Most couples know the positive sounds of silence–the mutual experience of sharing time and space together without needing words. Be it walking the dog together, cooking side by side or listening to music–it is the silence of connection and love.
Many couples also know the silence that reflects tension, conflict or disconnection. Unable to speak beyond the necessities of daily life, these couples report, “ We just don’t talk anymore!”
If we recognize “ talking together” as a metaphor for the communication of confidantes, the special interest of partners and the pillow talk of intimates, then we understand that this is a silence that can start to feel emotionally deafening.
Why do couples who once had so much to say end up feeling this way? Is it inevitable as time passes in a marriage? Is there a way back?
Years together need not result in negative sounds of silence.
Yes, events can disrupt harmony and patterns can erode vitality, but if couples are curious rather than blameful about the silence between them, they may find some reasons and remedies to speak together again.
If we look closer at those partners who end up sitting in a restaurant with nothing to say, painfully aware of the couples happily chatting around them, we find that partners are often unaware of what they may be doing or what has happened to shut down the verbal connection.
Here are some possibilities:
- The Monologue: Sometimes a partner is in so much need of attention, affirmation or containment by the other that they never stop talking. More interested in what they have to say, they barely realize there is no space for dialogue. The listening partner often complies as audience for a time but there is no real ” we sharing ” and eventually no reason to continue talking.
- The Critique: Sometimes speaking has become unsafe if one or both partners imply by verbal criticism, overt disinterest or non-verbal gestures that what the other is saying is of little interest or importance. Some are embarrassed or enraged into silence. Some give-up. Some find outside confidantes who want to listen—while the silence at home builds.
- The Interrogation: Demands that a partner report feelings, the day’s events or reactions to what has been said take the wish to share and turn it into obligation. The result is an emotional shutdown. Events may be reported but no one is really speaking as partners.
- The Secret: Often when a partner is holding a secret from the other – be it a financial problem, infidelity, self-doubts, fears, or even a new personal goal - authenticity is impossible and real communication compromised.
- The Unsayable: Sometimes a couple has suffered a traumatic event outside the realm of everyday life that has taken their breath away as well as their words. Be it the traumatic loss of a loved one, a serious injury or unexpected destruction, they avoid talking about it as a way to avoid the feelings attached. Until they find a way to talk, however, talking about anything else can feel impossible.
Can couples find a way to speak again?
I have maintained in working with couples over many years, that if partners want to re-set their relationship—-almost anything is possible. Here are two remedies that work in tandem with each other.
Self and Mutual Reflection:
It is always valuable to start with self as we have more capacity to change self than anyone else. We also know that if we are doing something for reasons that we do not own or are outside of our consciousness, raising our awareness puts change back into our hands.
Accordingly, it would be valuable for each partner to personally consider and then possibly share the following:
- Am I speaking in a way that makes my partner want to listen?
- Am I listening in a way that makes my partner want to speak?
- Would I be willing to share my thoughts with my partner?
- Would I be willing to ask for some feedback?
- Are my non-verbal communications (eye contact, touch, body language) shutting down communication and closeness?
- Should we seek consult from a professional?
- Would outside help offer a perspective for healing and reconnection that we may be unable to find on our own?
The Re-setting Experience:
- A quick way for partners to re-set a pattern of shared connection, interest and talking together is the decision to share something new together.
- Be it taking dance lessons, getting a new pet, planning a trip, starting a mini business, joining a club with new friends, competing as a couple etc., couple research tells us that what is novel stimulates interest, co-participation, neurochemistry and even sexual arousal.
- While this may seem simplistic, what we know about domains of communication is that when two people are doing something with a mutual goal, they inevitably speak. When they speak they are interested in what the other has to say. They feel valued and valuable. They see each other in a new light. Often they even feel desire. (Have you ever wondered about the cause of office relationships?)
- When a couple is reflecting on negative patterns that have disrupted or derailed their communication, a new experience can offer a positive platform for trying out new effective patterns.
- When there has been so much pain connected with “ talking,” there may be more mileage in initially doing something positive than saying something positive.
Couples who have been together for any amount of time can become trapped into silence for many reasons.
Sometimes the pain is such that professional help can be invaluable.
In all cases, however, couples can benefit from daring to step together outside the ordinary bounds of their life. Inevitably they give themselves “ Something to talk about!!”
Unhappy couple photo available from Shutterstock
Last reviewed: 24 Apr 2013
Phillips, S. (2013). When Couples Stop Talking: Reasons and Remedies. Psych Central.
Retrieved on August 20, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2013/04/when-couples-stop-talking-reasons-and-remedies/