Its impact doesn’t negate its intent and vice versa
One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that “silence is an answer.”
This is not the truth.
Silence is not an answer. Silence is the absence of information—nothing more or less. Silence does not indicate a person’s motives, intent, state of being, feelings, or thoughts. Filling in the blanks in the absence of those things is a disservice both to the recipient and giver of the silence.
When we say “silence is an answer,” in the context of relationships, we’re enabling a powerful mental filter of insecurity: mind-reading. It’s especially intoxicating if we know the person well; surely, their silence must mean something they wish for us to understand.
That’s not the case—hardly ever—and learning to accept that means we understand that some silences may never be filled and we don’t know why. In the event that they are, we will often discover more than we expected or assumed.
I’m going to share two stories with my relationship to silence in relationships and what I am learning from both.
In the first, I recently asked someone to share something with me. It was a big ask. My request was for an entire truth, the largest one I’d ever requested. The only one. This person had often been silent with me before. Their silence hurt then, and it hurts now. My experiences want to talk myself down and say “They don’t even see you worth communicating with.”
But every time they ended up filling the silence in before, when I had given up hope and control and released it to the universe, every single time that space was filled, it was with joy. I don’t mean anxiety. I don’t mean validation. I mean more than I had given them—or myself—credit for. The silence had been filled with healing, connection, vulnerability, care, affection, openness. They just needed time to be ready to fall into it.
Their silence doesn’t negate the pain I feel. It doesn’t stop the doubts creeping in or the memories of silences past when I doubted things. I have to consciously battle against the self-fulfilling prophecy about myself that isn’t true, especially when this person has proven it wrong time and again. I have to accept two things: that the silence may echo for the rest of my life and it doesn’t alter my value or change anything between us; and that if they choose to fill that silence, it will only lead to wholeness for both of us, no matter what fills it.
The reason I know there cannot be any alternatives is because in their silence, I realized I have been silent with them also. Even in tough conversations, I withheld truths. Ones I have longed to say and could fill the space with to the brim. Ones I could catapult across the distance with stunning accuracy. But I know, just as well as they do, there is a reason I don’t. And it’s not because I don’t want to. There is a reason I must let them step in, first. I asked—they must be allowed to answer. They also know that there is silence, and it’s not one-sided.
I know that my silence toward this person isn’t because I want to be. I want nothing more than to cram it with more excitement and hope and certainty than either of us can contain. But the space between us must be respected until they choose to fill it—if they ever do. And if they don’t, that space doesn’t change. Anything I fill it with now would fall into nothingness, no matter how meaningful it is.
The second story I have about silence is me holding it with purpose.
Someone said something very painful to me recently. I thought I misheard them at first, and then after clarification, I understood that I did not. It’s been a few months, and the shock still grips my chest. I simply don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I want to say anything. I am not sure if I want repair and reconciliation, to step away for good, or to find something between. The purpose of my silence has nothing to do with them. It is for me.
The pain inflicted on me by this person’s careless words can only be met by silence. I have no desire for them to pick up on it, or to decipher anything from my silence. I am simply in a quiet place with it and do not wish to be disturbed. If that person has chosen to interpret my silence a certain way, they are allowed that. Their feelings are just as valid as mine—even if they are dysfunctional. Even if they are rooted in that person’s insecurity and negative stories about themselves.
If the person who said something so careless and painful to me chooses to break our silence first, I’m not sure I could return the action. But I’m not sure I couldn’t either. That is why I’m choosing not to fill it yet.
Pain exists with or without the silence
My stories about silence are meant to illustrate something: you don’t know what’s going on with someone on either side. It is okay to feel hurt, angry, or disappointed if someone doesn’t say anything when you ask for a response. In both instances I described, connection is being denied—but it must be emphasized it’s only happening in that present moment. There could be many reasons someone is not connecting, and it’s so rarely the case it ever has to do with the person receiving the silence.
Someone can choose whatever they want with silence when they receive it. They can try to fill it. They can take it at face value. They can wait it out if they like. There are no wrong answers—but there are short-sighted ones. Assuming that silence only means one thing denies us all connection.
The silence itself isn’t the pain. It is the weight we carry ourselves on either side of it, the thoughts that run through our mind when it echoes. The pain silence causes are our own doubts, fears, and insecurities—all of which are real and valid—but are only one side.
Silence is not an answer. It is an absence of information—nothing more or less.
Leave a Reply