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March 23, 2019

Most of us are Silent Screamers—& it’s Chipping Away at our Relationships.

Years ago, I attended a school counselor conference in Philadelphia.

As a working mom with two young boys (they would’ve been seven and nine at the time), I have to admit there was a distinct measure of glee in the promise of a night alone in a hotel room, zero meals to prepare, and not a single sulky high school student in sight.

As every conference goer knows, the “expo” is always one of the highlights. It’s like trick-or-treating for grown-ups. Veteran attendees know to start with whatever booth is giving away recyclable grocery bags, and then use that bag to collect a veritable smorgasbord of swag: stress balls, pens, mouse pads, highlighters, phone chargers, Post-its, water bottles, and even the occasional travel sewing kit.

Like a teenager on Halloween who puts on his or her game face just long enough to score some candy, one has to feign only minimal interest in whatever a particular vendor is selling. I mean, I was a school counselor—what did I care about grading software or the latest third-grade math curriculum? But on this day, one display legitimately caught my attention. From across the room I saw a banner that read “ScreamFree Parenting.” I didn’t care what those guys were giving away (chances to win a free copy of their book, as it turns out); I made my way toward the booth.

Hello. My name is Allison, and I’m a screamer.

Correction: I’m a screamer in recovery, but back in the day—when the financial and emotional pressures of being a divorced, single parent were in full swing—I admit to regularly losing my shit with my kids. As a licensed therapist, there’s no darker moment than hearing yourself scream at your children to Stop screaming!” Painfully aware of the irony inherent in those interactions, I was eager for any advice on how to break the cycle.

ScreamFree is the brainchild of founder Hal Runkel, a licensed marriage and family therapist who oversees an organization that now includes a website, multiple publications, a blog, the “Pause Platform,” and a podcast with the delightfully cheeky title, “You Must Chill.” I strongly encourage Elephant Journal readers to check it out.

Anyway, after the reps had given me their spiel and handed me a free introductory DVD (which of course went straight into my goody bag), I put my raffle ticket in the hat for the book giveaway and was about to wander off when one of the reps stopped me and held out another DVD entitled “The ScreamFree Marriage.” Oh, I demured, I don’t need that. I don’t scream at my husband—just my children.

The woman looked me straight in the eye—straight into my very soul—and said, gravely:

Some of us are silent screamers.  

In that instant, I knew she was right. I didn’t scream at my husband out loud, but I couldn’t deny what went on in my head whenever I felt angry with or disappointed by his behavior. Curse words, expressions of disgust, name calling—I was guilty of all of it.

Without a word, I took the DVD and slunk away.

When I mentioned the interaction to my husband later that evening, he knew exactly what I was talking about. For years afterward—until I learned more assertive ways of expressing myself—he would look at my carefully arranged facial expression following whatever disagreement we’d been having and say something along the lines of: Honey, I can still hear you screaming.

Screaming, and I would say especially silent screaming, is not an effective form of communication. For one, it’s passive-aggressive. On the surface, we’re keeping the peace and acting as though we’re okay with something, while simultaneously and clearly conveying our displeasure with our partners. No matter how well we think we’re hiding it, if we’re screaming at someone in our head…they can hear us.

Silent screaming is also a form of secret keeping. It’s not an affair or a gambling addiction, but over time the accumulation of hidden, unspoken feelings can create an emotional distance that becomes increasingly difficult to traverse. What feels like peace can grow into disengagement; what begins as quiet can expand into silence.

Speak your truth. Practice your assertiveness skills. Imagine delivering sentences that end in periods rather than exclamation points or question marks. Let your partner in.   

Forget about cards, flowers, chocolates, romantic dinners, lingerie, or jewelry (okay…maybe not the jewelry). Let’s make the decision to stop screaming—silently or otherwise—and begin communicating honestly, openly, and respectfully with our partners.   

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