The Talking Cure, or: How to Ruin a Relationship

When you’re not in a relationship, it’s easy to dream in

romantic film clips: zipping around sunny Italy with a swarthy fellow whose

sole desire is to take you off the market ( Roman

Holiday ) … or having a miraculously evolved man burst in on you and your

many angry female friends and proclaim, “You complete me” ( Jerry Maguire ). What we forget are the movies that capture the more

sober side of relationships, like Persona,

the Bergman film where two psychologically tortured characters exist in black

and white, inhabiting bleak, sparsely furnished rooms, muttering in Swedish,

one speaking in prolonged chunks as the other seems poised for insanity. The

film that perfectly captures what I think of as the “Relationship Talk.” The

talk that feels like the verbal equivalent of a hamster on a Habitrail wheel,

spinning away but going nowhere in a cage filled with various pieces of The New York Times and very little

water.

For many couples, talking has become the method of choice

when addressing bumps in the road. Believing that problems are caused by a lack

of communication, they turn to communication to fix them. Now, don’t get me

wrong; I support talking. I love a hearty, abstract discussion peppered with

lines that begin, “I just feel like …” or “It hurt me when….” But as I embark

on my second year of being absolutely and completely single, I look at my

friends struggling in relationships and think maybe they’re talking too much. I

used to talk that much-and now I’m absolutely and completely single.

Have we turned into a generation of talkaholics, who look to

words to solve every problem when other options might be better? Why are

couples talking so much these days?

“Women tend to be the instigators of the ‘talks-about-us,'”

said a female movie producer. “But most of us fight the urge to ask, ‘What are

you thinking?’-which we all know means, ‘What are you thinking about me ?'”

A petite blonde chopped the air as she made a similar point.

“When women talk, we’re giving certain signals that all we want is comfort.

Women pick that up; men don’t. When I say to a female friend, ‘I feel fat,’ she

knows to say, ‘You look amazing.’ When I say it to my boyfriend, he says, ‘Why

don’t you go on a diet?'”

An Internet guy who looks like a portly Matthew Broderick

agreed that women say one thing, but want something else. “The only talking

women want is for men to say, ‘I love you and cherish you and you are the

skinniest and prettiest.’ All men want women to say is, ‘I want to have sex

with another woman and you can watch.'” He continued, “Show me a woman of few

words and I’ll show you a Muslim.”

I did find one man-a friend who’s had “two serious

four-month relationships in nine years”-who said he’s usually the one who wants

to talk. “I like to talk about things,” he told me. “I’ve been accused of

liking to talk about things too much, but I guess I just talk until the other

person realizes I’m right.”

Like many New York men, he has only beer and Chinese-mustard

packets in his refrigerator.

Generally, the men I spoke with dreaded the heart-to-heart.

“If a woman tells me, ‘Let’s talk,'” a real estate broker said, “it’s my cue to

go in the other direction.”

“This requirement to ‘be honest’ about their feelings haunts

men, because men-honestly-simply do not know how they feel,” said a musician

who’s in analysis five days a week. “They will spend hours being grilled and

filleted by their female mates about how they feel, when some white lies and

some white wine make for a more pleasant evening.”

Sensing that so many men have come to fear “a talk” more

than debating china patterns, women say that while they once believed couples

should discuss everything, now they’re not so sure. A woman who asked to be

described as a “leggy model even though I’m not” said, “In the old days, when

sex roles were clearer, women didn’t expect men to be their best friends. Now I

realize it’s unfair to presume a man will fulfill so many roles. It’s not

realistic to make this man your lying-around friend, your going-to-the-movies

friend, your telling-the-minutiae-of-the-day friend.” When I asked another

woman how much couples should talk, she replied, “How much do you want to stay

in the relationship?”

Others felt that “laying everything on the table” was

putting women at a disadvantage. “Men need to be managed, ” a freelance magazine writer said. “You don’t want them to

see the strings.”

A divorcée who dresses in chic ski outfits believes men view

so much talk as excessively needy, and that “men smell need on a woman like bad

perfume.” She went on to say, “Men judge women for having needs because they

don’t think they have needs-because

women always anticipate them.”

Several women also said that, while they don’t think lots of

talking is necessarily helping, it’s tied into their idea of a strong woman.

“It seems somehow anti-feminist not to tell your mate everything these days,” a

book-store manager sighed, examining a pimple she said was caused by stress.

“But I have to tell you, the minute I stopped playing games, he got scared.”

An actress who worries that her biological clock is ticking

also mentioned the concept of the modern woman. “Women didn’t talk about

relationships this much before the pill,” she said. “Now they have control of

their bodies and when to have sex, so they can say what they want and walk away

if they have to.”

Privately, many women are saying they’re looking for

alternatives to the talkathon. “Men are uncomfortable with women coming at them

directly. They deal with that at work,” the freelance writer said. “Now, when I

want to talk about something with my boyfriend, I make him a cocktail. Relax

him a little and then pounce.”

Her friend smiled. “It’s

so ironic,” she said. “Men get women drunk to have sex with them and you’re

getting your boyfriend drunk to talk.”

When I asked for solutions, the only suggestion came from

the real estate broker: “More sex and silence.” Well, in silent films, couples

relate in brief placards. An “I am struggling with issues about my parents’

marriage and how that affects me” is reduced to a brief “Help!” on-screen.

Another possibility is Quest For Fire ,

where mud-covered singles wander the earth content to pick nits out of each

other’s fur and loiter in caves. Primitive, yes, but little need for couples’

counseling. Or maybe musicals have something to teach us. “My therapist says

you’re controlling” would sound much better set to Cole Porter.

Perhaps the problem is not talking at all, but instead the

truth behind why we talk. “Women don’t want talk

from talk,” the actress said. “They think that, through talk, they can get

a man to change . But men only change

through evolution. So we’ve got another three billion years.”