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Silence: Is It Abuse?

Paul Brandis


Some time ago the University of Washington conducted an experiment into family relationships. They advertised and received permission from families to install recording devices in volunteers' homes. True, they realized that the people in the dwellings would be aware that their conversations were being recorded and the experiment would suffer from a bias, but they felt in time, the inhabitants would forget or ignore the devices and act, for the most part, normally. And such proved to be the case.

One of the surprising observations the psychologists made was how the dominant male in a relationship or family, the husband or male partner, dominated his wife/partner by silence. Often the male would come home from work, settle in in front of the TV with a beer or drink, and tune out the rest of the family. In one example, the male actually skewed his chair around so that he would have less contact with the rest of the family. Often the men would have had contact with friends and fellow-workers in their work environment. Consequently they did not feel a need for conversation at home.

The women, on the other hand, wanted to reacquaint themselves with their mates. Whether out of need for reassurance, or simply because they possessed more sociable personas, they wanted to talk. By being constantly reticent, some men, not all, of course, but some forced the women to constantly seek after their attention. Perhaps the woman had been home with her children. She loved them but after a day of child's prattle yearned to have an adult conversation. But to do so, the psychologists noted, the women often had to resort to childish gimmicks and phrases to seize the men's attention, like beginning a conversation by saying, "Guess what, John, or whoever?" How often we have heard children use the same ploy to gain an adult's attention.

Also there is something unnerving about silence. It makes one ill at ease. To be ignored by someone who is suppose to love you sets up a unsettling and anxious feeling of insecurity. It keeps the woman and children off guard, often just what the male wants in order to dominate his environment. The scientists found men, to varying degrees, used the TV as a shield. They might say something that would be unsettling to the wife or members of the family, causing stress, then duck back into watching television, seemingly ignoring the protestations that their comments elicited.

In the past, the description, "strong, silent type," indicated a mark of approbation. Hollywood showed us many such heroic examples, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, etc. Can one imagine Arnold Schwarzenneger chattering on about his hard day at the office? After "I'll be back," his powers of conversation flags sharply. Reticence was thought to be an admirable character trait in a male. It inferred that he could take life's vicissitudes without whining, without complaint. Now we know how keeping emotions, anger, envy, etc., bottled up inside can be deleterious to one's mental health and, since our physical well being is directly related to our mental well being, our physical health as well.

Often men don't talk because they are subconsciously aware that they have nothing really cogent to say. Chatting, making "small talk", is an anathema to them. But as it turns out, in many ways, there is no such thing as small talk. In the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," mode, women know that light conversation can be therapeutic. It is relaxing, creates a comfortable, social bond between people of like interests, shows them that they share common goals and problems. Men can have these conversations, most often with other men or women who are co-workers, but these are colleagues, not the ones that a man feels, for whatever reason, he must dominate.

It has been said that a man picks a woman because she sees him as he would like to be seen. In other words, she is a co-conspirator in the charade that he is, for whatever reason, playing. Facades are difficult to maintain over long periods. Familiarity is the death of fascination. It is not long into a relationship before disillusion sets in. Soon a woman begins to see the man for what he really is. Then she has to make some decisions. If her love is strong enough, she will forgive him the role playing. If not, life can become difficult for her.

But suppose she does love the man and/or has a vested interest with remaining with him, interests such as family and income. Then she will certainly want more interaction with him than sex, and food and maid service. She will want conversation, verbal intercourse. By depriving her of it, or by meting it out in rationed dabs, the man is able to keep her longing for him, for his attention. She can have his attention, but it will be at his time and his convenience. This is the definition of dominance. The staff conducting and analyzing the experiment at the University of Washington found that the happiest relationships were those where the couple set aside time every day and talked--talked about anything, even the most mundane occurrences in their day. The relating of an event, even one of great magnitude, was not what made the relationship healthy, but the simple fact of sharing it.

Among some men this type of sharing is still thought to be womanly and therefore somehow effeminate. They feel it is akin to gossiping, something that girls, of any age or sex, do with other girls. In one of his many films, balding, rotund James Coco, playing a gay man, snuggled down on the couch with several women and sighed, "This is what I love; dishing the dirt with the girls." This is definitely not the image most men, especially those who see themselves in a macho, manly light, want to project, not to others, and more importantly, to themselves.

How helpless a woman can feel when faced with such silence day in and day out. How frustrating it is. It is a form of abuse, and though non-physical, it can beat down a woman's soul and spirit. In this case, silence becomes the basis for the legalistic term "irreconcilable differences."

In many cases such behavior is not totally the man's fault. It is what he has been taught through observation. All too often, some men have been conditioned by society and, in many cases, by parents who lived in a their own silent, unexpressive world, that this is how relationships are. He has the misconception that this is how a man should behave to a woman. He believes to dominate is his proper role. As the saying goes, "abuse is hereditary; one learns it from one's parents."

On the other hand, it can be just another form of arrogance. Arrogance is a form of self-imposed blindness, a form of vanity, one seeing only oneself. A form of speech limitation or dumbness where one imposes silence and inarticulation on oneself.

The observers witnessed women using silence too, but more as a response to bad behavior. Women's glacial reaction to their men's ineptitude and boorish behavior is nearly a cliche'. But the women did not use silence as a weapon to hurt or even to ignore. The man has done something boorish or inconsiderate, and the woman is going to remain silent until he admits to it or, more likely, attempts to right the wrong by better behavior.

The University of Washington study bore out what psychologists have long known through experiment and education, but what every woman knows from simple instinct: In order for a relationship to remain healthy and survive, it needs communication. How many women have wanted to grab the men in their lives by the lapels, shake him and scream, "Talk to me, fool?" When a relationship begins to founder, perhaps they should do just that, or find a mate who will talk to them.

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Paul Brandis has degrees in Philosophy and Art History. A free example of one of his short stories can be found at, and an excerpt from his modern Gothic novel, THE AERIE OF RAVENHURST, A Novel OF Horror And Romance, can be read at Please drop by these sites for some pleasurable reading.

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