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You Still Won't Hear

I know this couple. They have been married long enough to have accumulated children and a complete set of china. They met in college, brought together by the politics and heirarchy of fraternal university life.

I hear them on the phone sometimes. Rather, I hear him. I watch him. He talks into the phone when she is on the other end, but he looks elsewhere. He looks at papers, at the computer while she talks. He looks at his watch and the television and at the stain on the cuff of his shirt. Sometimes he sees me looking and he rolls his eyes as if the person on the other end of the phone was a telemarketer, not his wife. When he ends the phone calls, it's always with a declaration of love, but without the motions of his hands or his eyes or his distraction, his wife can not really know what exactly he is declaring to her.

She doesn't seem to read his voice well. I know, after all this time, the difference in his tones. Sometimes he just says "love you" and hangs up and the words are like machine gun fire, short and sharp. She hears "I love you today more than I did yesterday" because that is what she wants, expects to hear. I hear only the requisite answer to her words, to the "I love you" that she uttered to him with her heart. His words only serve to end a conversation he was bored of having.

Sometimes he says "I love you too," and she hears "I still feel the same about you that you do about me," and my fine-tuned easr hear only reciprocal words that are thrown out to close a deal. He is saying "will you shut up already" but she won't hear that. Her heart is not so jaded as one that can hear that frequency. It's a signal only the once-bitten can hear.

He talks about her often, but he never has anything good to say. I wonder what he says to her in the privacy of their own home. I wonder if he tells her to her face that he thinks she is dumb and naive and a bad mother. I wonder if she knows that he thinks she is a nuisance. I wonder if she knows all this and hears all this and chooses to put it somewhere else, where she can't see it or take it out and examine it too closely.

She is a beautiful woman. Not supermodel beautiful or that kind of beautiful that causes a man to whistle at her as she walks by. It's a different kind of beauty. She is pretty like an Ivory Soap commercial. She is crisp and clean and perfect skin and hair and teeth. Looking at her makes you think of mountains and clean air and running through fields of flowers. She could make a man's heart ache just by looking at him, just by flashing a sincere, warm smile at him.

I look at the pictures that line their walls, pictures of them together from college and the years beyond, down the hallways and up the stairs in timeline order. In every picture, she clings to him like a security blanket. Her hands grip his shoulders. They encircle his waist. She gazes at him with puppy dog eyes, never looking at the camera, just him. There are no pictures of her alone, no framed portrait of her, no snapshot where she is just laughing or playing or not attached in some way to him.

He didn't want to marry, that much is obvious. But his position in his firm is one where a wife and children are a natural extension of the job description. I'm sure that somewhere in the fine print of his employment contract, it says "family man" under requirements. Because family men are good in his field of work. Family men get promotions. Family men get raises. Family men come to the company picnics with their beautiful wives and Stepford children and they get the bonuses.

Sometimes I lie in bed at night and think of her. I think of her being home all day with her young children, doing her best to keep them in line and make them beautiful and smart and golden like trophies. I think of her wasted degree because the wife a family man doesn't work. She doesn't need to. Her brains serve no purpose outside of the home. She keeps her house clean and tidy and the yard green and filled with flowers, and she can bake and sew and go to mommy-and-me and be class mother. She can voice her opinion, but it's usually wrong. She can complain about the way her life is going, about the boredom and sameness of it all, about her loneliness and that place in her soul that is going unfulfilled, but he will only remind her of her stunning waterfront home and her expensive car and she really has no right to complain about anything at all. What more could a woman want besides the perfect family and the perfect home?

She calls me sometimes and she cries because deep down she knows. She says she doesn't know why she is sad, she doesn't know why she is crying. But I think she does, she just doesn't want to know the reasons. She is not a dumb woman. She just thinks she is because she is treated as such. She has let herself become what he thinks of her. She calls him fifteen, twenty times a day. About the car, the school, the plants, the water heater. It's as if she can't make a decision without him. Or she doesn't want to.

And he sits at his desk and marks off his calendar with dinner meetings and weekend golf and holiday brunches, anything to keep from going home, to keep from facing the life he has there that he doesn't want, but has to have. He has sacrificed the heart and soul of his wife for his place in the company. For a few more dollar bills in his pocket, the dollars that go to hookers and drink, he has turned a once shining star of a woman into a cardboard cutout.

