SILENCE is golden'' when applied appropriately. Yet when two people are having a disagreement, silence can become a powerful weapon, ultimately causing misunderstanding or hostility. Joe and Mary have been married four years and admit they do not talk to each other much. Even their arguments are brief, devolving quickly into silent truces. According to Joe, whenever there is a disagreement he feels he is being blamed and attacked. So he adopts silence as his way of keeping the peace. ''I'm afraid to stir her up,'' he says, believing his silence gives his wife a chance to calm down. Unfortunately, discussion does not resume afterwards and problems never seem to be tackled. For Mary the only way to get peace is to resolve problems immediately as they arise. Therefore she pushes Joe to talk things out. Yet whenever she wants to bring things up, Joe turns silent. She perceives this as disapproval and rejection. She tries hard to hold back, but often ends up bursting out in anger. It becomes a vicious circle. When Joe turns silent Mary gets angry and pushes even harder for Joe to talk. When Joe sees Mary get furious he tries even harder to distance himself. Silence is a defence mechanism for people like Joe, to avoid the discomfort of an argument. To Mary, his silence is a provocation. When a person is silent, he or she is still communicating. It is like telling the partner: ''You go ahead and get angry, but I can't be bothered.'' Cutting off conversation can easily be taken by the partner as a slap in the face. ''Here I am crying my guts out and he doesn't respond,'' Mary said. ''He makes me feel worthless.'' This can be a deliberate act. The silent partner feels superior for not letting himself get emotionally stirred. He thinks he has therefore won the argument. Resolving any argument requires joint effort. To begin with couples need to break out of the vicious circle they have created. The silent one has to explain to the partner why he or she does not want to talk. The other person also needs to explain how the silence affects them. It would be a waste of effort to try to determine who started this pattern or who is at fault. The important thing is both sides' willingness to see beyond each others' reaction. A short period of silence can, if the timing is right, defuse tension, but a prolonged one can harm a relationship. If one side does not want to talk, they should say so. For example: ''I am too upset to talk now. Maybe we can talk after I have a cup of tea.'' It is vital to communicate what could be stopping you from sharing your feelings and thoughts. The following steps may serve as a guideline to steering away from using silence as a barrier. Identify the problem, stating directly to your partner how you feel. For example: The silent one needs to say: ''I'm afraid to talk to you when you scream at me.'' Meanwhile, the other needs to express: ''I feel hurt and rejected when you turn silent.'' Inform your partner how to communicate with you. The silent one can say: ''I know I make mistakes but please don't make it sound like everything's my fault because it turns me away from listening to you.'' The other might say: ''If you withdraw from the conversation, please let me know what went wrong otherwise I will keep pursuing you.'' Ask yourself what is causing your partner to become more silent or more angry: Did I do anything to contribute to such a reaction? Finally, try to communicate these observations to each other without turning it into another argument. The above is not an actual case. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a licensed psychotherapist, with offices at the Vital Life Centre, phone: 877-8206.