step further. Since I am no longer somebody who pines for everyone to like him, I'll admit this to you as well. Not only do I do that, I will root through the dirty clothes hamper to take out my dirty stuff and just wash that. Because it makes it so much easier when it's in the dryer for me to just take it out because I don't have to sift through other people's clothes.


All right, listeners, you can direct your hate mail to...


Chris Justin Finch.


Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Josa, Emily Lange, and Reva Goldberg. It's edited by Mark Pagan, Jenn Poillant, and Paula Schumann. Our executive producer is Jenn Poillant. This episode was mixed by Daniel Ramirez. Our show was recorded by Maddie Macielo. Fact-checking by Caitlin Love and Kelsey Kudack. The Modern Love theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano, Pat McCusker, and Diane Wong. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nel Galogli. The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Mia Lee is the editor of Modern Love Projects. I'm Anna Martin. Thanks for listening. If you like our show and want to stay updated with the latest episodes, subscribe wherever you get your podcast. Also, you should definitely check out The Runup. It's a weekly politics show here at the New York Times, and tomorrow, they're releasing a special Valentine's Day episode all about how political differences affect our dating lives. And guess what? I'm going to be a guest on that show, so you got to tune in.