Imagine this: you and your partner aren’t talking. What scenario are you envisioning? Perhaps you’ve assumed you’re arguing and the silence is pregnant with words not spoken. Or maybe you’re imagining a time when you’re feeling totally relaxed and comfortable, and enjoying the opportunity to simply be with your partner without having to make chitchat.
Here’s a third possibility: You’re occupying the same physical space and doing something independently. You’re not arguing and you’re not relaxing together. You’re simply sharing space as couples do, and not talking (or talking very little) because you’re each doing your own thing.
This third type of silence can be a problem, depending on the psychological makeup of the partners.
Sandra and William have been together for three years. They are building a business together and spend lots of time in each other’s company. Sandra sometimes wants down time when she doesn’t have to interact with William. When she’s feeling this way, she tunes him out, not because she’s angry with him but because she needs her space.
William was raised by a volatile and unpredictable mother whose silence made him anxious because he wasn’t sure what would pop up next, something good or trouble. For him, silence is a warning sign—there may be danger ahead!
For the first couple years of their relationship, these competing need systems created tension and unhappiness. Seeking re-assurance, he would break their silence with a joke or comment. She would respond curtly, if at all. This left William feeling even more anxious (“She’s not being nice, so I guess there really is trouble ahead!”), and Sandra feeling annoyed: “Why does he keep yakking when he knows I need my down time?”
Once they realized that these silences were creating unhappiness and distance, they discussed what was going on and came up with a straightforward solution. Whenever Sandra wanted private down time, she committed to giving him a big loving hug and telling him how much she loved him, and that she was going to go into her private space for a while. William pledged to self-soothe if anxieties arose about her silence, rather than going to her for reassurance.
Have you and your partner discussed what your silences mean to each of you? It’s important to do so—otherwise, it can lead to misunderstandings and unhappiness.
It’s not good to be silent about silence.
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