Is silence golden in relationships

The Importance of Silence in Relationships — Pathways Professional Counseling

Ross Hickman, MA, LPC-S, Registered Play Therapist Supervisor, Pathways President

We’ve all been there; during a conversation, we don’t feel we’re being heard—or maybe worse, heard but not understood. So, we increase our volume and rate of speech, getting agitated. We feel disrespected and frustrated because our thoughts and feelings are being dismissed. This situation is typically initiated by the listeners’ ill-timed, negative, verbal or non-verbal responses.   

Non-verbal communication plays a vital role in how we interact with others. It is commonly quoted that communication is 90% nonverbal communication and body language, with the remainder made up of actual words and other vocal elements. You can find different studies that quote different amounts of non-verbal communication in relationships, but regardless of which is true, we know for a fact that non-verbals play a very important role in how we communicate and perceive communication.  One piece of communication that accompanies our nonverbal reactions is silence. We can convey approval, disapproval, anger, or other messages through a silent response.



Silence can be positive or negative in our communications. When we experience it negatively,  it can take on the form of the silent treatment, which most of us have both received and delivered at some point in our lives. Additionally, responding with silence when someone needs verbal validation or encouragement can be devastating to a relationship.

Positive silence is necessary for strong relationships to last. Healthy silence can show a level of vulnerability and comfort within a relationship. At other times, one or both individuals may need a break from verbal communication, just being content in each other’s space. Healthy silence can also be utilized when a person is angry and escalating. Simply being quiet and not escalating with the speaker can extinguish a damaging situation before it begins.



Utilizing silence for positive outcomes is greatly dependent on active listening, which is a learned skill. James 1:19 states, “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”

Active listening involves intentionally processing what we are hearing before we initiate or formulate a response or rebuttal. It is meeting the other person where they are emotionally and cognitively. At that point, a good, active listener processes what they are hearing and does not force their own frame of reference into the situation.

  1. Give the speaker your undivided attention and remove distractions. Turn off the television or radio, and both the speaker and listener should put any audio/video device on silent and place in another room. Keep constant eye contact with the speaker and keep still, not reacting with any negative body language (i. e. sighing, dropping your head, or tapping your fingers).

  2. Allow the speaker to completely finish what they are saying before responding.

  3. Summarize what the speaker has conveyed and ask for clarity if you don’t understand any part of what they’ve said.

  4. Do not offer suggestions or judgment when responding to their statement; you can discuss your opinion later, after they feel truly heard.

Using silence is key to good active listening. Letting silence and processing happen allows the listener to digest what they have heard and respond at the right time with a thoughtful reply. Proverbs 15:23 tells us that to give an appropriate answer is joy, and that a word spoken at the right time is delightful.

Embracing silence is not easy, but it is an important part of healthy relationship communication.

Is Silence Golden in Love?

“Silence is golden, but my eyes still see.” —The Tremeloes

“Distance doesn’t separate people . . . Silence does.” —Jeff Hood

Silence is often considered a virtue. Should we also encourage silence in romantic relationships?

Two philosophical models of romantic love

Two major philosophical models of profound romantic love are the “care model,” which focuses on promoting our partner’s well-being through attentiveness to his or her needs, and the “dialogue model,” where reciprocity, shared experiences, and autonomy are central. Both models express genuine aspects of romantic love.

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

The care model, which is more popular, emphasizes the beloved’s needs (Frankfurt 1999; Helm 2010). Caring, which is central in romantic love, goes beyond a positive attitude toward the wish to be with the beloved — it seeks to enhance the beloved’s well-being. In this view, genuine love has less to do with the lover’s own needs than with a strong concern for the other, accompanied by actual deeds. Caring is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for maintaining enduring, profound romantic love.

The dialogue model, endorsed today by Angelika Krebs (2014, 2015) and others, considers the shared connection between the partners as the bedrock of love and views shared emotional activities and experiences as the foundational features of the connection. The connection amplifies the flourishing of the lovers, as well as the flourishing of their relationship. As Krebs tells us, we do not thrive in isolation: We are social creatures.

Silence is more natural in the caring model than in the dialogical one.

