Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
I have a confession to make.
I like to control other people.
If there’s conflict, I go silent. That makes me feel in control. Others have to work hard to get my attention and I can get my way.
I was watching a scene from a play that my students were performing. The couple in the play had just had an argument and the male character was giving his girlfriend “the silent treatment.” The pain that this caused the girlfriend, who tried everything to break through the wall of hostility, was excruciating.
Early in our relationship I used “the silent treatment.” It was my way of handling conflict. I could control and manipulate Christian that way. Christian had a different way: “getting it all out;” arguing. Both these ways of handling conflict are culturally inscribed or learnt behaviour.
Arguing has been given a bad wrap. The silent treatment seems more acceptable, kinder, more “civilized.” (I wince at that word.)
“Getting it all out” during arguing seems more aggressive than “the silent treatment” also known as “the cold shoulder.” But it isn’t.
The silent treatment is a form of cold warfare.
Not talking is just a type of wordless arguing at a distance; emotions are usually still flared up. It is avoiding rather than confronting the conflict. The conflict is, however, still felt. Emotions, thoughts and feelings get suppressed rather than expressed. If you are “not talking” you are still communicating: watching behaviours, body language, looking for signs of diplomatic envoys or olive branches, seeing if things have gone “too far” this time, and so forth.
I watched my students playing this out onstage. The female character looked like she was pleading with a brick wall. I shuddered as I felt the icy coldness of the male character’s aggressive silence.
The silent treatment can make the other person feel terribly alone. Useless.
Silence severs your relationship with your life partner. Although you may feel they somehow deserve it and gloat that you are in control, you keep them at arm’s length, creating a huge chasm that you can fall into. You can be left alone with only your pride to console you.
Aren’t we strange human beings that need control but also need rescuing?
So what can you do?
Use these words:
When you … I feel …
The way I see it is …
What would work for me is …
Every couple has different ways of handling conflict. Some argue it out. Some go silent for a couple of days, then they slowly come back together. They have a kind of silent contract of silence.
I still use the silent treatment at times, I can’t help it. But I am getting better at “getting it all out on the table” while trying to employ heart and humour. Christian is getting better at being less reactive and toning it down.
“The course of true love never does run smooth” (Midsummer Shakespeare)
There will still be arguments and conflicts. The love is in the trying. Keep trying. Keep valuing the greatest asset, the relationship; then perhaps cold shoulders will one day be replaced by warm fuzzies.
“I am so sick of everything! My work, where we live, how hot it is all the time. I’m not getting any sleep and I’m tired and cranky. I’m …”
Grizzle, grizzle, grizzle.
We were on our usual bushwalk. I was stomping along and gesturing madly with my hands. Occasionally we would pass other people out on walks. They stared at me as if I should be on stage or locked up. I should be – on stage, I mean. No-one ever seems to talk, or gesticulate as much as Christian and I do. Above us cockatoos were screeching out obscenities that suited my mood perfectly.
“And I nearly lost it when she said….”
Whinge, whinge, whinge.
Brits whinge . North Americans gripe. Australians rag on, grizzle, do our block, do our nut, and when it gets too bad we spit the dummy.
“And I’m really worried about….”
Gripe, gripe, gripe.
“I know that I have no right to complain, but … ”
“Wait a minute!” Christian almost yelled.
He had to raise his voice. I had been having such a good complain for the last 20 minutes, and had become so used to the sound of my own voice that I almost forgot he was there.
Why did he stop me then? OK … I must have touched a nerve.
“I hate it when people say that. You have every right to complain.”
Sure we were alone together but, ooh… “hate.” Strong word for Christian.
I knew I was in for one of his delightfully long-winded explanations. The fierce Queensland sun was slowly setting and a gentle wind cooled my heated emotions. We had time.
This is the short version:
When you hold things in, you repress them. Repressed feelings, hurts, troubles, problems and emotions always manifest in some other way in your life:
You become highly-strung.
You get sick.
You get bitter as you age.
