I was sitting on my couch, watching football, and drinking beer. Despite the immense pleasure those three activities give me, I had a problem.
My girlfriend, Rosie, was in the next room, silently wallowing on my bed. She’d been in there for most of the first wave of games and remained at her post well into the second. That was about four hours; she was in there under the guise of working on a letter, but instead she was gritting her teeth and staring at the ceiling.
For companionship in her absence, I called a friend, Meadows. We bitched about our respective teams for a bit. Eventually, Rosie’s anger came up. “What’d you do to piss her off?” Meadows asked.
“Oh, I reckon she’ll tell me in about 36 hours,” I said. She was giving me the silent treatment. And naturally, I didn’t know why. But I had some guesses.
Was my devotion to football wearing on her? Possibly—it was Week 15 of the season, so she’d put up with nearly four months of watching me periodically flap my hands and curse at the television. But she supposedly had come over to watch football and drink beer with me, so the football-overdose theory didn’t quite work.
Was she feeling ill? I popped in to ask. “No,” she huffed, and went back to considering the water stain on my bedroom ceiling. I imagined her thoughts: Why’d my stupid boyfriend rent a room with a water stain? That ape will never amount to anything. But she’d known about that water stain for months, and she was apparently healthy, so her motives still weren’t apparent.
Had I gotten drunk and threatened to kill her dog again, as I had at a party earlier in the year? Didn’t think so—and besides, I was joking that night, Rosie. I like Sirius.
The silent-treatment event stumped me that Sunday, and continued to long after she started talking again. So I decided to learn more about Rosie’s dastardly tactic.
First, I came upon an article by Dr. Petra Boynton, a British psychologist and writer. She’s listed as The Telegraph’s “sex and relationships agony aunt,” which sounds like someone you’d meet in Hell’s brothel, but I regardless decided to see what she had to say about the silent treatment. “In theory, dealing with this kind of behavior is simple. You disengage and carry on your life as normal,” Boynton asserts. Well, I did try carrying on as normal for awhile. But I quickly ascertained that when your girlfriend is ignoring you, downing Coors Lights and yelling at Peyton Manning is not the response she’s looking for.
Next, I decided to try to learn from the enemy: Cosmopolitan. “The silent treatment sends a powerful message that you are seriously upset,” this bastion of female self-destruction advises women for some reason. “Shutting down grabs his attention and temporarily deprives him of something he loves—your company. (Only use it once in awhile or it loses its potency.)”
We could all learn from that parenthetical: “Only threaten to kill your girlfriend’s dog once in awhile or it loses its potency.” But Cosmopolitan’s overall point—use the silent treatment to deprive your boyfriend of your presence—didn’t apply to Rosie. Hanging out on my bed is one of the worst ways to avoid me, for if I didn’t have to work, eat, and piss, I’d never leave the thing.
My retrospective search next went to where it should have started: Rosie’s explanation of her silence. It took eight hours, not 36, but she’d eventually told me why she was angry. Essentially, I was too quiet.
At the time, I was too committed to a self-righteous sense of bewilderment at her behavior to actually listen. But her complaints were memorable, coming out in phrases like: “I wish we could talk on the phone like you talk with Meadows. I hear you laughing with him, and it hurts, because all I ever get is grunts.”
And this: “I sit on the phone, and there’s silence, and I think, Oh my god, is this going to be the rest of my life?” She was being a bit dramatic on that: Women outlive men, and people in my family die early, so no matter what happens she’ll probably at least get a Martin-free decade in her golden years. Cheer up, honey!
But she was right about my behavior. I’d taken my natural quietness up several degrees in the past month. I was working a full-time job plus as much side work as I could grab, but I’d (incorrectly) begun to believe Rosie thought I was underachieving. As a result, I’d spiraled into more one-word answers, dismissive “jokes,” and outright silence than was normal even for me—and didn’t bother explaining it. Rosie had essentially countered my silence with her own. Neither side got anywhere fast.
It wasn’t all terrible, though. Here I’d been thinking it was Coors Light and football that were the problem when, apparently, it was my default nature of unexplained silence and one-off, abrasive jokes. Which was oddly relieving: My very being I could perhaps handle changing—giving up beer and football, not so much.