I came across the following story recently and thought it reflected very accurately the “silent marriage” experience.

“A man and his wife were feuding at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. After a week of no communication, the man realized that he would need his wife to wake him at 5am for an early morning flight to Chicago. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and lose), he wrote on a piece of paper, ‘Please wake me at 5am’.

“The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9am and that he had missed his flight. He was furious as he threw off the covers to see why his wife hadn’t woken him up. Then he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, ‘It is 5am. Wake up.’”

How does the “silent marriage” come to be? What has happened between the couple, who met, fell in love, decided to marry and share their lives together?


When a relationship breaks down, the underlying cause can be traced to both an inability to communicate effectively, coupled with a lack of emotional intelligence.

Effective communication is where a couple have the ability to listen to each other without interruption, accept that it is ok to have different points of view on whatever the topic is that they are speaking about, and can agree to try and reach compromise at a later time when both have had time to internalise each other’s opinions and if necessary, allow their emotions to settle.

When working with couples, I encourage them to try and come back to the topic within 24 hours. What we resist will indeed persist, so the sooner a compromise can be reached, the better for both parties.

Emotional intelligence refers to understanding our emotions and not being afraid to sit with them and work through them in a non-judgmental and compassionate way.

When we can apply this to ourselves, we are in a better position to empathize with our partner when they are experiencing emotional difficulties, understanding this is about their worries/issues, as opposed to feeling that we are being “blamed” for something.

Dr Daniel Goleman identified four components of emotional intelligence, sometimes referred to as EQ (Emotional Quotient).

1 Self-awareness

2 Self-management

3 Social awareness

4 Relationship management

On a personal level, EQ helps us manage awkward or uncomfortable discussions without causing hurt or distress (e.g. finance, intimacy, family/in-law issues).

EQ also helps us when we are stressed out or feeling overwhelmed with life.

It is very necessary to keep relationships happy and healthy with the people we cherish.

Silent treatment

Therefore, it is easy to see how prolonged silences can occur and become the norm in a marriage or long-term relationship if there is an inability to communicate effectively or have opportunities to talk about one’s feelings and emotions. Silence is seen as the easy way out. Silence helps prevent us from “having to go there”. Only it is an unhealthy normal and not conducive to a happy, authentic relationship.

Silence can also be used to control. In maintaining ongoing silence, the person giving the silent treatment denies their partner the opportunity to communicate, effectively controlling the situation. It creates a toxic and uncomfortable environment where the abused partner can feel excluded, hurt and worthless.

Our world view is formed usually by the age of five. What we witness in those early, formative years shapes our future. If we are never shown love and respect or the freedom to express ourselves, then we cannot know how to behave in this manner in later life. If our parent’s marriage was “silent”, that becomes our norm and we know no different. Unconsciously we may find ourselves drawn to others who will enable this pattern to continue.

When we tolerate abusive behavior, we enable the other person to continue to do what they are doing. We give our power away. It is easy to slip into victim mode and feel trapped.

Making changes

The good news is that we can change our life and learn how to embrace a new and happy and healthier one simply by refusing to continue to accept this situation for a moment longer. If we believe we have no choice but to put up with the abuse, then that is what life will give us. If we believe we have choices, we will be guided on ways to implement them and to people who can help us make positive change.

The changes can relate to getting the marriage back on track, or walking away from it and creating a new life.

Let the sound of silence be a happy and peaceful one

What keeps people there? Are there children involved? Remember, if children witness these patterns of behaviour, this is what they too may emulate as adults unless positive action is taken to change the dynamics sooner rather than later. Please remember there are many supports available including counselling where people are provided with a safe and confidential space to explore what is happening and guided and supported as they decide on their future and the future of the relationship.

Where one chooses to stay for the sake of the children, it is important they reach out for help and support. Make self-care a priority. Choose to live, not exist. Learn to respond to the other person’s behaviour, not react to it. Remember, it can always be reviewed at a later date. One can always change their mind.

Safety is part of self-care. If at any stage a person is concerned for the safety and welfare of both themselves and their children, they need to get away immediately. There are many supportive organizations available to help facilitate this.

If you, the reader, are the perpetrator of the toxic silences and abuse, please know you are not being judged here. Whilst your behaviours are never acceptable, your actions may be coming from a place of fear, anxiety and possible low self-esteem, resulting perhaps, from unresolved issues going back to your formative years. It is not ok to keep living your life like this. For you, counselling also offers a safe, confidential and non-judgmental space where you can receive the necessary support to effect positive change in your life and perhaps save your relationship with your spouse as well as any children you might have.

Arguments are a normal part of married life. They can be both positive or negative. Positive arguments are where both parties give each other uninterrupted talking time to simply give their personal opinion on a specific issue and then agree to come back at a later time to try and reach a compromise.

Negative arguments occur when both parties interrupt the other, feel judged and perhaps blamed for whatever issue is at hand. The situation remains unresolved and an uncomfortable silence may ensue for quite a long time afterwards.

Know too that silences can be positive and healthy in a relationship and keep them strong. This is where a person explains to their partner they need to be alone for a while to gather their thoughts, or perhaps ground themselves before continuing with a conversation, or making an important decision.

Let the sound of silence be a happy and peaceful one. It is your birth right to live a happy, healthy and carefree life. Claim it now.

For further information, visit www.clairefordetherapies.ie