Diary of a Marriage: The Silent Treatment

Normally, when J. goes mute around his parents, I pick up the slack. Not this time.

Polka Dot

At 11:30 in the morning this past Sunday, I was in a living room in Bucks County, seated on one of the twenty or so folding chairs that were arranged in a U around a giant TV screen. My mother-in-law was next to me, blotting her face with a napkin.

We were at the bridal shower for Aubrey, who is engaged to our friend Andrew, whom J. has known since grade school. As I mentioned last week, Aubrey lives in the Philippines, so she was participating in the festivities via Skype, hence the awkward, TV-centric seating arrangement. We’d reached a plodding rhythm: Aubrey’s sister, who lives in New Jersey, methodically opened a gift, held it up to the TV screen so Aubrey could see it, and then we’d all coo knowingly: Oh, yes, you’ll never know how you lived without the OXO can opener!

I desperately wanted a third cup of coffee but didn’t want to block Aubrey’s view of her new blender, which her sister was now holding out in a way that reminded me vaguely of the opening scene in The Lion King, where the baboon dramatically presents Simba on the cliff. So I sat there and clapped and wondered how mortified Aubrey would be if she knew that her head was currently blown up to movie-theater-size proportions in front of a roomful of near strangers.

After a very long while, we plowed through the mountain of gifts. Before long, people cleared out for the buffet line, leaving Aubrey watching an empty room at her very own bridal shower. So I awkwardly pulled a chair to the center of the room, sat down and introduced myself. What followed was a rather bumpy conversation—thanks to a bit of a language barrier, a weird echo, and a slight delay—about her dress, her wedding-day hair, and how she was feeling about moving here once her Visa cleared. I overcompensated for the near-empty room; I squealed and clapped and told her about 39 times how much I couldn’t wait to meet her. What we lacked in commonality, I made up for in sheer excitement. Still, by the end of the exchange, I was exhausted and Aubrey probably thought I was on speed.

After another hour of conversation with fellow guests, J.’s mom and I left. She needed more air-conditioning and I needed a nap. The shower had been lovely, but I was sapped of all excitement. But we were only halfway through the day: It was time for J.’s dad’s birthday lunch.

The four of us piled in my car, drove to the restaurant, and filed around a table. At least J. was there, I thought. He’d be able to carry the conversation for a while, and I could finally relax.

It was at precisely this moment that my husband became a mute.

This is something that happens when we get together with his parents. J., who is normally funny and charming and talkative, seems to forget how to speak. It’s infuriating.

I shot him sideways glances throughout the lunch. He raised his eyebrows, blissfully unaware that my slitted eyes meant: “I have been schmoozing for five hours. For the love of all that is holy, say something.”

But he didn’t really say anything, and by the end of the lunch, I’d been making conversation and clapping in celebration for five hours. I was spent. I had no more excitement left. And there was J., fresh as a daisy, voice probably still croaky with sleep since it seemed that he hadn’t really uttered a word all day.

When his parents invited us back to their house for cake, I knew I had to do something. I grabbed J. on the way in.

“I’m tapping out,” I said.

He was confused. Somehow, my anger signals hadn’t translated during lunch.

I’m. Tapping. Out,” I said again. I was too tired to explain why I was angry, to spell out my frustration at the way he morphed into a petulant, silent child around his folks. So I simply opened the door and walked in, turning around once to hiss at him forebodingly:

“Say something!!!!!!”

Other friends have similar problems. For some reason, it seems putting some men in front of their parents renders them weird speechless alien creatures, devoid of personality. My dad is the same way in front of his parents. Even now, my mother has to dial the phone and then press it to his ear to get him to call his dad. It must be some weird psychological man thing, like how most men are physically incapable of putting down the toilet seat.

As we sat in J.’s parents’ dining room, eating cake, the conversation reached a lull. I was tempted to speak up and fill the silence, but I didn’t. As long and awkward as this pause was, I refused to speak. I squirmed a bit in my seat but held firm. Maybe I was the one who had the problem. Maybe other people were comfortable with silence, and I was the girl who wouldn’t shut up. And then, it happened:

“So, I got my exam schedule for the end of the school year…”

J. had spoken. His parents, not used to him offering up information so readily, pounced on him, peppering him with questions. This conversation would last a while. So I slouched in my seat, licked my lips, and took a huge bite of cake.

Do the two of you play different roles when it comes to dealing with your parents? Is it something that sometimes causes conflict?

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