A Shift of Mind

Rethinking the way we live.

Silence: A Relationship Killer

Why silence can be more crippling to a relationship than arguments

Over the many years that I’ve been practicing therapy, I’ve found that couples that are struggling in their relationships often succumb to the default mode of silence. Sometimes, it’s one person who defers to the unspoken, and at times it’s actually both. In either circumstance, such silence—not a healthy pause or meditative break—speaks to the absence of verbal and emotional intimacy. Unless we’re communicating on levels of extra sensory perception or body language, words are the only tools available to us to communicate let alone resolve our issues. There’s little sense to being in a relationship and resorting to silence. Not only does it sabotage the lifeline of a healthy coupling, it chokes your expressive needs.

When you can express what you’re feeling—in the moment that you’re experiencing it—there’s much less likelihood that you’ll act out on that feeling. Problematic feelings that go unexpressed tend to percolate and boil over—they take on energy of their own, and the ensuing conflict hours or days later may have little correlation to the original emotional insult. When this occurs there’s little chance of being validated, as there may be little correspondence between your hurt feelings and the disruption of the moment.

Telling someone that you feel angry, and explaining why you do, will ordinarily sever the reactive state of being angry or acting angrily. Furthermore, the non-verbalization and suppression of your feelings will—over time—result in substantial resentment, with the accompanying behavior that we might expect. If you don’t share your problematic feelings, there is a great probability that you’ll act out on them, in any number of unrelated ways. Having done so, you now become the problem in the other’s eyes. We’ve now entered into a negative spiral of silence and struggle.

Silence is Controlling

When we think of controlling people, we ordinarily conjure images of loud or aggressive individuals. They may, in fact, appear to be bullying and controlling of others. Yet we know exactly what we’re dealing with. There are no surprises. There’s a much more insidious type of control, however, which is predicated upon silence. When we don’t share our thoughts with each other, we are often doing so to control the other’s reactions and behavior. If they don’t know what we’re contemplating, then they can’t possibly respond. At times, people who are inclined to please others or avoid confrontation fall prey to this dilemma. The tendency is to choose silence rather than upset the other party.

When we resort to silence, we create an internal monologue, typically ascribing onto others our projection of how we assume they would respond if we actually shared our thoughts with them. In other words, we play out an entire script in which their role is predetermined. In doing so, we are locked into a state of stagnation, the communication stalls and the relationship has little chance to evolve. In such situations, it ordinarily withers. There’s certainly no opportunity for resolution, let alone growth.

At other times, silence is used to punish. By withdrawing from the relationship silence becomes a medium for anger, also obstructing the opportunity for resolution. In such cases, silence is employed to control the other’s behavior. It mutes our thoughts and feelings, and deprives the potential for authentic dialogue. There is no possibility of resolution. Silence in these circumstances is thoroughly non-participatory.

Besides creating an obvious roadblock to the health of the relationship, silence can lead to despair and depression. I’m not referring to healthy breaks of contemplative reflection, but to the chronic struggle people have in expressing their feelings. Silence chokes the breath of relationship. Manipulative silence is soul defeating; the expressing of one’s voice is life affirming.

People who default to silence may claim, “They won’t really listen” or “They will only throw it back at me and I don’t want to fight.” Although this thinking may be understandable, it is self-injurious. We invalidate ourselves when we shut down our own articulation. Fortunately, we don’t have to remain mired in the struggle with silence as we can improve our chances of actually being heard in such circumstances. Leaning how to be heard is an acquired skill. I'll address how you can develop that ability in my next post.

Mel will be teaching a live, interactive videoconference series, Learning the Tools for Successful Communicating, beginning Feb. 12th. To learn more, please visit melschwartz.com/upcomingevents.html. And to receive Mel’s next article in this series on communication, please join his mailing list http://melschwartz.com/index.html.  

Please like my Facebook page to see quotes of the day, follow me on Twitter, join my LinkedIn network, and visit my blog, A Shift of Mind, for more information on how to receive my free eBook and DVD.

Mel Schwartz, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist and marriage counselor who works toward creating resilient relationships and fostering authentic communication. His website is Melschwartz.com.

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