My usually quick-to-learn husband needed time to master interpreting the different meanings of my silences. Perhaps their differences initially confused him. Perhaps quiet communion was new to him. But perhaps the greatest stumbling block was his expectation, reinforced through his childhood, college years, and especially law school, that people showed interest by engaging actively in conversation, sometimes even arguing.
Those who are trained in analysis and argument, such as those who attend law school, naturally become absorbed in verbal combat. When they confront an idea, they anticipate wrestling with it as others participate. As an example, if someone feels personally assaulted, a biblical scholar or well-trained lawyer expects them to fight back or at least to defend. My husband, schooled in both biblical and legal methods, needed time to understand that my silences can have multiple meanings, but that almost all are expressions of love, either to him or to myself.
The question of silence can be approached from two observation points. One examines using silence as a way to show love; the other surveys ways to respond to silences with love. Both require that we begin by examining some of the most common meanings of silence. Today I consider seven — the first five reflect love for the partner or for oneself; the last two are (silent) responses to conflict.
7 Meanings of Silence in a Relationship
1. Silence can simply show active listening.
By making space for loved ones to express themselves fully and completely, we permit them to say what they intend to say, allowing them to correct their words or clarify their thoughts along the way. Silence is particularly helpful when listening to those people who think through their thoughts as they speak. In Rorschach language, we describe those people as ”extratensive.” They are intuitive and are inclined to solve problems through trial and error. In contrast, “introversives” become quiet as they formulate what they would like to say. This difference in perception is responsible for an important bias in people’s attention. Sometimes it is culturally conditioned, as shown in a review of international studies that found an extratensive style to be more common to Americans than to people from other cultures. Americans often keep talking even as they try to decide what it is they want to say.
2. Silence can signal reflection.
For the introversives, silence can be the place-marker to gain the time they need to think through what they want to say or how they want to respond. A person with a highly reflective style uses silence most when his or her response can have the greatest consequences to another person or to the relationship.
3. Silence can be a way to avoid creating a distraction when a loved one’s attention is (or should be) elsewhere.
When we were teaching a granddaughter to drive in traffic, we quickly realized that speaking about anything except her driving itself was not helpful. When someone’s attention is engaged elsewhere, keeping quiet can be a gift. Of course, it is always OK to alert someone to an immediate danger.
4. Silence can be communion.
Sitting quietly together, engaged in a solitary or different-but-parallel pursuits or musings, people can feel a special closeness. Taking in moments of beauty or moments of awe come to mind. Overnight guests who can silently read the newspaper alongside you in the morning make themselves most welcome — except, of course, to those who effectively misperceive the silence as a form of withdrawal (see below). Personally, I prefer to read quietly, without someone commenting — but like the range of ways some respond to people talking during an engrossing television series, others prefer interaction.
5. Silence can simply mean that attention is engaged elsewhere.
A person may be observing what is taking place in the outside world or, on the contrary, tuning in to internal experiences. The engagement of the silent one can be fleeting (noting that the form of a cloud resembles two teddy bears dancing together) or more intense (contemplating the impact of climate change on cloud formations). An internal focus might be reviewing the day’s schedule or distinguishing between feelings of anxiety and feelings of excitement. Whether the focus is external or internal, it may stem from a person’s need to follow his or her own attention. Allowing attention to go where it needs to is a nourishing act of self-love. These silences may have little to do with the other person in the relationship but can be accessed later for sharing.
6. Sometimes, silence announces the presence of “an elephant in the room.”
In this case, effective conversation ceases when an important topic is not being addressed. As the proverbial elephant in the room, being ignored, stomps around and trumpets, both people try to pretend it isn’t there. Silence reflects collusion in ignoring the problem, acting as if it does not exist, or that it can wait until “later."
7. Silence can be a sign of withdrawal.
For the other person, it can feel sullen or even hostile. It can indicate a refusal to be involved, the toxic situation that Levenson and Gottman label “stonewalling.” As such, it becomes a passive-aggressive attack. It is important that people who expect active engagement as the default mode of interaction understand that when silence comes from a positive place, it expresses just the opposite — i.e., a sign of love. Being able to decode the various meanings of a loved one’s silence is essential to responding in a loving way.
Can you identify times when you have engaged in each of the seven kinds of silence? Do your silences most typically fit specific meanings? Which are most comfortable for you, and which feel less familiar? Think of the times when people you love are silent. What messages do their silences carry? How easily can you distinguish among the messages they send? Can you think of an “elephant in the room” moment in your own life?
This week, I explored seven meanings of silence. Next week I will discuss responding to them in ways that show love.
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower
Visit me at www.miracleatmidlife.com