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Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Silence isn’t always golden

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


e all get upset from time to time. However, we don’t all handle those feelings the same way. Some people quietly explain what’s bothering them. Others shriek, yell, and lecture. Then there are the door slammers and drama queens. There’s also a group that doesn’t say a word.


Frozen Shut

“When my wife is upset with me, she just stops talking. I know I did something to upset her, but I usually have no idea what it is. She closes her mouth and keeps it that way for a few days. Then she starts to carry on normally as if nothing happened. If I ask her about it, she refuses to talk, so I’ve just learned to wait it out.”

Why would this woman refuse to tell her husband the reason for her upset? Is it so hard to say, “I need you to do XYZ instead of ABC?” or “When you do QRS, it really hurts my feelings?”

For some people, yes, it’s hard! But when a spouse doesn’t speak up, issues tend to remain unresolved, leading to a marriage crippled with pain and misunderstanding.


Learned Silence

Some people learned in childhood that expressing anger is a dangerous activity when, after expressing upset and anger to parents, they found themselves quickly slapped down. This may have happened because the child, not knowing the correct way to express upset, spoke in an extremely disrespectful way. The parents became distracted by the child’s communicative style and instead of concentrating on the message, punished the entire communicative effort. They didn’t teach the child how to talk; they taught him not to talk.

In order to encourage communication, parents need to acknowledge a child’s feelings, no matter how they’re delivered. Then, when the child calms down, parents can teach him through explanation, consequences, and modeling, a respectful way to express displeasure. Similarly, spouses can train each other not to talk by punishing attempts at communication with rage, criticism, and other forms of counter-attack, or they can encourage communication through skilled listening, teaching, and modeling.


Innate Silence

Other types of childhood experiences can also foster adult shutdowns. For example, some people come from homes where negative feelings just aren’t expressed. The parents don’t share their real feelings of hurt or anger with each other or their children.

Instead, they talk about rules, appropriate, and inappropriate behavior, problem-solving, and lots of other cognitive or behavioral concepts. They don’t display emotional vulnerability by confessing feelings such as, “When you speak to me that way, I feel offended and insulted” or, “When you consistently leave a mess for me to clean up, I feel taken advantage of and disrespected.” Instead, they say, “We don’t speak to a parent that way,” or “You need to clean up your mess and not leave it for me to do.”

The complete omission of emotional communications can leave a child unprepared for the emotional intensity that occurs in marital relationships. It’s important for parents to name their own feelings as well as their child’s feelings.

Finally, there are some people who are simply inexpressive by nature. The danger they feel isn’t learned but is an intrinsic part of their makeup. Fortunately, even these people can learn to express negative emotions in adulthood. Parents and spouses can help those close to them become more communicative by employing a few simple strategies:

Greet complaints with gratitude. “Thank you for telling me this.”

Acknowledge the speaker’s feelings. “Now I understand why you’re so angry. It makes sense that you’d be upset about this.”

Refrain from discussing the style of the communication until everyone has calmed down and you have welcomed and validated the speaker’s feelings.

Model safe exploration of negative feelings by speaking openly and respectfully when something bothers you. “I’m really upset about how much money you spent on the rug. You went over the budget we agreed on, and I feel betrayed and hurt.” Soft-spoken words, a neutral facial expression, and calm body language safely express strong emotions.

People can also help wean themselves off the shutdown habit by practicing offering a short communication about the non-communication: “I can’t talk right now. Later.” It’s important to have an agreement with one’s spouse that these words signal, “Please wait for me; I’ll be back soon. Don’t try to push me before I’m ready.” Over time, as husband and wife work together to create safety, there’ll be less need to withdraw and more experiences of healthy conflict resolution through safe communication. 

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 631)

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