30 Apr Why Not Speaking Up Is a Really Bad Relationship Option

It was their first couples therapy session and already I was hearing the same story that I’ve heard from so many other couples over so many years.

“Melissa” was describing how her husband doesn’t speak up enough. He doesn’t offer opinions, or make decisions, she says. She feels like she’s the only adult in the relationship and she wants a husband who is more like a partner than just another one of the kids.

Insubordinate man with zipped mouth

“Todd” sat quietly as he listened to his wife, then, with a little prompting, explained what it’s like to try and speak up in a relationship where he often feels discounted.

“What’s the point speaking up if she’s going to overrule me anyway?” he asks.

And it’s a fair question.

It’s so common for me to hear this one – often from disgruntled husbands, who have learned that “life” (read: marriage) is easier when they shut up and keep quiet.

“Who really cares?”, Todd asks, whether the kids wear these clothes or those clothes, or what brand of orange juice I buy – if she’s going to tell me that my decision is wrong, I may as well let her make the decision in the first place.

The problem is that when one partner is passive and stops speaking up, the short term gain of keeping the peace will come with a long term loss… connection and passion don’t survive in a relationship where one or both partners stop “showing up”.

He will soon have to deal with the normal and inevitable resentment and anger that he will feel from being in a relationship where he feels increasingly insignificant and unheard.

And for his partner, any short term “win” of getting her own way will, in time, lead to the resentment and anger that inevitably comes from being in a relationship where she feels like she’s the only one who decides anything – the only adult who actually “shows up”.

Cutting to the chase here: Todd needs to learn to speak up. And Melissa needs to learn to listen.

Here’s the work ahead for Todd:

1. Acknowledge the price he’s paying for being passive and “keeping the peace”.

Avoiding hassles is great, but stifling his own voice will not lead to a connected and healthy marriage in the longer term, nor will it lead to a happy and mature self. Todd’s marriage won’t change until he starts holding it accountable for that change: he needs to decide what sort of marriage he wants and be prepared to work for it. This means addressing problems in a grown-up, pro-active way.

2. Learn the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication styles, and commit to being assertive.

When we’re passive we don’t share our true selves in order to “keep the peace”. When we’re aggressive we speak up, but with disregard for our partners right to do the same. When we’re assertive we speak our mind, but we do so in a mutually respectful, loving, relationship enhancing way. Todd needs to become more assertive.

3. Give feedback to Melissa.

If Todd never holds her accountable for the way she discounts and overrides him, how is Melissa ever going to know that her controlling is a problem? And how is she ever going to be motivated to change, for the sake of a relationship that’s happier? She needs to hear when she’s shutting him down, and how she’s doing it. And she needs to be reminded that for Todd, it’s not OK. This can and should be done in a very firm but also openhearted and loving way.

And here’s the work ahead for Melissa:

1. Acknowledge the price she’s paying for discounting Todd.

There are benefits to discounting Todd – Melissa often gets her own way being the most obvious one. But there are also costs – not least being that she gets a husband who often feels stifled, pissed off, and resentful (even if only a little, and even if he doesn’t often show it). Without intention, she’s actually creating a marriage where connection, passion, and relationship growth cannot survive.

2. Learn how to share decision-making and control.

Like most partners in this dynamic, Melissa isn’t consciously trying to control, she’s just doing what she feels she needs to do in order to get stuff done. But the way she’s doing this isn’t working. She’s creating a dynamic where her husband feels powerless and voiceless, at the same time as criticising him for never having a voice. She’s going to need to understand why and how she’s been doing this, and learn strategies for how to do it better.

3. Invite Todd’s input into the decision making process, even if it feels risky.

Melissa wants a husband who “shows up”, so she’s going to have to trust that he’s capable of doing so. For this to happen she’s going to have to make room for him. So what if he makes a decision that not perfect (so long as it’s not life threatening)? Dressing a child in mismatched clothes or buying the wrong brand of orange juice is not important – having a husband who feels like his input matters, is.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For the past 25 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.