When silence is depriving

“I decided it is better to scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.” —Nadezhda Mandelstam

“Silence is argument carried out by other means.” —Che Guevara

“Words can sting like anything, but silence breaks the heart.” —Phyllis McGinley

The interaction between lovers is most significant in nurturing enduring, profound love. Verbal communication is the infrastructure upon which romantic interactions are built. Silence, then, seems to run counter to romantic love (at least in the dialogue model).

There is considerable evidence indicating the importance of shared activities and experiences in romantic love. Couples’ dialogue and reciprocity are the main pillars of thriving romantic relationships. Thus, research has found that shared activities, which are satisfying, stress‐free, and increase closeness, predicted greater relationship quality in the short and long term. Moreover, openness and self-disclosure, which are the opposite of silence, are vital for enduring romantic relations. In this sense, when it comes to romantic relationships, silence is not golden (Girme, et al. 2014; Määttä & Uusiautti 2013).

Relatedly, a substantial body of research has shown that relationship quality tends to be higher among religious couples in which partners share common religious affiliations, practices, and beliefs. One study found that couples' in‐home family devotional activities and shared religious beliefs are positively linked with relationship quality. As the popular saying goes, “Couples who pray together stay together” (Ellison, et al. 2010).

Returning to the negative nature of silence in love, we may note its affinity with contempt. As George Bernard Shaw claimed, “Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn.” Interestingly, John Gottman (1995) identified contempt as the most destructive negative behavior in relationships and the number-one predictor of divorce. Contempt does not allow for a respectful dialogue.

The “silent treatment” is a common response to relational conflict — but it infrequently improves the situation. Refusal to verbally communicate with someone who desires communication with you can be hurtful and prolong the conflict. If you have anything to say, just say it and get it over with.

What about when people have nothing left to say to each other? You both come home from a long day in the wild, sit down for dinner, and eat silently — as neither has anything to say to the other. Such silence can signal very low-quality relations.

When silence is golden

“Silence is a source of great strength.” —Lao Tzu

Despite the above aspects indicating the harmful nature of silence in loving relationships, there are circumstances where silence is indeed golden — mainly in preventing further deterioration.

Emotions are typically genuine expressions of our overall attitudes. However, these expressions can become extreme to the extent that they merely relate to our fleeting feelings and not to our stable, profound attitudes — the latter are authentically expressed in our actual behavior (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). Silence can reduce or prevent hostile escalation between lovers. However, silencing our emotions as a permanent policy is destructive, since emotions play a leading part in surviving and flourishing. Nevertheless, occasional silence, when our emotional reactions are likely to be too extreme, can be very good for a relationship. Indeed, in certain face-to-face interactions, as well as in online loving relationships, the silent person is heard louder, more clearly, and less offensively.

The value of silence in romantic relations is associated with the value of tact and discretion. Tact is a virtue, expressing profound sensitivity; hence, it is commonly praised, even if it is rarely practiced. Tact involves the profound wish to avoid hurting the other’s well-being, mainly by avoiding giving offense and behaving in a way that enables the other to maintain her dignity. Tact often involves silence and discretion. However, as Samuel Butler said: “Silence is not always tact, but it is tact that is golden, not silence.” If tact simply meant remaining silent, it would be easy to acquire this virtue. There are, of course, circumstances in romantic relationships in which silence is the tactful choice. For example, supplying your current lover with details about your ex-lovers could be tactless. Sometimes, there is a certain value in romantic silence and ignorance (Ben-Ze’ev & Teitelbaum, 2019).

Silence happens in relations. Maybe you’re too tired to talk. And then there is a comfortable kind of silence, showing a level of mutual ease.

Concluding remarks

“Sometimes you don't have to say anything. Silence speaks it all.” —Disha Patani

When silence is not limited to specific circumstances but characterizes the whole relationship, it is usually harmful. Similarly, when sadness and fear are not reactions to specific circumstances, but are ongoing experiences, they may turn into depression and anxiety, which are hurtful.

Silence, which is a kind of limited mental disengagement within an ongoing relationship, differs from actual separation. Nevertheless, the harmful nature of silence often leads to separation, where two individuals are not silent with each other — they simply lack connection.

