Silence can mean many things. It can mean yes, no, agreement or disagreement. It can imply contentment or dissatisfaction, safety or fear. It can be accompanied by the smile of approval or the scorn of judgment. What do the sounds of silence mean between you and your partner?
As much as people are similar and men and women relate in some gender predictable ways—usually, it is a woman who says, “We need to talk”—couples are unique in the fabric of their relationship. How they speak, love, fight, eat, and watch TV is really specific to them and relationship they share. The meaning and experience of silence in their relationship is reflective of who they are as individuals and how they relate as a “We”:
Misinterpretation of Silence
One area that often impedes the growing, healing and resiliency of a couple is the misinterpretation of the silence between them. Whether they are new partners or seasoned lovers, couples have an uncanny notion that they “know” what the other is thinking and feeling, and react accordingly. Unfortunately, this often precludes expanded knowing of their partner because they fail to account for Non-Couples issues, history, induced reactions, and context.
Non-Couples Issues: While there are many “pros” to thinking as a “We,” one of the downsides is to believe that all your partner’s reactions including his or her silence is about you. The difficulty is that once you make that assumption, you are setting yourself and your partner up for stress and confusion. For example: Your partner comes home from work, says hi, and then silently goes through the mail. Worried you ask, “Is everything OK?”
“Fine.” Still worried you ask, “Why are you not talking?”
Now he/she sounds irritated “I don’t feel like talking.”
You move from worry to anger: “I wait for you to come home, and you don’t feel like talking?”
Partner walks into another room.
Remedy: Undoing this type of vicious cycle takes a mutual effort of trust. Try the following:
Remedy: Be curious, think about it, write about it and try to disrupt the induced negative feelings in self and partner by clarifying for your partner, “I think I get scared no matter what you say because my association to silence is of someone punishing me.” You are back in the here and now. If you just can’t seem to break this fear-assumption pattern, outside professional guidance may be helpful.
Consider the Context: As articulated by Charlie Walton when learning of the death of his two teenage boys, sometimes There are No Words. Silence reflects the fact that the “unsayable” has happened. Sometimes this is the shared experience of both partners in the face of tragedy, trauma, or loss. Sometimes because people and men and women grieve differently, one partner wants the other to speak, to “ say something.” Alternative: Be authentic. Clarify that you wish you could but you can’t. If you can, use non-verbal means – a hug, food, just listening as your way of responding.
It’s Just Not Me: There are certain situations that illuminate the personality differences or social styles in partners. For some, when they are with other couples, she is silent and he wants her to speak more or when they are alone, he wants to read and she wants him to speak more. The differences don’t imply lack of love; they imply differences. The challenge here is not about giving up who you are but working together to respect the other’s style while trying some couple accommodations. They plan to go out with a couple that she feels more comfortable speaking to. He reads a chapter and then takes a walk and talk along the beach. The accommodations often expand personality styles.
Misuse of Silence
Silent rage or the silent treatment as punishment is toxic and threatening to the vitality of any relationship. As we say in Healing Together, “Refusing to talk despite the other’s attempts to apologize or positively reconnect is actually an in-your-face statement that you are withholding connection, respect and the opportunity to resolve the problem(s).” It creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that makes safety, intimacy and couples’ resiliency impossible.
Remedy: Communicate to the silent partner in writing your feelings and your need to speak about the issues between you. Suggest use of a self-help guide and or consultation with a professional. Be certain to secure your physical and emotional safety with outside resources if your partner can not drop his/her anger.
Positives of Silence
Powerful Bond Between Individuals: A couple’s ability to find a safe and affirming space in silence is a gift of trust and peace. Much as psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott describes the importance of the infant’s individuation as the capacity to play alone in the presence of the mother, a couple’s ability to have separate silent space while remaining bonded reflects their independence as well as their bond.
Just Being There: Researchers (Schore, 2003) confirm that when people are intimately connected they are acutely aware of each other’s non-verbal cues in a way that impacts each other even beyond conscious awareness. Recognizing and using “Just Being There” as a powerful recovery tool to soothe and support each other in the day to day journey as well as in the recovery from trauma underscores the potency of connection — even without words. See my blog post “What is Couple Psychological First Aid?” for more on this.
What Words Can’t Say: As addressed in my 2008 book Healing Together and my blog post “Reclaiming Sexual Intimacy in Your Relationship,” there is a intimate bond that couples share physically that can not at times be translated into words. For some, words have been so misunderstood that silent intimate connection becomes the step before the words, making this a crucial step in the recovery of their bond.
As a couple, consider giving new meaning to silence by side by side meditation, sharing nature, walking side by side, driving in the “company” of the other, enjoying the sounds of silence.
“Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music.”
For more information on this topic, check out Allan N. Schore’s 2003 book Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self.
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Last reviewed: 3 Sep 2010