It's so funny - we don't talk anymore
Conversation is the glue that holds a relationship together. The first stage of distancing is when you stop laughing at each other's jokes. Then the silence grows. And it is not a passive silence. It is an active silence. It has 'we have nothing left in common' stamped all over it, and it is a very unpleasant experience.
These were the thoughts in my head as I ate my breakfast in a hotel and watched the couple at the next table. She made a few attempts of the 'would you like more coffee' type. He barely grunted. His eyes were dead. His face looked like it had forgotten how to smile. They were American tourists and they were holidaying together. It struck me that they survived at home because they could lead parallel lives and barely have to see each other. Somehow or other, they had decided to go on a holiday and it looked to me that they were regretting every second of it. The introduction of divorce meant that couples like this no longer felt they needed to murder the other. These two didn't have enough energy or interest left to even divorce and it was sad to watch.
John MacKenna is a writer and a poet whom I barely knew when we both worked in RTE. He grew up, and still lives, in Co Carlow, and I had the opportunity to hear him reading from his new book By The Light of Four Moons at a bookshop in Kilkenny recently. He is a communicator and he held his audience with anecdotes about the various things he writes about and, in the light of my recent exposure to that dull couple, one poem stuck in my mind. It was about the time that John, as an adult, first understood what it was that had brought his mother and father together and kept them with each other. It was about how they would talk and reminisce together, telling and retelling stories that varied a little with each outing. Then they would eat together, often in silence, but a silence that was a pause between conversations and not a signal that there is nothing left to say. The poem is called My Parents Would Sit.
I have a friend who is a great conversationalist on just about any topic under the sun. She enjoys chatting, discussing and arguing. I recall her telling me that the main memory she has of childhood is of her parents talking to each other.
I realised that this was the same background hum to my adolescent years. We were both the product of happy marriages. And we both would have thought of conversation as the most important ingredient in any important or long-term relationship.
There are few greater pleasures than when a loved one greets you with the sentence "I have been dying to tell you." It is the reverse intimacy scale. Sex can be far less less intimate than a hug. It can become as meaningless as scratching an itch. More intimate still is holding hands. Publicly maybe. But talking is probably the closest of all.