He sits at his desk and she calls him and she tells him anything, just to talk to him. She asks him questions that she already knows the answers to, just to get him to talk to her. Just so at the end of the conversation, she can say "I love you," and she can hear him say it back, and it doesn't matter to her what he is really saying because she won't hear it on that level.

I only thought about this so much today because someone said to me "When do the words I love you become meaningless? When can you say them so often that they lose their definition?"

They never do, do they? Those words never lose their ability to throw your heart into high gear and make you smile or shake loose those butterflies, as long as they are true. I just wonder how someone can not know when the words are false. Or how someone can hear the words, know they are false, but accept them as if they were truth anyhow.


Hey, this is the first article I have read of yours and it was very interesting.

In a way, it reminded me of the phone conversations I sometimes have with my girlfriend of two and a half years. I love her, but I get bored on the phone sometimes and she can tell. I do like talking to her on the phone, but if we have nothing to talk about it just seems like I'd rather be doing something else.

As for the question of when does the words "I love you" become meaningless... they're not meaningless for us, but I have told her she says it too much. She'll say it after everytime we talk, and it does make me happy and smile, but at the same time it loses some effect when you hear it 10-15 times a day.

We do have a healthy relationship even if it may not sound like it :P

this is very sad, obviously. However, your analogy of their broken relationship (the one-sided phone conversation) makes me giggle, because EVERY man in a long term relationship does that (minus eye-rolling). We're just not wired to have a "conversation" - not the way women define it - unless we think it's going to lead to sex eventually. That's why when you're dating a man, he's SOOOO engaging. It's a step in a plan. After so many years, he develops "husband listening skills".

This involves listening for key words wile not really engaging the conversation. It also involves knowing when to insert "yeah", "uh-huh", "really", "I know what you mean" into the conversation. The keywords are for when you figure it out and ask "Did you just hear a word I said?"

THIS DOESN"T MEAN WE DON'T LOVE YOU! Even when "Love you" is just the phrase we say before "goodbye". We are not wired to have the kind of conversations women think define a healthy relationship.

I don't know a man who's been married over 3 years that doesn't have husband listening skills. If you think your husband doesn't do it, he's just very good at it. Women crave these kind of conversations, and men generally cannot provide them. That's what girlfriends are for.

I'd comment on the rest of the post, but I can't remember what you said...

Typical great read (Not bad for a "worthless sack of protoplasm". "Boring and useless" indeed)


I never trust a man who tells me bad things about his wife.

Slartibartfast, thank God I had the wisdom to marry my husband -- and not the guy I dated before him, who could have been your twin. EVERY man may be what you want to believe for your own conscience. However, that doesn't necessarily make it true as love has no standard "one size fits all". And for the record, my husband calls me for those conversations at the end of his work day.

OK - we'll stop the generalizations. How bout we say that neither of these statements is true:

1) When the man doesn't "engage" in conversation he is in a loveless marriage.

2) No man engages in conversation, the way women define it.

BTW, robyn - how many years? 18 here, and the marraige gets stronger every day.

Thanks, Michele. I read this one on the way to work and had to call my wife immediately to really tell her I love her. Now I wonder how many times I might have just said it out of reflex (and how much I might have hurt her by it).

However, your analogy of their broken relationship (the one-sided phone conversation) makes me giggle, because EVERY man in a long term relationship does that (minus eye-rolling). We're just not wired to have a "conversation" - not the way women define it - unless we think it's going to lead to sex eventually.

Maybe you're speaking for yourself, Slart. Don't think you're speaking for all men because I know for a fact your generalization is completely off base.

If you think your husband doesn't do it, he's just very good at it.

How presumptious of you. As always.

Keiran, we all say it out of reflex sometimes. It's when you say it like a remote robot ALL THE TIME that you have a problem.

While I agree that after awhile you do develop "husband listening skills," consistently disrespecting your wife by not listening to her at all or talking bad about her to other people is a different animal.

We all tune out occasionally, but you've also got to let her know from time to time that she still means something to you. If she doesn't, you probably need to be honest about that for the sake of the happiness of both of you.