The great value of silence in romantic relationships is in preventing hurting the other person. Dialogue, which is the opposite of silence, is most valuable for nurturing relations and making them thrive. Silence is sometimes golden in intimate relations. However, in enduring, profound love, silence is rather noisy, and its sound is rather unpleasant — a far cry from being golden.

Is silence golden? When unspoken rules hurt relationships


© Joshua Ness/Unsplash

May 22, 2019

We are proud that with close people we can understand each other literally without words. But sometimes silently following the script can hide problems and undermine relationships from the inside. We tell you how to detect and neutralize dangerous unspoken rules.

“Some things don’t even need to be said”, “Everything is clear here without words”, “We have an unspoken rule that…”. Everyone must have said such phrases at least once in their life, talking about their relationships with loved ones: family, friends, partner. nine0003

It may seem that unspoken rules are a sign of mutual understanding and a high degree of empathy. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Silent agreements can be symptoms of hidden problems and can be a source of unrealistic expectations.

The most striking example is the unwillingness to discuss the future with a partner. One may not do it because he does not see this future or does not want to make a commitment. Another is afraid to break the delicate balance in relationships and lose a loved one. At the same time, both can interpret silence in different ways and build their own scenarios for the development of events. nine0003

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Quiet contracts are more prosaic and are imperceptibly built into everyday life. “Mom criticizes my wardrobe, but I never get into an argument with her.” “My child brings good grades from school, so I don’t interfere in his affairs.” “My friend and I never talk about finances.” “In our couple, I do the travel planning.” Some of these agreements are harmless and may even act as good manners - for example, when in the company of friends it is not customary to criticize each other's lovers. Others are toxic and act like a time bomb. nine0003

To figure out if an unspoken rule poses a danger to relationships or your mental health, you need to honestly analyze it and understand whether it has one or several destructive components at once: fear, layering and static.

What's happening. We are often motivated to keep silent by the fear of saying too much, of being misunderstood, of breaking the balance, of losing something or someone. We remain silent instead of expressing dissatisfaction, and gradually an unpleasant situation becomes the norm: we are overwhelmed with additional work, burdened with household chores, criticized, ignored, chosen for us, or, conversely, forced to make difficult decisions. Or you, without noticing it, are stressing a loved one. Let's say you and your partner have recently moved in together, but you still follow the unspoken rule - he pays for you everywhere. Perhaps your partner would like to offer a joint budget, but is afraid that you will take his desire to share the costs for weakness and be disappointed in him. nine0003

What to do. Try to remember as many of the unspoken rules that you have in your relationship as possible and understand why you didn't say them. If fear is at the root of silence, it makes sense to discuss the established tradition. Do not attack the other person, but share your experiences.

© Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

What's going on. Some quarrels end in nothing and literally hang in the air when none of the participants is ready to make concessions and change their principled position. In this case, many resort to the help of unspoken rules, which are convenient to cover up everything that is difficult to understand: overdue disagreements, cooled feelings and strong grievances. nine0003

For example, you had an argument with a friend. After some time, you began to communicate again, but you never discussed the quarrel, that is, you established an unspoken rule not to raise a difficult topic for both. Perhaps such a trick will not affect the quality of your friendship in any way, but, most likely, understatement will create distance. Usually in such cases they say: "We have reconciled and communicate normally, but not so close."

What to do. Talk. At least try to bring up an uncomfortable topic. Even if you yourself are not ready for a discussion, it is worth saying it out loud, for example: “I am very sorry that we had a fight then. I myself am not yet ready to return to this topic, but I think at some point we should discuss it again in a calm atmosphere. What do you say?" So you let the person know that he is important to you, and agree to solve the problem. nine0003

What's going on. "Healthy" unspoken rules are dynamic - they change as the relationship and you as a person develop. Once you and your older sister lived in agreement with the fact that she is the main one in your tandem (chooses games, makes decisions, protects). But in adulthood, you may well switch roles or choose a completely new relationship scenario.

