15 years of improv (and marriage)

It’s a “welcome back” professional development icebreaker I do not like to do.

A gaggle of teachers stand nervously in loose circle in the middle of a classroom. There are a few laughs, awkward silences, and a lot of sweaty palms.

The instructor tells us how “improvisational exercises” are a great way to get to know your coworkers and ease the tension of a new school year.

No one smiles.

The instructor tells us the “rules” of improv:

  1. Make clear statements.
  2. Be open to the scene’s possibilities.
  3. There are no mistakes.
  4. Listen to your partner.

Someone checks their watch. The instructor asks for volunteers and no one volunteers.

I remember one year the instructor, a bubbly, brown-haired girl in a polka dot sundress from New York City, told us one of the golden rules of improv is letting your partner finish their sentence. “Cutting them off, topping them in conversation is improv disaster.” Listening to your fellow improviser is a quiet way to say— “ you’re appreciated.”

And now thinking about it– the rules of improve might also be the rules of marriage.

Today is June 24, 2020. Tomorrow Cindy and I will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary.

And after 15 years of marriage, my one takeaway would be– that marriage is the ultimate improv game.

Improv is challenging and embarrassing. It makes you uncomfortable, forces you to make snap decisions, and reminds you, rather awkwardly, you’re doing something for the first time and mistakes will be made.

There is no script. No director in a polka dot sundress feeding you lines. You must listen to your partner, respond to their dialogue and gestures, and be open to the scene’s possibilities.

Marriage, much like improv, is an experiment.

On stage or in the living room, things will not go as planned. Marriage is hard and people are complicated.

We do an outstanding job of hiding our vulnerabilities— fear, loneliness, and shame. And yet we’re not good at revealing parts of ourselves we don’t fully understand or are embarrassed by.

For Cindy and I, after 15 years of improv, our most demanding exercise has been the scene where the subject was my diagnosis almost 7 years ago– the one where my cerebellum is slowly degenerating.

If anything– as a couple we’ve learned to improvise, albeit unwillingly– like a “welcome back to school” icebreaker. When to laugh. When to cry. When to be honest. And when to change the subject.

At its heart, improv is playful, but as you know– sometimes life doesn’t always play nice. Your reaction to a “worse case scenario” elicits an uncensored reaction from our fellow improv partner. And so we must be on our toes–ready to react to this emotionally volley.

15 years and I know this–marriage partners are both muses and mirrors to each other. Cindy inspires me to write to you every week. She also reflects my own fears and vulnerabilities. And 7 years ago a bubbly thespian from New York City walked into the room and presented us with unfunny scene to act our way through: You’re a married couple, have three kids, and one of you was just diagnosed with a rare, progressive brain disease.

We look at each other and take a deep breath.


I clear my throat and toe the ground, “So this diagnosis sucks.”

“It certainty does.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to go about it.”

“I’ll tell you…we’re going to make the absolute best of it.”

“I think I’ll start a blog.”

“Life favors the brave.”

And the scene goes on.

Be well,


If you liked this post, you might like:

6 Pieces of “Dadvice”


Taking Notes: A Love Story


Need some encouragement? Some perspective? This hardworking, almost-handsome, suburban soccer dad can help. Subscribe and, like a pizza, get my posts delivered to your door (your email inbox). No spam. Just posts.


Jay Armstrong is a writer, blogger, speaker, and an award-winning high school English teacherDiagnosed with a rare neurological disease that resulted in a hole in his brain– Jay presses on. He hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life. For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:

1. Reading
2. Writing 
3. Exercising
4. Hearing his children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents and a beer with his friends)

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