Love Makes the World Go 'Round: Spouses Meeting on the Internet

by Tobe (UK) and Chris (US), and Paul Goldstein (US) and Liv Marit Dalen (Norway)

The following short papers tell the stories of how some people who stutter met on the internet and fell in love.

You can post Questions/comments to the following authors before October 22, 2002.

Paul Goldstein and Liv Marit Dalen

Paul Goldstein, a pianist and composer with more years of doctoral-level music studies than he can remember, has performed in many locations in Massachusetts, Chicago, and Norway. He also is a person who stutters, and with a professional education in speech-language pathology, has frequently found himself on different sides of the "stuttering therapy table". It is often said that persons who stutter should challenge themselves to expand their horizons - and Paul certainly did just that in September 2000, when at the age of 46 he moved to Norway and ended his long bachelorhood ten days later.

Liv Marit Dalen, a Norwegian native, is a teacher in many senses of the word: She teaches an elementary school class full-time, teaches Norwegian at a high school and as a second language to foreign oil industry experts , and teaches English to adults. (In addition she recently taught English for two years in Lithuania.) A fluent speaker of many languages, Liv is also an accomplished artist and sings in a local chorus. She has three adult children, but is still waiting to be a grandmother.

Tobe Richards and ChrisBadgett-Richards

Toby Richards is a 41-year-old graphic designer, typographer and writer from Bristol in the U.K. He studied exhibition and museum design at college for four years and has written theatre reviews for the German theatre magazine, Das Musical. In his spare time he likes to play the guitar, piano, banjo, bouzouki and varying other musical instruments. In the 1980's he was the lead vocalist with a local group called The Transit Band and has written around 400 songs. He's also an obsessive collector of anything and everything from reference books to teddy bears. Tobe has stuttered from the age of four and has tried various therapies including slow prolonged speech, hypnotherapy and the Edinburgh Masker, none of which made an appreciable difference to his fluency. Since getting involved with the stuttering community he has largely come to terms with his speech and is no longer allowing it to take over his life. In July of 2002 he married his fianc»e, Chris, who he met through the online support group, Stuttering Chat.

Christine Badgett-Richards has been working toward a degree in special education (with an emphasis in learning disabilities) for several years. She is originally from St. Louis Missouri, and moved to Bristol, England in April 2002. She is a covert stutterer. She has a keen interest in hedgehogs and wildlife preservation in general. Her interest also extends to collecting anything hedgehog related. She enjoys watercolour painting, music, photography, interior design and swimming. Chris is especially interested in collecting and researching children's literature, and hopes to write and illustrate a series of children's books in the near future.

A Love Story

Liv and I met through a website quite by chance; neither of us was particularly looking for a mate at the time. We also met through a chain of remarkable coincidental occurrences.

Before we knew of each other, both of us experienced major disappointments in life in September 1999 - temporary setbacks which eventually led to our union. I had been hired as a speech pathology Clinical Fellow in the town of Dracut, Mass., but within a week of starting work, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) ordered me fired on the grounds that I had taken too long to find this required clinical fellowship position. (I had been turned down from many potential positions, due largely - I think - to severe stuttering during interviews.) At about the same time, Liv had applied for a new higher-paying teaching position, and had been led to believe that this job would be hers. But she was unexpectedly turned down for some reason, and had to remain teaching in the same school system where she was.

These events, occurring separately in our lives, seemed very negative and frustrating at the time to each of us, but in retrospect they seemed to serve a higher purpose. In October 1999, a friend of mine in Colorado who runs a firm producing electronic devices for stuttering and a number of stuttering-related websites hired me to assist him in cyberspace with his business interests and websites. This was a direct result of my firing from the Dracut school system - he wanted to create a position for me as his response to what he (and I) considered to be an unjust ASHA action. In exchange for work for his firm, he bought me a computer - and for the first time, I was brought into the modern world of the Internet and Web, and also for the first time had my own E-mail. Also in October 1999, the school system in which Liv had to remain distributed personal computers to all its teachers. For the first time, Liv was brought into the modern world of the Internet and Web, and also for the first time had her own E-mail. (Notice that if I hadn't been ordered fired, or if Liv had obtained the new teaching position, we wouldn't have met.)

