Silence is not always golden


THAT'S MEN:‘Silence is violence.” The man who said this at a recent workshop caught the attention of the whole room. Many of those present are involved in relationship counselling – as is he – and in one sentence he had expressed a powerful truth.

This is that violence can be inflicted without a blow being landed and that, in some marriages, violence takes the form of long drawn-out silences following disagreement between the partners.

These silences fill the house, sometimes for weeks. They fill every room, they invade every space and they darken the emotions of everyone who has to live with them. And the silence echoes down the years because the children in these families suffer too and remember the experience long into adulthood.

These silences are not, in my opinion, an expression of hurt feelings. Hurt feelings can result in a silence of a few hours or a couple of days. I am referring here to silences that regularly go on for a week or more. They are, it seems to me, a form of aggression, an exercise of power by one person over another or over an entire household.

Habitual silence

I don’t even see these silences as a form of passive aggression. Prolonged silence is, as the man said, a form of violence and in a psychological sense it is a very active form of violence.

Of course a partner may understandably resort to silence if betrayed by the other, for instance through an affair. Such a silence may result in that partner deciding to end the relationship. That is one thing and is understandable. Silence becomes suspect when it becomes habitual.

And “habitual” can go on for years. With every week that passes, the silence can become harder to break. Gay Byrne’s radio show used to rivet the country now and then with letters from people whose partners had not spoken to them for decades. This was, I hope, a rare situation but I have no doubt it goes on today – though how these people negotiate births, weddings and funerals I have no idea.

What’s to be done about this? There are no simple answers but it is probably for the non-silent partner to demand change and to insist that the other partner find a better way to express disagreement. This might need to be backed up with an outline of what will happen if the silent partner does not change his or her ways.

Is this easy for me to sit here and write? Yes, it is. Many factors, I must admit, might lead a person to stay with a partner who is using silence as a weapon. An unwillingness to break up the family is one and it isn’t a bad one either, love is another: you don’t necessarily stop loving someone because they mistreat you.

Still, today people don’t have to stay with an abusive partner until the death of one or the other and thank heavens for that. It used to be that the silences ended only with the great silence of death but the silence of divorce strikes me as a better alternative.

Start talking

If you are the silent one, you might ask what it is that drives you to respond in this way? You might reflect on the fact that most people do not react to disagreements with prolonged silences but state their point of view instead, however heatedly.

If you have children, you might think about the fact that the violence your silence does to your partner also affects your children.

You might need to go for therapy but not necessarily. For instance, if the prolonged silence response is one you learned from your own parents, you might find it easier than you think to reverse your behaviour. It all starts with breaking the silence by speaking and it doesn’t have to be profound – “Will I pick up milk in the shop on the way home?” will do.

Just start talking. And remember: silence is violence.

PADRAIG O’MORAIN( is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.

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