Why do couples buckle down in silence, and what are they saying through their silence? Sometimes it can be a mere personality trait, but it also can be a symptom of something far more significant.

We chatted with Dave Ortis, a registered counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada, to get some answers. Read on to learn how silence can be both destructive and constructive in a marriage, how to decipher between the two and how you and your spouse can gain a better understanding of each other’s temperament.

Negative silence

Ortis says that negative silence can sometimes be related to one’s emotional quotient, which asks, how do you deal with yourself and others? Imagine if you sincerely don’t like the way your husband parts his hair, but can’t figure out why this bothers you and forces you into silence; perhaps it reminds you of the way an abusive figure parted his hair? If so, you then retreat into your silence but aren’t willing to ask yourself what’s contributing to this silence. Without this self-awareness, you aren’t able to properly deal with your own emotions.

Ortis describes several scenarios where silence can be highly destructive – both to the marital relationship and to the silent partner.

– Passive aggression. Ortis says that silence can sometimes be an act of quiet hostility, in that one spouse will act as though they’re cooperating, but silently will do everything they can to sabotage a situation. For example, one spouse may agree that it’s a good idea to visit the in-laws for the weekend, but then will sulk the entire time they’re visiting.

– Safety. When any sort of abuse – verbal, social, emotional, physical, sexual or economical – is feared, silence can be used as a buffer for the victim. "Silence becomes safe," Ortis says, "so the victim thinks they’d better keep quiet rather than say something that could incur wrath."

– Avoidance. This can be related to passive aggression, but without the feelings of hostility. It’s a way of saying you don’t want to talk about the issue because it’s uncomfortable and don’t want to hurt your spouse’s feelings, so you avoid the topic all together. "All couples do this dance," Ortis says, "and older couples have learned what to say and what to avoid. It’s a way to minimise fights." He adds that while silent avoidance generally isn’t a healthy form of communication, it can sometimes be used to avoid fights over petty things which may not necessarily be worthy of a fight.

– Peace at all costs. Ortis describes this as a co-dependence stance, adding that it’s prevalent when one partner discovers the other spouse has a destructive habit but doesn’t know how to address the issue at hand. "The ‘innocent’ spouse is not confronting the issue, thereby enabling the at-fault spouse by not saying anything," he says.

– Busyness. When you and your spouse busy yourselves with the noise of being hyper-connected – e.g., phones, computers and social media – you run the risk of being taken away from the present moment and confronting whatever issues are in front of you. "The Sabbath rest is meant to get us to stop and reflect on where we’re at in relationship to ourselves, others and the world," Ortis says. "This takes time and discipline."

– Power. This is a form of emotional abuse, manipulating the victim into feeling as though they’ve done something wrong. For example, the silent spouse gives their partner the cold shoulder and waits until their partner comes to sweet-talk them out of their mood. "This is where silence gets cooperation," Ortis says.

– Rumination. By dwelling on your unfortunate circumstances, Ortis cautions that your sole focus will be on what has gone wrong in your life. "When we ruminate, we are making the rest of the world revolve around us, and believe the world needs to do something to make us happy," he says. "Rather than seeing what positive options you can explore with your spouse, you’d rather ruminate in your own misery. That can lead to bitterness, which is cancer of the soul."

Use silence for good

While the above examples have shown the negative aspects of silence in a relationship, Ortis shared five ways that you and your spouse can utilise silence to improve your marriage and your own well-being.

1. Processing. Rather than reacting to a situation, Ortis recommends you silently think things through so that you can see the circumstances more objectively. "Sometimes our impulsivity can get us into more trouble than what’s necessary," he says.

2. Reflection and empathy. "When two people get married, it’s usually a collision of two cultures," Ortis says. If one of you came from an upbringing with family solidarity and the other came from a dysfunctional or abusive family, the spouse from the healthier family will have a difficult time understanding their partner’s destructive family background. "For example, if you have a phrase you use – like ‘Gosh darn’ – that’s just a simple expression, your spouse may have heard that from their father before he beat them – ‘Gosh darn, this hurts me more than you.’ So it’s important to have patience in that context and understand that you may need to change your words."

3. Solitude.Ortis says that there are three people in every marriage: you, me and us. Without taking time for solitude and keeping tabs on your emotional health, you run the risk of burnout, which can take a toll on your marriage. "If the individual parts aren’t healthy, the collective ‘us’ won’t be healthy," he says.

4. Meditation. Ortis cites Psalm 46:10 – "Be still and know that I am God" – as a Biblical mandate for using silence as a means toward spiritual maturity.

5. Enjoyment. Remember that being in the presence of your spouse doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have conversations all the time. "It’s okay to just sit in silence and then verbally connect later on," Ortis says.

How do you decipher between the two forms of silence?

Since silence can be used both constructively and destructively in a relationship, how do you decipher your own behaviour? Ortis says that communication can always be improved by having honest conversations and listening to one another. "Our spouses don’t always need us to fix their problems," he says, "but they need us to listen. Understand that communication styles are different, and learn to respect each other’s communication patterns."

Another way you can gain a better understanding of your spouse’s silence is through asking open-ended questions; Ortis recommends asking "what?" rather than "why?" "The question ‘why?’ in a relationship is often felt as a judgment," he says, "especially if I’m feeling pretty raw in my silence. If you ask me, ‘Why did I do that?’ I’ll feel it as a judgment that I did something wrong. Instead, ask ‘What were you feeling?" This, he says, helps get an understanding of the issue rather than trying to explain something your spouse doesn’t necessarily understand.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Todd Foley

Todd Foley was an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

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