Practically since the start of time, it’s been said that good communication is the key to any solid marriage or relationship. But it’s not just good communication, it’s active communication: of talking and participating multiple times a day on a daily basis.
It’s the lack of talking that is the silent killer of so many of my loved ones’ marriages. And probably yours too.
My husband is a nice guy. He is decent to his family, doesn’t pick a fight with anyone, just keeps to himself, is morally upright, active in the mosque community and respected by people for his honesty and good nature. In fact, it’s probably the reason why so many matched us together, the “aunties” being active in matchmaking suggested that we would look good together physically. “He will treat you right,” my father would say referring to my husband’s decent behavior, his tendency to speak in low tones, his respect and kindness to many, and just overall being so “nice.”
So we married.
As the main provider of our family, he is successful: He works hard, makes decent money, is great with the kids and will do the dishes. For some people, that may be enough to label him a good husband, maybe even great. For my parents and the mentality of that generation, his doing the dishes and changing the kids’ diapers makes him a gold-star example of what being a good man is all about. And maybe for some women, that is enough.
But for most women, that is not part of the #relationshipgoals that they wish for. Yes, having a good life where things are provided for is important, but typically not the most important aspect of any relationship. It certainly was not for me.
The truth is that for most men who are like my husband, the idea of emotional connection is unheard of. Those men tend to be terrible life partners and often because of one thing: there is too much silence in marriage. Silence translates to distance and depleting of emotional reserves.
For a good friend of mine now recently divorced, her husband didn’t want to talk. Ever. And the same can be said about many others I know too, including at times mine. For my husband, it’s not that he doesn’t want to be the one to say words, it’s that he doesn’t want to be in a conversation. Over the years, it feels that all these marriages have decayed to the core. Many men prefer to sit on a couch and be in their head and just think, or on a computer or a smartphone reading sports news or reading news articles. Some men would rather be alone and left alone. Over years, this has created complete silence that, in the end, has become the silent killer of these marriages.
When I got married, I came in with the idea of having so much to share on a day-to-day basis, laugh and cry, talk and listen. Living in an emotionally abusive household growing up, marriage was for me a way out, a means of rebuilding myself and becoming known and visible to someone. I was eager to just build a solid foundation with someone, and share my thoughts on anything: trying a new recipe, going to the grocery store and bumping into someone, speaking about someone’s latest news, on what to wear to an event and why, on not having any shoes to match, on something I thought of today that reminds me of my childhood, of talking about my painting class, of how I am so excited to go out and try a new restaurant, of an article I read, of the funny thing I saw when I boarded my flight, of something weird my co-worker said, maybe even the latest mosque gossip that I wanted to share with just my husband, or of how I want to buy a new table for the living room. What I looked forward to was lazy Sunday mornings where we just sit on the couch and have only our mouths and ears as our tools, of lying down when kids were in bed and just talking and laughing, of teasing and flirting, of going for walks or coffee shops and just talking, dinner conversations and more. It was this that I was most excited for when I got married. Of having someone who really would listen and share in my thoughts, which occur to me by the dozen on a daily basis.
These little things matter because they were important enough to exist in my head even if for a moment, or they were an experience that I had. Over the years as I silently observed the thoughts I wished to share during the day, but couldn’t to my husband I recognized that it usually boiled down to four things I wish i could have talked about at different times during the day, but in my case couldn’t because of the silence that was in our marriage. It matters to be able to vocalize them to a person who listens and participates, regardless of how important he thinks it is. I cherish building relationships, I work on that with my friends and colleagues. I know that what it means is to give time, to allow for yourself to just exist in the other person for a short while, and that person, in turn, will do the same, and all on the basis of exchanging words. A good conversation creates a bond, a sense of trust, a shared moment of life.
Because, really, isn’t that what people do? Isn’t that what close relationships do? Walk into any coffee shop and you’ll hear a cacophony of conversations, so many different things being said, laughed, shared. In my field of work where I study human behavior, I am naturally inclined to observe people, their body language, their intonations and more. So I sit alone in a corner at coffee shops, drinking my coffee and eating chocolate croissants as I look around the room, and study and analyze. I see people sitting and talking, laughing and sharing stories, their days, their thoughts. It’s a beautiful thing when just observing how people do this, how humans interact. It can be even more painful when you realize that in your own marriage, it doesn’t exist, hasn’t, ever. I know far too many women suffering through the pain of this distance, created by men who can’t emotionally connect.
The lack of communication is an assured sign of divorce or of living one’s remaining days alive yet invisible in what is supposed to be a beautiful companionship.
John Gottman, a famous relationship expert, once created an analogy of the test of a relationship killer. Over decades of studying relationships, he created simple tests to determine, with a high percentage of accuracy, which marriages will survive. The test that resonates most with me goes something like this (with some variations of the object itself):
Imagine a man sitting on a couch reading a newspaper. His wife is at the kitchen sink washing dishes. Near the sink is a window that overlooks a body of water. Then she says, “Oh wow, there is a pretty, blue sailboat.” The man has three ways to react. First, he says nothing — a sure sign that the couple will divorce eventually. Second, he says “Oh that’s nice” and continues reading his paper without getting up — a 50/50 chance they will divorce, but if they remain together, will most likely be unhappy. Third, he gets up and comes to the window and looks at it with his wife — a definite sign that they will remain together.
