How High School English Can Save Your Marriage

My teachers were a special breed.

Some inspired hard work, like Mrs. Beaver in 1st grade. She was the one who always reminded me, “If you put your mind to it, you can do it, do it, do it.”

Some were nurturing, like Mrs. Sealy in 4th grade. She was the one who always baked a birthday cake for each student when their date rolled around.

Some were owl-like in their foresight, like Mrs. Wise in 5th grade. She was the first one to encourage me to pursue creative writing as more than just a hobby.

And some, like Mrs. Templeton in 10th grade English, tattooed on me the fear of God.

She was a short woman, lithe and quick, with close cropped brown hair, who hugged the walls of the school  and scurried from class to class. Her glasses held her nose like a russet potato between its two pads, requiring no chain to prevent them from falling, and when she spoke, no one questioned that in this room a monarch sat among us.

Her job was to prepare us for college. To teach us how to hear the music of a sentence, to analyze a story and its players, and how to write with both accuracy and speed. To ensure we accomplished this latter goal she compelled us every Friday for an entire school year to write a timed in-class five paragraph essay. Which she graded. But the thing I will always remember about Mrs. Templeton is how she taught me to save my marriage from becoming a statistic of divorce when I was only 15 years old.

This was four years before I would meet my wife. And eleven years before I would marry her. But the lessons with which Mrs. Templeton waterboarded us students remain with me to this day. The funny thing is she never once talked about marriage, and when she discussed love it was only in a poetic sense. Her subject matter was not unique. In fact, she probably taught me the same things you learned in your 10th grade English class, beginning with the difference between active and passive voice, moving through Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (I can still quote much of Mark Antony’s famous speech) and eventually discussing Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Lesson #1 – Language has Influence

twain quote

Mrs. Templeton lived by this Mark Twain axiom. She skewered so many lazy parts of speech in my papers, it looked as if she had resorted to self-mutilation while reading my essays. At the time I thought she wanted perfection. Now I see that she only desired for me to be precise and wise.

Precision in language is essential. Without it we risk misunderstanding at the least and insult at the worst. Language draws people closer or pushes them away. It molds and shapes the experience others have of us. It evokes emotion as well as action. Language is highly influential. And in its usage there are both “lightning sentences” and “lightning bug sentences.”

Precise language is, of course, the use of lightning sentences, which use words that make both your statement and the feeling behind it crackle with truth. This is what gives language its influence. It is the power to evoke an emotional response in the listener by using your precision to create empathy with your experience of the world. Lightning bug sentences, on the other hand, flicker inside the Mason jar of our experience, but never allow the listener to emotionally interact. They relay facts well, but they lack the power to connect with the listener. Simply stated, if a person feels distant or the frustration is escalating between speaker and listener, lightning bug sentences are probably being used.  Remember, language has influence, and you cannot use this power, if you are a lazy, imprecise speaker.

One caveat I need to mention, though, is that lightning sentences are least effective when a person is angry. Because lightning sentences have to power to evoke emotion and to create empathy within a listener, the last thing I want to do is to evoke or create the intensity of my anger in another person. For example, when my wife and I were newlyweds, our first major argument occurred when I tried to disagree with her by calling her position “stupid.”  That was a lightning sentence for sure. It crackled with truth, as I saw it. It evoked empathy in her of how I was feeling (angry), and it produced an emotional response. In fact, her emotional response was so strong, that for the nineteen years since then I have decided that since the English language has over 500,000 words, I can find alternative ways to voice my disagreement. A lightning bug way, preferably. Something that flickers, instead of scorches. This not only allows her to feel respected, but it also forces me to be nice, which keeps me grounded and open to problem solving.

Otherwise, use your lightning sentences to breed understanding and connection between you and your partner. The easiest way to do this is to begin expanding your emotional vocabulary. Remember, most human emotions fall under one of five spectrums: Happy, Mad, Sad, Anxious, or Scared. Thus, a lightning bug speaker may state the following sentence: “I am happy,” while the sentence with “lightning” may be “I am delighted.” This statement is more precise, because it lets the listener know where on the spectrum of happiness you are, and it immediately taps into their personal experience of feeling delighted in the past, thereby creating empathy as well as factual understanding.

Finally, to speak with influence, we should also be wise when choosing our words. Obviously, calling my wife stupid was not a wise word choice. It may have reflected my feelings at the time, but it did not reflect my feelings about her as a person. Wise words help you talk to your spouse as if they are your equal. They help your spouse see that you honor and value them, because you are careful to choose words that are accurate, potent, and zealous in love. Remember, it’s impossible to take your words back. You may be able to take out the stinger, but the wound remains. No one cares what you meant. They only care what you say.

