Best Ways to Respond to Silent Treatment in Relationships
The Silent Treatment Is Emotional Abuse
I've been surprised to learn how many women have suffered the silent treatment for days, weeks, even months at a time in their marriages. I remember feeling extreme anguish when my guy wouldn't talk to me for a couple of hours—and he wasn't trying to dole out the cold shoulder but simply cooling off.
The silent treatment is painful to endure, and someone who stonewalls another person to gain control of a situation is emotionally abusive. They're saying, in essence, "You are unworthy of being recognized as a human being worth decent treatment." Although there is absolutely no excuse for this kind of behavior, women who are victimized by it don't have too many options for dealing with it. They've discovered that there's only one path to regaining their husband's cooperation - apologizing for whatever he thinks they did "wrong."
Because so many women are asking how they can change this in their lives, I started digging for solutions I could offer them, and found myself surprised again. There simply isn't much good advice to help them. "Apologize." "Wait it out." "Calmly try to talk to him." "Divorce him."
BZZZZZZTTTTTTTTT! Wrong answer!
If you've been dealing with the silent treatment from the person who is supposed to love, honor, and cherish you, chances are you've already tried the first three things and you're wondering if the fourth one, divorce, is the only option you have.
If you're not ready for divorce, don't give up hope just yet. First, let's look at what's going on when a man gives his wife the silent treatment for days on end, and what else can be done.
Signs of emotional abuse can appear when a couple is still dating. If a new boyfriend or girlfriend gives you the silent treatment or ignores you because they're unhappy, consider it a red flag that should be taken seriously!
Understanding the Silent Treatment
Choosing not to participate in something that's unhealthy is usually a smart choice. A stonewaller is making this healthy decision at inappropriate times. He also keeps his choice going to an unusual degree.
Here's an analogy that might demonstrate how absurd the silent can be: Harry Hardhead wants to live a healthy life, and decides that caffeine shouldn't be part of his diet. Instead of just declining soft drinks that contain caffeine, he refuses to have them in his house, shop at stores that sell them, or eat at restaurants where other people whose values are different might take part in drinking them. He is refusing to interact with significant parts of his world and "punishing" merchants for not doing things the way his values think they should be done. Most people wouldn't go to such an extreme.
When we look at it in this example, we see that his behavior is a severe overreaction that looks almost comical, but when it happens through giving people the cold shoulder, it's not funny at all. The silent treatment is an abuser's way of saying, "You're worthless to me if I don't get my way exactly the way I think I should."
Abusers are not monsters. And abuse doesn't happen alone. Both the abuser and their victim are engaging in abusive dynamics. I've used husbands as the "abuser" in this article purely because it's most often wives that complain about this topic. Women can be equally abusive, and the word victim is used to describe the one who is getting shut out, but they, too, are hurting the abuser in other ways.
I believe most abusers - both physical and emotional - become abusive for one reason. They feel a deep need to regain control of their environments. Often, their perceptions of what they need aren't rational or fair. Their definition of environment often includes the people in it. They believe that if they are failures if they aren't in control. Sometimes these beliefs are so ingrained and automatic that the abuser's not aware of them.
Some people enjoy punishing others. I remember a 1980s study that revealed that men who were dangerously physically abusive actually had lower blood pressure and a calmer state of mind when they entered a rage state. This can be true of emotional abusers, too. They become calm and seemingly rational as they hurt the person they're supposed to love.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder may use the silent treatment over any event that takes attention away from them. For example, if I'm married to a narcissist and my parent dies, it wouldn't be unusual for him to ignore me right after the funeral and give me the silent treatment because my attention is focused on the loss I'm experiencing instead of on him. (If you suspect your partner may have a narcissistic disorder, please check out my tips for dealing with it.)
"Why would he think talking means things are out of control?" you may wonder.
People who give the silent treatment fear conflict. Talking over issues represents confrontation, the very thing they want to avoid. By prolonging the silent treatment, they've discovered they can escape the confrontation. Better still, they can regain control and probably get an apology while they're at it.
Their end goal is to restore things to the way they were.
The Victim's Role
In some cases, the abuser really is attempting to escape another abusive dynamic. If you are trying to force him to change or do things your way, you're giving him a valid reason to withdraw. If you criticize him as a person or assign blame instead of focusing on finding solutions, you're contributing to his behavior. If you let yourself feel like a victim, get depressed, or pout, you must recognize that you've been engaging in control tactics, too, and pledge to stop.
The silent treatment is part of a "demand-withdraw" pattern that is deadly to relationships!
This means you'll need to learn some healthier ways to confront issues, too, and learning takes time. You won't find a solution that works in just a few days or weeks. This is a dynamic that has evolved over months or years, and it can take many months to replace it with better methods. As you learn, so will your husband, but it won't be on your timeline, so focus on progress, because perfection's still a long, long way off.
The remainder of this article will look at how you can change you to change your relationship, and what steps you can take to discourage stonewalling. I encourage you to use all of these steps, and to give yourself permission to make mistakes. Learn from them and then get back on track.
Changing You Will Change the Relationship
You'll need to boost your self-worth and make yourself immune to your husband's control tactics. Here are some ways to start:
- Remind yourself that he feels uncertain and out of control, which is his own problem, not yours. You can say, "I recognize that you don't feel competent to handle this right now. Is there something I can do to help you get ready?" If he doesn't answer, accept that as his answer - there's literally "nothing" you can do.
