Friday 24 March 2017

I've never learned to cope with his silences, even after 50 years

Patricia Redlich

Q: I AM a 74-year-old grandmother and my husband is 83. He is normally a decent person, but moody, and right now he is in the middle of a royal "silence". This has happened periodically during our whole 50-odd years of marriage. I am shocked he is still like this. It used to last weeks, but now it's usually days -- let's face it, he doesn't have that many days left!

I hate these silences and inside I get very upset, both emotionally and physically. Excuse me mentioning it, but I even end up with diarrhoea.

I know I cannot change him, but have you any ideas on how I could cope better? Oh, and when he does eventually talk again, it is always my fault that it happened.

I seethe inside at being blamed in the wrong. Neither of us is in the best of health. We both have a heart condition. Wouldn't you think, then, that we'd have more sense at this stage of our lives? I need help.

A: NO, it's not easy dealing with an adult who behaves like a child, wordlessly withdrawing instead of spitting out whatever is bothering him, and then negotiating a solution. Part of the problem is that such silences break the rules of ordinary social intercourse. Ignoring someone is offensive, deliberately so.

It also narrows a partner's ability to respond. Do you become equally offensive and ignore back? Do you cook dinner for yourself and the children and leave him without food? Does his washing get left on the kitchen floor, or put out in the bin? Can you still ask him to keep an eye on the open fire while you are out at the clothes line, and then trust that he will do so, since he gives no answer? And what do you do about intimacy -- sleep in a separate room, lock the bathroom door when you shower, hide your underwear? How does anyone maintain their dignity in the face of such prolonged boorishness from someone they are forced to interact with?

The truth is that sulking is anarchy, and as such, is actually incompatible with living together. To survive, you have to work out several things. First, there is a fine, but very definite, line between doing the right thing and appeasing, and you have to find it. For example, you may drive your husband to the doctor. But you don't sit beside him, attempting togetherness by watching TV, and him without a word to say to you. And when he finally finds his voice, you don't rush into his arms -- literally or metaphorically -- but maintain a distance until you feel your anger seep away because you've made a stand.

Second, you have to find emotional solidity somewhere else. You can't rely on your husband. That's what he's taught you. So have someone else to confide in, to go for walks with, to take a cup of tea together with, or whatever it is you enjoy doing. This will invariably involve excluding him from some of your activities, even when he is talking to you, but so be it. He just has to accept that he can't be automatically number one in your life, since he deserts you regularly.

Third, you have to examine what exactly you are scared about -- I mean apart from the fact that, like I said, sulking is anarchy and, de facto, upsetting. He's not going to leave you. You are not going to leave him. Your family know the score. And after 50-odd years, you have a fair idea of how far he'll go. I mean, he will watch the open fire, or the small grandchild, when you're out of the room. If you sit down and contemplate, you'll realise you know his form at this stage.

Secure in that knowledge, you can then calmly plan for your own emotional stability. It's about having the courage to withstand the emotional separation, to stop being scared, and to put yourself first and your husband, however lovingly, a very definite second -- not just when he's sulking, but always.

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