“There’s this huge space between us,” Angelina Jolie as Jane Smith tells her marriage counselor in the 2005 movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, “and it just keeps filling up with everything that we don’t say to each other.”
These are the words my sister, Annie, quotes when I ask her how her 4-year temple marriage ended in divorce. Annie continues, “We [my husband and I] could sit in silence for a whole day; I mean, sit right next to each other and not say a word. A whole day. Almost every day.”
Perhaps the fact that I’m not from Utah Valley amplifies my bewilderment at such a relationship. It is inexplicable. It is incomprehensible. It blows my mind. However, inexplicable or not, incomprehensible or not, mind-blowing or not, this dialogue of silences seems to be the status quo among relationships in Utah Valley.
I’m reminded of the adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But in the case of my sister and so many other couples around here, what starts as a well-meaning reminder of proper etiquette transforms itself into a distorted social expectation doomed to backfire. All the unspoken, repressed, self-denied, and euphemized words eventually come out somehow. And, if the words we wish we could say have to find another avenue of expression, chances are, it ends up being pathological.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a progressive, military, feminist family. As children, we were given equal say in a conversation (though not equal share in topics that were beyond our years or business) and as such, were invited to speak freely. If we preferred silence, this, too, was respected. Ironically, the more freedom to be silent we as children were given, the more open we became as adults.
It isn’t just a standard of silence that makes Utah Valley relationships stand out to me. It’s the barely-contained wildness in the eyes of a region positively seething with a need to express utter honesty of feeling that really gets my attention. I used to think that I experienced a great deal of conflict in the military lifestyle I was raised in. War was, after all, the reason behind our existence; our livelihood depended on continuing conflict.
It wasn’t until I moved to Orem as a civilian in 2009 that I learned that conflict doesn’t have to be spoken to ensue. What’s unsaid (or misrepresented, as is just as often the case here) can cause far more damage than a straightforward disagreement. That straightforward part, well, it was a character trait I’d always known to be a virtue. Turns out, this “virtue” has been the single most effective destroyer of friendships here that I have encountered.
Per my experience, when someone in Utah Valley looks unhappy but says “I’m fine” when queried, “I’m fine” actually translates into “Don’t ask.” “Don’t ask” can be further translated as “I really need to talk but I’m not giving myself permission to say anything because if I say something negative, I’m somehow evil.” Or “If I say what I really mean, I’ll accidentally burst the dam of unacknowledged feelings I’ve been storing up since childhood when I first learned the phrase ‘Contention is of the Devil’.”
To a soldier, distress is visible in a person no matter how long they sit in self-imposed silence or how many times “I’m fine” comes out of their mouths. What can I say, Utah Valley? We military people train to resolve conflict. We’re not war-mongering savages, but we’re not exactly pacifists, either. We know the signs of trouble, and there’s trouble in Mormonland. What are we supposed to do when all we see around us are smiles barely hiding tears, honeyed words masking bitter resentment, shrugs meant to convey nonchalance instead of deep disappointment, and slight scowls intended to show only a slight irritation, not the rage of a culture repressed?
John and Jane Smith sure let one hell of a cat out of the bag when they finally started talking: Houses destroyed, highways disrupted, a couple of amateur assassins unceremoniously disposed of, and all that good stuff we love to watch but are too chicken to do. Seems like a recipe for disaster, this radical idea of finally getting honest. But I’ll never forget the smirk on Brad Pitt’s face as he held up ten fingers for his marriage counselor in response to “the sex question.” It’s time for a collective catharsis, people. Let’s have some good, healthy, absolutely annihilating upheaval.
Afterwards, when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared, we can rest united, basking in the afterglow, and drink in the supremely satisfying and otherwise unobtainable ecstasy of unrestrained self-expression.