Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Improve Your Relationship: Know When It is Best Not to Say Anything!

silent womanWhether you have just begun dating or you are celebrating a Golden Anniversary, most partners are aware that communication is a crucial component in relationship happiness and satisfaction. Most self-help books extol it, and most experts working with couples encourage and facilitate improved communication.

Dr. Marianne Legato, author of Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget contends that without effective couple communication, there is no relationship at all.

A crucial but often overlooked communication skill for partners is knowing when it is best not to say anything.

This skill is not about suppression, quiet compliance, the silent treatment, dismissal or neglect. It is a choice that reflects attunement, empathy, regulation of emotions and prioritizing the bond you share.

It is knowing those times when your comment, critique, opinion, question or news not only fails to add value – it makes matters worse!

While there are always differences among couples relative to their personal histories and dynamics, here are some situations that many face for which the decision not to say anything may be best.

Fueling the Fire

  • A real stumbling block for old and young couples who are arguing is knowing when “enough is enough.”  More specifically, recognizing that it is an illusion to think that there is something to gain in “having the last word.”
  • In almost all cases insisting on one more comment does nothing productive. Usually it escalates the tension and anger and jeopardizes resolution.
  • As Ferguson author of Reptiles in Love suggests, when partners are in fight/flight mode, logic is gone and no one wins.
  • Stopping is a protective and important step in anger management. It prevents saying the unsayable – those words we can’t take back. It also prevents the dangerous escalation from verbal to physical aggression.

Breaking the Confidence

  • One of the ingredients in the intimacy of any couple is what they share as confidantes. Feeling safe, partners share dreams, frailties, imperfect body parts, traumatic memories and self-doubts in a way they share with no one else.
  • Regardless of what others are disclosing, which family member is asking, or how much everyone is enjoying “partner bashing” – don’t take the bait.
  • Protecting each other’s confidence is a gift of trust only partners can give to each other.

But I Was Just Trying to Help

  • Despite the fact that every couple self-help book recommends that unless asked, don’t give advice – most of us err in favor of “just trying to help.”
  • Actually on close reflection, it is often our own sense of anxiety and helplessness in face of a partner’s distress that throws us into advice mode.  We have to do something!
  • Listening with eye-to-eye contact and hand-to-hand reach is far more powerful than unsolicited advice.  A partner who feels your support is more empowered to solve his/her problem and will more likely ask for help if needed.

 Getting To Not Know You

“ I know just what he/she is going to say!”

  • As much as you think you know your partner – think again. What makes a relationship interesting and vital is recognizing what you still don’t know about each other.
  • Toward this end one verbal talent you want to drop is the compulsion to finish your partner’s sentence. (trust me)  Listening instead of speaking puts you in a position to hear what you may or may not expect from your partner. Finishing the other’s sentence changes dialogue into monologue. It often shuts down present and future discussion and precludes more knowing.
  • When partners do this to each other in public – the audience is sent the message that he/she cannot speak for himself/herself or that you need to be in control – neither option is desirable.

Disqualifying The Compliment

   “Great? That’s ridiculous. You know I hate my hair.”

  • Sometimes a childhood history can take its toll on self-esteem or you can hit a tough time in life when a job or a health situation saps too much of your confidence. These are times when having a loving and affirming partner can be a powerful source for healing and restoring self.
  • These are the times, however, when you may feel compelled to speak  i.e. to verbally debate, discount or argue away a partner’s compliment. While these are times when nothing feels right, to verbally undo a compliment is to disqualify something important – a little bit of light sent in by someone who loves you.
  • Positive emotions have the unique quality of broadening and building both social and psychological resources. Accepting a compliment is a positive exchange for both of you.

Taking Up The Family Fight

  • It is inevitable that partners will complain about their families of origin and will enjoy the support of the other in seeing it their way.
  • What never works, however, is feeling entitled to verbally criticize, belittle or put down your partner’s family.  Yes, you have heard about these people. Yes, you have felt outraged and protective of your partner. But your partner needs you to hear it and contain the feelings rather than commenting on how outrageous or unacceptable their family may be.
  • As difficult as it may feel, it is emotionally more supportive to listen than to speak because regardless of whether families are bad or good, most people feel connected with them. Often adult children of dysfunctional families carry considerable shame and self-blame which is exacerbated when someone reminds them about it. Needing to feel different and vital, your partner prefers that you focus more on him/her than the family of origin.
  • Listening is what no one may have done in the childhood – your partner finally has someone willing to do that – you.

No News is Good News

As much as it is very valuable for couples to share experiences together, it is also important to show respect for and encouragement of each other’s passions and interests in other people, places and things.

His love of watching sports, her weekly book club, his commitment to teaching, her love of nursing are actually valuable to the relationship as they nurture and support each as individuals.

That said, it is important to think twice about verbally intruding into your partner’s recreation or workspace. If you feel a sense of urgency – put yourself in your partner’s shoes and re-evaluate your urgent need to speak.

  • Does he really need to hear about the painter’s estimate in the middle of the game?
  • Does she really need a call about your 5th grader’s science project at her book club?
  • He does care about the news of your brother in law – but not in the middle of his workday.
  • She may not fully appreciate your enthusiasm about discount plane fares if she has to hear about it in the hallway at work.

When partners feel that their time and space are respected, they usually can’t wait to share and hear what the other has to say!

Sharing the Sounds of Silence

  • Often people remark that the way they know that they are really connected is that they can be together without saying anything.
  • This is the place where no one is speaking but a great deal is being communicated.
  • This is the place where both are safe enough in the relationship that they feel the other without having to verbally hold the tie or check the mood with words.
  • This is the place where partners embrace the silence between them as intimate space.
As valuable as the words are between us – silence can be the most powerful communication of all. 


Silent woman photo available from Shutterstock.