• “I just can’t live another minute with those sports announcers screeching at me from the TV.”
  • “I’ll drive but I’m not listening to Sinatra.”
  • “I know you’re hot but I can’t sleep with the sound of the air conditioner.”

Two recent books, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer and George Foy’s expressed intolerance for noise in Zero Decibels: the Quest for Absolute Silence stirred my thinking about how couples negotiate noise.

Notwithstanding definitions that include volume and decibels, noise is perhaps best defined as “unwanted sound.” As such the definition of noise is particularly contextual and subjective.

Your baby’s cries are cause for concern; the cries of the baby in the seat behind you on a three hour flight are different. One person’s rap song is another’s nightmare. The cell phone call you take on the train may be urgent to you – but it is “unwanted sound” to everyone else.  The dance band at the wedding is great if you are dancing – deafening if you are not.

Noise in the Lives of Couples

Given that the definition of noise is subjective and as Keizer suggests a function of needs, biases and history, noise is something that partners create, endure, avoid, stress over or negotiate together.

Consider the following in terms of you and your partner:

Partners Come with Noise

Much as we bring our histories and “our stuff” to our relationships, we bring noise. The same person you love who also loves pets, sports, music or neighbors “stopping by,” brings noise.

On one hand, you might consider that if such sources of noise bring a sense of well being to your partner, they may be worth enduring or working around. When the “girls come over,” find a quiet spot. When the game is on, pull up a chair or head to the mall.

If, on the other hand, your noise or the noise of your partner keeps one or the other from basic needs or important tasks as sleeping, studying, making a business call etc., it may have to be re-considered as an unwanted sound for both of you.

Function Changes the Tolerance for Noise

It is an observation worth making that most partners tolerate the decibels involved in tasks that benefit both of them. Most people don’t complain about the clamor of pots and pans in the kitchen when dinner is prepared and rarely does a partner stop the other from cutting the grass or expanding the garage despite the sounds of the mower or hammer.

Neighbor Noise

Nothing enhances the cohesion of a couple quicker than noisy neighbors. In the best of scenarios, you problem solve as a team – who goes overly diplomatically, who befriends the neighbor, who calls the police?

Given that your tolerance and definition of noise may be different, it may be that not until your partner points it out do you begin to stress about the sound of the neighbors. Your focus has now been drawn to it and your partner is upset.

This invites the interesting question of whether you can re-frame the noise for both of you – “Thank God they only have this party once a year.”  “With the air conditioner on we really can’t hear them.”

It’s always worth trying to problem solve creatively rather than letting the problem of the neighbors’ noise become a problem between you.

“Let’s open champagne and put on some music we love – really loud.”

Emotionally Valenced Noise

You may have noticed that negativity or criticism sounds louder than normal speech. You may have said or heard your partner say “stop yelling at me” in response to the content – not the decibels of the exchange.  It is much like the response of children covering their ears even when parents are fighting in hushed tones. In all cases, it is worth recognizing that what is being said is emotionally too loud to be heard.

Creating Noise Together

The best balance to the noise that each of you bring to the relationship is the noise you make together – Laughing together in the movie at a part that no one else thinks is funny; Singing together so loudly that people in the other cars stare at you; Wondering if the people in the next room heard you the night before when you meet them at breakfast….

These are “wanted sounds” to both of you.

Escaping Noise Together

In the preface to his book, George Foy shares a quote by Max Picard that is worth considering as a couple   – “Go where silence is and say something.”

Given this culture of unending sounds, it’s worth setting time aside to escape to a quiet place without noise to speak or just be together.



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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (July 13, 2010)

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    Last reviewed: 28 Dec 2010

APA Reference
Phillips, S. (2010). How Couples Negotiate Noise. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2010/07/how-couples-negotiate-noise/


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