Lesson #2: Persuasion Requires Selflessness

But linguistic precision is not just about getting the facts right. That’s like saying that mathematical precision is only about the decimals. Precision also requires a person to consider their audience. In high school, my favorite essays to write were comparison/contrast. This style allowed me to objectively present the facts and let the reader make up his/her own mind about the conclusion. My least favorite essays were persuasive ones. Whenever Mrs. Templeton assigned these essays, she emphasized that it was imperative that we consider the audience we were attempting to persuade. It was insufficient to merely present an argument. Our essays had to be tailored to a specific person or group. This required researching the opposing viewpoints and understanding them before the presentation of our argument could ever be written. To make matters worse, Mrs. Templeton would occasionally tap into her inner sadist and have us write the essay from the viewpoint with which we disagreed.

Little did she know that this exercise would teach me how to argue with my wife effectively. Notice that I did not say it taught me how to win an argument. This is an important distinction, and coincidentally, it is also one of the reasons I hated to write persuasive essays. At the end of the process, no matter how hard I worked, or what grade I received, I never knew if my imagined audience agreed with my essay or not. Were they persuaded or did they stand fast? If the latter, then I was frustrated that I could not continue the argument. If the former, I never received the satisfaction of discovering I had changed their position. (Fortunately, the benefit of having an imagined audience is that you can create whatever outcome you desire. However, this always felt like a dishonest victory. Kind of like beating yourself at chess.)

Then one day it hit me. Maybe the assignment was not about winning. Maybe it was more of an exercise in learning to remove my emotions so that I could understand the other side and think objectively about the issue. This revelation later helped transform many of my arguments with my wife into discussions. The process that my high school English teacher taught me about the art of persuasion is:

1. Argument without audience is arrogance. You may have a well-reasoned, articulate point of view, but if you don’t have an audience, the expression of your thoughts shrivels into an exercise of self-importance. In other words, you must be willing to temporarily put aside your position in order to seek out an audience who will listen to you. In relationships, and marriages in particular, the audience is assumed because the other person is talking to us. But you do not have an audience until someone is paying attention. The street corner preacher warning about the dangers of sin may be brilliant, but unless someone stops to listen, he is a clanging cymbal to the ears of passerby. Therefore, you need to engage your spouse in such a way as to create an audience out of him/her.

2. This means that before you exposit a single point, you must become an excellent student of your spouse. This sounds very Sun Tzu, I admit, but the point here is to substitute response for reaction. The more I know about my wife, the better communicator I will be. For instance, if I know that the word “stupid” triggers childhood wounds, I can avoid that word when it is my turn to speak. My study of my wife is not intended to move me towards the goal of winning. It is there to promote connection with her. Don’t misunderstand me. I like to win. But when I put understanding above victory, I demonstrate to my wife that she is more valuable to me than winning. This in turn helps her to feel understood and validated, and it opens her heart to the points I will eventually make. I now have my audience. But I did not get there by selfishly insisting on my point of view. I had to put aside my emotion so that I could research my wife’s heart and mind. In other words, I am the most persuasive when I am the most selfless.

3. As you listen to your spouse, consider the possibility that you could be wrong. Your emotions will tell you differently, but your brain is what matters here. As your spouse is talking, assume their point of view in your head. Ask yourself how, from their perspective, those arguments make sense. While looking at the world through their eyes, use their arguments against your own, and when you think you can summarize it, reflect to them how you hear their arguments superseding yours. This will signal to them that you are making the effort to hear them and should lower both the volume and the criticism in the argument. You may still disagree, but at least you have removed yourself from your initial emotional reaction and have begun to look at the issue through a more objective lens. This will present you as an intimate ally of your spouse and can, if you pursue it, promote a discussion where you and your spouse solve the problem together. Therefore, persuasion, as Mrs. Templeton taught me, is the skill of opening yourself up, instead of closing yourself off, to alternative points of view. It is about creating an audience, understanding that audience, and considering that audience’s perspective before I state any of my opinions. This is not avoidance of conflict. Rather, it is observing the coin of conflict in a way that allows you to see heads, tails, and if you’re looking, the thin edge of solution that bonds the two together.

