I think we have already established the rule that good, effective communication leads to a good, effective marriage. Or, anyway, it helps limit bloodshed and untidy spats and messy barroom brawls with the person you promised you would love and honor forever, even if you were kind of young and naive and forever sounded a lot like, let’s say, next week.
Anyway, at our house, you can forget passive-aggressive hints, deep-six the exchange of quietly murderous glances, exorcise those under-the-table kicks and bloodied knees. We believe in open, honest communication!
Which is why a recent Saturday afternoon at our house was so weird. I mean, admittedly, I had drunk a swimming-pool size vat of coffee while reading the newspaper — and being over-caffeinated and overly well-informed does tend to make me a little too chatty and strongly opinionated — but, still: I had repeatedly aired some really, really great ideas about upcoming movies my husband and I definitely needed to see and shouldn’t I go ahead and reserve tickets and wasn’t it all going to be great, great fun?
And what had I gotten in return?
To be precise, a series of inarticulate semi-syllables and grunts.
I went on, undaunted. More ideas, more enthusiasm, more culture, bigger and better plans! An avalanche, a razzle-dazzle parade, a veritable profusion of four-star genius plans. All delivered with great force and conviction, all answered by —
More of the same — long silences, incoherent mumbling. If you call that “answered.” Which I do not.
Well! I’d delivered just about all the bloody-but-unbowed comebacks I could muster. Enough of that. It was time to take inaction. I hauled out the big guns: Namely, the silent treatment. (Which many might confuse with being passive-aggressive, but I am very pro-active when it comes to the silent treatment.)
So, I sat. I read the rest of the newspaper. Finished with it, I turned to the third volume of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, which is Master of the Senate. That particular volume is 1,100 pages long and quite good; I highly recommend it as an aid the next time you give somebody the silent treatment. If necessary, you could go on for years reading it. That, or — since the book weighs as much as a load of bricks — it could also be used as a weapon, if necessary, since the silent treatment occasionally needs to be backed up by physical force.
I read. And read and read and read. Time passed. I read more. The tension built, which is what happens when you wield the silent treatment with conviction. While I was reading, I conducted little one-way conversations that included psychological assessments such as, “You’re an asshole!” and “You’re a Neanderthal!” and battle summaries like, “Well, this tension is killing me. But I’ll show you! I’m not going to be the first one to talk. Fuck you!” (This is the kind of conversation that could be called tete-a-tete, even if there’s just one tete involved.)
Silence reigned. I didn’t even clear my throat, since that might have been construed as surrender. No, I was sticking to my guns, even if it was killing me — all that tension, all that festering ill will.
After a couple of hours of this extreme emotional torture, my husband asked when we were going to a movie. He spoke in a normal voice — innocent, upbeat. You know, that kind of mindfuck mentality men sometimes try to pull on you.
I mentioned it was nice he was speaking to me, since we’d been silently feuding for a couple of hours. He was shocked — shocked. What fight? What on earth was I talking about? Was I really serious? We’d been having a fight? Really?
I reminded him of what an asshole he’d been, practically ignoring all my brilliant ideas, responding like a Neanderthal. He shook his head and shrugged. A fight — really? Yes, really, I said.
Later, he told me he’d been immersed in reading about the invention of the wheel and how it really worked, trying to figure out whether he could replicate it under dire circumstances (i.e., the total annihilation of civilization). He still wasn’t sure he understood, precisely, how it worked.
We went to the movie — Ruby Sparks — which turned out to be the beguiling story of a writer who invents his dream girl in a book. Then the dream girl appears in the flesh and begins to complicate his life, since perfection isn’t all that interesting or attainable or human.
All of which leads me to think that I write both fiction and nonfiction myself, but the nonfiction is far more bizarre. I couldn’t make up a story about a couple who’d been together for four decades and had a fight one Saturday afternoon that only one of them was aware of, since the other was busily researching the provenance of the fucking wheel.
Also, I’m sure the Neanderthals were a great group of people and made many contributions to life on our spinning little planet and I shouldn’t disparage them. But I looked it up — and they didn’t invent the wheel. I also bet they were pretty shitty at good, effective communication.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)