I’ve come to believe that not saying anything is the most over-used communication strategy in couples. It’s not a bad strategy when used appropriately. For example, there are many things you might choose not to talk about because they are minor and would offend for no reason: a style choice, a passing grumpy mood, a silly mistake.
The saying, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all, makes sense to me. No need to criticize without a purpose.
However, it’s also important to remember that the saying is not: if you have something unpleasant, difficult or emotional to say, don’t say anything at all.
Too often we avoid saying something that might be hard or prompt an emotional response. The belief is that if we abstain from saying anything then we are not responsible. Our fear keeps us from speaking, lest we deal with the feelings that might be brought up.
In my view, saying nothing is a choice. It’s an intentional communication strategy and it doesn’t hold you harmless. It also has some serious consequences if consistently and inappropriately used for long periods of time. An example would include not telling your partner about your strong preferences on major life choices like household duties, work, living situation, parenting strategies, money, sex, and recreation time.
It can hurt to say nothing. It can be painful to have information withheld. It also invites in the nemesis of good relationships: resentment.
If someone we love has intense feelings about something, we need to know. If left in the dark, our ability to support, respond, take action or simply listen is taken away. We remain unaware or at least unsure.
Meanwhile, the uncommunicative partner is silently unhappy. Having opted out of speaking, it’s easy for resentment to grow. It’s easy to feel like the victim or to hope for the other person to somehow figure out what you want. I can tell you, this in an inefficient, painful, and exhausting strategy.
Couples who do not talk about difficult things cannot work out fundamental differences. Any two humans will have differences and those who choose to live a life together long-term need to find solutions to maintain their bond as they navigate these differences. If problems are not brought up, there is no solution-finding.
In the absence of hard conversations, resentment, assumptions, and disappointments prevail. Unresolved feelings fester. They don’t go away, but instead eat away at us from the inside.
I believe good relationships are not based of an absence of conflict. Instead, they are strengthened from learning, growth, and challenge. Disagreement, differences, intense emotions are part of this process. It’s messy, but it’s healthy. It’s not how few hard conversation you have, it’s how good you get at being able to grow from these difficult moments.
Not acknowledging our feelings with those who are close to us erodes our emotional well-being, deprives us of a chance to feel connected, and keeps us from being able to problem-solve and move forward.
The good news is that we can all get better at saying things that need to be said. There is no opting out. You need to know how to deal with difficult stuff if you want close and connected relationships with all of the people you love most.
Need help saying what you need to say? I have two workshops this fall for women working on direct, clear and kind communication for better relationships. I am also offering communication coaching. Contact me for details.
Are you ready to say what you need to say?
Wonderful article, very articulate and well-written. Truthful and helpful–great information. This blog post is definitely one of my favorites.
Thank you, Bernie for your kind words. I appreciate your feedback very much!