It's my husband that usually calls me - and sometimes he doesn't even really want to have a conversation (sometimes he's working while he does it.) I think he just misses us all - and having us on the phone for a minute is the best he can do.

But, I wanted to address the "wasted degree" issue. Do you think that women that don't work have "wasted" their degree? Should women who plan to primarily (or at least for an extended time) be mothers not even go to college? I never used my degree (officially) because I had my first child right after marriage and Graduate school. I worked nights bartending so we wouldn't have to "do" daycare.

Do you think that women that don't work have "wasted" their degree.

Not at all. But that's how she feels. And I'd rather not get off on that tangent right now.

(Bows deep) - I apologize for my shortcomings.

I really didn't mean to rile anyone up - just another point of view. I was wrong to generalize, yet - I was responding to this assumption:

Tuned-out conversation = loveless marriage .

It just ain't neccessarily so.

As always : Ouch! From now on, I promise to preface every statement that might be a generalization with in my experience


Tuned-out conversation = loveless marriage . It just ain't neccessarily so.

Then you really didn't read the post. It's about way more than tuned out conversation.

Maybe I'm just picky, but I couldn't even seriously date someone that I didn't genuinely enjoy talking to. It's not even about having the same interests. It's the chemistry. I could be wrong, but I think there's something to that.

michele -
I read it. I got it. Just latched on to a part of it (just like Carin and the "wasted degree" part). Bad habit of mine.

Sorry (slinks back under his rock).

I just wonder how someone can not know when the words are false. Or how someone can hear the words, know they are false, but accept them as if they were truth anyho

Well, to stay on topic - I would say that the whole conversation (dare I say life) is false, and the empty "love you"s are just one more layer. Denial ain't a river in Egypt.

I would say that the whole conversation (dare I say life) is false, and the empty "love you"s are just one more layer.

Then the whole sad story becomes even sadder, because these two people have no truth in their lives - a husband who thinks he'll find truth in his empty career, and a wife who's hoping to find it in her empty partner.

Sorry, that's too deep for a Friday.

This was a really good article. It reminds me of several failed relationships I have witnessed, fortunately none of these people were married.

I think the issue with the non-working mothers feeling sad is not unique. My Mom didn't work (for a variety of reasons not all related to my father not wanting her to) and she ismiserable all of the time. You can hear the desperation in her voice coming from 23 years of complete boredom. And now that my sister and I are all grown up she can't work for health reasons. It makes me sad.

If your friend was my friend I would encourage her to get a part-time job or something once the kids go to school. At least that way she could gain a little independance and maybe some perspective on her life. Meet some friends that don't know her husband. But I'm meddlesome like that.

Then the whole sad story becomes even sadder, because these two people have no truth in their lives - a husband who thinks he'll find truth in his empty career, and a wife who's hoping to find it in her empty partner.

Yeah, Michele, thanks for trying to bring us down on a sunny Friday that finds the (beloved) Sox in first that also happens to be Tito Francona's birthday!

Oops, almost forgot - I love you.

15 to 20 calls a day while at work? That would get a little annoying after a while. No wonder the guy doesn't sound interested in talking.

I don't think it's the "non-working" thing that is necessarily making the woman sad. It's that she's trying to make a wonderful life, for a man that is emotionally elsewhere ... who doesn't want that life. Would she be any happier working? Especially factor in that a heck of a lot of people work at/in jobs that don't make them happy. For some, they work ONLY for a paycheck, and they find their happiness elsewhere (in their garden, or painting, or running, etc.)

The relationship Michele's describing seems like an obvious double-failure to me. Dickboy's got his career-and-wife track, but his wife has made choices all along the way. I've dumped a half-dozen women who gave up all their hobbies after we'd been dating for about six months. A lot of my female friends— women I never thought would surrender their goals and interests for some pre-packaged fantasy marriage —have shacked up in long-term relationships only to stop going out or having interests outside their relationship. Personally, I consider it a form of duplicity as conniving as Slartibartfast's "courtship behavior" model of male dating attitudes. You start dating someone because they're self-actualized and interesting, then they chuck it all and want to hand responsibility for everything over to you. Next thing you know they're calling you 25 times a day at work because they're bored out of their fucking mind.

