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First of all, I want to say that I'm talking about when my girlfriend is silent, it's not 'silent treatment'. I don't feel like she has cruel intentions, or is intentionally trying to hurt me in any way when she goes uber quiet. A better explanation is that we are both anxious introverts. When she gets nervous, she gets quiet, but she tends to want to stay in the same room.

I have ADHD, and so find this silence petrifying, and generally get close to or have an anxiety attack when it happens.

Not all silences are uncomfortable. Sometimes they are welcomed. I'm happy to sit around with her in the sun, cuddling, lying in bed and driving together. I can be silent for long periods, by myself, or around friends.

One when it's an ambiguous silence where she stares at me, like she people watches on public transport. It's like she's waiting for me to say something. This can last for up to three days straight, while I walk around on eggshells.

I keep thinking (internally) the entire time: "If you want quiet, why stare at me like you want a conversation?" or "If you want a conversation, why not just start one?"

I do know some of the reasons her silences start:

  • When she asks me personal or politically loaded questions. I try to answer honestly. When I ask what she thinks about the topic, it's met with the shortest possible answer. Six words in some cases. When I ask why she wants to know what I think (her motivations), it's met with silence or defensiveness.
  • When she perceives that I have a frustrated 'tone', even when I am agreeing with her.
  • When she thinks I should be angry about something, yet I'm fine. So, this is the exact opposite to the previous point: a lack of frustration in my tone. Note: I've checked in with her when this happens, and she says there's no negative tone.
  • When she perceives me as anxious
  • When we disagree about a topic. This is when she doesn't talk to me for three days. I don't always need to be right, I admit my mistakes and apologise sincerely.

We live together, so I have tried the following:

  • Asking her a question: she replies with a series of one-word answers, or none at all.
  • I've tried assertively mentioning it, in a variety of different ways. This seems to have made things worse.
  • Asking her what she needs/wants from me - she never answers that she wants anything.
  • Talking through the disagreement - this is a necessary step for her to start talking again. But it takes 2-3 days before she's ready to talk. That duration is the petrifying part.
  • Avoiding conflict/criticism - she doesn't have a reason to go silent if there's no disagreement right? Wrong. We haven't disagreed in a month, and she found a reason to bring up an insecurity from 6 months ago. Where she felt guilty for doing something wrong. I listened, reflected, and reassured her. The result? 3 days of petrifying silence.

I understand that sometimes, silence is an answer. It's perfectly acceptable. The problem is when it's coupled with her stare. This makes the silence ambiguous. So I can't tell what the silence means, it could mean one of 1000 things. That's what makes me uncomfortable.

Is there anything else that I can do to improve communication with her when she does this and handle the uncomfortable silence and staring at me?

I'm seeking answers that are pragmatic, actionable, and long-term. Finally, I'd like to keep my actions honest, caring, and trustworthy. I love her deeply and don't want to manipulate her in any way. And I'm hoping to form a plan which includes trust, communication, and kindness.

  • 1
    Okay, I gave it another bit of an edit: I kept the stuff that was related to how you used your Interpersonal Skills to try and resolve the situation, but edited out things like 'using white noise' or 'television as background noise' because they aren't related to Interpersonal Skills, and might invite other (bad) answers focusing on that instead of IPS, what this site is for :) If I did anything wrong, feel free to make further changes. – Tinkeringbell Jun 7 at 9:38
  • Thanks @Tinkeringbell – mac Jun 7 at 10:25
  • had a little difficulty understanding all the points you listed, the wording is a bit confusing in places so it may be I missed this but have you tried explaining how her silently staring at you induces such anxiety? – BKlassen Jun 7 at 15:24
  • Sorry that it's confusing in places. Yes, I have tried explaining that to her. I even said it once today. And each time I have said it, she has said that she doesn't remember me having said it before. @BKlassen – mac Jun 7 at 15:40
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    How long have the two of you been living together? Did this happen before you were living together? And lastly, about how often do you find yourself with one of these silences? Once a week? Once a month? Every few months? – scohe001 Jun 7 at 18:36
14

If her quietness is a symptom of her anxiety, it is possible that there is no perfect communication that would allow her to entirely change her behavior, just like I imagine that there is no one-time reassurance she can give that her silence is not malicious that would make you stop being uncomfortable with it. (I'm going to consider professional/medical help with your high anxiety out of the scope of this answer, but please don't neglect it if you have reason to believe that it might help with your overall health or relationships.)

There is no way to really know for sure what she's trying to communicate with her silence and staring unless she is willing to tell you, but it may indicate that there is something she needs that she is unable to ask for-- or she may not even know what it is. She might observing you so closely and quietly because she's feeling insecure or afraid. This type of hypervigilance is pretty common with anxious people and victims of past abuse. If that's the case, it probably has nothing to do with her not trusting you or rationally thinking that you will harm her, but is a symptom of her anxiety. The fact that she goes silent and watchful with anxiety if you are even remotely frustrated with her, if you disagree with her, or if she even expects you to be angry, seems to point to some level of hyper vigilant behavior.

