Thursday, June 30, 2016

Meaningful Silences

Enjoying an early dinner at a seaside restaurant recently, I looked around and saw a full array of silences among the couples at tables surrounding mine.

The silences spoke of a myriad of life experiences and relationship dynamics. For a moment, I thought about the hours I had spent as a psychotherapist, trying to help couples re-discover the joy and hope that had brought them together and the love they once shared now overwhelmed by pain and challenging life events.

There are so many types of silences.

There are cold silences that signal loss of hope and buried anger. A couple at a table near mine spent their whole meal not speaking and not looking at each other, depression and sad resignation etched on their faces.

This would be the most difficult couple to reconnect in therapy since distance has become a habit and chronic bitterness and hopelessness part of their shared emotional routine. Maybe helping them to remember, encouraging them to find their way back to earlier, happier, more hopeful days and to rediscover what used to delight them about each other can help to dispel some of the bitterness -- if both are willing to try. It's also important to understand what's happening now. Perhaps a series of small hurts and betrayals are adding up to emotional estrangement. Or their current hopelessness may have come from a major event, still unresolved.

 If they have the courage and the strength to look back and examine what is pulling them apart and what originally brought them together, they may have a chance to resolve their pain and rediscover their love for each other. But for some couples, it's simply too late. Love and hope both vanished long ago.

There are angry silences signaling hurt and rage that is raw and oppressive. A hot silence may look worse than it is. While the tempestuous feelings underneath this silence should never be minimized, they speak of connection. By reassuring each other of a commitment to stay and get through the pain and anger, by soothing and compromising, by imagining a future together, by being the first to apologize and to seek peace, this silence often can be overcome.

There are uneasy silences with two people who have little to say to each other. Some have spun from  a loving twosome to separate roles -- perhaps she is pre-occupied with the demands of parenting young children (often combined with working and commuting),  perhaps he is feeling the stress of being the primary breadwinner and/or is feeling pushed aside. Some couples are just past the first excitement of love and now are realizing how little they may have in common or how little they really know each other.  And some couples are simply talked out: all the stories have been told, all the major experiences shared.

What couples in this situation often need is time alone together, time to simply be two again, time to nurture a love overwhelmed by the challenges of daily life. Maybe the first step to new intimacy is a regular date night out. Maybe it is a specific time for each other carved out of a busy day.

One couple I know, who were part of a blended family with six children between them, designated half an hour after dinner to sit on the patio alone together, sip coffee and talk, undisturbed by any other family member. The children quickly learned that this time was sacred for the parents and that, barring a life-threatening emergency, they needed to be left alone. The couple reported that this time together was essential in putting their marriage back on track and had led to them falling in love all over again.

And there's a lot to be said for listening to the same stories and opinions with patience and affection. These often-told tales can become like the special songs of your relationship: wonderfully familiar, intimate and the source of many couple in-jokes and fond memories.

There are distracted silences brought by electronic devices -- everywhere! Mobile phones and tablets and computers can all monopolize family members' attention. Some families have solved this by declaring certain times and/or settings electronics-free. Perhaps all cell phones need to be turned off at meal times. Perhaps an additional designated family time will be phone, computer and tablet-free. While our devices can connect us in ways we never imagined via texting, selfies and social media, we need to take care that they don't come between us when a conversation shared, eye contact and undivided attention can mean so much.

Then there are the comfortable silences. These silences stem from comfort and contentment, from the joy of knowing each other well. These silences mean love and connection. These are moments, quite simply, to be treasured.