The silent treatment

My future brother-in-law acts as if I don't exist.

Published February 17, 2006 11:09AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I recently became engaged to a man I've dated for several years. We're a true team, I love him more than ever, and I'm deliriously happy. My parents think he's wonderful, and he has a great relationship with my sisters, the most important people in my life aside from him. I get along with his dad, his step-family and his extended family, and I genuinely love his mother.

The problem is my future brother-in-law. For reasons unclear to everyone in the family, including my fiancé, his brother stopped speaking to him years ago. For the entire time I've known the family, he has maintained the absolute bare minimum of interaction required for civility's sake with my fiancé and me: He will say "hello" and "goodbye" to us and tersely answer any direct questions. He'll send an e-mail to my fiancé on his birthday that says, in its entirety, "Happy Birthday." He has never once in five years engaged in a conversation with me, and the only time he initiates conversation with his brother is to ask him for something (i.e., be a groomsman, plan my bachelor party). He and his wife (who is very friendly to my fiancé and me, by the way) frequently drive us to family events, as we live in the same city and don't have a car. On these drives, he only speaks to his wife. He has not congratulated me or even mentioned the engagement since it happened two months ago.

But an even bigger problem than all this lies in me, I'm afraid. I hate this man, and I don't use that word lightly. I'm consumed with anxiety, insecurity and fear when I'm around him, and pure, lightning-hot anger when I'm not. I have vivid daydreams in which I either eviscerate him verbally, showing him how despicable he is and how little he deserves his brother, or in which he sees my fiancé with my family and is tormented with jealousy that we're so wonderful and he's not a part of our lives.

Recently, after a particularly bad family event, my fiancé and I even considered not inviting him to our wedding. We were speaking out of anger and hurt, as we would never want to cause that much disruption to the family. But there's something so appealing about that idea. I long to hurt him and reject him as completely as he's hurt and rejected us. I want to cut him out of our lives completely and dramatically.

Most of all, I want to stop feeling like this. I don't want to be a vindictive, bitter person. I know there's nothing I can do to change his behavior and that I have to change my reaction to his, but I don't know how to do that. And I want to vomit at the thought of spending the rest of my life being polite and pleasant to this man and having him treat my fiancé and me like we're inanimate objects in return. Yet I can't be rude ...

Longing for a Cataclysm

Dear Longing for a Cataclysm,

This man's silence is a way of speaking to you. You need to find out what he is saying to you with his silence.

You have already interpreted it to mean certain things -- things that are hurtful, disrespectful, perhaps hateful. That may be true. But without knowing more about him, you do not really know what he is saying, or what is in his heart. So I think you should try to learn everything you can about him. You want to get to where you can hear his silence as a narrative, as a confession.

The logical place to start is with his brother, your fiancé. Ask your fiancé as many questions as you can think of -- and listen uncritically to his answers. What was their relationship like? What did they do as children? What did his brother like to do? If your fiancé does not give you good answers to these general questions, ask him about specific incidents: Was his brother ever severely injured as a child? Did he have any serious illnesses? What were they? Did he ever spend long times in a hospital? When did the parents divorce? What age was his brother at the time? What were his interests in school? Did he do well or poorly? Was he a happy kid? Did he seem to change at any point from happy to unhappy? Did he like sports? How was he regarded in the family? Was he a favorite? Was he a good kid or a bad kid? Did he get into trouble a lot, or did he behave? And when did this whole silence thing start? The more specific you can be, the better you can jog your fiancé's memory.

This is not an overnight thing. You are not going to ask a few questions and find out who his brother is. But if you keep at it, you should be able to construct something like a character. It might help to think of him in terms of a familiar character in a sitcom or drama. Is he, for instance, Cliffy on "Cheers"? Is he Frasier? Is he Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue"? See what I'm saying? He might be an extremely arrogant and unhappy man. Or he might be extremely shy. He may be given to sudden periods of depression and social withdrawal. He may be seething with anger inside. The point is, you need to sketch him, to characterize him so that you feel you know who he is.

What would he be saying if he were talking? He might be saying, "I am a superior being and it pains me to even look at you." He might be saying, "I am so awkward I wish I could disappear." He might be saying, "This is so boring I feel like my life is coming to an end." Or, "I hate my brother and his girlfriend. I hate my brother and his girlfriend. I hate my brother and his girlfriend." Or "Why did I have to come on this trip? Why did I have to come on this trip?"

Once you have a firm idea of what he is saying, then you can begin talking to him in a normal way. If you wish, you could say that you have noticed for some time now that he never speaks to you, and that while at first it really bothered you, you have thought about it and decided that if he doesn't want to speak to you that's just fine, but you are going to speak to him anyway.

Or without any preamble at all you could just start speaking to him as though it were the way it had always been. You could ask him direct questions to which an answer is required, such as: How old are you? He would probably tell you how old he is. If he does not answer you could repeat the question. If he still did not answer then what he would be saying to you with his silence is that he does not want to tell you, that he is afraid of you or depressed or whatever. You could then ask the others present to answer for him and move on.

I would not expect such conversations to flow easily or comfortably. That is not the point. The point is to establish a rudimentary series of exchanges in which you say something and he responds. If he does not speak, it is acceptable, I think, to remark on the fact that he has not spoken, and that you are either taking that as an answer, or that you are going to ask someone else to supply the information.

If you do this all in a cheerful manner, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, without accusation or reproach, you may find that his silence begins to bother you less and less. You can treat it as simply one of his limitations, as though he were short of stature, say, or unable to sing.

But take note: The object is not so much to get him talking as to find a way to act naturally around him, and not be bothered by his talking or lack of talking. And beware: If you should ever get him talking, you may find to your dismay that you much preferred the silence.

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