We were on our way to church one evening, about a 15-minute drive. Several work problems had erupted that day, and I hadn't had a chance to talk to my wife.
As I drove, I poured out my heart and agonized over something I had said to someone in anger—and I had been clearly wrong. The story spilled out and although I don't know how long the emotional self-flagellation continued, it seemed like a protracted period of agony.
While I talked, I kept my eyes on the road, not only for safety, but also because I felt too ashamed to glance at Shirley.
Finally I paused.
She said nothing.
"Don't you have any response to that?"
"Thanks for telling me." Those may not have been her exact words, but that was the attitude.
"Is that all you can say?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"I've been agonizing and groaning since we left home and you seem so—so uncaring. I'm hurt and I—I hoped you'd understand." I stopped for a traffic signal just as I finished those words.
Shock was written across her face. "I thought you were just giving me information."
"Information? I was groaning and struggling to tell you about the situation and you seemed indifferent as if—" I stopped in the middle of my sentence. "What did you hear?"
"You were reporting—telling me something that happened to you today."
"You couldn't tell from my voice the depth of my pain?"
She shook her head. "You sounded neutral."
I drove in silence the rest of the way. I couldn't understand how, when I was so overwrought, anxious, and in agony, she heard only a report of what had happened to me that day.
How can this be? How could she not understand?
For the hour we were at church, I had to force my thoughts back to what was going on in the service. I kept trying to figure out how she felt my emotions came across as neutral.
Anyone who knows me will say I'm animated and energetic. One friend calls me "expressive." During my seminary days, one professor called me excitable. And I think those descriptions are accurate.
So if they are accurate, how did Shirley get the message wrong? Why couldn't she hear the pain in my voice?
On the way home from church, I brought up the topic. My wife is one of the most honest people I know, so I said, "Tell me what you heard from me."
She fed back the core of my words and added, "You were calm and very matter of fact."
I pondered her last statement and came to what I'd call a startling revelation. I am excitable and expressive because that's my natural method of self-expression. However, when I need to say something deeply personal or traumatic, my voice shifts into a flat, dispassionate gear.
I hadn't known that and no one had ever pointed it out to me. As I reviewed what I had said to Shirley earlier in the evening, I had trouble thinking of my voice as ever sounding the way she heard it. Yet, as I considered what she "heard," I decided she was right.
"From now on, when I'm pouring out my heart," I said, "I'll tell you. And then you'll know the seriousness of my words."
Since then, I can think of only a handful of occasions when I've stopped in the middle of my travail because I haven't detected a sympathetic response. In those instances I say something like "This is heavy stuff from my heart."
That experience on the way to church helped me realize I don't always know what I'm feeling or what I want from my spouse. She can offer me advice or ideas or simply let me know she understands, but she can't do it unless I communicate what I need.
By talking with her and being assured she understands, I'm able to connect with my own emotional level. That experience also helped me understand why I'd been hurt a few times when she'd seemed indifferent to my problem. I realize now that it wasn't indifference on her part, but only lack of a clear message from me. She didn't know I was doing more than giving information.
That event happened three years ago, after we'd been married 50 years. One of the things that keeps our marriage exciting is that we continue to learn about ourselves. This isn't unique to us, because I know other couples who still find self-discovery an important element in their maturity together.
Since that experience, I've made sure to present a clear message. Recently I was talking to Shirley about something and interjected, "This is for information."
She smiled and said, "Yes, I know."
Cecil "Cec" Murphey is a New York Times bestselling author and international speaker. He has written or co-written more than one hundred books, including the runaway bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven (with Don Piper) and Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (with Dr. Ben Carson).