Written by Dr. Ng Wai Sheng
Image by gregroose @ pixabay
Believe it or not, when two people choose not to talk with each other, there’s still a lot of communication going on! Relational silence is a very active process of communication. It involves implicit understanding and explicit action between two (or more) parties on what can and cannot be talked about. Usually, what can be talked about is not so important. What is hard to talk or cannot be talked about is probably more important.
Sometimes we cannot talk because we yearn for acceptance and fear rejection, or worse, abandonment. As John Powell’s book title says: Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? Because if I tell you who I am and you don’t like it, that’s all I have…
Sometimes we can’t share the truth because we know it would hurt the other person. And hurting them hurt us, either because of power differential or certain leverage the person has on us, or because of emotional closeness. So we gulp it in and hold the space in silence for one another…
In case of power differential, resentment may build up until a tipping point, whereby there may be an aggressive outburst or backlash from the party who feels oppressed. One of my supervisees once told me that I was “an elephant” sitting on her, “a poor chick”. She still passed her practicum with flying colors! What I didn’t tell her was: Me no elephant, me just a big fat mother hen who had to sit on you for hours until you become that poor chick! Hah!
In case of leverage, we may lose certain benefit that we are currently enjoying if we tell the truth. Years ago, as a young adult struggling for more independence, I decided to raise the issue of “autonomy” with my parents. My mom was upset with me, my dad said nothing. But then on the day when I needed transportation, my dad (who’s usually the family’s driver) remarked in a half-joking manner: oh let her find her way, she wants her “autonomy”, didn’t she?
In case of emotional closeness, two parties merge their identities in such a way that talking about something becomes redundant, or double the painful as each person is not just carrying their own pain but the pain of the other person inside them as well. Naturally, their relationship evolves into a conflict avoidant pattern, and increasingly disengaged until one or both parties may choose to divert their affection elsewhere, or cut off the relationship, yet not without leaving significant emotional scars that continue to haunt them for many years…
The use of relational silence can be either destructive or constructive. We can “ghost” someone out, when we are no longer interested in the relationship. We can use “silent treatment” to show our displeasure or anger towards someone. One of the most predictable factors for divorce is when one or both parties use “stonewalling” as a passive-aggressive response to their partner. Having said that, not all relational silence is destructive. The key difference between destructive versus constructive silence, is CURIOSITY.
We really don’t know the other person until we really talk… We really have no idea what kind of barriers and obstacles that each person has gone through, and still going through, in order to be present before us at this very moment. We cannot know exactly what had happened before in this person’s life to make this person act or react in such and such a way. It’s easy to judge, to generalize, to assume we know better… But we really have no idea about the other, have we?
Only when we allow ourselves to really listen to the other’s experience, most of the stuff that make us different, be it age, gender, race, religion, social class, education, personality, lifestyle, etc., fade to the background… when two people connect from the essence of their beings! Even then, so much of what we have experienced cannot be talked about easily… but waiting for the right time to emerge, for the next conversation… and the next…
In order for us to actually share something, we need internal awareness (knowledge about the self), internal safety (trusting in the goodness and capacity of the self), external awareness (knowledge about the other) and external safety (trusting in the goodness and capacity of the other). They are mutually interrelated. If I don’t know myself, I cannot know you, because I will more likely project myself on you, thus confusing you as myself! If I don’t trust myself, I can never trust you. And you will know it and not trust me either, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy that you and I cannot have a trusting relationship!
So if you are in a relationship whereby the other party is not talking with you, and if you really want to talk with the person, the first step is NOT to engage the person. Both parties must be ready if you truly want a good understanding of each other. Often, one party is ready, but the other is not. And even when you think you are ready, you may be more ready to hear what you want to hear, and not so ready to hear what the other person has to say.
Therefore, the first step is always to engage with yourself, to develop your internal awareness and internal safety first. When you understand yourself, in a deeply loving and non-judgmental way, and when you begin to trust your own goodness and capacity to hold yourself regardless of whether the other person will be there to hold you or not, that’s when you can be fully present to yourself, and fully present to anyone you engage with.
This is contrary to a co-dependent relationship, whereby two people depend on each other, through the acts of always creating or sharing problems and always rescuing or solving problems, to keep the relationship going, in the name of “love” or “duty”. Neither is being fully present to themselves, but making someone else responsible for their happiness or misery. This is the OPPOSITE of being present — that is, being ABSENT! Think about it, if you’re not going to show up for yourself, how do you expect others to be there for you?
As a psychotherapist and supervisor, I see relational silence as an important aspect of relational growth, with myself, my clients and my trainees. If you are a psychotherapist or mental health professional seeking growth in this area, come join the upcoming P.O.T. Retreat in August, on Connecting with Silence and Unknowing! (Click here for more details: https://www.facebook.com/events/329357261245786/?ti=cl)
If you are seeking growth for yourself and your family, hoping to navigate relational silence in a more meaningful or safer way, come make an appointment with one of our therapists at Growing Space! (Click here for more details: http://growingspace.org/contact/)
“Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.” – Rumi