When you’re friends for two decades with another couple, you get to know each other pretty well. One such couple is our dear friends, Jay and Beth Hohfeler. They are the kind of close friends with whom we can really be transparent. Jay and Beth, Susan and me recently took a little vacation in the North Carolina mountains. Toward the end of the week, Jay pointed out some things about how Susan and I communicate. It was tough, but good to hear—his candid thoughts. I asked Jay to write a guest post (that I would not edit) to give you an outside peek inside our marriage.
Have you got friends with whom you’d gladly burn 4 days out of town to get rested? No agenda; no catching up on work; spending a whole day in pajamas? My wife Beth and I made such a plan with Mark and Susan Merrill—our friends for over 20 years. From Dallas and Tampa we met in Atlanta, rented a car, and drove to the mountains of North Carolina. As we returned, I volunteered to provide a behind-the-scenes and unfiltered view of this American icon of marriage. Surprisingly, they both agreed as long as I didn’t hold back. Here is a glimpse of the Merrills when no one is watching.
Mark Merrill drives the same way he does life: impatiently, no fear of sharp turns, and only selectively listening to the people in the back seat trying to help him. So we pulled into traffic cutting off two lanes of Atlanta locals on our way to the Smoky Mountains.
That “no agenda”, “no catching up on work” thing was immediately tested when we found no internet or cell phone service in those beautiful mountains. The test continued when we drove into the town of Franklin and spotted a place named “The Internet Café”, where the manager declared (without a hint of irony) “No, we don’t have any internet services here.” I was impressed by how neither Merrill ratcheted up anger or worry about their upcoming deadlines. They both relied on their staff to complete the work and report out later when we found service somewhere else. Susan came to view the absence of internet and cell service as sweet Providence. God knew what we needed.
Our first breakfast at the town’s diner was memorable…for Mark. We had no sooner walked through the door when he made the rounds memorizing the names of every lady who worked there—and couldn’t resist using one of their names in every sentence going forward. He was a hit in that town. By the way, we all agreed we had never tasted better sausage and apple sauce than the stuff made in that North Carolina town.
The following day, we drove higher in the mountains to a well-known town named Highlands. After sitting outside in light jackets for our lunch, Susan spent 30 minutes in the car doing a live radio interview on her cell phone. She was back in a flash and ready for shopping. Mark and I usually fight the tendency of many men who passively sit in a corner chair while the wife shops. Surprisingly, Mark genuinely likes shopping with his wife (to an extent). On this particular day, though, we got the distinct impression the women wanted to move around this town unencumbered. So, we split and the men retreated to the car, reclined the seats, rolled down the windows and napped hard. Mark is a snorer. At home, the whole family hears him. On this day, most of Highlands, NC did too as they walked past our car.
After spending several restful days with Mark and Susan, I noticed that there were three reoccurring communication issues in their marriage:
Mark deeply respects Susan but often sent her the opposite message. One time, as he was reading, Susan walked up beside him and said, “Mark?” to which he didn’t respond. No words, no glancing up, no acknowledgement of her for a long 30 seconds. Susan didn’t get mad, but I sure did. I had witnessed it several times previously and I finally blew. Mark started to wave me off but, to his credit, listened without defending himself. We thought up an option for another way to respond and he used it the following day
Both engage in this so heavily, I’m surprised they survive the day. They fight for airtime with each other and often misunderstand each others’ point.
Susan sometimes over-instructed Mark when he began a task.
One evening as we sat around a table, a fight broke out between Mark and Susan over an incident that occurred in the office weeks before. For an hour, we watched them dig in and then resolve it. The argument had healthy and unhealthy aspects:
- Mark sometimes forced Susan to repeat his points back to him. When done in the heat of anger, it came off belittling.
- Mark did 80% of the talking.
- Mark never raised his voice, but was still too intense and a little scary.
- Susan would shut down at various points (but did re-engage).
- Both interrupted the other for the first 30 minutes.
- Both owned their wrong.
- Neither one lost control.
- Susan verbalized how Mark made her feel.
- They stuck with it. Neither stormed out of the room or swept issues under the rug.
- They resolved it and made a plan for how to handle the issue in the future.
Mark and Susan Merrill have a marriage a lot like yours and mine. They don’t escape the hardships of living with a sinner. But they talk about their relationship more than most people and are defenders of each other. The four days we spent together reminded me that the leaders of Family First are touchable and real. They are authentic enough to earn our trust in the mystery of marriage.
What would your best friend say about your marriage that you probably need to hear? Please share with me below.
Jay Hohfeler has been married to Beth for 22 years. They live in Coppell, TX—a suburb outside Dallas, TX with their three daughters: Molly 20, Maggie 17, and Kate 14.