Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Be Ye Equally Yoked

What They Don't Tell You When You Are Thinking About Going on a Senior Mission

There are three things that your stake president doesn't tell you when you are considering a senior mission.

1. If you are humanitarian, you will see the internal foibles and politics of a vast organization up close
2. Your mission president has more control over your life than you ever imagined anyone would
3. You and your companion will struggle to get along

This blog is about this final one. Companion conflict is unavoidable. Among married couples, it inevitably happens when couples retire. It also happens when you come on a mission. Conflict happens whenever we upset the routines of our life. Sharing the constant companionship with one person is very, very difficult. But it even more so when that person is your spouse and you know that you do not have "transfers" to look forward to.

Ready to serve.

I Hope They Call Me on a Mission

Let's start at the beginning. Over 7 years ago I began to get the feeling that Dionne and I would need to volunteer to serve a mission sooner rather than later. This feeling would not go away. I discussed it with Dionne and then a little with the kids. But I was just starting a new job, we had three kids in high school, young grandchildren, and had just purchased a new puppy. How soon could the mission really be?

Erica and the newest member of the family...Brumby.
But the feeling was pretty definitive. I remember asking Dionne why we were getting a puppy when we would likely be on a mission in a few years. She said that things would work themselves out. As it turns out, she was not having the same feelings that I was having. When I would talk about what I was feeling, it would make her nervous. What made her even more nervous is that the answers she was receiving were to "trust" her husband. Dionne and I handle uncertainty differently. I am infinitely more comfortable with uncertainty than she is.

While I have had a wonderful career and have been able to to hitch a ride on two skyrocketing companies, I know that I am nearing the end of my working days. Dionne, on the other hand, has just reached her working prime. She discovered therapeutic horse back riding about 10 years ago and has worked hard to excel in her field. Her job combines two of Dionne's life passions: horses and serving others. To leave for a mission would be a significant sacrifice for Dionne.

The therapeutic benefits of horseback riding are amazing.
Dionne has seen remarkable progress made by children and adults with disabilities.

Two years ago my job ended. I could either look for a new job or seriously consider a mission. Although not completely on-board, Dionne agreed that we should begin to think about serving a mission. But we had some loose ends to wrap up first. One of those was our daughter, Briel, who had just returned home from her mission in Iloilo (Philippines) and who was our only unbetrothed child. And she had brought a nasty stomach bug home with her that was not going away.

Sorry Briel...but I am sure this how Mom saw you all year as you struggled with your health.
A year ago everything came to a head. Briel was not married. Dionne was in the process of quitting her job (long story). It was time to decide if we were going on a mission or not. Our bishop walked by us one Sunday and asked if we were ready to turn our papers in. Dionne quickly snapped "not right now" and the Bishop quickly strolled away. That night we talked more about our timing. And Dionne said that she had not received a personal witness that it was time to serve.

While I agree that there are things that we can do on other's testimonies, serving a mission is not one of them. And her decision had to be her own; not mine. Even though we are married, we are both entitled to receive personal revelation about things that affects ourselves and our family. And a decision this impactful required joint revelation. We talked openly about our concerns and then went our separate ways to give it some personal thought. I sincerely asked "if not this, then what." Dionne asked if it was time to go. Dionne and I have very different ways to unwind as the following pictures show...

This is Dionne's screen saver on her phone. She likes to disappear on to a trail with Twister and Brumby.
I have discovered running in the past 10 years.
In 2015 I decided to run-walk Missouri's KATY trail (237 miles) by myself. It took me 7 days.
After a day apart, when we reconvened, I told Dionne that I did not get an answer for an alternative. Stupor of thought. But it did not matter because Dionne was already working on our paperwork.

Interlude #1: "Where Love is Coerced, There is No Love" - Marty Rubin

Blake Ostler is one of my favorite theologians. I want to take a brief interlude and interject a few of his thoughts on the nature of love.

True love is freely given. Aladdin found this out as he tried to woo Jasmine; you cannot force someone to love you, especially with a lie. You can create a facade in hopes that someone will fall love with you via the facade. But that is not real love. Not from you or from the person returning your love.

Have you ever heard anyone describe the "meaning of life" this way? 
John 4:19 is an under appreciated scripture which says that God loved us first. Think about that. God has chosen to love each of us regardless of our actions. He invites us to respond to his love but he does not coerce or force us to in any way. We are free to choose whether or not to love him.

