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COUPLING

Talk to the Hand

Giving an effective silent treatment is truly a work of art.


(Illustration by Kim Rosen)

I learned the Silent Treatment from my mother, a woman who comes from a long, unbroken line of serious yakkers. She realized early in life that nothing gets more attention than a quiet chatterbox. By the time I showed up, she’d honed her silent arts into a sharp, shiny tool, which she used sparingly, never on children – she preferred marathon lectures for us – and only when the perfect opportunity presented itself. Usually, my father provided these with effortless charm.

Most of my parents’ "ST" incidents were standard fare, but some merit their own wing in the Hall of Silent Treatment Fame. One of these beauties took place on the long drive to visit me in college, my father at the wheel, my mother reading every road sign aloud and calling out the next maneuver in far too much detail. My father noted this out loud, very loud. My mother hurled her best ST on him for about an hour and then, softly, so he wouldn’t startle, said, "Excuse me, but you missed the exit about 50 miles ago." Now, even the target of such an exquisitely dealt ST appreciates the creativity and discipline behind the act. My father still tells the tale with a mix of awe, ire, and chuckles.

Their marriage remains strong after 46 years, despite the occasional quiet spells, so it’s no wonder that I would borrow some of my mother’s techniques early in my own marriage. I’d learned, for example, that a true master of the Silent Treatment unsheathes her weapon with finesse. No obvious, complete shutdowns in conversations. The slow, drawn-out approach keeps the spouse wondering for at least a few hours, maybe days.

With that kind of standard to uphold, who wouldn’t have some opening-night jitters? But I had to start somewhere, and our first good tiff seemed as good a time as any to determine my husband’s ST threshold. I’m still not sure what the fuss was about: He thinks that the dust-up was about a game of Pictionary that went bad; I think it had to do with his role in keeping our kitchen clean. Either way, it was game time.

I estimated the unit of measure of that maiden ST encounter would be in minutes. I started slowly, fully aware of the allure and danger of the Overt ST. But my husband seemed clueless, almost content to hear the short, clipped answers of my ripening silence. I tried exhaling more loudly around him. I closed the silverware drawer a little harder. He hummed a lot. As I stomped up the stairs one night – not easy in socks – I saw him sitting like a Buddha on the couch, clicking away through the channels, unchallenged, tranquil. Late on the third day, he asked, "Is something wrong?"

I learned then that my husband knew a little about the ST himself. He’d watched his father try it on his mother, but she’d always outfox her husband by ignoring his huffing and snorting silence till he came to his senses and talked to her like a normal person. That kind of exposure to impervious ST left my husband practically ST-proof.

Those three days of silence wore me into a new state of mind. What was the point of ST-ing someone if you were the only one who suffered, and he got free use of the clicker? Was I facing a lifetime of arguments that run down the same ho-hum verbal path everyone else used? Where’s the drama, the flare, in that?

Over the years, I decided to mix up my approach, just to keep us both on our toes. I found, especially after our children were born and we put our Pictionary game on the shelf, that sometimes there is just no time for silent drama. Other times, it’s just what we need to cool off. Either way, my husband holds his own verbally, or nonverbally, even when he’s helping solve middle school math problems or unsnagging something from someone’s braces. I’ll be cherishing all of those traits in him this October when we celebrate our 18th anniversary. Lucky for me, he seems to appreciate most of my traits still, including the wacky ways I communicate.

Ana Hebra Flaster, a regular contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered, lives in Lexington. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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