Many people say that communication is the key to a successful relationship, but sometimes talking it out isn’t always the best thing to do.
To be clear, I’m not defending the silent treatment or purposely withholding information to punish your partner — because that’s borderline abuse. But I’m talking about how we mistake communication as an all-purpose solution to our relational problems. We feel the need to bring up issues, tell our partners everything, because we believe that open communication is the key to a successful relationship. While open communication between partners is great, it sometimes has to be countered with its direct opposite — non-communication.
- Not all communication is good
Dr John Gottman did a famous research on the four factors that predict divorce, and dubbed them the Four Horsemen. Three of them include forms of (unhelpful) communication: criticism, defensiveness and contempt. For example, when your partner forgets to wash the dishes, you might criticise them and say: “You never wash the dishes! You always forget.”
In an intimate relationship, it’s hard to catch ourselves in these toxic communication habits, particularly during conflict. It might even be an existing dynamic within the relationship, because we feel comfortable enough to be “honest” with them, even if it’s brutal and mean. However, as the rose-tinted glasses come off over time, this sort of communication can take a toll on one’s self-esteem and puts the relationship at risk.
Another huge flaw of the “communication is the key” narrative is that it glosses over the importance of listening. We’re always taught to talk things out, but never on how to open ourselves up to feedback and genuinely listen to what our partners are saying. So we get defensive, shifting the blame to our partners or making the conversation about ourselves. While it’s fair to explain our point of view to our partner, it adds fuel to the fire when they are trying to voice out their grievances from their perspective. In these situations, holding space for them to do so and validating their perspectives on the situation take priority over our own pride if we want to protect the relationship. Communicating what we want to say can wait till the next day, when the situation is less tense.
- We might be over communicating
While the level of communication varies from relationship to relationship, it isn’t always healthy to constantly communicate how we feel to our partners. It’s reasonable to share your woes with your partner, but sharing them excessively is emotional dumping. This can be draining for the other party and make them feel like they’re responsible for our every emotion, even if it’s not directed at or about them.
This trap of overcommunication often comes up during conflict. Some of us deal with the anxiety of it by externalising it, instantly jumping into verbalising to our partner how we feel or trying to solve the problem. It isn’t wrong to react this way; it’s intuitive and comes naturally for most of us. Being on the receiving end of it, however, can feel overwhelming. It can also be counterproductive when the hurt is still fresh.
It’s worth having a conversation with your partner on how much space and communication each of you need after conflict, so as to gauge how best to navigate it when it actually happens. This might take some trial and error to figure out what works, but will ultimately serve the relationship in the long run.
Simply put, sometimes it’s better to let things go, which is best encapsulated by the term “forbearance”.
It’s unrealistic to expect our partners to be perfect, to always do the right thing and change in all the ways we want them to. That’s why it isn’t necessary to let them know every single thing we are unhappy with. Expressing all our qualms can make our partners feel nitpicked, judged and unsafe in a relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t sweep bad behaviour under the carpet or bottle up your emotions just to bolster someone’s ego. But making allowances for your partner (to put it crudely: put up with someone’s sh*t because you love them) is something that keeps the relationship going and strengthens it in the long run. On the basic level, we shouldn’t be pointing out our partner’s flaws or quirks if we can reasonably live with it. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s something inconsequential that can be forgotten in 24 hours, it’s best to let it slide. In Taylor’s words, there’s no need to be so casually cruel in the name of being honest.
On a deeper level, forbearance means to forgive our partners and to genuinely let go of grudges in order to preserve the relationship. When we choose to be in a relationship with them, we need to be ready to set aside space for them to mess up, giving them a sort of relationship license to breach an expectation or unspoken rule. While it doesn’t mean to tolerate abuse or disrespect, dwelling on the hurt from an innocent transgression (e.g by talking about it constantly, hanging it over their head) after apologies have been made can take a toll on the relationship.
Forbearance can quickly be exploited to excuse someone’s toxic behaviours and suppress one’s needs, but in a relationship where both parties want to maintain a connection to each other, this is arguably the most valuable aspect of non-communication. Loving them in their faults (to a reasonable degree) is important, even if it may be unfair at times.
Healthy communication is about balance, and non-communication can actually ensure that it doesn’t break down. Taking the time and space before we speak, making allowances for one another, and shutting up when we need to, can help make relationships last.