Through his love, God has given us the example of how we should relate to each other.
(The background is a door in the Banja Luka chapel)
I believe that marriage is life's laboratory for learning true love. Success is not determined by longevity or the ability to tolerate each other. Success is not determined by a couple's ability to avoid painful issues. The minute you enter the mission field, any issues that you have not dealt with come immediately to the forefront. And many issues appear that you never even knew existed.

"Preaching My Gospel, Two by Two" (D&C 42:6)

For senior couples, the first week in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) is called Preach My Gospel week. Several times during the week couples are asked to teach lessons to "mock" investigators. Last week our mission superiors, the Healys, posted a story about their first experience teaching together in the MTC.

Portions of the Healy's blog post.
Sister Healy (in the green) relaxing in Madrid.
Dionne and I were not able to talk to each other for several hours after teaching our first MTC lesson. I thought it went well, Dionne thought it was a disaster.  I strayed from the agreed upon lesson plan and basically took over the conversation. Dionne went into shut down mode. It was at this point when we realized that being constant companions was going to be much more difficult than we thought.

Training in the MTC. There is a lot of role playing.
Dionne would tell me that I needed to simplify. I would tell her that she needed to be flexible. As the Healy's mentioned, Dionne and I have also lived our lives using a "divide and conquer" technique. I am strong in some areas (strategy, finances, having fun, scriptural scholarship, etc) and she is strong in others (being organized, medical needs, being nurturing, being a handyman, etc). We both are good teachers in our own way. But our ways are very different.

Dionne, Bob and Rosalie just before we departed for Bosnia i Hercegovina.
There were wonderful talks at the MTC about how our loved ones would be cared for while we were serving. But there was very little discussion about the challenges 7 x 24 companionship would have on our marriage. There has been a little lip service paid to the topic in the 6 months we have been on the mission. But nothing really substantive. So we were left to assume that we are the only ones who have had to figure this stuff out.

We know, of course, that is not true.

"Stay Together. Never Be Alone." - Missionary Handbook

Dionne and I have never spent this much time together. Initially, exploring this glorious country and the excitement about our work kept us energized. We had a fairly smooth honeymoon phase. There was always something new that we wanted to see. Or a project that we needed to figure out.

On the road to Banja Luka near Jajce.
But after a while, constant companionship began to wear on both Dionne and I. We began to drive each other crazy. I am very active and find it difficult to sit still and work long hours at a computer. During my career, I never ate lunch at my desk. Ever. I always needed that break to get away from my work. To step away for an hour or so and mentally recharge. Dionne, on the other hand, is able to work long hours at the computer. When she gets into a challenging project, it consumes her.

So one of our first challenges was our different work styles. I would work for a couple of hours and then get antsy. I would try to talk Dionne into taking a break with me. Or I would feel the need to go for a walk. And sometimes Dionne would want to join me. But other times she would not. Soon we realized that we were not going to be able to spend 100% of our time with each other. I started to take walks alone. It actually is a great time for me to do language study. Dionne would spend this time studying language in her preferred manner, on an app called Quizlet on the computer.

Behind our apartment there is a big hill which I have hiked at least 30 times.
Fortunately senior missionaries are not required to faithfully adhere to all of the rules that the young missionaries follow. Our sanity requires that we spend some relaxing time apart. There is a ski resort 45 minutes from our house. I can go skiing for several hours and be back home by noon. I have gone three times this winter and am thinking that I might get up there one more time before the resort closes.

I went skiing with our branch president and his daughter a few weeks back.
Dionne's respite has been Riders of Hope, a therapeutic riding program here in Sarajevo that she volunteers at. Recently she has been asked to help "school" horses which is horse-speak for riding. She went schooling yesterday and returned home full of energy. Best day of riding that she has had in over 6 months.
Dionne working with one of her riders.
Dionne and I knew all of this before we left on the mission. A few years ago we realized that we were no longer interested in doing the same activities while on vacation, for example. We discussed our differing interests and came up with something that we thought we would both enjoy doing. So we became SCUBA certified. And it has been a great activity for us to do together. We seem to enjoy it equally. And guess what, there is pretty good SCUBA only 4 hours away from us in Dubrovnik. So we'll have to see.

I just love this picture so I am posting it. This is from our first shark dive in Australia.
We were stationed on a dead reef and then the ship dropped two large tuna heads
off of the ship. There must of been 40 sharks in the surrounding area.