A few months later (in December 1999) my Colorado friend launched a new website (the Friendship Center) which was primarily designed to create cyberspace friendships for and among people with various disabilities. This was an expansion of an earlier website that had been created as a vehicle to promote stuttering penpals; as a result about 95% of the initial users of the new site were people who stutter. To help my friend launch his new site, I posted there an ad about myself. I wasn't looking for a mate - I was simply interested in corresponding by E-mail with people interested in the problem of stuttering, regardless of gender or age.

Liv doesn't stutter, and in fact is a fluent speaker of many languages, and has never studied speech pathology. But she has always had a mysterious fascination with the problem of stuttering, and has felt special attraction towards people who stutter since childhood. Before the end of 1999 she had found the Friendship Center by searching for stuttering-related websites.

In mid-January 2000 Liv responded to my Friendship Center ad with a little friendly note, wishing me a happy New Year "from cold Norway", and recommended that I visit a particular website associated with a popular European stuttering therapy program. She told me later that from a reading of my ad and learning some of my life's problems, she thought I was a man in need of a little love.

To me this was an intriguing note, coming from such a far-away exotic land as Norway. Until then my only knowledge of Norway had been what I had remembered from my fourth-grade geography - that it was a cold land in Scandinavia someplace with a lot of fjords. Within a week, in the middle of a bitter cold spell in Worcester, I sent a reply to Liv, telling her that "I bet it's at least as cold here in central Massachusetts, where I live, as it is up there in Norway." (Worcester that week had hit lows of -9 degrees F. air temperature and -51 F. wind chill, which gave me something interesting to talk about.)

This was the start of our almost daily E-mail communication with each other. We began telling each other our life stories; our letters gradually became more detailed with increasing warmth, and as we saw more and more how our lives seemed to fit well together, we began to feel a very special kinship with each other.

Within a month this kinship had grown into love. In February we exchanged pictures by snail mail packages, and had our first phone call. Before the end of the month, one of us had proposed marriage to the other, but the other wanted to wait until we met in person.

By late April 2000, we had been in communication for about three months. At that point Liv flew to the U.S. to meet me; we saw each other in person for the first time at the airport in Newark, New Jersey (where we attended a stuttering symposium together).

On May 5, 2000, there was a remarkable astronomic event in the heavens - seven planets including the Earth, along with the sun and moon, all converged into the same line of sight - an incredible interplanetary alignment that comes along only once in several centuries. On that day also, Liv and I became engaged in Worcester, Mass., looking at the heavens above as we exchanged rings near Holden Reservoir.

We spent all of July and part of August together in the United States, and travelled throughout New England, to Chicago, Niagara Falls, and along the eastern seaboard.

In early September I moved to Norway. We were married in Bergen City Hall on Sept. 22, 2000, and our one-time E-mail "virtual romance" had become a permanent reality.

Yes, dreams can certainly come true with the help of the Internet. We know for a fact from our own experiences that the Web can snatch and ensnare the ideal lovemate of your heart's desire.


Tobe's Story

As a late convert to the wonders of the internet in July of 2000, I was still trying to make sense of the sheer scale of this new toy I had at my fingertips. At first I was simply having fun typing a word into one of the search engines and seeing what came up. I think I must have covered every subject under the sun other than the one that's closest to home - stuttering! Now this may seem a little bizarre to anybody reading this, but I was pretty much in denial about the whole thing even though it impacted on every area of my life. I was thirty nine years old and had more or less given up believing I'd ever meet anyone, or for that matter, break out of the negative existence I'd been living for the last ten or more years since moving away from London. The move away from the capital wasn't as painful as it might have been a number of years before, as most of my family and friends had long since left the area and so we upped sticks and moved west to Bristol, where we had a number of relatives and schoolfriends of my mother.

To say the next few years were uneventful would be an understatement. My life consisted of work (I'm a self employed graphic designer and typographer) and avoidance on a major scale. I wouldn't get on a bus, ask for anything in a shop, let alone contemplate going out on a date - it might involve actually speaking to someone! So I created a safe little world for myself which involved as little human contact as possible. The internet became my hobby and my life, which I know worried my parents greatly as they couldn't see how I'd ever break this cycle and actually make human contact. If my memory serves me correctly, it was one of those typical rainy Sundays which we get with startling regularity in the U.K. and I was looking for something to do online. Having already exhausted every category under the sun from box girder bridges to the lifespan of the fruit bat, I decided to type in that word that should only be mentioned under the breath, if at all - stuttering. To my surprise, up came websites in their thousands. One that for some reason or other took my fancy - a group called Stuttering Chat. It sounded rather fun and not the serious subject I associated with therapy sessions and earnest research papers I expected to find.

