When I was a younger woman, still years away from coupling and seemingly eons away from splitting grocery bills and routinely pulling someone else’s hair out of the shower drain, I used to look at those couples in restaurants, the ones absently working through a bowl of pasta, not a word exchanged between them, and I used to think: No way, not me, not ever.
And yet, it seems to happen to the best of us. Sometimes, you just want to enjoy a bowl of pasta in peace, a reassuring warm body on the other side of the table with no conversation to interfere with your thoughts. Other times, though, silence between a couple can seem like a marker of boredom, like something crucial has died and now you’re just two people who have nothing to say to each other. “What happens in relationships is that couples begin to take each other for granted and forget that they have to work at and nurture their relationship over time,” says Mary Marano, a Toronto-based therapist. “Love takes us so far and the rest is a lot of work.”
To some extent, slipping into lengthier silences can be completely normal. Once you get past the euphoria of early days, the, “I can’t believe it’s already five o’clock in the morning and we’re still up talking,” excitement, and once the daily grind of dishes and daycare and dividing practical responsibilities kicks in, you might find yourselves, at times, more exhausted than elated in each other’s company. “Inevitably, in most relationships, after a number of years we’ve learned pretty much all we can learn from one another, and many of the discussions become repetitive or replays of past conversations,” says Dr. John Grohol, a psychologist and founder of PsychCentral.com, who adds that a conversational plateau can kick in as early as year two.
But uncomfortable silences can be the sign of a much bigger failure to connect. “In the beginning when a couple first meets there is a huge amount of energy, chemistry, feelings, hopes and dreams all rolled into an intense number of months,” says Linda Nusbaum, a marriage and family therapist. “All is good until the ‘bliss’ turns into real life, where we have misunderstandings and we get our feelings hurt. When something goes wrong a person might think, ‘I thought my partner loved me, why are they doing those things that drive me crazy?’ That’s when some couples begin to blame each other, and eventually two people can just end up not talking to each other.”
According to Suzanne Phillips, a psychologist and the co-author of Healing Together: A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress, silences can be the result of four common relationship scenarios:
1. The monologue: Where a partner is in so much need of attention or affirmation, that they never stop talking – which leaves no room for dialogue.
2. The critique: Where conversation becomes unsafe because one or both partners are critical or disinterested.
3. The interrogation: Where one partner demands that the other report feelings, events and reactions, leading to an emotional shutdown.
4. The secret: Where one partner is keeping something from the other, which renders genuine communication impossible.
Grohol says a loss of connection can also occur when a couple stops having fun together – for example, when quality time is exclusively reduced to sitting in front of the television together – or when a couple becomes excessively focused on either the problems in the relationship or the negative aspects of everyday life. “Couples sometimes lose sight of the fact that they are partners in life,” says Grohol. “They are there to fight life’s adversity together. Hard work and raising kids needs to be balanced with nurturing that relationship, [and] relationships don’t thrive without attention.”
If your relationship is in need of a little nurturing, here are four tips to help combat the awkward silences:
1. Make the first move
Don’t wait for your partner to address the silence, says Morano: “Remember how it felt and the things that were important when you were dating and let that be the start of some conversation.”
2. Schedule a date
“Couples need to remember to have fun together, because once they start genuinely enjoying one another’s company again, they’ll find conversation tends to follow naturally,” says Grohol. He suggests a date night, whether it’s once a week or once a month, to do something you both love and get back on the same page.
3. Find a new hobby or activity
Phillips says that a quick way to set a new pattern in motion is for the couple to try something new together, whether it’s dance lessons, planning a trip or joining a club. “Novelty stimulates interest, co-participation, neurochemistry and even sexual arousal,” she says. “What we know about domains of communication is that when two people are doing something with a mutual goal, they inevitably speak.”
4. Reduce distractions
Marano recommends eliminating cell phones, video games or computers for an uninterrupted period of together time, where you can just focus on connecting with each other.
Tell us in the comment section below: Do you and your partner struggle to connect emotionally?