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The Silent Partner : When It Comes to Bridging the Communication Gap, Some Men Are Willing to Let Women Do All the Talking

June 04, 1989|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman is a contributing editor of this magazine.

CAN WE TALK? I'm rarely at a loss for words. As far as I'm concerned, talking is a natural biological function, like breathing--I do it all the time. Yet, my husband can hold his breath for hours, even days at a time.

The silence seems deafening. "Is something bothering you?" I ask, even though I realize that trying to pull words from the mouth of a man in the midst of a mute spell is as pointless as trying to make a telephone call when the line is dead.

Duke shakes his head. "Uh uh," he mutters.

Unfortunately, talking is like tennis. You need two people to play. "It's a big problem in a lot of marriages," says Marcia Lasswell, a Claremont family therapist, who adds that the quiet one is usually the man.

Why? "Men have an easier time being silent than women," she explains. "Silence is almost a macho characteristic. Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper--they don't say many words, they're all action. The strong, silent type is a masculine myth. But women get very frustrated."

Yup. My friend Mary was once married to a man of few words. "Not only didn't he speak, but when I did, he said, 'Shh!' " she recalls. "He wouldn't answer things like, 'Let's buy a house' or 'What did you think of that movie?' I tried notes, I tried signal flags; he wouldn't answer. Once, after a prolonged period of his not talking, I went outside the house and rang the bell. He opened the door and asked, 'Where have you been?'

"At first, I thought all that silence meant that he knew the secret of the universe and that in time he would impart it to me," Mary says. "But when it was not forthcoming, I began to think that if I killed him slowly, at least he'd say something like 'Ouch' or 'Stop it.' "

Nope. Threats won't make him talk. In such extreme cases, "it's like trying to force someone who isn't coordinated physically to dance," Lasswell says. "These really silent types are basically shy. Somewhere along the line, they learned that speaking up didn't get them anywhere."

Shutting up doesn't get them anywhere either. "I had a couple where the man was so nonverbal that he really had a terrible time," Lasswell recalls. "His wife yearned to hear the words 'I love you,' and he just couldn't get it out. So, we practiced and practiced. I told her to say it first so that he would feel safe. So she turned to him and said, 'I love you.' And he said, 'Ditto.' "

Recently, starved for conversation, I called my friend Claire. "I'm trapped in the Silent Zone," I said with a sigh.

"He must be angry," Claire concluded. "Fred always clams up when he's absolutely furious. I figure it's just as well, because if he said something, it would be something that I didn't want to hear."

"Duke's not mad," I assured her. (It's easy to tell when a quiet man is mad. He storms into the house, slams the door and hits the wall, and when you ask what's wrong, he snaps, "Nothing.") "He's just not speaking."

"I'd go insane," Claire said. "I'd send myself into a busy little circle wondering why he isn't talking. Pretty soon, I would start tossing plates around."

We don't have that many dishes. Besides, "you shouldn't take the silence personally," Lasswell insists. "You've got to remember that he didn't just start being silent when he married you."

Don't I know it. After a year of dating, I still didn't know where Duke went to high school. It's not that he conceals anything. He just doesn't go out of his way to reveal it.

Some day, I expect to find a ticket to Stockholm lying on the dresser. "What's this?" I'll ask. After 10 minutes of cross-examination, he'll reluctantly inform me that he's won the Nobel Prize.

Now, if I ever won, I'd tell everyone in the city in a matter of seconds. So would my friend Jane, another life of the party, who's been married to a taciturn man for 37 years. She's still trying to adjust. "You can't out-silence them," Jane marvels. "Things come up in this world like 'Hello' or 'The house is on fire.' You've just got to teach them that it's important to say, 'I'm home' when they walk through the door so you don't have to worry it's a robber."

I suspect that it's easier to teach a dog to "speak." My friend Monica agrees. "Jack can go through an entire family outing without saying a thing," she laments. "But it makes me very nervous. So the last time we went to my parents' for dinner, I asked him to please try to act interested. He said, 'I can't. I don't relate.' I said, 'Just try to say something to do with something they're talking about,' and he replied, 'I've got to be me.' Finally, I asked, 'Could you at least lean forward when they're talking?' "

Sometimes I feel guilty for talking more than my mate. But someone has to shoulder the conversational burden. "I suppose the worst thing for a man who doesn't talk would be a woman who doesn't either," Jane says. "He'd go crazy."

Experts agree. "I enjoy someone who's pretty much of a brass band more than someone who's just a flute," declares Glen Esterly, co-author of "The Talk Book: The Intimate Science of Communicating in Close Relationships." Esterly, a self-described "silent man in a state of flux," admits: "An extrovert takes away the pressure to avoid what's referred to as awkward silence. If I'm going through quiet periods and I'm with a quiet woman, there's a lot of dead air time. I'm not uncomfortable with the silence, but most people are."

Yup. Duke is lying in bed, reading about irregular Spanish verbs. "Soon, he'll be able to be silent as fluently in Spanish as he is in English," I think. "Buenas noches," I say, giving him a kiss.

"Mi charladorita," Duke says fondly. "My little chatterbox."

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