What part does communication play in your relationship? By the term “communication,” I mean how you deliver a message to your partner. How important is it to let your partner know your feelings—what you want, what displeases you, and what encourages you? This guest blog by Mel Schwartz LCSW looks at partners mired in the quicksand of silence, and offers some interesting facts to ponder.
Silence: A Relationship Killer
Over the many years that I’ve been conducting therapy, I’ve found that couples who struggle in their relationships often succumb to silence. Sometimes, it’s one person who stops speaking; and at times, it’s actually both. I don’t mean just a healthy pause or a mere meditative break in the conversation. Rather, I mean the type of deep, long silence that shows an absence of verbal and emotional intimacy. Unless a couple can communicate by extra sensory perception (ESP) or body language, words are the only tools available to them to communicate (let alone resolve daily issues). There’s little sense to being in a relationship and resorting to silence. Not only does such darkness sabotage the lifeline of a healthy coupling, it chokes your expressive needs.
It’s best when you can express what you’re feeling, in the moment that you’re experiencing it. When you can say something right away to your partner, there’s much less likelihood that you’ll act out on that feeling. Problematic feelings that go unexpressed tend to percolate and boil over. Unexpressed emotions take on an energy of their own, and the ensuing conflict hours or days later may have little correlation to the original problem. When this long lag occurs, there’s not much chance of being validated, because 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 calm you down from being angry or acting angrily. But not saying anything will eventually result in substantial resentment on your part, with the accompanying angry 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 person’s viewpoint. You both could enter into a negative spiral of silence and struggle.
Silence is Controlling
Imagine a controlling person. You probably are conjuring up an image of a loud or aggressive individual. They may, in fact, appear to be bullying and controlling of others. Yet with a loud bully, 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 person’s reactions and behavior. If our partner doesn’t know what we’re contemplating, then our partner 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 person.
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 by us. 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, the partnership 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, our 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 our being quiet deprives the potential for authentic dialogue. There is no possibility of resolution. Silence in these circumstances is thoroughly non-participatory.
Besides silence creating an obvious roadblock to the health of the relationship, it can lead to despair and depression. I’m sure you know that I’m not referring to healthy breaks of contemplative reflection. Rather, I mean the chronic struggle people have in expressing their feelings. Silence chokes the breath out of relationship. Manipulative silence is soul-defeating. In contrast, the expression 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. We can improve our chances of actually being heard in such circumstances. Learning how to be heard is an acquired skill.
Mel Schwartz LCSW, Mphil is a psychotherapist, marriage counselor, executive coach, author, and seminar leader. He wrote The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion, and the soon to be published, A Shift of Mind. Mel earned his graduate degree from Columbia University and has been a keynote speaker at Yale University. He is in private practice in Westport, Connecticut and works with individuals internationally via skype. Mel can be reached at 203.227.5010 or at Melschwartz.com. His blog is http://ashiftofmind.com/