“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.
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.
“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. 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.