Silence can be wounding. I grew up with a mother who could scream, yell, and curse with the best of them, but when she became truly angry, she would shut down all conversation. Her silence was the loudest scream of all.
I don’t want anyone to think that Mom was a silent, dour person. She was smart and funny with a quick wit that she passed on to her children. We learned early in our lives that we could say almost anything that came to our minds if we said it with humor and intelligence. You knew you were going to be okay if you could make Mom laugh.
I know that Mom’s upbringing had a lot to do with her behavior. She was the daughter of a loving, but alcoholic father and a mother who Mom felt never liked her. Whatever the cause, Mom’s feelings of self-worth were always low. I honestly don’t know if there was a lot of fighting in her birth family, but I suspect that when her father would come home drunk her mother would cope with silent anger. Mom brought that same frigid silence to every disagreement she had with the men she lived with. I think she felt it was her only strength against their superior social standing and physical strength. Believe me, she had the silent treatment down to a ruthless art.
After divorcing my father, Mom really came into her own. She worked, she socialized and she took care of the house and the bills on her own. Her keen curiosity had her exploring subjects that no one else’s Mother was studying. Horoscopes, witchcraft, and the mystery of the death of JFK are a few of the things that she pursued in that brief year and a half between husbands.
One of my most vivid memories from that period was a dinner discussion between my mother, my brother and myself on the proper grammatical uses of the “F” word. We all participated in the conversation and I can guarantee no one else in our suburban neighborhood was having a similar conversation around their table.
Unfortunately, between Mom’s family patterns and the period of time in which she grew up, she never realized her own strengths. No matter how well she did when she was single, she felt she was missing something. She always felt she needed someone to take care of her. She only dated a couple of men after her divorce and she ended up marrying my step-dad after dating less than a year.
They were only married for a couple of years when I moved out to go to college. I never moved back after that, choosing instead to get married a few weeks after my 19th birthday. I may or may not go into the brilliance of that decision at a later date, but my marriage distanced me from the marital patterns of my mom’s second marriage.
What I could see, even from a distance, was Mom reverting to old patterns. She turned all money matters and decisions over to him. She was still curious, but she made sure that none of her interests would irritate him. Behaviors that she thought were funny and cute when they were dating were no longer amusing. He could be a total ass, but I believe it was her frustration with her place in the marriage that made her so angry. Through the years, I would hear about her anger towards him, but since I wasn’t there to witness her behavior, I forgot my memories of her silent rage.
A few years ago, my sister found some of our step-father’s journals. In his journals he wrote pretty extensively about the coldness of my mom’s silent treatment. Through the years of living in my own home I had somehow forgotten about this facet of her personality. The journal entries brought it all back. I can still feel a chill and a rising sense of panic when I think about those times when she would go silent. Aggressively silent.
I immediately traveled back in time to the weeks and months leading up to my parent’s divorce. I would go downstairs for breakfast in the morning to find my father alone in the dining room, eating his breakfast with an almost visible frost in the air as my mother worked in the kitchen in a silent rage. The memory still makes my heart beat faster with the fear of not knowing how to deal with such palpable anger.
Recently, I was talking to a friend about all the relationships I’ve been in where the other person would just quit talking to me. I was trying to explain how that made me feel and I was questioning how I could keep repeating this pattern. Mid-sentence, my mind went rushing back to my step-dad’s journal and I remembered my mother’s fearsome silence. My jaw dropped and I stopped mid-sentence: I was repeatedly putting myself in relationships where I felt compelled to prove that I was worthy of conversation because that was behavior I was used to.
When someone quits talking to you they frequently rationalize their behavior by explaining that at least they weren’t yelling. God, that would be so much easier to deal with. You see, when someone yells at your or makes accusations, they are communicating. You can yell back or do any number of things to stand up for yourself. When someone not only quits talking, but behaves as if you no longer exist, they take away your voice and your ability to reconcile the disagreement.
Mom is gone now and I hope she’s found a place where she no longer needs her anger or her silence to protect herself. I hope she’s moved on and is in a place of peace. If anyone reading this is dealing with the silent treatment, please, be assured you are worthy of conversation and that you are worth the effort of addressing it.