Well, to cut a long story short, I joined this Yahoo Group and for the first six months or so, read the occasional post but didn't really get that heavily involved. My memory is rather cloudy about this, but I think I wrote a couple of emails to Jon Bashor, the then owner and chief moderator of the group. At about the same time I also joined the Friendship Center and was very surprised when I received an interesting email from a lovely young lady called Julia. After much persuading she managed to talk me into using the voice option with her on one of the messenger services. This was a huge step as I was a serial telephone avoider and hated the idea of anyone hearing me stutter. After many hours of chatting online with Julia, I introduced her to Stuttering Chat. The next thing I heard from her was that she'd joined the chatroom. For me, the word chatroom and stutter had nothing in common whatsoever, so it was with great trepidation that I signed up too, just to show Julia I wasn't the human personification of a chicken - hardly the best reason to join I know, but there we are. At first I only text chatted, but this was wonderful as I was finally talking to people who understood what it was like to live in a fluent world with a stutter. Anyhow, after a while I plucked up the courage to use the mic - I was petrified and was literally soaked through with sweat after my first struggling effort.

As the weeks went on, it got a lot easier, not in terms of fluency but as far as the fear of speaking went and then one day in late March a new member appeared in the room - 'Christymar66' (Christy Badgett) from St Louis, Missouri!! We ended up chatting for a while both over the mic and in text and found we had a number of things in common including losing a parent in early January of 2001. After swapping emails and spending hours every evening chatting online, I eventually plucked up the courage to say something about how I was feeling something more than friendship for her - I can't remember how I phrased it exactly as I was so worried I might be reading something into the friendship that wasn't actually there. I think Chris's response was probably only a matter of a few seconds, but it felt like the wait of a condemned prisoner in the dock waiting for sentence to be passed. I really couldn't believe it when she wrote back and said that she was feeling the same way but had been too nervous to say anything, for the same reason. Suddenly I had a girlfriend, albeit long distance, and someone I'd never actually met. Again, this might seem a little odd to be so sure about someone without ever having actually met them in the flesh, but I was and after much persuading, decided to brave the NSA Convention in Boston 2001. Fortunately, I wasn't going to be travelling alone as my good friend, Mario from Belgium was going to his first event as well. Naturally, just to make things more 'exciting' (euphemism for nerve jangling!), the flight was four hours late, so poor Chris was waiting to meet me at Logan International Airport - I really can't imagine what was going though her mind at this point. Finally, all those hours later the Virgin Atlantic plane touched down and I was feeling very nervous about what Chris might actually think of me. Eventually we got through customs and after what seemed like hours waiting for my luggage to come round on the carousel, we made our way through the arrivals door and there was Chris, s tanding there with the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen. I stopped for a second while she took my picture and then it was just like Heathcliffe and Cathy from Wuthering Heights - ok, I'm getting corny here, but it was easily the most exciting and emotional time of my life.

Literally, from the moment we met it felt like we'd known each other our whole lives. The Convention felt more like a holiday and we knew we had to spend the rest of lives together. Saying a temporary goodbye on the final night after banquet was the most emotionally difficult thing I've ever experienced and try as we might it was impossible to keep the tears at bay. But the next month Chris bravely made her first overseas trip and stayed with us for getting on for two solid months, as it wasn't safe for her to return home on her scheduled flight after the events of September 11th. During her stay here, we had a wonderful time visiting different places and also attending the BSA Conference in Liverpool where we met some of our online friends for the first time. Again, the goodbye at the end was so hard, I had to walk away from the departure gates and not look back or I think I'd have upset Chris even more. Being separated twice was almost too much.

During our enforced separation we started to prepare for Chris to move to England and originally expected the whole process to take a matter of weeks - were we in for a surprise! After filling in every form under the sun and visiting embassies, legal people and waiting for everything to be processed, Chris arrived on April 9th. I think we were both physically and mentally exhausted by this stage and it took us both a little while to fully recover, but we were finally together. Even though the engagement had already been loosely talked about, I still hadn't proposed and it took me weeks to finally pop the question on our way home from one of our long walks together. I didn't think I would be, but I was very nervous and finally blurted out something like "will you marry me?" - thank goodness Chris didn't add to the torture and keep me waiting for an answer. I think she must have been too tired after the walk to turn me down - what a master stroke!!!

