The two worst days of my marriage.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
May 7 2004 3:44 PM

Silent Treatment

Have you ever wished your wife would just shut up? Here's what happens when she does.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

When I mentioned to my husband that I was considering taking a vow of silence, he had an immediate reaction, "What a great idea! How long are you going to do it? How about a month?"

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Now here we were, on the morning of Day 2, and my husband had this to say: "I can't wait for this stunt to be over. This has been the worst two days of our marriage." (I didn't think it was as bad as the day we got to the airport for a weeklong vacation and discovered he had left my suitcase in our bedroom. Or the day I was supposed to set up the VCR to tape The Sopranos but left it on the Disney Channel.) He must be missing my sparkling conversation, our emotional intimacy, I thought. When I gestured "Why?"—palms up, shoulders shrugged—he explained that I was "no Marcel Marceau."

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Not speaking was my latest experiment for the Human Guinea Pig series, in which I engage in unusual activities so you don't have to. I challenged myself to 48 hours of silence. What would happen if I stopped communicating while leading my regular life? This meant no talking, no e-mail, no PDA. No scribbling notes like Holly Hunter in The Piano (and no being ravished by Harvey Keitel with face tattoos). Nothing beyond simple gestures.

To judge by the number of silent retreats listed on the Internet—Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Sufi—Americans are eager to spend their money to go to bucolic settings for a chance to shut up. But as befits Human Guinea Pig, I would do it homemade and cheap—keeping to my routine, which since I work at home is somewhat like being under house arrest, and skipping the cultivation of a higher consciousness.

To prepare for my temporary vow, I cleared away all my work and social obligations and did some reading. Thomas Merton, the American monk, wrote: "In silence we face and admit that gap between the depths of our being, which we consistently ignore, and the surface which is so often untrue to our own reality." I learned that in Buddhism, one cannot achieve enlightenment without the practice of silence. The Catholic Encyclopedia cites silence's long history: "Pythagoras imposed a strict rule of silence on his disciples." In Christian orders, not speaking to people allows one to better speak with God and is a means of self-restraint.

At the least, our household could use some self-restraint. Normally, the morning routine resembles a Supreme Court oral argument with our 8-year-old daughter playing the part of Alan Dershowitz. Not that first morning. When I woke her up, instead of being greeted with an observation such as, "Stop nudging me, are you trying to break my shoulder?" she quietly said, "Oh hi, Mom, you can't talk today, right?" I smiled beatifically, which required the use of dormant facial muscles, and led her into the bathroom where I supervised her shampoo and shower. It was like our own Zen monastery.

When I walked my daughter to school, she happily chatted about the camping trip we were about to take, and I occasionally squeezed her hand in acknowledgement. She didn't seem to care I wasn't saying anything, a warm presence was enough. When we got to school she gave me a big hug in farewell, instead of her more usual posture of pretending I was a stranger who happened to be headed in the same direction. I quickly left, avoiding the other parents.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

When I got back home, I got my husband's attention, pointed to our beagle, Sasha, and mimicked her elimination processes. My husband said she hadn't done anything when he took her for a walk, so I put on her leash and we set out. Sasha had been hit by a car the previous week. A beagle is a conversation piece. A limping beagle with a leg wrapped in a pink bandage is a car-stopping conversation piece, so it was with trepidation that I had my first non-family encounter when a car pulled up and the window rolled down.

The passenger asked directions to a nearby school. To get there required a couple of turns to avoid a dead end and a one-way street. Feeling pressured, I guiltily pointed in the general direction, sending them straight to those pitfalls. The man, noticing my T-shirt depicting a blue sky and floating bowler hat, said, "Hey, that's a Magritte painting, right?"

I nodded.

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