Barry and I left Chefchaouen, the “blue city” in Morocco’s Rif Mountains, early one November morning, and were cycling along a country road on our bikes, heading towards the beach town of Asilah, when I just missed yet another pothole.
I started daydreaming of the Dordogne, the river valley in southern France where we’d taken our first European cycling trip 12 years earlier. We’d punctuate our days with cafe au laits and croissants, well-earned because of all the calories we were burning. Evenings, we’d stay in low-cost municipal campgrounds, often with swimming pools to cool off in — before cycling into the village, often one of “les plus beaux villages de France,” for a lovely dinner. Since we weren’t spending much money otherwise, we treated ourselves most nights to a restaurant meal. As I cycled along the Moroccan road, avoiding ruts and potholes, I remembered the mysterious way the French could turn even a simple bottle of water into a work of art.
What I’d give to be there now! “No cafes au lait, Chardonnay-anointed dinners, or pretty bottles of water here,” I thought as I eyed the winding road ahead. We had just passed an empty village with no cafes open because it was Ramadan, the Muslim holiday when the faithful fast all day. And once again, Barry and I had not thought ahead to bring enough snacks. No sandwiches, dates, figs, or halvah, that yummy tahini sweet that melts in your mouth. Just one apple each and some water. What were we thinking?
Suddenly, I could see a hill ahead. What’s this? We’re supposed to be going down, not up. And it wasn’t a short hill. It went on and on, curve after curve. By the time I reached the top, panting, I was even more irritable.
“Barry!” I called several times. He was out of earshot, so I had to race to catch up with him. “We need to talk,” I said. “This is no fun. I’m not enjoying it at all.”
We pulled over, Barry frowning at me. “What’s the matter?” he asked sharply. “Do you want to go back? What are you saying?”
I hedged, his aggressive tone making me nervous. “No, I don’t want to go back,” I said. It was true — I certainly didn’t want to climb the 15 miles back up the road we had just descended. And we hadn’t seen a single bus, so that probably wasn’t an option. I didn’t know what I wanted, except I didn’t want to be seen as a wuss. Why didn’t he ever complain? I wondered, not for the first time. Why was he so frigging stoic?
I sat down on the ground in the shade of an olive tree. “Bear with me a minute,” I said. Looking at the hills in the distance, I tried to figure out what I needed. “I just want a bit of sympathy. I’m finding the bike ride hard. That’s all.”
“Well, of course it’s hard,” Barry said. “It’s been a long time since we cycled 60 miles in 1 day.”
“Are you finding it hard?”
“Well, since you asked, yes.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place, rather than getting so irritated at me? It sure would have helped if I’d known.”
“I’m a Brit, remember? Mind over matter.”
I chuckled ruefully. My mother-in-law, who I never once saw cry in her 94 years, was famous for saying, “Mind over matter.”
“I just feel so out of shape,” I said, sighing.
“Out of shape? You?” said Barry. “Have you looked at your calf muscles lately?”
I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for flattery, and I love being told I’m strong. After he said that, my fatigue, which must have been mostly mental, not physical, seemed to drift away into the dust.
I got up, climbed onto my bike, and we headed down the road towards Asilah, 45 miles away.
That conversation in Morocco crystallized two simple, but in my experience, often overlooked aspects of communication, which I call “the rule of two E’s,” a concept that applies to many areas of life beyond bike riding. Using these two E’s has helped me in all my human relationships, but especially my marriage.
The First E: Empathy
As soon as Barry agreed that the bike ride was a challenge, I felt better. The situation was still difficult, but I no longer felt alone. Any version of empathy works. “This road sucks!” Or “What’s with this hill? It’s supposed to be downhill all the way.”
We find empathy very helpful when leading a group hike in Guanajuato, the UNESCO World Heritage city in central Mexico where we live part-time. I thought being informal guides would be simple. No way! It’s a challenge balancing the different rhythms and styles of the assorted hikers — particularly when someone complains.
Once a hiker took me aside during a break and burst into tears. “I can’t do this anymore!” she sniffed. “You’re going way too fast.” Just as I was starting to react defensively, the word “empathy” popped into my head, and I said, “I know what you mean. It’s hard not walking at the right pace. We’ll try to moderate the speed.”
The Second E: Encouragement
When I felt exhausted by the cycling still ahead of us, the mere fact that Barry told me I was strong seemed to renew my strength. It’s great, of course, to affirm ourselves, rather than wait for other people to do so. And indeed, I do praise myself. “You’re strong, Rogers!” I tell myself. “Warrior woman!” But especially when I’m in doubt, I find it means a lot to get a compliment from someone else.
With the hiker in Guanajuato, after I empathized, I said, “You know, I think you’re stronger than you realize.” Like Barry’s comment did with me, that bit of encouragement seemed to buoy her spirits.
I once overheard a couple we know talking about their Spanish. The wife, sounding very discouraged, said she wished she spoke the language better. Then her husband said, “But you have such a good accent.” The perfect response — focusing on her strengths rather than her weaknesses.
That difficult bike ride in Morocco took place 20 years ago. At the time Barry and I had a healthy relationship, but it has become much stronger since; not because offering each other empathy and encouragement is easy. We have to get over our defensiveness first, and that can take time. But we do know now what will bring us together in a conflict. Empathy and encouragement got us to Asilah — and they’ve kept us going ever since.
For more stories like Louisa’s, be sure to check out the recent articles on our Inspire page: