August 04, 2009


I continue to see more and more female clients who’ve been unhappy in their relationships for years, yet have said little or nothing about it.  They’ve tried to do what their partners wanted, be sexual if their partners asked, not complain when they didn’t like something and be supportive of their partners at all costs.

After years of bottling everything up, the couples typically come into my office either because the women have threatened to leave the relationship or the men are unhappy with their sex life.  As I ask more questions, it’s evident that the women have been unhappy for years and the men had no idea.  Many of the women complained very little throughout the years, “hoping” they would feel more love for their partners.  When this didn’t happen, they lost all sexual desire for their partners and subsequently stopped having sex with them.

Often these women blamed their lack of sexual desire on themselves and continued saying nothing about their unhappiness in the relationship.  The men believed they were content.

Meanwhile, each year that goes by without a word from the women about their dissatisfaction, leads to more and more resentment, depression, loss of desire and eventually a serious breakdown in the relationship.  The women eventually grow to cringe when their partner touches them.  They get easily annoyed by anything he does and they begin to think about escape.

The men are subsequently at a loss.  They have no idea what happened and they are often shocked to hear that their partners were unhappy.  They believe the real problem is that the women have untreated trauma or some type of sexual problem that needs to be explored and fixed.  The last thing they imagine is that their behavior contributed to the woman’s unhappiness.

The men are shell-shocked.  Why didn’t she say this before?  Why did she continue to act as if everything were fine?  And, why now is she going to the opposite extreme of wanting out of this relationship or shutting down all sex?

The most common answer women give to all these questions:  “Because I didn’t want to hurt you.”  When asked why, all of a sudden, they want to end the relationship, the women say, “I’ve been unhappy for years and hoped it would go away.  Now I can’t live like this anymore.”

Note to women:  Not speaking up for years and then shutting down (because that’s what naturally happens when you don’t speak up) is not protecting your partners from hurt.  It’s creating more pain—for you AND your partner. 

In addition, your silence, in response to poor treatment, encourages more poor treatment.  Implicit in silence is acceptance.  If you don’t speak up about it, you send the message that it’s okay.  The other people in your life continue their poor treatment of you and then you get angry, resentful, depressed and shut down -- a lose-lose for everyone.

This is a losing proposition even when we’re not speaking about poor treatment, but simple things like where to go to eat or how your partner touches you or (fill in the blank).  When you say nothing the other person knows nothing.  Stop trying not to make waves, hurt people, make a big deal out of things or (fill in the blank) and start standing up for yourself, your relationship and your life.  Do so with a nuanced strength that is centered, composed and authentic. 

Your silence is not helping you, your partner, your children or anyone else in your life.  Healthy relationships require a healthy you.  You can’t be healthy and silenced at the same time. 

CHALLENGE:  If you are silencing yourself in an effort to not hurt those around you—stop it.  Your silence is not a gift, it’s a curse.  Learn to speak up for what you want, don’t want, like and don’t like with a quiet, powerful, nuanced strength.  Your voice is a gift—use it.


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Dear Lisa,I wish there was a easy way to deal with this silence.I used to go on silence every time we argued with my husband,,it lasted for a day or two..but with time I let it go .Nowadays my husband is using this silence technique and is killing me.Last time he used we didn't spoke for 3 weeks..it was very difficult,it has destroyed me..the kids are so unhappy..they think we gonna break up.And in this moment for nearly 2 weeks he is in silence.I really tried to talk to him after he went on silence but he was so determined no to respond.and now I cannot speak ether when he doesn't speak to me.There is something inside me that I just cannot control..it is holding me back.Everything feels different around me!He is destroying me with this attitude..and he does not care about the kids at all!

I tell my boyfriend when I'm upset about something he says or does, and I really don't feel like it's all that often. His response to me is often "Oh it was just a joke, don't you have a sense of humor" or "You're really sensitive, more sensitive than anyone else I know. Nobody else would be upset if I said that". Well guess what, I do get upset. Worse, when I explain how bad it sounds, he turns it on me by saying "Thanks for thinking so little of me by thinking that I would mean to hurt your feelings like that." I find this really frustrating and confusing. He also says that it's because I bring up these kinds of issues between us, that's our problem. That I'm expecting him to be someone he's not. That he feels like he has to be careful about every little thing he says around me and he can't just joke around. Like it'd be better if I didn't say anything and just assume he never meant to hurt my feelings. He's saying that I complain so often that he's starting to not care about how I feel. However I feel like he behaved this way with the very first complaint, and that he's less concerned with my feelings than he is about being "right" and not being blamed. I can't imagine that any woman would find the things he says to be terribly funny if it's a joke. And then when he says that it's my constant complaining that's really the problem, I just start to think, maybe he needs to find out from someone else that it's not funny, because I'm getting awfully tired of explaining it to him. It's almost like he's daring me to break up with him when he says that.

Why am I with the guy? Well MOST of the time we have a great time together. It's just when he makes one of these weird jokes. I really don't know what to think.

