The other night Trent and I had a “spat.” It was brought on by some work stress coupled with subpar communication. Sound familiar? After some huffing and puffing and a lot of talking and a lot of not talking, I was still pretty hurt and angry, and so was he. Relationships are sometimes so much harder than I think they should be. You gotta put in the work.
The next morning I found myself thinking a lot about what we could do to improve our communication so that in times of high stress or anxiety we wouldn’t fall into the trap of taking it out on each other. Considering that we are about to spend the better part of a year traveling together, day in and day out, this seems important.
Rather than always resorting to my natural inclination–talk things out–I wondered what would happen if we took a vow of silence in the days after our fight (let’s call it what it was). Could communicating without relying on the words that I ALWAYS rely on and which sometimes just get me into more trouble, be a solution?
Everyone always says you have to “talk things out,” but words aren’t perfect. They have multiple meanings, and they mean different things to different people. Spoken words are conveyed with a tone, sometimes one that gets misinterpreted. Written words lack the tone (except in cases of expert emoji use), which can cause problems too. Anyone ever have an unintentional “texting fight,” brought on by trying to be concise, but ending up being insensitive? We have.
So, what did we have to lose by cutting the chit chat and relying only on being present in the moment together (and some hand gestures) to communicate for a day.?
“If we listen from the mind of silence, every birdsong and every whispering of the pine branches in the wind will speak to us.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Now, to be completely honest, I know next to nothing about true vows of silence of the monastic kind. This was meant to be our own version. The rules we devised were pretty simple:
- No talking to each other or anyone else (except when ordering, it’s difficult not to speak when being waited upon).
- No writing. I did draw a picture or two though.
- Hand signals are okay.
- Spend the majority of the 24 hours together. No holing up in the office or running errands separately.
- Speaking in an urgent situation is okay. But keep to a minimum.
- Either of us can opt out at any time and end the experiment.
Here are some of our observations from this experiment.
- I talk to myself a lot more than I realized. I kept catching myself starting to utter things under my breath to myself. I normally wouldn’t even have noticed, but since I was undertaking a vow of silence, I became more self-aware of these tendencies. Most of this self-directed talk wasn’t uplifting either. “Get a grip.” “What’s your problem?” “Oh, come on, Rana.” Those aren’t motivational sayings. I became aware pretty quickly I needed to do some work on my internal monologue.
- It’s hard not to talk when you have dogs. Our dogs respond much better to verbal commands than gestures and pleading looks. A day without words meant they got away with a lot more bad behavior than they normally would. I may have yelled “stop” a time or two.
- We were both present with one another and ourselves in a way we haven’t been in a long time. What does that mean? It means that we weren’t always thinking of how we were going to respond to each other’s words, stories, requests, complaints, observations, etc. We just walked through life together for a day without having to comment on everything or defend anything or worry about being misunderstood. It’s a lot harder to misunderstand a kiss from your partner than a question like “Did you take out the trash?”
- Backing up a pop up camper is hard when you can talk to one another (I’ve heard many divorces start with backing up a camper), and doesn’t go well with a vow of silence. So we made an exception and talked through this one. I think it went smoother than it would have if we hadn’t been silent for the 12 hours preceding this admittedly stressful situation. We were calmer.
- I experienced music in a different way when I didn’t sing along. I felt the words and beats more deeply and found myself dancing along instead of singing along.
- We laughed more. At ourselves. At situations around us. It was fun.
- It was a day without complaints. It was wonderful. I became very aware that I wasn’t complaining about things. I wasn’t even thinking about things that were bothering me too much because I knew I couldn’t discuss it with Trent, so I just let it go. So much healthier.
- There were no misunderstandings. I didn’t find myself doubting or questioning intentions. We weren’t overthinking things. We just were.
- I was very conscious of how unimportant and trivial so much of life’s commentary is. There were a number of moments when I would have made a comment if we weren’t observing a vow of silence. And I’m pretty certain my comment would have caused a ripple in the calm waters. But instead I let it go because I had to. My comment might have done nothing but create a potentially negative experience for both of us. But by letting it go, nothing was lost or gained. I realized how much we say really isn’t necessary and it made me want to be much more thoughtful about when I do choose to speak.
- Establishing a few hand signals in advance was helpful.
- Actions speak louder than words. We’ve all heard this a million times, but how many of us have really lived those words? I found it to be so true. Instead of waking up and asking my husband if he wants breakfast, I just got up and made it. He felt loved and appreciated (I could tell by the smile) and neither of us ever wondered if the offer was sincere. He did the dishes after breakfast without telling me he was going to, which I loved. Sometimes when he tells me when he’s going to do the dishes or some other chore, I wonder if that’s a hint that he wants my help, and I end up feeling pressured or guilty. The human mind is so weird.
One of my primary goals for this vow of silence was to build trust between us. So often words can complicate situations, and silence was a clarifying solution for us. It left no room for misunderstanding, forced us to act authentically, and made us see the good intentions and love emanating from one another. It was a very positive experience.
What next? We think we’ll do this again. We enjoyed the experience of being more present in our lives, of connecting with one another in a new way without all the baggage that our language often brings with it. I am so grateful that I have a partner who was willing to try this little experiment with me and who saw the value in it. Trent’s big takeaway was how much easier it is to be present when you aren’t talking. It was a win all the way around.
If you are looking for a new way to connect to and understand your partner, consider giving a 24 hour vow of silence a try!