by Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D.
Most of us prefer to avoid conversations that have the potential to disturb the peace of our relationships. Even when we have something important to say, we often choose to keep silent. Why chance having an argument or getting someone else angry at us? People often tell me, "speaking up just isn't worth the risk."
On the face of things, keeping quiet in your relationship may often seem like a wise choice. Shouldn't you do your best to keep your relationship running smoothly? Yet, when we struggle over whether or not to keep quiet, the topic is usually significant. And while speaking up may raise your anxiety, keeping silent usually isn't an anxiety-free choice.
Some examples (with names and details changed): Susan has a strained relationship with her dad, who has strong ideas about how his daughter should live her life. Now 30, Susan has acknowledged that she is lesbian to herself and to her friends, but not to her father. "Why bother?", she tells me in therapy. "It will only upset him, and then he'll be angry at me, which is really unpleasant." Susan thinks of telling her dad "someday", but in the meantime, she puts a good deal of effort into obscuring much of her life from him, and they have a distant, tense relationship. Besides being a tough way to live, Susan is keeping herself a stranger from her dad and limiting (rather than strengthening) her ability to be herself when she thinks others may disapprove of who she is.
Or take Jim, who is annoyed that his wife is seldom willing to have sex. He continually accepts excuses that involve tiredness, wrong time of day, or headaches, rather than pressing Marcy on the larger issue of their anemic sex life. In therapy, when I ask him why, he explains that bringing up his dissatisfaction and seriously talking with Marcy on this issue may lead to the wrong kind of change in their marriage. "Maybe she'll get mad at me and leave. Or maybe I'll find out I am not going to get what I want, and I will have to leave. I'd rather live with the hope that things in our relationship may get better."
Both Susan and Jim are avoiding conversations that will let someone close to them know them better and allow for a more honest relationship. They are both avoiding taking on a situation that they are not happy with, because they are afraid that things will get worse.
Of course, the same may be true for Susan's father and for Marcy. Susan's dad likely notices her distance, but doesn't press Susan for fear of hearing news he may not like. It is probable that Marcy is well aware of Jim's unhappiness, but is afraid, herself, to discuss her lack of desire or her own unhappiness in the relationship. Like her husband, Marcy never brings up the idea of seeking relationship therapy.
So, which is better? Keeping someone you love in the dark about who you really are, or dealing with their disappointment in you? Keeping silent on a difficult topic in the hope that things will change for the better, or speaking up and facing the possibility that things won't go the way you want them to? Such dilemmas may seem like a choice between the frying pan and the fire.
In my psychotherapy practice, I tell my therapy clients that it is worth considering how much your decision to keep silent or speak up is based on your desire to avoid anxiety. Are you choosing silence because you believe that you can't handle discord, disapproval, or change? Or are you acting out of a solid belief that keeping quiet is the best choice?
It is natural and understandable that most of us will try to avoid taking action when we are anxious about the consequences. However, when you make the choice not to rock the boat in your relationship, you are likely to still find yourself in a tough situation. The alternative is to learn how to tolerate the anxiety of speaking up even when you are scared to do so, because you believe that doing so is the best choice.
Although this can be difficult, I know it is doable, because I have worked with many psychotherapy clients on this issue. When you are able to speak thoughtfully about important but difficult matters, you have a better shot at honest communication and more intimate relationships. You are also likely to feel better about yourself, when you behave in ways that you respect.
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