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How the Other Half Lives

Dealing with DSS (Doubting Spouse Syndrome)

The adults are standing in a cluster around the cheese and crackers, or chatting in the living room, or admiring a new painting on the study wall. The kids are chasing each other up and down the cellar stairs, screeching with excitement. You’ve met a lot of new people at this cocktail party thrown by one of your friends, but one member of the gathering is getting an extra special dose of your attention. Indeed, the scrutiny is mutual.

No, this isn’t a matchmaking in progress or a chance for some networking with a potential future employer. The object of your attention is the spouse of one of your newest flight students. And you recall the new pilot recently mentioning, dejectedly, that aviation has been something of a hard sell as far as the “other half” is concerned.

That’s right, a classic case of DSS: Doubting Spouse Syndrome. Maybe you won’t be able to work any miracles of persuasion today. But in this amiable and neutral setting, perhaps with a few of your past satisfied customers on hand for support, a CFI has a chance to get acquainted with the skeptical member of the household, dispel a few false notions, and make a reassuringly good impression.

I have found myself facing this encounter many times over the years, but with time and practice I have come to relish, rather than dread, the event. Whether it happens at a party, or a chance meeting at the mall, at the in-house cafe at the big bookstore, or some other neutral venue, the first meeting with the student pilot’s doubting spouse follows a typical pattern. Introductions are made, and I comment that it is nice to finally meet the person whom until now I have only known as a voice on the phone. The doubter is usually polite but reserved. I am, after all, possibly the single most corrupting influence on what had previously been a blessed, blissful union.

Depending on how reserved the DS (doubting spouse) is, I try to keep the conversation going with one of two follow-on inquiries: “When are you going to come for a ride with us?” Or, “Did you know that your (husband or wife) is becoming a pretty good pilot?” Can you guess which of the two questions I direct to the biggest doubters?

If you picked Question One—“When are you going to come for a ride with us?”—you were correct! Inclusion is the name of the game here; often, one reason for the doubts the DS is feeling is a sense of being left out of a new and passionate interest the other half has developed in aviation. This anxiety compounds worries about costs and safety—and often I later learn that the student wanted to extend a similar invitation but hesitated to do so out of concern that I would not have deemed it appropriate. (Answer: It is!) The invitation also sends a message that you are a confident instructor who loves to share an aviation experience and that training flights are safe and can be enjoyable for nonpilots. (Don’t pick a session of stalls or low-level maneuvers in bumps for making good on the invitation, unless you want both people angry at you afterward. Make that three people, including me). And you may find that the invitation is indeed accepted after a while. For those training in two-seaters, here are two possible alternatives, including switching over to a four-seater for a “spousal intro” flight, or sending the spouse up for a brief intro flight with the CFI in the trainer you usually fly.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here; let’s get back to the cocktail party. Fortunately, it is a natural environment for preaching aviation and for talking about your own background and how you were drawn to flying. At the same time, look for common ground in nonaviation areas with the Doubting Spouse. This goes a long way toward creating bonds and establishing trust and confidence. Is there an avocation, an academic pursuit, community activity, or other such interest you have in common? A mutual friend, perhaps?

The student pilot is obviously hoping that all the participants in this encounter will come away liking each other, or at least reassured, so usually he or she plays a facilitator’s role as the getting-to-know-you process develops. I explain how my work as a journalist led me to the local flight school, how my growing interest in flying led me to take commercial and instructor training, and how I was eventually able to combine the two interests by becoming a staff member at AOPA and later an aviation journalist and CFII. Discuss your own transformation. Since many new students are word-of-mouth referrals from past clients (many of whom have become close friends), there are sometimes other Former Doubting Spouses (FDSs) within earshot who have gone along on a training flight and can be brought into the conversation. Whether they became enthusiasts or simply came to tolerate flying (or even if they didn’t, although this is rare), give their experience a full airing. Sometimes this also leads to a discussion of Pinch Hitter training, an AOPA Air Safety Foundation course that teaches the nonflying spouse the basics of aircraft operations and control. But don’t push. Know when it’s time to switch back to that discussion of the new painting on the study wall.

How the spouse handles the opportunity to interrogate the family’s newly adopted CFI will vary from case to case. Some DSSs skate daintily around the subject, responding to direct inquiries but holding their feelings and opinions fairly closely, in some cases out of fear that their ignorance of the subject will make them appear foolish in a conversation. Others will take the Ralph Nader approach and plunge right into the debate, asking very pointed questions. Be prepared to be asked for your view of prominent aviation news stories (these days, the accident involving John F. Kennedy Jr. is sure to come up) and perhaps to hear a few horror stories about turbulent flights on airliners capped off by hard landings, etc. By all means respond in a way that shows you to be an informed member of the aviation family, and draw distinctions between general aviation and other types of aviation where appropriate. But don’t go sermonizing about subjects you can’t competently discuss. Even a novice can pick up on that!

Even now as you read, I am facing a particularly challenging case of DSS. The Doubting Spouse (in this case, the wife of a four-hour student) is in the deeply skeptical stage and has even resisted the idea of a quick pedestrian’s tour of the general-aviation section of our home airport. Although the two are both pursuing careers in the same profession, her spare-time pursuits are quite different from his. When he is out flying, you will find her at the local equestrian facilities.

Coming along on a flight, for her, is definitely out as of now. This point was made emphatically in response to Question One at the party mentioned above. Question Two brought a non-verbal response—one that can be competently analyzed only by an expert in the motions of human eyebrows. Novice that I am in such things, I interpret the response to Question Two as a skeptical, astonished, amused, resigned, and pleased reaction. As noted previously, it’s not easy being a DSS.

But now it was time to get better acquainted. Aviation aside, there was common ground, and we stumbled on it during our chat. Having grown up not too far away from each other in and near New York City, we discovered that the Doubting Spouse’s father and I attended the same high school in Riverdale, New York—so very far from where we all now live in central Maine. And since native turf is a fine topic of party conversation, we were able to leave aviation aside for now.

This was a good idea on its own merits. Besides, deep down, we both know that the aviation conversation will be resumed someday soon, because an empty seat in an airplane, like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste. Preferably the resumption will occur at the airport, with an airplane strategically placed nearby. But I’ll settle for the plumbing aisle at the hardware store or the supermarket checkout line. Your student will certainly appreciate your efforts, wherever they are applied.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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