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Big D

The honeymoon was over--in more ways than one!

In spite of our big fight over fifty cents, we had shared some enjoyable experiences together at Niagara Falls. We laughed some--like when we visited the Cave of the Winds, a walking tour behind the falls. We looked so ridiculous soaking wet in those yellow raincoats and gray flannel booties. And there was the night we attended our first drive-in movie. When it was finished, I tried to drive away with the speaker still attached, and it cracked the car window. We were able to laugh about it, in spite of the anticipated cost of replacing it.

Getting to know each other physically and expressing our love for one another sexually was difficult at first, but we were able to work our way through it in a mutually gratifying way. Yet there was tension, and it seemed as though we were often on the verge of another argument.

But now our minds were on Dallas. After the honeymoon we had only a few days to sort through our wedding gifts and other belongings and decide what we would need for the next four years. Then we packed the car, and it was off to Texas. With no freeways, it meant forty-five hours on the road, a trip we made in three days. I did most of the driving, and Mary's responsibility was to read the map and keep me on the right track.

What I didn't realize was that everybody didn't know how to read maps. When Mary got confused and gave me inaccurate information, I felt agitated. Although I tried not to show it, I could not hide my exasperation from her. I'm not sure what it was--maybe I would sigh, or roll my eyes. But something I did caused her to feel belittled. It was poor nonverbal communication, and it has sabotaged a harmonious relationship between us many times since.

Some students of communication say that most of us believe 93 percent of what we sense non-verbally and only 7 percent of what we hear spoken. Although my words were saying it was all right that she couldn't understand the map, the tone of my voice, or the look on my face, or something else I did was conveying a different message: "What's wrong with you, Mary? Can't you even tell me whether to turn left or right? Any idiot ought to be able to do that."

As you might suspect, she didn't respond very favorably to that. Her usual retort was something like, "If you don't like the way I do it, then do it yourself." But if I did stop the car to look at the map myself, she felt insulted and got even more angry.

We have both used poor non-verbal communication to hurt each other through the years of our marriage, and neither one of us fully understood the damage we were doing. We did it with the physical distance we put between us, with the posture of our bodies, with a raise of our eyebrows, with the shrug of our shoulders, with a frown, with the lack of a verbal response, even with the way we would turn and leave a room. There are literally thousands upon thousands of ways we can express disgust, disapproval and rejection non-verbally, and we continue to learn how important it is to be aware of what our body language is implying.

I have often interpreted Mary's disgusted look to mean she is angry and unhappy with me--when that may not be the case at all. She has often interpreted the unexpressive and disinterested look on my face to mean I don't care about her-- when that is not true. We have discovered that, since we are not usually aware of what we communicate non-verbally, we need to help each other by explaining calmly what we sense in the other person and what we feel from each other. In the past, we usually failed to do that. We just assumed that we knew what the other intended to convey and we got angry about it.

As time went on, we also could have helped each other understand what kind of non-verbal communication would bring us affirmation and healing--like a hug, a touch on the hand or shoulder, a smile from across the room, or a twinkle in the eye that says "you're someone special." But we were not insightful enough to know that we should share those needs, and nobody ever taught us. Learning to communicate positively in non-verbal ways is a continual growing process. And we made very little progress in those early years. Episodes in the car on the way to Dallas were only one expression of our failure to encourage and support one another non-verbally.

In spite of our problems on the road, we did manage to arrive in Dallas without destroying one another. And now we were about to learn something of the cultural differences between North and South in the 1950s. When we tried to register at a motel for the night, the clerk questioned whether we were actually married, since we looked so young. When we went to a restaurant for breakfast in the morning, I ordered eggs, and much to our surprise the eggs were served with what looked like mashed potatoes. But they sure didn't taste like mashed potatoes! They turned out to be hominy grits, a new experience.

Another shocking discovery was the openness of segregation in the South. Things like separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites offended our sensibilities. And we found the Texas accent difficult to understand at times.

Interaction with native Texans, as well as with other seminary students from all over the country, made me keenly aware of accents. I had spent four years in the Midwest and had lost much of my distinctive northeastern twang. But Mary's accent was pronounced. And some of our new friends were making fun of her about it. That bothered me, so I determined to change Mary's accent.

When Mary was a small child she had a minor speech impediment and was never able to hear and reproduce sounds very accurately. She had always had a problem with proper pronunciation. In addition, English grammar and spelling were never her strongest subjects in school. All of these factors together were now becoming a concern to me. I wanted to help her learn to speak correctly for her own sake. At least that's what I said. But in my heart I have to admit now that I was probably embarrassed by her speech deficiencies. That evidently came through to her, and accounts for her resistance to my efforts to help her.

We would lie in bed together on Saturday mornings while I tried to teach her how to pronounce certain words. There were some sounds that she could not distinguish, but it was difficult for me to accept that when Mary tried to explain it to me.

She remembers it like this:

"I could feel him getting tense with me. I felt as though his acceptance of me depended on whether I could speak correctly, and I knew that he was displeased with me. I began to wonder why he ever married me in the first place. I did not feel his love.

"One day I jokingly mentioned to one of his professors that Richard was trying to help me lose my Philadelphia accent. He laughed. 'That's just you, Mary. And it's cute. Don't worry about it. Besides, that seems to be such a small and insignificant thing.' Naturally I told Richard what he said."

I needed to hear that. I don't think anyone had ever explained to me the meaning of unconditional love and acceptance. Somehow I had developed the notion that people had to perform in a certain way and live up to certain expectations before they could be fully loved and absolutely accepted. Mary had so many strong traits that overshadowed those weaknesses. But I was allowing the weaknesses to blind my eyes to her strengths. I wonder now whether picking at her speech was my subconscious attempt to strengthen my own self-esteem. If I could make her see her weaknesses, it would make me appear stronger.

But my prof’s word of exhortation didn't help very much. I kept putting the pressure on her. There were other things about her that bothered me as well, and I was not hesitant to mention any of them. For example, she seemed to fidget a great deal--pick at her cuticles, bite her nails, chew ice. I coined a pet name for her that wasn't very flattering. I called her my little "idjit." That's a cross between an idiot and a fidget. I tried to say it in a joking way and claim that it was my own private, endearing term for her. But my smile didn't fool her for a minute. It hurt her, and it convinced her even more that my love for her was less than genuine. She responded as she might be expected to respond--by becoming more irritable and critical.

If non-verbal communication, accents, mispronunciation and pet names were putting stress on our infant marriage, what was to occur shortly would add even more pressure. God had a big surprise in store for us.

Walking Together

Make a conscious decision to stop trying to change your mate. Instead of fretting over the traits you would like to see changed, suggest how they complement you, making the two of you a better one.

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