Lesson #3: Epiphany Comes at the End

B-Epiphany1

Stories serve a unique purpose in our lives. Sure, they entertain. But they also enlighten, teach, and expound upon the human condition. They willingly enter into the dark alleyways of our lives and our histories so that we can understand ourselves more clearly. They demand to be experienced with a mind, not just an eye. Even a nihilist like Ernest Hemingway eventually taught us that life is meant to resonate with purpose and understanding, but like all good storytellers, he saved this final statement until the end of his life when the end of his shotgun accidentally went off and ended what he viewed as a depressing existence. Ironic that a nihilist should be the victim of such an accident, but that is the juice of theme that teachers like Mrs. Templeton always encouraged me to squeeze out of a story.

Some themes were not as dark as Hemingway’s end. Some were powerful. Some were insightful. Some were inspiring. But regardless of the theme, almost all of them have one thing in common. None of them are wholly understood until the end of the story. Throughout the narrative we follow a character in his quest to answer a thematic question. In Act I, the question is raised. In Act II, the question is investigated, and in Act III, a thematic statement brings conclusion to the character’s question.

For instance, throughout Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel, Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara seeks to answer the question: Can a person preserve themselves and their culture while enduring the ravages and aftershocks of a lost war? At the end of the book, Mitchell gives us this answer:

“With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn’t get, once she set her mind upon him.”

But we must remain patient with Ms. Mitchell through several hundred pages in order to receive the eloquent answer that neither Scarlett, nor her beloved Southern culture, would be destroyed. It would be unsatisfactory if we readers were told this answer prior to any of the events taking place. It is only in the sharing of Scarlett’s experiences and in seeing her truly stubborn and selfish nature that we understand the statement at the end.

This is true of all stories, whether spoken, written, or lived. We must wait for the end to understand the beginning.

Mrs. Templeton may not have realized it, but the lessons she taught that helped me expose and dissect a theme, emphasized a few salient points for saving my marriage:

1. Everyone has at least one question they are trying to answer. This is true of you, your spouse, your mother, the wino on the park bench, even the bully who tortured you in fourth grade. Everyone has a thematic question they are investigating with their lives. If you understand the question your spouse is trying to decipher, you are better equipped to listen to them and to understand their motives. It may even enlighten you about why, in certain situations, they do not change. (Hint: if this is the case, you may be living with a static character). For the two of you to share the adventure of your thematic questions with each other increases the possibility for a deeper connection and experiencing a more profound love. When you know that you have an intimate ally who will face the dragons with you, this search for purpose, or peace, or resolution, or even change, becomes more of a quest than a question.

2. Themes like to repeat themselves. They are the proverbial “common threads” holding the narrative together. Sometimes they are stated overtly (“I’m tired.”). Sometimes they are oblique (“He sat down on the couch, laid his head back, and closed his eyes.”) And sometimes they are restatements of what has already been expressed. (“I can’t go any farther.”) Being attentive to all three variations helps us interpret the common threads within both our own and our spouse’s thematic questions. The good news is that these are often reiterations, not new, independent issues that need resolving. You may find that with a little interpretation, you can begin to understand your partner’s struggle. This may also, by the way, help you see why he/she views the world or reacts to situations the way they do. Instead of viewing them as crazy, it may help you see them as lost or confused.

3. Although one character can help another with their individual question, they cannot answer the question for them. To do so would prevent growth, both as an individual and, in the case of romance, as a couple.  Characters/people need to grow. That is the point of the thematic question. But what you may know clearly, they may only see through a scrim. You cannot solve the Rubik’s Cube for them. They must experience the mental and emotional gymnastics for themselves. Otherwise, they have cheated at the process and the success or growth is not truly their own. In other words, you must be content to be your partner’s sidekick when helping with their question.

4. A person’s thematic question can often be expressed in a binary format, such as “Can _______ be true while _____ is also true.” This is the simplest version I know of to define the question, and it has often served me well as I have listened attentively to my wife’s themes repeating themselves during our arguments. When I can summarize her thematic question for our disagreement (i.e., our own “slice of life” story), I can work through my understanding of her to help her resolve whatever bothers her. Again, this makes me her ally, not her enemy, and the collaborative effort creates a stronger bond.

5. I must patiently love my spouse through several hundred pages of life in order to know how the thematic statement for her question will be worded at the end. I cannot know this beforehand. I cannot cheat and read the last page now. I must take the time to share her story with her, to even include her in my story. Not until the final words on the final page have been written will we know the conclusion of our thematic questions. Therefore choose wisely how you live. Love your spouse with patience, knowing their questions, like yours, will take a lifetime to answer. Epiphany always comes at the end. That is what gives us meaning. It is what makes all of us a special breed.

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