Domestic Silence

Woman holding her pointer finger over her lips in a "shh" gesture

Sometimes we don’t actually know what we want in our romantic relationships. Other times we do know but aren’t sure how to express it. Or we’re afraid to say it. Maybe we don’t feel like we deserve to have these desires — like we’d be asking for too much. And sometimes, we have asked — perhaps many times over — but were met with dismissive, invalidating, defensive, or gaslighting reproach from our partner. So we learned to stop bringing it up. To stop trying.

This is what I call “domestic silence,” and it can be extremely painful, destructive, and astonishingly difficult to escape.

Here, I will detail some common types of DS and a few suggestions for dealing with them.

“My Partner Gets Triggered!”

Does your partner throw a shit-fit every time you bring up your unmet needs, make a reasonable request, or ask to talk about something? If they go directly into their lizard brain and transform into wholly unreasonable, defensive, and frantically distraught victims the moment you wanna express your feelings or share something that’s been bothering you, then yeah, domestic silence may start to look like your only option.

As it turns out, it’s not. In fact, it’s probably your worst option.

Here are some alternatives:

1. Regularly Scheduled Talks

Literally mark your calendars and make time to practice communicating with each other without being triggered (or being triggered and learning to de-escalate). Consider it exposure therapy. My wife and I set aside one hour every Sunday for this purpose. You could practice more or less frequently for longer or shorter duration. Whatever works for you. But if you and your partner are unable or unwilling to look each other in the eyes and discuss your feelings and needs without throwing a tantrum, then I have no fucking idea how you plan on having a functional relationship. I really don’t.

Caveat — many people suck at communicating in healthy ways (dare I say most?). Standard communication these days is fraught with assumptions, boundary violations, codependency, gaslighting, sarcasm, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and accusations. It’s kinda disgusting once you learn what healthy interactions entail. But most folks simply weren’t taught or modeled anything like civil discourse. So don’t shame yourself about it. However, you may wanna look into Nonviolent Communication or at least read up on conflict and boundaries.

2. See a Therapist or Counselor

If communicating with your partner seems impossible, ask for help. There are people who literally do this for a living. Don’t turn your challenges into some kind of moral failing or embarrassment. Relationships can be super difficult. No sense in choosing pride over mental and emotional health.

3. Do Some Book Learnin’

There are plenty of fantastic books (as well as podcasts, audiobooks, social media accounts, etc.) that offer practical tools for healing a troubled relationship. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Dr. Sue Johnson Ed.D.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, by John Gottman Ph.D.

4. Try These Scripts

“Hey, it seems like every conversation with emotional content is starting to devolve into defensiveness and arguing, and I’d like to work together to improve that. It probably won’t be easy, so I could really use your help. Would you be up for that?”

Depending on how that goes, maybe take some of the following for a spin.

“Can we commit to using I-statements instead of you-statements? I’ve noticed that you-statements feel shitty and usually lead to defensiveness or retaliation. I also think sarcasm, blaming, shaming, judging, and accusing aren’t particularly helpful. Would you be open to eliminating these from our conversations?”

“I want you to feel seen, heard, respected, and valued in this relationship and to get your needs meet. I want the same for me. If we’re aligned on that, I think we could work as a team to find a win-win solution for nearly any obstacle we face. Instead of turning disagreements into a me vs. you thing, we can view them as us vs. the obstacle. Whattayasay?”

5. Time-Outs

Cultivate the fine art of pressing pause on a conversation when either one of you gets triggered and taking some time to cool off. When one person is triggered, the other is usually sure to follow within seconds. Then you can pretty much guarantee zero productive discussion.

Become aware of what it feels like in your body when you get emotionally flooded. Increased heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, a sense of dissociation (disconnecting from your mind, body, feelings, reality), heaviness on your chest, butterflies in your stomach, flush cheeks. Whatever it is, get used to noticing the signs in yourself, as well as your partner, and throwing up the universal “T” for timeout to shut it down on the spot.

Say something like, “I can feel myself getting dysregulated,” or “This feels like it’s about to come off the rails — can we table this until we’ve both had a chance to simmer down?”

6. Nervous System Regulation

Obviously, you can’t make your partner regulate their nervous system, haha. Wouldn’t that be nice? But what you can do is learn self-soothing and grounding techniques to regulate your own nervous system. And as you practice that, what you may find is that your calmness is just as contagious as your triggered state.

7. Jump Ship

There are several other options for sure, but after you’ve sought out professional help and done everything in your power to remedy the situation, if your partner is still an emotional brick wall, it may be time to cut your losses. I always encourage people to learn as much as they can in this relationship (so they don’t have to learn in it in the next one). But after you’ve learned and grown as much as you possibly can with this person, the very last lesson you will learn is how to walk away from someone who is unable or unwilling to match your efforts in a relationship.

“I Have an Anxious Attachment Style!”

