Constant conflict, chronic disrespect, and serious betrayals get a lot of air time when we’re talking about bad relationships. It’s easy to understand that relationships fail when conflict is unrelenting.
However, after working with couples for 15 years, it has become crystal clear that those couples have a leg up on other couples that are struggling. At least they’re talking, even if they’re arguing, because as Lisa Brookes Kift, LMFT explains, not arguing means you’re not communicating.
Some partners avoid conflict because they think they’re keeping the peace. They tell themselves that whatever is bothering them isn’t worth bringing up. It’s no big deal. Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed that for some conflict avoiders, this interaction is good enough for them. It works.
As he details in “Principia Amoris”, however, these couples are at greater risk of “drifting apart with zero interdependence over time, and thus being left with a marriage consisting of two parallel lives, never touching, especially when the children [leave] home.”
The unspoken issues and irritants add up until the tension hits a breaking point.
Eventually partners explode, or worse, shut down. They try to speak up, but by that point, it’s often too late. They don’t have any gas left in the tank to fight for the relationship.
They’re just done.
Maybe at some point, one or both partners did fight. They did try for an improved understanding. They worked for it. But improvements failed to stick, nothing worked, and needs failed to get met until one or both decided it was better to retreat from the relationship emotionally and stop fighting for it.
Sometimes silence is a deliberate choice. No one is yelling or using disrespectful language. However, those on the receiving end of such silence hear the message: You have ceased to matter. You’re not worth my time or my attention.
So how do you break the silence in your marriage? Start by acknowledging it.
Phrases to break the silence
- Hey, we haven’t really been talking lately. I have been feeling X and just haven’t known how to bring it up.
- Can we check in? I know I’ve gone radio silent and shut down. I’m not even sure I can explain it all but I’d like to try, if you’re willing to listen to me bumble about a bit while I sort it all out.
- I’m not sure what’s going here, but I feel like we haven’t really spoken in X amount of time. Do you have time to talk tonight?
- I miss you. We don’t really talk anymore, and I am not sure why. I haven’t asked because I am afraid you’ll say it’s my fault but I miss you. I miss us.
Partners stop talking because they fear what might happen after the conversation starts. What happens if we start talking and can’t work it out? What happens if I ask my partner what’s bothering him and I can’t handle the answer? What happens if I tell my partner what’s bothering me and she doesn’t care?
Those fears play into why people stay silent. Tell your partner what’s on your heart.
State your fears
If you’re worried about what your spouse might say, think, or do, be transparent about that. Tell your partner what you want them to know:
- I know I’m not the best communicator, but silence can’t be good. I’m nervous that we’re going to end up in a fighting match. I really don’t want to fight with you. I want us to work this out together.
- I know we keep trying. I know we keep failing. But silence is giving up, and I don’t want to do that.
- I know that we haven’t been talking. The truth is, I’m scared because I’m desperate for us to connect. I feel like we are on opposite sides and I want to feel like we’re a team again. I want us to figure out some way to work this out even though neither of us really knows how to start.
- Hey, I don’t want you to feel under attack here. I know I am to blame, too, but this conversation has to start somewhere. Our relationship is too important to me to not try so, here goes…
- I caught myself the other day telling a friend about how great you were with X. I realized I never told you that I thought you did that well. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we had a conversation that went beyond our to-do lists. Can we figure out a time to just check in, please?
Now that you’ve broken the silence in your marriage and opened the door to connection, the next step is to walk through it together.
Written by Heather Gray for The Gottman Relationship Blog.