Anyhow, on July 20th we were married at Bristol Register Office at an interestingly named place called Quakers Friars. Somebody smiled on us that day as the weather was really beautiful and the ceremony surprisingly touching and intimate for a civil occasion. Even though I stumbled a little on my vows and to much hilarity offered the wrong hand forward to receive the ring, it was a lovely ceremony and we were both so glad we decided to have the event videotaped by our good friend Bry. Actually, I just thrust the camcorder into his hands and he calmly took the whole thing in his stride! Our witnesses on the day were our close friends Alan and Gina who we first met online at Stuttering Chat - somehow having two fellow stutterers there supporting us meant that much more.

We're flying to St. Louis, Chris's home town in October to see her family and friends for the first time which I'm both looking forward to and at the same time, feeling slightly apprehensive about. One thing that has helped me though and I believe Chris too, is trying to live by that much used Susan Jeffers quote about "feel the fear and do it anyway" - she sent me those few words through the mail shortly after we first met online and they got me through Boston, the marriage ceremony and dozens of other situations. In a nutshell, the minute I stopped hiding was the minute I started living. As a couple, we now share everything and if one of us has a bad speech or confidence day, the other is always there to help out which is an ideal situation for us anyway. To say Chris has changed my life and my outlook on life would be understating it. Sometimes I just can't believe the series of events that have led to where we are today. I think there must have been a 'Clarence' looking after us somewhere along the line!! (you need to see It's a Wonderful Life to understand that one) - if not we were just lucky to both be in the right place at exactly the right time.

Chris's Story

It's amazing, the seemingly little things that have the power to change a person's life forever. For me, it was the internet, which led to the discovery of a worldwide community of kindred spirits, whose common bond is stuttering.

At 34, I had begun to think I was destined to live a somewhat lonely life. This was not because of the stuttering itself, but because I'd isolated myself from the social world for so long that I couldn't see myself being able to change. Although I'd been outgoing as a young child, by the end of first grade I had started to withdraw socially at school. I could be reasonably fluent at home, but in class, in the lunchroom, and on the playground, I struggled. I remember being too embarrassed to tell anyone I was being bullied at school, and the reason why. It was probably around that time that I began to develop a social phobia that stayed with me to varying degrees for many years. This fear eventually spilled over into other areas of my life. I spent most of my teenage years dreading and avoiding the social occasions most teenagers look forward to - parties, dating, school events, chatting on the phone, going to the mall. The friends I did have eventually stopped asking me to do things with them, as they knew the answer would almost always be "no". As much as I liked people, I just couldn't get beyond the anxiety and fear enough to participate in social situations.Whenever I went for walks and saw couples walking hand in hand, and families playing games on their lawns, I would wish for those things for the future while at the same time, thinking "that can never be me." It turned out that someone else had been thinking virtually the same thing as he went for his solitary walks on the other side of the 'big pond'.

Like so many covert stutterers, I had often been able to sound fluent by substituting words, speaking softly, pretending to have forgotten a word when I was actually in a block, and generally avoiding situations where I might stutter. As I didn't have the typical disfluencies that most people think of as stuttering ( I usually have complete blocks rather than repetitions) and because I hid it reasonably well, I didn't receive any therapy until I was in my early thirties, when my mother became ill with cancer. During the last couple of years of her illness, it had become increasingly difficult to speak with her doctors, take care of business and legal affairs, and even speak to family and friends without having stuttering blocks.

Stuttering often presents us with paradoxes, as our goals and dreams so often seem at odds with what our speech will allow. This realization became very clear to me a little over a year ago, as I sat at home, typing a paper for a class I'd been taking in preparation for student teaching. I was in the the last semester of the teacher education program at the local university when the reality of the career choice I had made suddenly hit home. Although I had always had a strong interest in education, and enjoyed working with children, I was about to come face to face with my biggest fear-speaking in front of people. Up to that point, I had convinced myself that if I could just get through student teaching, I could get into an area of education that would benefit children with special needs, but where I wouldn't have to teach in a large classroom setting, speak at school board meetings, telephone parents, etc. I had been using a DAF device, which helped me get through some speaking situations at school, but since I had mostly silent blocks, it wasn't as helpful as I'd hoped it would be. The very thought of going for a job interview filled me with an almost paralyzing fear.