The beating heart of anxious attachment is self-abandonment. So domestic silence is quite common amongst the anxious crowd. They often don’t wanna “chase their partner away” by having needs. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s a real thing. Anxious attachers usually have a more positive view of their partners than of themselves. They place their partners on pedestals and place their faith in their partners. Which means they may defer to them on most matters.

These are your people-pleasers, fixers, helpers, codependents, and don’t-rock-the-boaters. They’ll go needless and wantless in order to keep the peace. Not always, but largely a compliant and overly flexible and accommodating group.

To be honest, all of the above suggestions would serve you well, but here are a few more for my anxious peoples.

1. Know Your Rights

In Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, he proposes a human bill of rights. Download (here), print, and read them every day. Then start acting like you believe them.

2. Treat Your Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment is like diabetes — if you treat it, you can live a long, healthy life, but if you don’t, it’ll make your life terrible. If you’re not sure where to begin, take my free relationship quiz. The results come as an email sequence mini-course on your attachment style. You can also check out The Anxious Hearts Guide by Rikki Cloos, an entire book on healing from anxious attachment.

3. Training Wheels

If telling your partner what you feel, want, or need feels like you might actually explode into flaming chunks, then I recommend starting out by journaling these things. Write them down. Then maybe discuss them with a friend or therapist. Practice verbalizing them to others. Hear the words coming out of your own mouth. Eventually, you may build up the courage to say these words to your partner.

Along those same lines, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this personally, you can write yourself a script. Then face your partner and say, “I’m terrified to say these words to you, but I know I need to say them. So I wrote them down, and I’m literally going to just read this to you. Don’t interrupt me. When I’m done reading, you’ll have an opportunity to respond.” Then let it rip. This is such a great tool! It’s given me the strength to have quite a few horrifying conversations. Give it a shot!

“I’m a Terrible Person!”

Domestic silence is quite frequently the result of self-loathing, shame, and low self-esteem. Your inner critic may tell you that you don’t deserve to have a say. Or that you aren’t good enough, worthy enough, smart enough, or whatever enough for your opinion to matter. Shame can be a glass ceiling in all areas of your life if you’re not aware of it.

I don’t have any “quick tips and tricks” for extracting the soul-eating emotion of toxic shame from your bone marrow. If you’re interested, I wrote a lonnggg-ass article about healing from shame that you can read here. But otherwise, I would just recommend linking up with a good trauma-informed coach or therapist to help you with that. Toxic shame is a byproduct of relational trauma, so it’s no easy fix. But it’ll perpetuate domestic silence forever if you don’t deal with it.

“I Have No Idea What I’m Doing!”

The last cause of domestic silence I’ll write about today is when people are just clueless. They never learned how to relationship. Psychosocial and emotional intelligence isn’t really explicitly taught in schools or modeled by many parents, so most people are more or less flying blind when they start dating.

What are realistic needs and expectations in a relationship? Hell, what even are my fundamental needs? And how do I get those satisfied in appropriate ways? How much time should I be spending with my partner? Are we arguing too much (or too little)? Is this normal???

If your strategy is to keep your mouth shut so no one suspects your relationship toolbox has nothing in it but duct tape and belly button lint, you might consider trying something else. Again, many of the above suggestions may be helpful. And here are a few more.

1. Find Out What You Need

Sadly, most people have no idea what their fundamental human needs are or how to go about getting them met in healthy ways. This is a great place to start a journey of creating a life that doesn’t suck. Read this article about taking care of your basic needs. Eventually, you may discover that a happy and sustainable romantic relationship is all about ensuring that you are both getting your needs met.

2. Learn About Relationshipping

Binge-reading my blog and following me on Instagram could help. But also, these books are pretty darn good:

Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, by Harville Hendrix Ph.D. and Helen Hunt Ph.D.

The Intimacy Factor: The Ground Rules for Overcoming the Obstacles to Truth, Respect, and Lasting Love, by Pia Mellody.

3. Failing Forward

Give yourself permission to not be a relationship expert or do everything perfectly. Lean into vulnerable discussions with your partner. The quality of your relationship truly depends on your willingness to have awkward and uncomfortable conversations. Do it sloppy. Do it afraid. Just do it.

Overcoming Domestic Silence

Many people wrongly assume that healthy relationships are free of arguments, disagreements, or conflict. Hand grenades made of silence will always rip apart any such picture-perfect fantasy. It’s only a matter of time. To avoid falling into a “pretty” relationship with an expiration date, be sure to sniff out any traces of domestic silence — whether in you, your partner, or both.

DS is really a silent killer, but as soon as you identify it and take literally any action against it, you’ve already begun to safeguard your connection against the dire consequences of leaving too much unspoken.

*This article contains affiliate links

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

2 thoughts on “Domestic Silence

  1. This is gold. Practical and applicable. Thank you. I will try to save to refer back to this and slowly build up my library of tools and resources.

    1. Yeah, you can read the article in a few minutes, but it may take a lifetime to implement, haha. Good thing there’s no finish line 😊

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