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He Drives Me Crazy

Marriage lessons from the road

After our wedding 20 years ago, my husband, Alvin, and I loaded our meager belongings into a 5'x8' U-Haul trailer. Instead of sunbathing on Tahiti's black sand beaches, we honeymooned our way cross-country from Washington to graduate school in Connecticut. (I don't recommend this.)

Our fraying wedded bliss unraveled in Omaha. That night, my groom yelled, "Don't show me the map! Tell me the exit number!"

"But—" I pointed to the map. "Just look! Right here—oh, wait, we passed it!"

He swerved off I-80 in grim silence. We'd driven hours longer than planned, finding every hotel in Nebraska full of roller-skating conventioneers. Now, Omaha held sweet promise. Also, it was our last hope.

I cried in the car while he checked for a room. His outburst confirmed my worst fears. A man who loved his bride wouldn't yell at her.

Three days on the road as a newlywed led to an undeniable truth: My husband hated me. How else to explain his dim view of my navigational skills?

I expected more. After all, we'd both read marriage books. I'd assumed we'd hold hands all the way to Connecticut. While rainbows arched over the highway. My husband wasn't supposed to shout, and I wasn't supposed to pout.

As we motored in our Chevy Blazer, little did we realize that we'd plunged into the nitty-gritty of married life. And we began to learn lessons that would guide us through tough times over the next 20 years.

It's not my-way-or-the-highway

As it turns out, not everyone can read a map. My husband hates maps, which puzzles me still. On the other hand, I got a thrill when I purchased my Rand McNally atlas for our recent road trip to California (with four kids in the back: do not try this at home). Alvin steadfastly refuses to glance at the red squiggly lines, asking only one thing: what exit?  

We navigate the world using different skills. I need information. I want details, landmarks, historical facts, mileage estimates. He needs only to know if and when he should change course. That's it. He's Steady Eddy, eyes on the road, safety on his mind.

While I study routes, options, and destinations, he steers between the lines. His calm balances my freaking out. His focus keeps us on track. He reminds me every time I shove my foot on the imaginary passenger-side brake that he's never had an accident.

I entered marriage believing my way was the only way, thus the right way. Twenty years later and I realize many roads lead to the same place. We can both be right. Who'd have guessed? We're on the same team, heading into the wild blue yonder. We'll arrive together, even if I'm the only one tracking the mileage.

Be open to alternate routes of communication

Conversation stalled under the looming skies of Montana, where silence stretched beyond the horizon. We'd metamorphosed into that couple you see at restaurants forking food into silent mouths. The unanticipated dead air frightened me.

What's he thinking? I'd wondered. Why isn't he talking to me? Doesn't he love me? Am I a bore?

Before the wedding, we could talk all night. We expounded on marriage and child-rearing. Our theoretical children were obedient, brilliant, and cute. (Fake kids are much easier than real ones.) But talk is cheap.

In reality, our 5-year-old sassy daughter models five outfits a day, our 10-year-old boy harbors a devotion to jokes and an aversion to haircuts, and our 15-year-old twin boys have the ravenous appetites of bears facing hibernation. Never once have the children embroidered samplers (a la Meg, Beth, Amy, and Jo from Little Women) to the soundtrack of classical music. These noisy aliens are not the children of my daydreams.

Now Alvin and I have plenty to discuss, but who can talk with kids sucking all the oxygen from the room? Sleep overtakes us before conversation can begin.

The interruptions—I mean children—God gave us force us to be creative. My husband telephones every day. We e-mail. On dire occasions, we dig pen and paper from the junk drawer. Conversation ebbs and flows.

Silence no longer scares me. In fact, with four kids, my husband and I have come to adore it.

Let your spouse drive too

As a new bride, everything mattered. Back then, my husband's insistence on sleeping under the comforter, but not the sheet, was a personal affront to me. When he chose talk radio over easy-listening music, I deemed him selfish. And nuts.

And then we tried to read the newspaper.

"Hey," he said, "hand me the sports section."

