Is a friend not speaking to you? Are you not speaking to a friend? Are you “not speaking” to each other? How to handle yourself, and understand the silence between you and how it may feel for the other person.
During a recent conversation with my mother, she commented on her lifelong trait of “going silent” as her way to state her displeasure and avoid confrontation at the same time. I was able to relate to this tendency, however ugly it seems, so I wanted to write a post about it. I will explore my reasons behind this, and hope to give those of you facing “silence” some tips on how to deal with this…. If there is indeed a way!!!
Usually when I withdraw into myself, it is indeed because I am upset, hurt, angry, confused and conflicted. I may think that the reason is perfectly obvious, even if my friend in question is bewildered by my silence. This may imply that my friend has done something wrong or hurtful towards me, when actually that isn’t always the case. If my friend reaches out, looking for answers, or a way she can “fix” the situation, sometimes I am unable to offer clear reasons or advice on how the issue can be resolved.
You see, the thing is, when I withdraw into myself it is not intended to be a punishment, although I can relate to the way it feels exactly like a punishment on the receiving end. Even if I know why I am hurt, upset or angry, I am searching my brain for the least confrontational way of telling the other person and drawing my own conclusions about how we can address the issue together. I never want to blame the other person. I want to search myself too and understand how I have contributed to the situation and how I can avoid it again in the future.
I want to calm myself, because if I am pushed when I am feeling very emotionally charged I know I am likely to say things I will regret and struggle to recover from. Things the friendship, and possibly even the other person will struggle to recover from too. So what I need is space. I may ask for it, if pushed, although I tend to resent being pushed when I feel it is clear that I need some time and space by my lack of engagement. Of course, this can get the other persons defenses up, or anger them, and if that happens, more often than not, they will say something triggering or provoking, leading to harsh words, followed by more silence, although the second round is typically mutual.
If that silence drags on, or gets too loud, then that is often the end. So where is the middle ground? How should we handle it if a friend suddenly goes quiet? Having been on both sides of the spectrum on this issue, I do know when we feel someone has stopped talking to us, there is a sense of urgency around it and a need to defend oneself. If a friend goes quiet on me, I will be thinking of all the possible scenarios of why she could be upset. Rerunning conversations, catch ups and body language over in my mind, searching for clues.
I will reach out, fretting, apologetic, hoping my apologies for whatever offence I have committed are accepted despite the fact that I don’t know quite what I have done or said. I will ask if everything is ok, if my friend is upset with me. I will make guesses as to what the reasons could be. Example “I hope my comment about your partner’s haircut wasn’t out of line… I’m sorry if I upset you, I honestly didn’t mean to. Hope everything is ok?”
Continued silence from the other party will continue to haunt and trigger me, as anxiety slowly takes over! Any response is terrifying, but at the same time reassuring, maybe the other person is still speaking to me after all? I know many of you can relate to this. So I have to ask myself, when I am withdrawn, what do I need from my friend? If I don’t even know, how can they possibly figure it out!
I need my friend to understand that I do not want to fall out with her. That I am uncomfortable with how I feel, and how to address it. I am nervous about addressing the issue with her because I fear she will be angry and defensive, dismissing my feelings and minimizing them instead of hearing and understanding me. I don’t feel safe to express myself, and I feel unsure how to. These are all my own issues, it really isn’t about my friend, even if I am upset with her about a specific thing.
Before I talk about it, I need time to let the issue go, so I am not so emotional about it when we do talk. I need time to miss my friend and remember all the good things about her and our friendship. I need time to stop blaming and understand my role. I need time to figure out solutions that I feel are manageable for both of us. I may even need time to assess if I do want to end the friendship, although my silence is not usually meant to signal the beginning of the end.
I do acknowledge this isn’t the healthiest way of dealing with conflict, or my emotions. It isn’t something I am proud of. It is a reaction rather than an action and it removes the other person’s ability to join in the problem solving or have a voice. I will resolve to at least tell the person, before I go quiet, that I need some space to figure myself out. The thing with space though, is that I don’t know how much I will need or how long it will take for me to be ready. It isn’t reasonable to expect someone to wait forever, however it also isn’t feasible to say “Give me 2 weeks” for example.
If I am the person asking for space though, I must also take responsibility for being the one to end said space. This isn’t always easy for me to do either. I can be too proud to say “I’m sorry I have taken some space, I just needed to cool down. Your friendship is important to me and I don’t want to lose it. I was upset because….” Also, honestly, I am a coward. If I have to say “I was upset because x” I am still opening up that confrontation that I was trying to avoid in the first place, because I am finally giving them the right of reply to which they are entitled.
So what could be the best strategy? When we are upset and withdrawn, acknowledge it to the other person. “I’m sorry, I’m too upset, hurt or angry right now. Because your friendship is important to me I need to take some space to deal with my emotions and calm down before we move forward, because I’m afraid I may over react and make things worse between us. I hope you’ll be willing to hear from me when I am ready to reach out again.”
If you are on the receiving end of the silence, you could try saying “I hope you are ok. I can sense you need some space, I just want you to know I value our friendship and I hope we can work through this together when you are ready. I don’t know if I have upset you, but I genuinely am sorry, I care about how you feel and I hope you will feel comfortable talking to me about it soon. “
Both approaches are gentle, understanding and reassuring that the friendship is not in jeapordy, that you still value them and ultimately want to make it work.
This is easy to say in theory, harder in practice, I know that, so if you do try it, please let me know how it works out!!
Your Best Friend ForNever