Problems begin if one of the pair or even both parties to the agreement does not understand that it is outdated. Vivid examples: when an adult in the family is still mistaken for the “youngest” (and he tacitly agrees to this, although he feels extremely uncomfortable) or when partners cannot be separated for the weekend, because they have retained the old habit of spending every free minute together and they are afraid to admit that this is not necessary when living together. nine0003

What to do. Recall when a particular unspoken rule appeared and analyze it for relevance. It is possible that everything is in order with him: you are comfortable in the chosen role and the current scenario. If not, it is better to talk about the situation with the second participant in the relationship. It is enough to discuss the issue once without a hitch (literally, to announce a new rule or slightly change the old one) in order to avoid misunderstandings and frustrations for a long time.

In the end, “healthy” unspoken rules grow out of conversations — when we like a person, we are happy to discuss issues on which we completely agree, and read each other's values ​​and interests between the lines. nine0003

Silence is golden | PSYCHOLOGIES

Man and woman Man among men

We all come across situations where it is especially difficult not to react to something that has hurt someone in their words or actions. However, our impulsive reactions, as a rule, only confuse an already difficult situation.

At this moment, no matter how difficult it is, it is worth taking a short pause, which will give an opportunity to assess whether our emotional response can correct the situation or only worsen it. nine0003

If a person is dear to you, then it is better not to cross the emotional threshold, which may turn out to be critical for your counterpart.

“Your interlocutor, for various reasons, can be too sensitive to any criticism,” says Leon Selzer. - He sees behind this only that he is rejected, they are not valued. And it is difficult for him to separate a personal attitude towards him from a simple divergence of opinion. Thus, your negative remarks will only cause pain.”

One should take into account his vulnerability and not aggravate the situation at the most critical moment. nine0003

Sometimes a relationship is worth leaving the other person in the thrall of their delusions

Try never to discuss a person's appearance, unless it is your close friend and you are sure that your words will not offend him. Otherwise, even if you are specifically asked to critically evaluate a hairstyle or clothing, focus only on those features that you like.

The same rule applies to those situations where a person has discovered that he does not know a question to which you are sure that the answer is correct. Before immediately entering into an argument, consider whether the subject itself is worth escalating the situation. What will fundamentally change if you start to prove the wrong of the interlocutor, besides the fact that you will offend him? nine0003

"Sometimes a relationship is worth it to leave the other person trapped in what we think are delusions, most of which are completely harmless," says Selzer.

When we hear constructive criticism addressed to us, especially from a person whose opinion we trust, then, before violently interrupting the interlocutor, it is useful to temporarily forget about our offended "I" and listen to his words. If you want to object, then at least listen carefully to his point of view first. nine0003

By allowing people to be honest with us, we also get the opportunity to evaluate ourselves from the outside.

Arguing only provokes irritation of your interlocutor. If your counterpart is nervous and clearly not in control of himself, any arguments at this moment will be meaningless and can only ruin the relationship. The most reasonable thing you can do is to let the person speak out, throwing out resentment and negative emotions.

“Let the other person feel that you understand and share their feelings,” suggests Selzer. - To do this, just do not interrupt your counterpart and do not look away. Perhaps at this moment you will be able to read a lot between the lines and understand why exactly your interlocutor is so traumatized. nine0003

If someone drags you into an argument for the sake of an argument, the most sensible thing to do is to leave the game.

Obeying the simple impulse to immediately return a verbal blow to a blow, we also risk only aggravating the situation. Once we stop controlling our emotions, we are easily able to say things that we may later regret.

“It's always hard for us to pinpoint the point of no return—the point where we're not in control of ourselves,” Selzer reminds us. - Try to listen to yourself, to enter into harmony with your body. Is your heart starting to beat faster? Are your palms moist? Uncomfortable feeling in the abdomen? These are internal warning red flags that should be addressed immediately.” nine0003

Try taking a few deep breaths and relaxing your muscles. The visualization technique can also help, when we mentally transfer ourselves to a different situation that supports us - our own home, nature. The main thing is not to let emotions overshadow the rational perception of the situation.

If someone drags you into an argument for the sake of an argument, only acting out their own demagogy tendencies on you, the most sensible thing to do is to leave the game.

"Once you try to defend your case, you've already lost," says Selzer.

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