"I'm not done with it yet."

"But you have the front page."

I shot him a stony glare. "So?"

"Just give me the sports."

"I like to read the paper in order. I'll be done with this in a minute."

Alvin raised his eyebrows. What I considered logic, he considered insanity. With a sigh, I handed over the sports section.

These days, I can read the paper out of order.

I like 24-hour news channels. We've learned to defer to each other. Many things matter so little. Quirks? No problem. Why fight over the toothpaste tube when you can save that energy for something that really matters, such as the direction bowls should face in the dishwasher?

Celebrate the journey

My husband's spontaneous celebrations delight me. The first occurred in 1985 with a trip to 7-Eleven. He bought me a Twinkie in honor of their deceased inventor, James Dewar. We toasted Dewar for his brilliant, shelf-stable delicacy. 

A man who will celebrate Twinkies is apt to celebrate other odd moments in history. For several consecutive years, we celebrated Elvis's birthday with greasy recipes straight out of an Elvis cookbook. (January 8, in case you wondered.) He also never fails to celebrate regular holidays, such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Sometimes distractions prevent celebrations. One year on his birthday, Alvin was driving home to Washington from Texas. I nailed garish, neon, Magic-Markered signs ("Happy" "30th" "Birthday" "You" "Stud!") to trees along the road.  

When he arrived, I said, "Did you like the signs?"

"What signs?" he said.

"Get back in the car!" And so I made him drive the route again, pointing out my handiwork. We try to keep our eyes open so we don't miss a cause for celebration. It's never too big or too small to have a good time.

Don't focus on the detours

Wedding gifts were nestled within bubble wrap, safe until unpacked. I remember a fragile candy dish from Nordstrom's … barely. In a well-intentioned moment, my husband scooped the cat off a table, away from the dish. (The cat liked to swat things off tables.) The cat panicked and snagged the tablecloth with claws, and the treasure crashed, smashed to smithereens.

"I'm sorry," Alvin said. "It was an accident."

I shed tears anyway. That dish was more than a dish.

It was the last in a series of brokenness. Every breakable wedding present had been destroyed, mostly by the cat.

He nudged items to the edge, then laughed as they fell.

"Everything is broken!" I wailed with all the maturity of a kindergartener. 

My husband offered comfort, man-style. "Well, they're just things. Things don't matter. People matter."

I wanted to nudge his insensitive self off a bridge, because those things mattered to me. But he was right. Twenty years later, I share his attitude. We hold material things loosely while hugging close what really matters.

Only two years into our marriage, we stumbled into the first tragedy of our lives together. Doctors diagnosed my 46-year-old father with malignant melanoma. Four months later, he died. As I watched him slip from life to death, I understood what counted. My dad didn't care about his ceramic bluebird on the shelf. His beloved ham radios were forgotten. All that mattered was a human touch. 

"You can't take it with you!" my dad used to say. He died three weeks after he turned 47, proving his words true. With that great loss came a lesson, for I learned about priorities early in my marriage. Only people matter. I hold them close.

Our journey has led us down unexpected paths. I never dreamed we'd encounter infertility or job loss. We traveled through unmapped wilderness when my then 35-year-old husband was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. Had I been privy to the bumpy detours to come, I might have balked.

Marriage hasn't been the joyride I expected when I climbed into the car as a 22-year-old. Nothing has turned out quite like I planned. Nonetheless, I don't regret an inch of this journey with my beloved. Well, except that 20 years later, I still wonder why he won't study the map and he still wonders why I gasp when he brakes.

"After all this time, you don't trust me," he said a few days ago. 

"Oh, but I do," I assured him. "After all, I'm still in the car."

And that's what counts. We might argue from time to time, but we're in the same car, heading the same direction. And as far as I can tell, we're making good time. Now if someone could just tell us the exit number, we'd be set.

Melodee Helms, a community manager for a website for moms, is a freelance author. She and Alvin have been married 20 years.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Compromise; Marriage; Newlyweds
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2008
Posted September 12, 2008

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