For a few more dollar bills in his pocket, the dollars that go to hookers and drink, he has turned a once shining star of a woman into a cardboard cutout.

Sounds to me like she turned herself into a cardboard cutout. He just took her home and propped her up in the bedroom— which I reckon makes him at least as big a loser.

I don't know, I definetly think there is something to be said for having a job. Even if it is a stupid job like working at a gift shop or selling Mary Kay or something. Or even volunteering, my mom taught water aerobics at the YMCA for a while, she made like 12 bucks a week, and she LOVED it because she made new friends and went out and DID things that were not related to children, household, or husband.

It sounds like this woman has basically no indepedance, she has no part of her life that her husband doesn't share. And while I think sharing is great, everyone needs a place to go away from their partner sometimes. It is no fun coming home to someone you love if you never actually leave, they slowly turn into someone you resent. In fact if she had something to worry about besides her husband and her children she might stop calling him 20 times a day and he might get enough silence remember why he fell in love with her in the first place. (obviously not gauranteed)

I can't even imagine negating oneself so completely that you only exist in conjunction with another person. The dude is clearly not a good guy, but this scenario requires two willing participants. He's treating her that way because she's allowing him to treat her that way.

What we want is very often not good for us. The guy probably wanted a Stepford wife, he got one, and now he's not happy. The woman probably wanted a guy who'd be a good provider, who would take care of all her material needs, she got him and now she's not happy. As long as neither of them can find the courage to recognize that what they believed they wanted is harming them, and to actually DO something about it, the misery will continue.

Great story, Michele.

What Joshua said.

You can't live your life through someone else and be happy. I expect a woman like this would have such low self-esteem by this point that she would be too intimidated to try and get a job, aside from not having marketable skills.

That's why volunteering is so important - even if it starts out on the Room Mother level in kindergarten. It's a way of 'networking' with the people that control the behind-the-scenes stuff by the time your kids get to junior high and high school...fund raisers for the high school orchestra, grad night activities, work crew/clean-up days for the elementary school playground, parent representatives on school board issues (I sat on our H.S. Health Education committee, and it was an eye-opening experience for me - seeing what the teachers thought was perfectly appropriate to present to the students).

An important part of this is that the husband has the responsibility to respect the wife's activities and not demean or belittle them as having no value.

By the time my father died when I was 17, my mom was agoraphobic. She'd completely lost her own sense of self, having given over her life to support my father's. She worked for one year after they married, as a nurse - something she often told she'd wanted to be since she was a little girl (she even passed up a Hollywood screen test because of her dream). Once the kids started coming, she stayed home, and eventually just sort of became...invisible.

That's no way to live.

I dunno - I don't think I have to volunteer or do stuff outside of the house right now. I get to stay home and read, or sew, or garden, or write, or paint the walls. I get to do whatever I wanna do (well, after I've gotten the kids' lessons done.) I can even work on my pathetic blog. A sorry marriage is a sorry marriage. I don't know if the woman would be better off if she worked ... would their marriage be better? Would she not have chosen him in the first place?

She calls so frequently because she is afraid.

I have one point to make, and that is this: there is no such thing as a wasted education.

This is my first visit here. I came from Monkey McGee's. You wrote a wonderful post. I will be back.
As a college student in a relationship with a man whom intends to marry me, this post hits home (you said they married young, as we probably will). It's not that I feel like that woman, because I don't. At all. Today when I was broken down with stress and frustration, my Mr. brought me two ginger ales, a water, a chocolate, and himself, saying (with a smile), "I've brought you everything you could ever want." So I know he loves me and means it.
I have to believe that in 30 years we won't be like the sad couple you describe. We'll try our best not to be. Thanks for the reminder of what to avoid. I hope the couple you described heals their relationship.

I knew a guy just like that once. EVERY single time I talked to him without his wife present it was nothing but how tired he was of putting up with her. That woman was never good enough for him. The last time I talked to him was the day before his wife told me that she had found he had been sleeping with my wife for weeks. Out of the blue, my wife had asked me for a divorce. Apparently she had bought into his often repeated claim that he was going to divorce his wife.

That was 12 years ago, almost to this day now that I think about it.

And, oh yeah, he never did get that divorce.