I do have some ideas of ways that you could talk to her about the situation, mostly based on what would work on me (also an anxious introvert, although on the more talkative side, generally).

The main thing is to talk to her at a time when you are both feeling calm and connected. Try not to have this kind of talk when you are time limited, like right before work, when you are tired, or if either of you is already anxious. It may also help to open with a small gesture of caring and affection. Bringing her a small treat like a hot coffee or tea is a simple way to bring a sense of warmth to the moment. (There is scientific evidence that holding a warm cup can make people predisposed to deal more warmly with each other as well!) Focus on your own feelings and needs, rather than her actions. Use your own words, and speak from the heart. Acknowledge that this is a bit uncomfortable to talk about. Reassure her if needed, and ask her to participate in the conversation and try to 'stick with it' and not shut you out. Leave space for her to speak, and listen attentively and kindly to what she says, but don't ask her too many questions or ask for her to justify or explain herself. This is primarily about what you feel, observe, and need, and about giving her the chance, not the requirement, to talk about her feelings and needs.

Use "I" and "we" statements that avoid blaming her as much as possible. Things like, "I feel lonely and uncomfortable when it seems like you don't want to talk to me", "I need to feel like we are still a team, even when you aren't in the mood to talk," "I worry about you when it appears that you aren't able to come to me for help or comfort; I want you to know that I will be there for you when you feel anxious" and "Can we find a way to stay connected even when we are feeling bad and anxious?"

You can offer some ideas for the last part, like, "If you find it uncomfortable to talk, maybe we can just cuddle quietly." You could also suggest having a "I need some space but I still like you!" signal like placing a certain item on the middle of the table or putting up a Do Not Disturb sign, or that if talking feels too hard you could text each other. I do know a highly introverted couple that will sit silently in the same room and instant message each other on their computers when talking just feels like too much-- perhaps a little unusual, but it works for them and they have been happily married many years!

Overall, a good goal is to find a way to meet each other half way (or at least somewhere in between). That looks different for everyone. One sample compromise might be for her to learn to say something that expresses her needs and affirms your continued connection: "I don't feel like talking, but I'd like you to stay near," or "I need some time to myself, I'll see you later. Love you!" and for you to be able to ask her gently but directly for reassurance when you need it, while remaining able to respect her need to be quiet for a while when she is worried.

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    This is correct: "She might observing you so closely and quietly because she's feeling insecure or afraid". I've checked in, and she hasn't had past abuse. I've sat down at a good time (with tea), and asked if there was something we could do similar to headphones in offices. So I like the do not disturb sign. Her solution was that she could just say she needs quiet time, so I will give that a try, and suggest the above sentences, thanks. – mac Jun 10 at 14:49
  • My spouse and I are both survivors of childhood violence, so we both fit into this scheme. We have learned to trust each other. This takes time. We have learnt to accept silence and withdrawal. Sometimes just a touch in passing conveys whole sentences we left unsaid. It works for us. We both know the other one is there. – RedSonja Jun 11 at 7:39
  • Having said that, it is a sign of a successful relationship if you are perfectly happy to be together without the pressure to speak. Just watching television, or going for a walk, enjoying it with no need to comment. – RedSonja Jun 11 at 7:42
  • I'm sorry about your childhoods. We can happily sit in silence with one another. The problem is the additional hypervigilence and silent stare. For clarity, I hope you don't mean that anything else is a sign of an unsuccessful relationship? @RedSonja – mac Jun 13 at 7:53
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    No, of course not. I know about the hypervigilance (there's a name for it! I thought it was just fear!) and home is the place I don't need it. But it took a long time. – RedSonja Jun 13 at 8:29
3

It's hard to suggest a course of action without a better idea of why your girlfriend engages in these silent periods, but based on what's written in the question it seems that improving communication will involve the following steps:

  1. Establishing with your girlfriend that these silences exist
  2. Establishing with your girlfriend that these silences bother you
  3. Estimate how many of the silences stem from issues your girlfriend may have but not be able to change easily
  4. Establish how much of your discomfort is due to any issues you may have
  5. Figure out how reasonable it is to expect each of you to make any changes that may improve the situation generally
  6. Plan out ways to deal with any uncomfortable silences that may come up as you work on (5), or after (5) has been completed

What really leapt out at me was from a comment under the question:

Yes, I have tried explaining that to her. I even said it once today. And each time I have said it, she has said that she doesn't remember me having said it before

Whether her statement was honest or not, this is the immediate hurdle. If she legitimately does not remember when you make this complaint, for whatever reason, she can't make any adjustments. If she's not being honest, also for whatever reason, then making this claim is a convenient hard stop which allows her to not take any action to change anything.