Dear Lisa: This is a common complaint with couples and incredibly frustrating to be on the other side of as a partner. Your partner's dismissiveness is disrespectful and will build up a lot of resentment in your relationship. I would try to discuss this with him at a time when you both are getting along. Be clear with him that's it beginning to get in the way of your relationship. Let him know that whether he means to be insensitive or not--it doesn't feel good to you. You then need to think about how much of a problem this is for you and act accordingly. If it's a major problem, you will need to set limits. For example, if he does this in public, tell him if he continues to do this, you will no longer go out in public until he stops. If he does it at home, address the comment and if he dismisses you end the conversation with "I'm telling you I don't like it and if you keep dismissing my feelings on this, you need to know you are hurting our relationship." Try this for several weeks and see if it shifts. If it doesn't you will need to decide what action step you're willing to take. Whatever you do, don't grow silent and decide to take it; it will only get worse and lead to deep resentment.
Take care-Lisa

I use my own made up 'next day rule'. Where I do stay silent over night and if it still bothers me the next day, I talk to my husband about it. I am a highly reactive person so I've learned that this helps me not make a big deal out of something that isn't and cuts down on the number of things I am complaining about. I think silence is a balancing act, sometime it can be good, sometimes it can be bad.

DEAR RORY: I think this is a great rule for anyone who tends to be on the more reactive side. Thanks for sharing!
Take care-Lisa

John Gottman, the marital researcher on what makes relationships work, talks about "softened start-up" which is what the writer above is speaking about. It just means, start with a positive, "I'm glad I can talk to you...I value our relationship....and the message....then end with something realistically positive. Even if the partner can't respond right then, the speaker can still say something like, "I'm glad I was able to tell you this - it's important to be real....I hope you'll think about it." Or, positive feedback to the partner for being open to talking...etc.

I also think some women shut down because their spouses dont' respond, so there is a cascade of distancing that happens due to lack of reinforcement, hence the need to be responsible and conscious in the way Lisa is talking about. I love this blog, Lisa! You are so succinct. Connie Konikoff, Lcsw, in Lafayette, La.

DEAR CONNIE: Thanks for your comment and compliments. Your comment is right on and good food for thought.
Take care-Lisa

Thanks Lisa! I have broke the silence with my husband and all seems to be going well. I have contacted a marriage counselor and have spoken with the Pastor regarding my destructive gambling habit. I am really happy that I stumbled across your blog. It has been 5 days since I wrote you and the light has been shining every since. We are talking more and I have been very stern about my feeling regarding the silent treatment. I am hopeful that the counseling on both of our parts will get us back on track.
Thanks again for your insight into this matter and for giving me the opportunity to express myself openly.
You have remarkably been able to be the calm in my storm. Thank you very much.

I will continue to visit your website for constructive criticism.

God Bless!

DEAR NAH: Good for you! I'm impressed by your determination and follow through. Thanks for updating us.
Warm regards-Lisa

I was looking for an article regarding silence in the marriage and yours shed some light on the topic but did address my issue. My husband has been married 3 times, I am the 3rd. Each ex-wife has some addiction, alcohol and other drugs. I have been married to him for 8 years now and think that I have discovered why I am number 3. My husband becomes silent when he is upset about anything. Currently my husband has been silent for 49 days and it is driving me crazy. He talks at me but not to me and I am a communicator so it is very distressing to deal with. I noticed the problem about 3 years ago and began gambling at the casino. I have since then used gambling as a crutch when he becomes silent. It has become such a problem that I am contemplating getting a divorce. What do you think I should do? I don't entertain gambling until I get the silent treatment......

DEAR NAH: Forty-nine days of silence is extreme. Stop gambling to deal with the problem and instead deal with your husband.

Let your husband know that his silence is not okay with you. Tell him that it is impacting your marriage and you want to get into couples counseling or relationship coaching to deal with this issue. Let him know that if he does not agree to get some help that your marriage will be in trouble. You can also tell him that you're going to take a weekend away for yourself so that you don't have to be around his silence. Then go to a friend or family members house and don't put up with his silence.

The bottom line is you have to deal with his silence directly rather than hurting yourself by gambling or turning to any other unhealthy habit in an effort to hide your pain in your marriage. Your decision to gamble is 100% on you NOT on your husband. Stop blaming it on him and deal with your gambling addiction. There are groups to help you deal with gambling such as Gamblers Anonymous. Call them. Get yourself healthy and then get your marriage healthy.
Take care--Lisa

I have to agree with you on just about everything. The one thing that may help your readers is that when your wife ultimately explodes and tells you she is unhappy the men are going to be completely unprepared for it and will not believe what they are hearing. This is a big mistake on the mans part but also can be a bigger mistake for the women. The women should break this in a way that the news is going to be heard and taken seriously.
And men when this does happen dont lose all your self respect. Listen to your wife as someone that cares and loves her, dont run away. Take this as a chance to bring back the original reason why you married her not for sex but for the person she is. And I say this because once the men feel like there is some progress in the relationship they will "expect" sex and when they dont get it there will be a backlash.

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