Interlude #2: Kierkegaard's Parables of the Two Artists

With regard to relationships, humans are their own worst enemies. As Romans 7:15 says, "I am carnal...what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that I do." The challenge of any relationship is change the mentality of "what have you done for me lately" into "what can I do for you." And to see the beauty rather than the imperfections. Kierkegaard told a wonderful parable about two artists.

Kierkegaard claims that the second artist is the true artist. True love is able to find "lovableness" in all of us.
It is hard to be the true artist. It goes against human nature. We know that we should love without fault finding. But we aren't able to do it. The early Greek philosophers dubbed this problem one of "akrasia."

Marriage can be a constant struggle. It can be contest of wills. Or it can be one person submitting their will to another. It can be a series of compromises in order to keep the peace.

Or it can be two people who come together and form a truly united, loving partnership. A partnership of equals. A partnership of mutual reciprocity. And, to use a line from Fiddler on the Roof, "and affection."

Equally Yoked

Without going into too much detail, Dionne and I had the opportunity to examine our marriage a little more closely early in our mission. The basic question was we consider ourselves fully equal in our marriage? In the 34 years that we have been married, this simple question had never come up.

Certainly we were aware of NT passages like Colossians 3:18 which says "wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands." But that has not been our marriage. It never has been. We have not felt obligated to play the traditional gender roles. Unless of course we are rowing across Lake Bled.

So Dionne and I had a conversation about our marriage. About being equal in our marriage. We spoke the words for the first time. And we also inquired, for ourselves only, of our Heavenly Father. And we both felt good about our marriage and our personal approach to it. We consider ourselves truly equal in our marriage. That neither is of more import. That we are both equally responsible for who "we" are. That we can both receive divine inspiration for ourselves and our family. And that our desire is to be fully united, eternally.

This is our marriage. And this is how we chose our marriage to be, period.

It was a cathartic moment.

Christmas in Zagreb

A common complaint among those who care for children all day is that they are surrounded by "baby talk." They long for adult interaction. I can think of something even worse. Can you imagine being cooped up in Sarajevo with me 24 x 7?

A Broadway musical song that describes me quite well is "Wand'ring Star" from Paint Your Wagon. I feel like I was "born under a wand'ring star." Too long in the same place and I am itching to go explore. So when we had the opportunity to visit Zagreb's famed Christmas display, I was eager to go a "wand'ring."

Zagreb's outdoor Christmas market has been voted one of the best in Europe.

A Broadway musical song that describes Dionne quite well is "Pick a Little, Talk a Little" from The Music Man. Every once in a while, Dionne needs other female companionship to talk with. She has always had best friends. She talks with her daughters a couple of times a week. And so when the opportunity to visit Zagreb arose, she was excited to spend time with other senior sister missionaries.

Sisters Newton and Porter shopping at the market.
Unfortunately, we did a lousy job of sharing our needs with each other. And it blew up all over our faces. And, even worse, we let it blow up all over Elder and Sister Porter's faces as well. Dionne had arranged for us to spend the evening touring the market with the Porters. I thought we were going to walk around a little with them and then explore on our own. Since we were not on the same page, we (meaning me) ended up being quite rude to the Porters as we headed off on our own. I guess my stomach just got the best of me since I wanted to start doing a culinary exploration of all of the food stalls.

We walked by about 20 of these sausages stalls. It was killing me. I wanted to stop and eat at each of them.
One thing that Bosnia does not have is good pork sausage. 
This experience taught us to be remain ever vigilant about communicating our needs to each other. Fortunately, this snafu was in a marketplace and not with some important humanitarian clients. Although we owe the Porters a sincere apology.

Interlude #3: A Lesson From Michael Jordan

C. Terry Warner has written about what he calls "self-betrayal." This means being convinced that other people and our circumstances are responsible for our feelings and our helplessness to overcome them. This is a lie that we tell ourselves. And most of us chose to live this lie. In fact, many who have achieved tremendous amounts of worldly success live this lie.