That evening, as I sat there contemplating alternative career choices and wondering why on earth I'd chosen to study a profession I was now certain I'd never be able to enter, I found myself typing "stuttering" into a search engine. There was Stutteringchat. It sounded intriguing. When I came into the chat room for the first time, I was welcomed by a friendly group of people. This was a place where one could afford to take speaking risks without worrying about fluency, and where people were having fun with words (both in text and voice) instead of fearing them. Despite coming from such diverse cultures and backgrounds, we all seemed to have things in common that went beyond stuttering. Often, our conversations had nothing to do with stuttering, because we found we had so many other common interests. People could read poetry, sing, have trivia quizzes or just relax in an atmosphere of complete acceptance.

This was the very first time I'd been in a chatroom, and I wasn't quite sure how it all worked, so was quite surprised to hear voices coming through the speakers. One voice, in particular, stood out: "Tagrich1961" (Toby Richards). The first time I heard him speak, my heart felt as if it had skipped a beat. It was that immediate. I think I knew then and there that this person with the melodious voice, British accent, and infectious sense of humour was someone very special indeed. We talked quite a bit in the chatroom, and then began e-mailing each other. A few weeks later, we were chatting every day for hours at a time on instant messenger. It turned out that we had many similar interests, especially in music and books. Within a few weeks, Tobe had become much more than a kindred spirit and friend. He was a soulmate. In many ways, I felt closer to him than I'd ever felt to anyone in my life. Geographically, however, we were half a world apart. He lived on the other side of the Atlantic, in Bristol, England.

The other night I was going through some old papers, and came across one of Tobe's first e-mails to me, which read "I'd have loved to have come to Boston for the convention but maybe it's come a little too soon to talk myself into plucking up the courage to get on that plane. When I don't do things like that, I get a little down on myself for missing great opportunities, but hopefully I will find the courage to do more of these things in the near future." A few weeks later, Tobe flew to Boston to attend the National Stuttering Association conference with me. I can't describe the wave of emotion I felt, seeing him in person. Until that moment, it had all seemed like a dream. The reality was even better! Tobe's willingness to jump feet first into some very nervewracking and daunting situations (going to two huge unfamiliar airports, speaking to immigration officials, checking in at the hotel - not to mention being in a foreign country for the first time) changed both our lives.We were married on July 20th, and are off to London in a few days to attend our second BSA conference and visit with our friends from Stutteringchat.

I remember a conversation I had with my father just before my mother died, when he said "When one door closes, another one opens-you just have to look for it". At the time, I dismissed those words as nothing more than a clich». They were well intended, but not applicable to my life. When we were getting ready to say goodbye as I packed my suitcases for England, Dad's words came back to me and I reminded him of that converstaion that had taken place over a year ago. "Remember when you said when one door closes, another one opens?" "Yes" he replied, "but I bet you never expected it to open quite so wide".

Today, Tobe and I approach life as a team. Tobe's naturally outgoing personality and sense of humour have taught me to enjoy life as it comes and to take things a little less seriously than I did in the past. Now that I've stopped putting so much energy into hiding my stutter, I'm sometimes less fluent, but more relaxed. And a lot happier. It sounds paradoxical, but then stuttering is just that.

The night before I left to go back to St. Louis (for what turned out to be nearly six months) Tobe sat down at the piano and sang one of his favorite songs for me, called "Just One Person" from the musical Snoopy (by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady):

"If just one person believes in you, deep enough and strong enough, believes in you... before you knew it, someone else would think, 'if he can do it, I can do it', making it two...and when all those people believe in you... it stands to reason you yourself would start to see what everybody sees in you, and maybe even you, can believe in you too".

The lyrics sum up not only our relationship as a couple, but also the friendships we have made through Stutteringchat, the NSA, and FRIENDS, all of which we probably never would have known had we not typed the simple word "stuttering" into a search engine. Stuttering-a word many of us have come to associate with pain, indignity, frustration and isolation- has given us one another, as well as cherished friends and the self-confidence to take part fully in life for the first time in our lives.

You can post Questions/comments to any or all of the authors before October 22, 2002.