In service of fixing that issue, I recommend keeping a log of these incidents. If you do so, make clear that you are doing it to help yourself understand a situation that you currently do not, and that you are not doing it to "trap" or harass your girlfriend.

Such a log might include information like when a silent spell began, how long it lasted, and your best ideas as to what may have caused it. If your girlfriend has anxiety issues, I recommend limiting potential causes to things you think you may have done to precipitate the silence, or a blanket "I don't know why". Again this is a tool to help you understand when and how the silences arise so that you and your girlfriend can both be happier and more comfortable.

You can do something similar with instances when you mention to her that the silences bother you. If you collaborate with her in producing any sort of record when you bring your concerns to her, the "I don't remember you complaining about this before" stance becomes a lot less likely/harder to sustain. Something as simple as a hand-written document like:

You've not said a word to me for two days, which has been causing me some distress. I'm not certain what, if anything, I may have done to cause the silence, so I'm asking you about it and recording the answers so that I can either remember to avoid doing some specific thing that upsets you or avoid over-interpreting anything similar in the future.

I don't love that phrasing, but it's a decent example that brings the relevant issues to the fore: the silences happen, they upset you, and you want to avoid them or avoid making too much of them in the future. That covers (1) and (2).

I have done this myself, in response to a friend regularly claiming that he would always/would never advocate some position, in service of getting his way in disputes. In that case, he was being actively dishonest (though playfully so), and simply mentioning that I would make a point of remembering that he advocated for position X in situation Y quickly prevented that defense from coming up again.


For (3), (4), and (5), it's important to recognize that various personality and psychological factors may exist which produce these situations. If she becomes anxious, for any reason, and that anxiety makes it harder for her to talk to you very much, that will be difficult to get around directly. "Fix your clinical anxiety" is not a reasonable thing to demand. If the silences are sometimes about pique or anger, it's much more reasonable to say that this is not a way you two need to interact, and you would appreciate efforts to interact differently.

By the same token, if you yourself have anxiety issues and ADHD which make silences difficult for you to bear, then it's very likely that, at least some of the time, you are responding to those silences based on those issues rather than anything your girlfriend meant to convey. That is to say, it may not be an issue that is entirely derived from things she does, and solutions may require some amount of effort and/or discomfort on your part.

That brings us to (5), which I can't offer any specific guidance on. It is for the two of you to determine how much of your behaviors in these situations is changeable, how much effort any potential changes might require, and how willing each of you is to make any or all of those changes. The goal of any changes you might make should be to make the silent stretches less frequent, shorter, and less uncomfortable. These may be accomplished by opening communication directly or making a point of talking just to make clear that there is no intentional silence, or asking your girlfriend not to stare at you without saying anything.


Finally, (6): it's possible, even likely, that changes from (5) will not completely evade the issue indefinitely. There may still be periods where your girlfriend is just not talkative, and the lack of talk upsets you.

I see two broad strategies for dealing with any lingering silences: physically separate so that there is no "potential conversation" that you are feeling a lack of, or engaging in some sort of small talk so that a silence isn't present. I can't give much specific guidance on this either, as it largely depends on how both of you regard these silences after discussing them and how many causes of the silences are unchangeable.

You will ultimately be balancing your girlfriend's preference to not talk with your preference for her to talk. There is work for you both to do in coming to a mutual understanding of why the silences happen in the first place and why they bother you. But with that information in hand you can start working towards a solution, together.

  • I think this is a demand-withdraw or pursue-withdraw cycle... – user3067860 Jun 7 at 19:29
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    What is a demand-withraw pursue-withdraw cycle? @user3067860 – mac Jun 10 at 14:40
  • I've actually kept a log privately for myself, great idea @Upper_Case – mac Jun 10 at 14:56
  • @mac "Demand-withdraw occurs in one of two patterns between marital partners, in which one partner is the demander, seeking change, discussion, or resolution of an issue, while the other partner is the withdrawer, seeking to end or avoid discussion of the issue." ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3218801 If you search for breaking demand-withdraw pattern you can find some suggestions for getting out of it, but I can't vouch for any of them personally. – user3067860 Jun 10 at 17:02
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I've accepted @Meg 's answer. However, I am adding an additional suggestion that I have found since posing this question, on the off chance it helps someone else.

To be better equipped when the silences do occur, I'm adding silent mindfulness to my routine. Effectively sitting in silence.

I'm also trying to sit in silence with her during times that I feel only mild anxiety.

I'm considering both of these as a kind of exposure therapy to uncomfortable, hypervigilent silences. A way to be more ok when they occur. This is largely based on point 4 from @Upper_Case

Thanks to everyone who has tried to help

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