Diary of a Marriage: The Comfortable Silence

When it comes to keeping up conversation in a marriage, is silence really golden?


J. and I were sitting in a restaurant a few weeks ago. We’d both ordered our food and we sat quietly sipping our drinks. We were settled in a companionable silence, but still, it was a silence nonetheless. I threw a glance around the dining room and I noticed exactly what I was afraid of noticing: other couples happily chatting. I looked back at J. and began mentally ticking off our list of topics: We’d discussed work, friends, friends of friends, my family, his family, sports, the election (but only as it relates to my relationship with my staunchly Republican parents), celebrity news, how we’ll raise the kids we don’t want yet, finances (but only as it relates to my shopping habit), and vacation plans. There was exactly nothing left to say.

The silence started to feel heavy. I could feel the glare of a thousand smug suburban couples staring at us, leaning in to one another and whispering, “Look at that couple. So young, and they have nothing to say to each other. I bet they’ll be separated by the time their kids are in kindergarten.”

“I feel like we should be discussing world events,” I announced, almost like I had a gavel in my hand: Intelligent dinner conversation is now in session! J. raised his eyebrows. “I mean, I think we need to talk talk,” I explained.  He shrugged; I plodded on. “Let’s talk about the environment. Do you think by the time we’re 75 we’ll no longer have real winters? I mean, this weather has been unseasonably warm. I wonder what our carbon footprint is. Maybe we should compost?”

J. seemed bored with the direction of the conversation and, frankly, I was a little bored, too. It was Friday night and I had no real intention of spending the weekend composting. Still, we weren’t talking and it was starting to concern me. There was an elderly couple chattering across the room from us. I started to get annoyed. What on earth were they talking about?

Our food came, so we mindlessly talked about that for a few minutes: “Yours good?” “Yeah, yours?” “Yeah. Want to try mine?” “That’s okay. You want a bite of mine?” “No, thanks.” Then we resumed our non-talking.

I wonder if, after you’ve been together for a certain amount of time, you just simply run out of things to say.

“We talk about world events,” a friend said when I asked her whether or not she ever ran out of things to say to her husband of a year and a half. “And that’s obviously always changing, so, no, we always have things to discuss.” Crap. Not the answer I was looking for. I guess I’ll have to study up on the situation in Darfur before dinner tonight.

Mercifully, another friend commiserated with me. “We run out of things to talk about all the time,” she said. I started to think that maybe J. and I weren’t heading for a lifetime of mute coexistence. “We joke that people who sit next to us in restaurants must think we’re on a bad first date,” she continued, noting that it was actually nice, though, to not have to fill all the silence all the time.

Comfortable silence is good, provided, of course, that’s you’re actually comfortable with it. Perhaps I’m neurotic, but I feel like if we’re not talking about something, anything, we’re letting ourselves lazily slide down a slippery slope: First it’s a quiet coffee date, then we’re reading separate sections of the paper at Morimoto. I started to measure our life in hours we have to fill with chatter. It seemed so daunting. And also, so much work. My job is finding words to tell stories; sometimes, I just use them all up by the time I get home. Sometimes there isn’t anything to say, and sometimes I just don’t feel like saying it.

Last night, I rode the train home with a gaggle of white-haired ladies. One wore a colorful beaded necklace, another had a pink sweater embroidered with flowers wrapped around her shoulders, and the last lady wore wire-rim spectacles that slid down her nose. There was one man with them; he sat next to me, letting the women share a three-seater. When the conductor passed through our car, he paid for his wife: “This here is for the lady up there in the pink sweater,” he said, handing over two dollars. Then he flicked open his newspaper, the ladies chatted together like schoolgirls, and we bumped along.

Two of the women got off the train at the fifth stop, leaving his wife—the lady in the pink sweater—alone in the three-seater. He kissed the women on the cheek as they walked by, wrinkled hands clutching wrinkled hands, and then he folded up his paper and moved to sit next to his wife. She took out a book of crossword puzzles and he flicked open his paper again. Silence. I wanted to raise my fist in victory. J. and I were not doomed!

When I got home that night, I considered bringing up the Flyers—I could ask questions and J. could answer them and we’d be talking—but I care as much about the Flyers as I do composting, so I kept my mouth shut. So we sat on the couch watching Pawn Stars and not saying anything. And it was, actually, golden.

Do you and your groom find yourself sitting in comfortable silence sometimes? Do you feel like that’s a mark of being so close you can actually do that—or do you ever worry that you’ve run out of things to say to each other?



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