The three steps of self-betrayal. When something happens,
1) accuse others, 2) excuse yourself, and 3) portray yourself as a victim.
Take Michael Jordan as an example. When he was inducted into the basketball hall of fame, Jordan gave a speech that illustrated Warner's ideas of self-betrayal and victimization. Michael gave example after example of times when he had convinced himself that he was a victim. That he had been disrespected. And he had convinced himself that he was a victim. This lie gave him the drive to prove the world wrong.
Michael's induction speech into the Basketball Hall of Fame. 
 Michael started with the well-known story of him being cut from the Varsity basketball team. He does not mention that he was a freshman at the time and that he was just sent to JV so that a senior could make the team. But read what he said about his motivation after this happened. And read what he said about two other basketball events in his life.

I wanted to prove not just to Leroy Smith (pictured), not just to myself, but to the coach that picked
Leroy over me, I wanted to make sure understood -- you made a mistake dude.
And Coach Smith, the day that he was on the Sports Illustrated and he named four starters and he didn't name me (because he was an incoming freshman) -- that burned me up! Because I thought I belonged on that Sports Illustrated.
I was working out for baseball, and they came down for a workout and shoot-around
and I came over to say hello. And at this time I had no thoughts of coming back and
playing the game of basketball, and Bryon Russell came over to me and said "you
know I could guard you."
Michael Jordan is one of my all-time favorite basketball players. But is he a role-model for how to live life? For relationships? Our tendency towards self-preservation does not allow us to acknowledge our own wrong doing. We like to consider ourselves victims. We like to complain. We like to gossip about other people. We like to gather people to our sides with our tales of woe. We adore our self-betrayal.

Hopefully you can see the theme. Placing any blame on another person for how you are feeling, behaving, or living life is the problem. So often we think that another person is the problem, and if only they would change, our life would be perfect. However, believing that another person is the problem, is the problem.

Our Worst Day of the Worst Month

January was a long month for Dionne and I. Sarajevo and Tuzla are gripped by a nasty inversion during the winter months and it felt like we had not seen the sun for several weeks. So we were a little depressed. Everyone here in country was on vacation so we were not very busy. We had two tragic events among loved ones at home and it was hard to watch things unfold from half a world away. So we were separately dealing with our grief. And we made the mistake of not talking about any of these things.

I really did not take any good pictures of the inversion. This was a cloudless
night but you could not tell because of the smog. For a while you could almost
taste the air. There was one night in Tuzla when visibility near Živinice was about
30 feet. We could not see our hotel, the street that it was on, or the railroad
signs along the side of the road. 
And so both of us dealt with all of these things internally. We were going through the motions but not really communicating. And since we were both in crisis mode, we were also not in tune with each other. And this came to a head one Saturday morning. 

I felt like I just had to leave a do a "walk about" (but in the car). I just told Dionne I was going for a drive and that I did not know when I would be back. And so I just drove. I got out of the inversion. I drove towards Kiseljak (because I saw signs and I thought I could taste some of their water). But I just drove. 

There are some great winter drives in Bosnia. 

What was I doing? I was taking the time to go through the victimization process. I was convincing myself of the great lie. How I was right. How I had been abused. How I was the victim. When, in fact, I was the one that was misusing Dionne. But I had to have the time to talk myself into the lie. To self-betray.

That Saturday was a long day. We had to come to grips with a number of things. It took some time. We had to talk through everything. We both had to deal with the grand conspiracies we had built in our minds about the other. But we both emerged relatively unscathed and somewhat better than when we started. 

At the outset, we did not expect that we would have to journey to Bosnia in order to find ourselves and our marriage. Nobody told us to expect that. But we have. And we continue to. 


  1. Very impressive and insightful. Makes me think we should start having these same discussions now. Thank you.

  2. Sounds as if the mission is working out well for you two. Maybe it was the way Heavenly Father knew you both would get in touch with real feelings so you can become a stronger unit. It is important to serve others but sometimes those others are those closest to you.
    I have been thinking about things along those lines with Steve and me. We need to take our marriage to a new level and be open to each other. Bless each of you on your journey.

    1. After our 30+ years of marriage, Dionne and I have found ourselves in a place where we function but do not talk about certain things. Things that there may have been sensitivity or hurt in the past. It is hard to function in complete unity when there are things that are off limits as a companionship. It is so much harder to ignore each other when you are together 24x7. Good luck.

  3. A very open post about your experience to say the least...I was wondering what Dionne thinks about what you wrote. It would be interesting to hear her side of this.

  4. I read it over before he posted it. Not sure I agree 100% with everything but he does make some very valid points. Now everyone who thinks we have the "perfect marriage" has been enlightened. LOL!

  5. thank you for this post.