Self, Heartbreak

Why "Suffering In Silence" Needlessly Ruins Good Relationships

Photo: Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock
sad woman with man comforting her

I don't know about all discontent married people, but the ones I've worked with are fooling themselves.

They may think they are nobly "suffering in silence", but their body language and behaviors are screaming ... loud and clear. (And it's also highly likely they complain bitterly about that "suffering" to anyone who will listen.)

This is the problem: suffering in silence is the exact opposite of healthy living. It's a poor (and highly toxic) approach to relationships. So, why do so many married, and supposedly-committed, people do this?

Here's an example from a real couple I worked with:

  • He didn't know how to give voice to his feelings and issues.
  • Neither of them knew how to communicate clearly and solve conflicts because they didn't know what they really thought, or exactly what was bothering them.
  • Neither of them had any role models in their lives who demonstrated how healthy, mutually-supportive, loving relationships actually work.
  • She did not feel secure, safe, or certain about speaking up.
  • Both of them knew that when they were angry, they could not depend on themselves to speak up civilly. So, they just didn't take the chance and fell silent instead.

So, married people—along with others in long-term, committed relationships—supposedly suffer in silence and stew. But, do they really?

No, married people don't suffer in silence.

Hardly. Their bodies (energy, body language, etc.) scream their displeasure to everyone in the room ... including the spouse they're supposedly holding their tongue with. 

It's possible that folks who button up and bottle up recall prior negative experiences associated with speaking out. Things just didn't go well or the result crushed them. Now, they don't want to risk their self-esteem ... or the relationship.

That's what was going on with my couple. They were wise to seek some professional help because the relationship each had with themselves, and the one they were creating with their partner, was teetering on very shaky underpinnings.

Too often, folks in my office proudly tell me that they never fight. I look at them and often see tense, anxious, constricted, and unhappy people who are holding on to a myth of wedded bliss: what a relationship is "supposed" to look like. And they think not fighting is it.

They fight, it's just not out loud.

These "silent sufferers" have huge conversations in their head—and likely with others who will listen—about the unfairness, the damage, the idiocy, the crassness, the thoughtlessness, and the lack of sensitivity of their partners. Just the look on their faces when they talk about their partners screams PAIN! This is poison to the relationship and to their health.

And, here's a HUGE, glaring mistake: Too many people talk to their kids about their frustrations with their partners. Do NOT do this!

Your children are not your confidantes. They deserve to just be kids, unburdened by adult matters. You chose your partner, not them. Work it out with your partner. Your kids love their other parent. It's your job to listen and help them, not the other way around.

Insights and skills are the antidotes to this relationship poison.

Are you suffering in silence? Maybe you didn't have such an easy time early on in life. Maybe you had big issues in your family that kept you quiet and keeping secrets, or you never had someone who really cared how you felt.

You might have no sense that it's safe to share. Either way, it can lead to shutting down when strong feelings overwhelm you.

Loving someone and hating their behavior without the skills to work it out shuts you down. Loving someone, but not liking or valuing yourself much, leads to wanting to please other folks.

Having been told that nice people don't make waves can lead to self-loathing when you are dying to speak up. And, you could feel like you're dying inside.

It's all so conflicting that, in the extreme, this is one reason why quiet, seemingly nice people kill their spouses. They stewed in silence, didn't get help, and could only see one way to stop the pain: eradicate the supposed cause.

Healthy partnerships are open, safe, honest, respectful, and trusting. If you haven't had those things in earlier relationships, you may not know how to give or receive them now. So, the internal wisdom is to simply stay silent. Not so wise.

Why do married and committed folks suffer in silence?

Well, because they don't know how to speak up AND stay safe. You must do both. If you cannot, you can learn to. It's best to learn together, because you both contribute to releasing the problem and creating healthier solutions.

Stop. Get help. Your relationship can get stronger, and become safer and more intimate by working through and learning things together.

Remember, it's not failing if you need help. Strong people who care about themselves do it right away. Suffering in silence is unhealthy and unnecessary. It's likely you're both just scared to open up, and be vulnerable and transparent. And, you may not know why; maybe it's never been safe before.

You can end the suffering and end the silence. Move towards that wonderful, safe, intimate relationship you believe is possible.

Rhoberta Shaler, PhD, The Relationship Help Doctor, works with committed couples who know they love each other and want their once-great relationships back, stronger, closer and more intimate. She helps them with the insights and skills they need to create healthy relationships that support them to walk together united, through whatever life brings. She is the author of Kaizen For Couples: Smart Steps to Save, Sustain & Strengthen Your Relationship. You can work with her directly in person or through Zoom or Skype. Get valuable insights now by subscribing to her twice-monthly Tips for Relationships in your inbox.

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