In the last case, the importance of the words being uttered by his wife were enough to be of importance to her husband, regardless of the fact that it broke his own rhythm, so to speak, his own space of being in his newspaper and reading. Him getting up and taking a moment to value what was of importance to his wife was the gold needed to secure and solidify their relationship for the long haul. On a daily basis, these little things shared and conveyed matter. It builds trust, experience and importance. It shows the woman that she matters, is important and what she thinks about is important too.
This was perhaps most apparent to me at an early age in observing my parents. While they were terrible as emotionally available parents to their children, they had a marriage that is still strong to this day. One day after a dinner party, when the guests had left, my parents sat on the couch together. My dad started the conversation by saying, “That firni was amazing!” to my mom’s delight. Then she started talking about how she tried a new recipe and used half-and-half instead of whole milk, with my dad actively listening and responding with “Oh wow, who would have thought, maybe the fat content in half-and-half makes it taste better! But did you add almonds this time too? I think I tasted some,” with my mother responding, “Yes! Oh I’m so glad you noticed! Yeah, I thought of doing that to try something new, did you like it?” and on and on it went for a good 15 minutes.
To my surprise, I sat watching this all unfold and thought to myself, “Why would my father care about this creamy Indian dessert and how it was made?” The moment stuck with me because my mother was just so happy. In fact, the conversation continued long after that naturally, then flowing to talk about the guests and what they talked about and learned, and then to plans for next weekend. After about 45 minutes, they both looked so happy. And connected.
Only later in my life did it all make sense. Paying attention to the other person, regardless of the level of importance it may be to you and your life, matters. And knowing what the other person values and cherishes only indicates that you care about who they are as people. The more I thought of it the more I realized that my parents had a never ending conversation, but on a day to day basis it seemed they connected on average about four times, in the morning before heading to work, my father would call once during the day or on his way back, during dinner with the family, and finally we would hear them talking and laughing while we were supposed to be asleep. Four times seemed pretty standard and subconscious. And beautiful.
Women need to talk. It’s like air to them. They need to know that what they say matters, that they are not invisible, that it’s not irrelevant regardless of how mundane it may be. For a relationship to survive, what women think, share, believe and say must be met by a man who cares to listen. If not, it is a definite sign of #relationshipfailure.
I have been lucky enough to know how to build a relationship with people. I am also lucky enough that people trust me and confide in me. They speak to me openly because they know they will find nonjudgmental listening, active participation, and in those moments of conversing, it’s just the two of us. I am also lucky that my husband is working to be in tune to this emotional distance and is striving to remedy it.
But this is not the case in many other marriages I know. In my friend’s marriage, that has never existed simply because her husband cannot actively engage on a day-to-day basis with her. From almost early on in her marriage, she’d say, the signal was strong: “Don’t talk to me” and “stay away” with occasional “shut ups” that were not said but made clear by the expression in his face when she started speaking. Over the years, she has been conditioned to stay silent. They developed a silent relationship where not much is ever shared. The kids are asleep and he is lying on the bed in silence scrolling on his phone and she just watching a show on her iPad, or whatsapping me her pain. She says that they sleep in silence. They wake up in silence. There is no joy in going out because the conversations are boring or almost always stopped short, no depth to the conversation or listening. So, they stopped going out too.
The snowball effect has been huge and ever growing. And it is clear that over the few years silence has silently rotted away the interior of these marriages. In my case, my husband was not able to pay attention to me as a human, a woman, who has thoughts and feelings and wants to share them.
To the outside world, we might appear like an ideal couple with good religious values, well-behaved kids and a stable home life. But the truth of the inside of our marriage has had its fair share of struggles.
I write about this because I know others who are silently suffering too. They open up to me about it and cry. I remain strong in my commitment to my kids and I am God conscious enough to focus on something greater. And luckily my husband has focused on this too and over the coming months I hope to share some of our reflections on how we pulled out of those dark moments. But this is not always the case with marriages I encounter and learn of. In our culture and in our society, not many people speak about this silent invisible force of death in a relationship. Emotions don’t seem to carry any weight or value in relationship building, and this affects the parent-child dynamic as much as the husband-wife one.
On a day-to-day basis, each of us has thoughts, feelings and emotions. Each of us has things that happen to us. Over time, small but meaningful moments build up. They create a bond, a shared understanding, and most importantly a window into the other person’s life. Who they are, what interests them, what resonates with them. By caring about these little things, one gets the chance to live through the other person, to live two wholesome lives.
For the men who read this, don’t let your marriage fall apart. Ask yourself: Have I listened to my wife at least four times today on anything that crossed her mind? Or has she come to me wanting to say something and did I stop to listen genuinely and really take interest? If not, then your marriage will likely reflect so many that I know: good on the outside, but rotting on the inside.