August 7, 2018

How Not Speaking Up can Harm a Healthy Relationship

Hannah loved her boyfriend.  He was smart, funny and caring yet lately she was getting more frustrated when he went out on his own.   She wanted to spend more time with him and got upset when he did not invite her along.  If she complained about this she may look clingy so she decided to wait until he realizes what she needed.

In a relationship this happens quite often.  We may refuse to speak up because we build a catastrophic expectation.  We think that if we voice out our need something bad will happen to us or to the other person.  Below are some of the catastrophes we expect after speaking up:

Expectation 1: If I speak up I will stir up a fight and I want to avoid conflict at all costs.

Expectation 2: If I speak up I will have to listen to my partner and I may be proved wrong.

Expectation 3:  If I speak up I will make my partner angry, afraid or sad and I do not want to upset him.

Expectation 4:  If I speak up I will be seen as needy and look less worthy.

Though some may think that keeping the lid shut is the best solution, not speaking up does not actually resolve the situation.  It simply stirs the sails of a relationship into another dangerous course. By not speaking we give up on a very important aspect of ourselves – the need to be taken seriously and to make an impact on the other person.   There is also the fear of being abandoned by the partner if our true needs are seen.  So if being seen is threatening than it becomes safer to remain silent and hide.  On the outer surface the relationship seems to be going smoothly but a closer look will reveal that the silent partner is retreating to avoid retaliation, ridicule or rejection.

Research on long-term relationships found that when anger and disagreement are expressed there is more tension but in the long run relational satisfaction improves.  However the relationship deteriorated when the couple stopped from communicating.  This happens because issues remain unsolved, feelings are not expressed and the connection between the partners becomes less authentic.  Keeping a healthy relationship requires the polishing of particular skills.

What may help?

Learn the story behind ‘not speaking’

If you have a habit of not speaking this could often be a coping strategy learnt when you were younger.  It is helpful to be aware how not speaking up helped you survive in your family of origin.  Hannah had highly critical parents and speaking up often left her feeling humiliated.  She learnt to keep things to herself little realizing that this behaviour was no longer working for her in the present.

Get in touch with your feelings and needs

Understand what you feel and learn what you want.  In a relationship it is often easy to mistake the partner’s needs for your own needs.  Learn to detach for a while.  Take a walk, be on your own and find your truth.  Are you feeling loved?  Is there a balance in your relationship?  Is your relationship helping you to grow?  Quietly find an answer to your questions.

Consider the perspective of the other

Sometimes we become very absorbed with our own feelings that we forget how it is for the other.  This happened to Hannah too.  During her therapy sessions she was invited to consider her boyfriend’s perspective. Seeing the situation from the other’s point of view helps us to shift perspective and connect more with our partner.

Communicate your feelings using ‘I’ statements

Use ‘I’ statements.  Describe how you feel and how this behaviour is affecting you.  Do not judge or criticize the other.  By doing this you will invite defensiveness and the relationship stays stuck.


When you listen you learn something you don’t know about your partner.  This will help you understand the reasons for your partner’s behaviour.  You will then be able to agree or not agree with the other’s point of view.  Till you know you can only assume and this can often be wrong.

If you wish to learn more on the benefits of therapy send a message.

Shirley Galea MA Gest. Psych.
Shirley Galea is a psychotherapist and educator.  She works in private practice with adolescents,  adults and couples.
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