The Tree Fell in the Forest and Only One of Us Heard It

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)

read more stories about good, effective marital communication here and here!

22 comments… add one
  • Steve

    Now I have to wonder how many fights I’ve missed all these years.

  • Jane McCarthy

    Bravo! I loved every minute of it. I am going to forward it to my husband, who will promptly read it and then immediately involve me in a day-long fight by not responding to my email.

  • My 80 year old husband is somewhat deaf, so a lot of the time he doesn’t respond to my remarks because, although he knows I’m talking, he doesn’t catch any meaning and assumes it isn’t of interest to him. I find that if he hears a word or 2 that makes him think it might be worthwhile to find out what I’m talking about he’ll say, “What did you say, Sweetie?” So if I just throw in occasional words like “Alaska” or “ice cream” I can get his attention. With other men it might be other words like “baseball” or “sexual intercourse” (“fucking” probably wouldn’t work since nobody notices that word anymore.) I suggest this technique for those whose husbands are good at tuning out.

  • Are all men that way – or just men of a certain generation? Our communication gets more hysterically funny, sad, annoying and frustrating as we both seem to be slowly losing our hearing.

  • Never give ’em the silent treatment. If they notice at all, it will be to enjoy it. Keeping talking instead. That’ll show him!

  • Sheryl

    This post really made me laugh, Ruth. The silent treatment was probably misconstrued as communication of sorts by your husband. Doesn’t make sense, but then again…

  • Craig

    Those of us in the testosterone challenged camp never expect to score well on these skirmishes. Its why we tend to say little so little can be held against us. Like that works.
    WWLD
    – what would Lyndon do

  • The only thing that ever worked with my Ex was the silent treatment. I once kept it up for a whole two weeks, but mostly I couldn’t manage. Maybe LBJ would have saved us! I’m glad you two enjoyed the movie.

  • I think the Neanderthals didn’t talk much. They just multiplied, ate, and, when they were angry, clubbed one another over the head. The person with the biggest club won.

    I delight in reading these stories, especially after meeting your Neanderthal in the flesh.

  • Won! I really do know how to spell. Really.

  • This is so funny! I bet a lot of women readers can identify. It’s harder for me to use the silent treatment with my second husband than my first because my second refuses to wear his hearing aids, so doesn’t hear what I’m saying to begin with.

  • This reminded me so much of my own marriage that I immediately forwarded it along to my husband. I so often receive silence or unintelligible grunts in response to my questions and comments. Then I get annoyed. And then I let my annoyance build. And then my husband is all, “What’s wrong? Are you mad at me for some inexplicable reason?” I don’t think it has anything to do with age. I think it’s all about gender.

  • LOL. I’m glad this happens in other marriages! Except my husand usually “badgers” me (he says he doesn’t know how) until I explode and then when he tries to be nice later, he’s absolutely shocked I’m still harboring any ill-will. Men.

  • I can have a fight with my husband when he’s not even here, I am so skilled at this technique. Of course we make up even before he gets home so he has no clue it ever happened.

  • This is hilarious probably because all of us wives can relate. I love the way you dissected the silent treatment.

  • Or just do like me and go to the movie by yourself! Sitting in a dark theater is my husband’s idea of torture, so while I’m out seeing 3 or 4 movies every week for work, he’s underneath a car, which is MY idea of torture.

  • Oh, forgot to ask whether, en passant, you worked out what was the sound of one hand clapping.

  • Cindy A

    My husband used to deliver the silent treatment 20 years ago. He discovered that I enjoyed the quiet and that it did not bother me one little bit. But being silent bothered HIM a lot, so it wasn’t a very effective way of achieving his goal of punishing me…

    It sounds like you were having a similar experience!

  • Love that title. I think you’re onto something, though, that this happens more often than we know. We only know it when we are the knower, not the one who “should have known!”

  • If a fight falls in the forest….

  • I used to be the master of silent treatment until my husband figured out how to do it even better than I can. I wonder how often this happens not just in marriages, but in families, friendships too…

  • How many other one-sided “fights” were playing out around the world in a similar manner on the same day, I wonder? The silent treatment speaks all languages, methinks.

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