Updated version. Previously appeared on Postmodern Woman.
Are you one of those people who hates awkward silences? Do you feel like you have to fill in the quiet with something, anything? Have you ever dated or talked with someone who went silent and assumed they were bored, angry, or shutting you out?
My longest term partner felt like that a lot. He still isn’t very comfortable with silence. And he couldn’t stand it whenever I would go quiet, or when I wouldn’t respond, or when I’d simply sit on my own without making conversation.
There has been a lot of talk going around about how silence is a form of violence. And this makes a lot of sense. After all, we all grow up with the messages that to be shunned (usually depicted by people literally turning their back on a character) is awful and that the silent treatment is a go-to move (especially for women). And we’ve all had that person drop out of our lives without even a parting word.
Silence has become the enemy.
But this is missing the ‘words’ for the trees.
There are two types of relational silence — one that serves the connection, one that damages it. In the first, silence comes with the qualifier “I need some quiet time to reflect”, which is healthy and respectful to the connection. In the second, silence comes with no qualifier and others are left to wonder what is actually happening. In this case, silence is actually violence — a passive aggressive attempt to cause suffering, or, at the least, a negligent self-absorption that makes things worse. Given that so many of us grew up with the silent treatment, it is essential that we let others know what is happening when we go quiet. It is respectful and it keeps the love alive. Even something like “Time out!” can be enough to keep silence from turning into violence. (~an excerpt from ‘Love it Forward’)
For those of us who are introverted, who value our independence and individuality, who are autistic, who are empaths, who have been abused, who are creative (especially writers), who meditate or think a lot, or who are simply naturally quiet it is our default state.
For us, silence means many things:
- It may mean we’ve been hurt.
- It may mean we’ve been ignored.
- It may mean we recharge with silence.
- It may be that we’re just one of those who revel in it.
When people constantly talk over you, when you’ve been belittled or abused, when you think before you speak, when you recharge by focusing inward, when you need to focus it is by being silent if you are a person who is quiet.
Yet for those who don’t understand this sort of silence things can go terribly wrong. People have their feelings hurt. They don’t understand what went wrong. Like the quote above says: there are two kinds of silence. How are you to tell the difference? How can these types of people come to a healthy understanding?
Well, each one has a job to do.
The onus lies on the quiet person to speak up about their need for silence. Tell your partners what duration works best for you. Tell them if they’ve triggered you. If you’ve shut down then tell them why at the soonest possible moment or warn them that it’s coming. Tell them you need time to think about your reply. Tell them you enjoy having them near because being in the same space is a way to share yourself.
For the not-quiet person here are things to try: listen (quietly) while they speak. If you’re the type to interrupt or if you’re thinking about what to say next then work on that. You need to give them the space to open up in their own time. Instead of assuming they’ve shut down or shut you out, ask if they’re thinking or need time. If you find it hard to sit without talking then play some music.
Because for the empath, autistic, or the introvert it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Think about it as a smell. At first the scent is light and pleasant. But as the day wears on, the scent grows stronger and stronger, until you can barely concentrate on anything else. Even if you love the smell (say it’s your favorite perfume) you definitely feel uncomfortable when it’s caked on too much.
So the next time you find yourself panicking when your partner takes a breath that lasts three seconds (even if it seems like an eternity) or if you panic because only three seconds have passed before you’re being asked another question (they’re not trying to bombard you) please keep in mind that everyone is different. Remember that you must speak up so that they know your experience. Remember that you must listen so that you don’t miss anything. Remember that there are as many kinds of silence as there are people.
It is not something to fear. It is something to embrace. Because even if the silence is intentionally meant to hurt you, I can guarantee it still has nothing to do with you. And either way, you have to learn to deal with it. Let it go. Let it be.