- Acknowledge that he's responding to a demand that you have made, and remember that demands aren't good for your relationship. Encourage him to tell you when he feels you are being demanding, and when he does, stop immediately. Find a different way to communicate your problem.
- Do not show that you're uncomfortable with his silence. Complaints, pouting, sulking, and needling him to talk are all signs that his cold shoulder is working its magic. This kind of evidence gives him reason to keep doing it.
- Avoid trying to figure out what he's thinking. You're not a mind-reader. If you do his thinking for him, he has no reason to share his thoughts with you now or later.
- Never apologize for something when you don't believe you were wrong. Most articles will tell you to make an apology, but how can you have an authentic, connected relationship by being false? Instead, try to empathize with your partner by saying you understand that he's upset or angry and would like to bridge the gap that has come between you.
- Many mental health pros would disagree with me on this, but if there is not a history of physical abuse, I'd "force a crisis" by assuming his silence means I can do things my way. If he tells me otherwise, then we can discuss it, but until then, I'll assume his silence is compliance. He won't like it, but it calls his bluff and forces him to participate if he wants to be considered. Because I'm not a complete ogre myself, I'd inform him up front by saying something like, "Since you clearly don't have anything to say about the matter, I'm going to assume you're in agreement with me. Thank you." My tone would be sincere, and I would be calm. If he said he wasn't in agreement, I'd simply ask, "Oh? Well, when would you like to discuss how we can handle this, then?" (If he misses the discussion, back to plan A - my way.)
Be prepared for the last suggestion to escalate his behavior and anger temporarily. People who are in denial about their behaviors (and your guy is one of them!) will not change unless they choose to. Most won't make a choice to change until they are faced with crisis. It can take many small crises or one huge one, but when their methods no longer work, they'll start scrambling to figure out what does. Part of that scrambling means trying harder at things that have worked before - in this case, the silent treatment and anger. If you see more of the same thing, be assured that your efforts *are* working.
You may be surprised to learn that your guy doesn't want the responsibility and pressure of finding solutions and will be happy to let you do things your way. On the other hand, if he does want to see something specific badly enough, he'll say so. He's a man and knows how to. He just resorts to the silent treatment because it usually gives him what he wants. If it no longer works, he'll find another way to handle things.
Other Ways to Address a Problem
It's tough to change something we feel is justified. After all, you deserve some consideration, too, and your expectations aren't unreasonable!
- The majority of arguments don't start because of what is said. They start over how something was said.
If you find yourself sounding like you're making a demand (or you feel like you're about to!), ask yourself how you can solve the problem you're having without asking for anything from your partner. Do not attempt to talk to your partner until you can answer this question fully!
- What meaning are you attaching to the event?
He didn't pick up his towels (again!) even though he keeps promising to do better. If you think it means that he's forgetful, you'll have a different response than if you think it means that he doesn't have any respect for you. Once you define what the event means - to you, not to him - you're ready to answer the next question.
- What is your real goal?
Is your goal to have a clean bathroom or to make him do things your way? If you're really only looking for a clean bathroom, you'll need to figure out what you can do to make sure your bathroom's clean even if he never changes his behavior. On the other hand, if you think that he's been using the towels to show you that he doesn't respect you, and you're wanting him to show you that he does by picking up his towels, you're heading into demand territory.
A goal of making another person do what you want will never work in the long run!
Once you fully understand what meaning you assign to an event, and what goal you want to reach, you can figure out how to get it done without your partner's help. You might discover that you want to hire someone, have fewer towels available, or pick them up yourself instead of arguing. Then again, you might discover that the real problem is something that's a possible deal breaker. If you honestly believe your partner is inconsiderate of you, then it's up to you to only get involved with people who are considerate enough that you feel loved instead of fighting.
Throughout this process, you should ONLY consider your own viewpoints, not his. His opinions, values, and reasons are irrelevant while you figure these two answers out. When you talk about it to him, you can then describe the problem you had, hear his views respectfully, and decide whether you'll accept a solution he suggests or solve the problem for yourself. He can volunteer to step in, but if he doesn't, the solution really is in your own hands and there is no need for an argument.
- Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Abuse
Domestic violence often starts with emotional abuse or verbal violence. This article explains how abusive tendencies develop and what can help break the cycle.
- Verbal Emotional Abuse
Besides an emotional abuse poem this article provides an in-depth explanation of emotional abuse.
- The Many Faces of an Emotional Abuser Part 1
The best abusers never bruise the body. They aim for the heart and soul of their victim, instead.
A Special Note About Abuse
When people feel out of control, they seek ways to regain control, as we already discussed. When you change how you respond to the silent treatment, it can escalate his behaviors temporarily, but there is also the risk that his scramble for new ways to regain control could introduce physical violence as well.
Be prepared for this by having a plan to leave the environment when there appears to be a threat. Find a therapist who specializes in abuse. Know who you can call upon, where you can stay, and save enough money to give you a cushion if you need one.
Because people who give the silent treatment typically are trying to uncomfortable confrontation, most of them won't resort to this, but I mention it because it's always one of the options people have for regaining control.
I wish you the best. You matter. Show the world that you won't simply be written off, and the world will respond by listening. Hugs.
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