Complaining is often called “getting things off your chest,” because that’s where repressed thoughts and feelings sit. They weigh down heavily on you until you can’t breathe anymore.
People have so many shoulds and shouldn’ts in their heads:
“You should be positive all the time.”
“No-one likes a whinger.”
“Always look on the bright side.”
“Some good will come out of this.”
“Others are worse off.”
I was brought up with these sayings. I felt guilty whenever I complained. As if I had no right to do it.
I have since learned otherwise.
It’s OK to complain. It releases built up tension. It’s real. It’s cathartic. It also means that you trust someone else enough to show them what’s really going on inside.
You privilege them by letting them know what’s really going on inside your head. That helps.
It also helps when they just listen.
As we retraced our steps on the way back we saw the flock of cockatoos again. They had alighted on a plain old grey gumtree, transforming it into a mass of white “flowers.” They were no longer screeching. They had had a good whinge and were now perched on the branches, in harmony with each other. Together they happily chewed on the gumnuts making a big mess on the ground.
A deep peace crept over the bush as we slowly walked home.
Question: What "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" were you told as a child? We'd love to hear. Please write it in a comment.
I had just been talking to a friend who is on the brink of separation.
So much hurt.
There were no affairs. There was no lying, no emotional abuse. They were just “too different” she told me. “We’ve hurt each other too much.”
“But why do people in close relationships hurt each other so much?” I pleaded with Christian.
We were finally back to our walk-talks. The trees were shedding their bark (beautiful but messy) and the bark on the path crackled under our feet as we wound our way through the gentle giant gumtrees.
“The closer someone is, the more they love you, but the more they can hurt you.”
Christian replied. He sees couples that are on the precipice of separation often.
Christian and I also hurt each other (I guess you know that by now). Cold shoulders, selfish actions, but mainly hurtful words. At times it has escalated and built up so much that I feel I have to change my life. Something seems wrong, dreadfully wrong. Emotions are so powerful. It’s actually comforting for me to know that everyone, at some point in their relationship, feels something like this. Whether they admit it or not. Whether they repress it or not.
Then the hurtful words begin. Or resentment. Or they “keep the peace” for the sake of the kids, or the crowds that surround and press in on every side: parents, friends and colleagues.
So why do we hurt each other so much?
Christian calls the hurtful words “quills” like those on an echidna or a hedgehog or porcupine.
Our hurtful quills are our pride, defences, selfishness, unresolved conflicts, demands or whimsical wishes. These lead to conflict. Conflict is everywhere; the whole world handles it badly. The only way to avoid conflict in a relationship is to make sure you don’t get close. We are all flawed, spikey, fragile humans.
A relationship need not end because of conflict. But conflict needs to be managed somehow. This is a skill you can learn.
The path we were walking along became more overgrown. It looked even more of a mess: the weeds, the bark. Australia is one of the only countries in the world where the trees shed their bark. Its messy, it needs to be cleaned up. My Dad spends hours each week cleaning his front yard to get rid of it. He even designed a catapult in his backyard to shoot the excess bark deep into the bush. That’s one solution, hide the mess so no one can see it.
A tree on the path caught my eye. The bark had almost completely shed, revealing a smooth, cream trunk underneath. There was writing on the trunk. Scribbles that were lovingly etched by little moths onto the surface.
If you shed all the spikey bark in your relationship, what you find underneath may surprise you.
Your relationship may have grown layers of anger and resentment or a rough protective shell. But the love is in there somewhere, otherwise you wouldn’t hurt or be hurt so much.
You hurt because you love. You wouldn’t bother arguing or having demands on another person if you didn’t love them. Think about that early time together. There was something that person fulfilled in you that other people couldn’t.
Find it. Dig it up.
Underneath are the words that are written on the tree of your hearts.
Welcome to our blog. Each blog contains an insight into your relationship and how to mend or grow it drawn from Christian's 18 years of clinical experience working in psychiatry. They are told as stories. The central ideas are in bold. All the pictures are originals. We post once a month. Looking forward to travelling with you in this amazing journey called life.