Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Understanding the Sounds of Silence in Your Relationship

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”:

  • “We can go for hours without talking and be perfectly content.”
  • “He never talks.”
  • “She has no thought that goes unspoken!”
  • “When things are bad we stop talking.”

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 their partners’s history, personality, induced reactions, as well as the context they are in.

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 are 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:

  • Drop the Assumptions: Once you ask your partner if he/she is OK and your partner reports “fine,” assume the best, give him/her the space, then proceed as normal, “Do you feel like watching TV?”
  • Pick up the Clarifications: It is invaluable in a relationship, whether you are a very close couple or a couple repairing your bond that you clarify the meaning of your silence. “I’m just dealing with something at work. It’s not about us.” This drops the fear out of the situation and makes it easier for your partner to give you space or more calmly ask, “Can I help?” To which you may want to say, “No” or “Yes.”
  • There is room for options without assumptions. What this does is set up a pattern of mutual respect for separate problem solving on non-couple issues. Usually, when such space becomes part of a couple’s relationship, they don’t have to guard it so fiercely and they may more frequently ask the partner for an opinion.
  • Separate There and Then vs. Here and Now: If you find it very hard not to worry or assume the worst, NO MATTER WHAT YOUR PARTNER CLARIFIES, you might consider if you are mixing your history and the people from your childhood, or earlier relationships, with your present partner. With enough fear, accusation and insistence you can pretty much get the present to replicate the past.

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.

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.

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 described 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 “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 and a crucial step in resetting the 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.”

—Marcel Marceau

For more information on this topic, check out Allan N. Schore’s 2003 book Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self.