When meeting someone for the first time, a lull in conversation can feel uncomfortable and awkward, suggesting that maybe this new acquaintance won’t become your new BFF anytime soon. Such a scenario reflects a generally simple rule of relationship initiation: when conversation flows easily between strangers, people tend to feel bonded with one another and this flow can indicate the beginning of a meaningful relationship. Likewise, when conversations are disrupted or otherwise difficult, this lack of flow can make people who have just met feel disconnected. But what about long-term relationships? Is a disruption in conversation as detrimental to couples as it can be for strangers?
Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have tackled this question,1 and their work suggests that a conversational lull can actually benefit your romantic relationship – IF you feel already mentally connected to your partner. In one study, the researchers first asked romantic couples how secure they believed their relationship to be (“It is likely that my partner will terminate our relationship within the next 6 months”) and how connected they were to their relationship partners (“My current partner feels strongly connected to me”). The romantic partners were then asked to have a conversation via headsets in separate cubicles. For half of the couples, the conversation flowed from headset to headset immediately – there was no uncomfortable lag or delay (as can often happen, for example, during cellphone conversations). For the other half of couples, they experienced a one-second lag during their conversation through the headsets. After the conversation, participants were asked how validated they felt during the conversation (“I felt validated in my opinions,” “I had the feeling that my partner shared my opinions”).
For people who reported being secure and strongly connected to their partner, having a disrupted conversation (with the one second delay) actually resulted in feeling more validated and in agreement with their partners during the conversation compared to those experiencing an undisrupted conversation. For people who indicated they were less strongly connected in their relationships, there was no change in feelings of agreement when a couple had a disrupted conversation compared to an undisrupted one. This finding may seem counterintuitive – i.e., people who experienced a delay would more likely feel less socially validated — but the researchers propose that when people feel very connected and secure in their partnerships, a pause in conversation might leave relationship partners to “fill in the gaps” on their own. When conversation delays, partners may use information that they already have about the relationship to assume their partners’ beliefs. When the couple feels very connected, they are likely to infer that they are on the same wavelength, leaving them feeling even more understood. For people who don’t already feel so connected, these disruptions do not give the same reassurance. Rather, they likely just reinforce the lack of connection already felt.
This group of researchers report similar results in other close non-romantic pairs (e.g., friendships and family). It seems that the closer you feel to someone, silence or other interruptions in conversation can be beneficial for your relationship due to feelings of agreement that tend to accompany the disruptions. In relationships, sometimes silence is golden.
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1Koudenburg, N., Gordijn, E., & Postmes, T. (2014). More than words: Social validation in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1517-1528.
Amy Newberg, Ph.D Student, UMass Amherst – Science of Relationships articles
B.S., Florida State University
Broadly, Amy’s research focuses on adult attachment, couples’ communication, and how couples perceive their relationships. Currently, she is interested how romantic partners choose to negotiate with each other in disagreements. Amy uses self-report methods as well as behavioral coding to explore her research questions.