Sometimes using the silent treatment is better than talking things out
I spent my impressionable years in that rare cultural moment when guys got girls by being process-oriented, hypersensitive, very in touch with all of their feelings and very good at expressing them.
At 15, I went to a sensitivity training workshop with my family. With my cultivated hypersensitivity, I managed to win the heart of the workshop leader’s cute 18-year-old daughter despite the presence of my handsome older brothers and the three strapping sons of another family, who looked like members of the Beach Boys.
We went to first base on the first night, second base on the second. yBy the fourth night, July fourth, we seemed headed for a home run.
During the fireworks that night, I leaned a little too far into my sensitivity bit. I declared that I felt scared by how close the fireworks were to the hill we were on and walked down toward the main buildings, hoping she would follow.
She didn’t. At 1:00 AM she strolled off the hill, hand-in-hand with one of the Beach Boys.
I didn’t learn my lesson. It has taken several decades for it to sink in, not that women love the strong and silent Beach Boy type, a type I’ll never be, but that being with women requires a capacity for insensitivity I had not cultivated in that unusual era.
I first noticed the value of insensitivity during the breakup of my 17-year marriage. My wife had become increasingly aloof. My coping strategy when stressed is to process, but processing wasn’t working. The more I talked, the more she fell toward her coping strategy, withdrawal. This was a major shift for us. For decades I could say no wrong, and now pretty much everything I said was wrong, so I was forced to consider silence as an option.
After the marriage ended, I vowed never again to partner with someone whose coping strategy was withdrawal, but even with more verbal partners the talking-cure often didn’t cure. We would escalate until processing was our entire relationship. We’d go at it with the exacting earnestness of bridge-builders and still it wouldn’t build a bridge to easy interaction.
Back in the era, we laughed at lunkish men. My dad who had been one, but saw the light through sensitivity training, referred to them as ECAM’s: Emotionally Crippled American Males. Still, by mid-life I was finding myself more and more in conversations in which silence was the better option.
Better or not, silence didn’t come easy. Perhaps through some sensitive introspection I began to see why. I thought I talked to restore rationality but mostly I talked because I was scared.
I find women very impressive, and have a long history of changing my behavior to accommodate their preferences, often only hinted at, little jabs of criticism, little pointed questions, the “I’m just curious” interrogatives that knock me off my center.
Given my history, when a woman gestures toward incompatible preferences, I’d dig in my heels through talk, lest I bend to her whims and end up regretting it. Either that or prove to be an ECAM, the kind of lunkish guy who insensitively ignores his partner.
I’ve come to realize that, by now, I’m stronger than that, not easily thrown off my center and therefore not under pressure to process. I’m clear enough on my priorities and preferences that they don’t need to be asserted and re-asserted. She can think what she thinks, want what she wants, be disappointed by my failure to serve what she likes, and I don’t have to engage with it every time, either by accommodating or by convincing her that I don’t have to through process talk and protest. My process talk wasn’t really about convincing her anyway. It was mostly designed to convince myself that I was centered. I’m more soundly me than I used to be so I don’t have to convince myself like I used to.
I get better and better at selective lunkishness, and am now with a partner who seems fine with it. She copes by processing too, but we’re both learning that we don’t have to take each other’s processing bait. When she’s stressed, she’ll coax me to process and I get better and better at just ignoring, humoring or changing the subject. Her processing impulses pass without consequence.
I wouldn’t want to give up my capacity for processing. I’m glad to be a guy who can name more than two emotions. But I like having silence as one of the irons in my golf bag.
It is often the best option. Yesterday she texted me a provocative question and I was about to text back my processing response. Before I finished writing my text, she went from acting put out to just acting nice. I erased my text and we moved on. She’s great at moving on, which I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t given silence a chance.