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Six Ways to Respond to the Silent Treatment in Relationships

Author Kathy Batesel writes about topics she has experienced, worked with, or researched thoroughly.

REVIEWED BY
Frances M. Bledsoe, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Relationship Center Nashville

Is your partner giving you the cold shoulder? Here's how you should respond to the silent treatment.

Is your partner giving you the cold shoulder? Here's how you should respond to the silent treatment.

What Is the Silent Treatment in a Relationship?

The silent treatment is when one person in a relationship ignores the other person, refusing to acknowledge them verbally or through any other method. This usually happens after an argument, but it can also happen when the silent partner is angry, and the other person doesn't know why.

Being on the receiving end is painful and frustrating. It's a form of ostracism, and it can feel like a punishment and even a form of pressure to get a response to criticism or submission to a request.

If you're on the receiving end, it's important that you know that no one, male or female, should accept the silent treatment as acceptable behavior. You don't deserve it. While both parties are responsible for creating healthy communication in a relationship, no one ever deserves to be ignored, and you didn't agree to this type of passive-aggressive communication.

The silent treatment is a common pattern of conflict for committed, romantic couples, and it can be damaging if left unaddressed. It is important to break this communication pattern, and there are constructive ways to respond and, hopefully, find a way to move forward that both of you can agree on.

Here are some ways to respond to the silent treatment.

Are you getting the cold shoulder instead of a willing partner?

Are you getting the cold shoulder instead of a willing partner?

1. Take Time to Cool Off

During a time of silence, both partners should pause to reflect on what led up to the silent treatment episode, especially if it was preceded by an argument, fight, or emotional outburst. If you're on the receiving end, you may feel frustrated and angry, so take a cooling-off period to get a breath and calm down.

2. Give Your Partner Space to Think

Avoid trying to figure out what your silent partner or spouse is thinking. You're not a mind-reader. The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive form of communication. If you do their thinking for them, they won't learn how to be direct when sharing their thoughts and feelings.

3. Don't Apologize Unless You're Truly Sorry

Never apologize for something when you don't believe you did. How can you have an authentic, connected relationship by being false? Instead, try to empathize with your partner by saying you understand that they're upset or angry and that you would like to bridge the gap that has come between you.

4. Apologize if You're Truly Sorry

Think about whether you really may have done or said something to hurt your partner or make them angry. Admit and acknowledge any wrongs that may have caused offense and apologize sincerely.

5. Ask Yourself Whether It's Just a Personality Difference

Is your partner an introvert, while you are more of an extrovert? Introverts need more time to process their emotions, especially when things get intense or they feel that they've been attacked or insulted in some way.

If this is the case for you, tell your partner that you'll give them a certain amount of time to themselves and that you'll be back after the time is up to talk. Of course, it's best if they agree to this plan.

6. Set Rules for Healthy Communication

When communication is difficult, it can help to create some rules. Give your partner (and yourself) permission to calm down.

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Sometimes when we feel waves of anxiety, panic, or rage, our bodies become saturated with adrenaline. This is called "flooding," and it happens when intense feelings, thoughts, or sensations are just too much to integrate in the moment.

"In a conflict, when one person gets flooded, they usually choose either fight of flight," says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a marriage counselor in Boulder, CO. "In this case, flight would the silent treatment or stonewalling. Regular stonewalling is toxic to a healthy relationship."

Fisher recommends that couples recognize that one or both partner is flooded and then separate for a period of time to calm down. Then they should come back together at an agreed-upon time when they are relaxed to talk through the conflict.

It is often part of a pattern of poor communication. But the silent treatment, when structured, is a part of research-supported Behavioral Couples Therapy.

— Nicole Prause, Ph.D., UCLA Psychologist

Is the Silent Treatment a Form of Psychological 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 in my opinion, 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."

Some psychologists say that the silent treatment causes emotional damage similar to physical abuse. The brain reacts in a similar way, whether the behavior is physical harm or emotional neglect.

Others, however, say that typically the silent treatment is just a poor form of communication.

"It is often part of a pattern of poor communication," says Nicole Prause, Ph.D., a psychologist at UCLA. "But the silent treatment, when structured, is a part of research-supported Behavioral Couples Therapy."

In this form, Prause says, the partner states that they are starting to become upset, need to take a time out, and will check back in an hour. They can then be silent towards their partner for that time.

"This is in no way abusive and helps improve each person's ability to regulate their own emotions when they come back together to discuss," Prause says. "It also is not a 'get out of jail free escape, as the partner taking the break has agreed to engage again at a specific time."

6 Ways to Respond to the Silent Treatment

1. Take some time to cool off.

2. Give your partner space to think.

3. Don't apologize unless you're truly sorry.

4. Apologize if you're truly sorry.

5. Ask yourself whether it's just a personality difference.

6. Set rules for healthy communication.

Changing Your Approach to the Relationship

Since the silent treatment is a way for your partner to gain control, you need to take care of yourself so their behavior doesn't leave you feeling humiliated and rejected.

  • Remind yourself that your partner feels uncertain and out of control.
  • Do not resort to sulking, pouting, or badgering. Try to maintain a calm attitude if you can. Take a walk to get a breath of air.
  • Consider whether you too might be trying to control the relationship more than your partner is comfortable with.

Other Ways to Address the Problem

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.

He didn't pick up his towels (again!) even though he kept 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.

Refusal to speak to another person is passive-aggressive form of communication.

Refusal to speak to another person is passive-aggressive form of communication.

When the Problem Is Just Too Big

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.

If you're questioning whether to be in relationship, you really only need consider your own viewpoints, not your partners. Their opinions, values, and reasons are irrelevant while you figure out what you want.

Then when you talk about it with him, describe the way you feel, listen to their views respectfully, and see if you can work together to find common ground.

The Victim's Role

In some cases, the silent partner is attempting to escape another toxic dynamic. If you are trying to force them to change or do things your way, you're giving them a reason to withdraw.

If you criticize them as a person or assign blame instead of focusing on finding solutions, you're contributing to the dynamic. 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!

Finding Healthier Ways to Communicate

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 may be 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 partner, but it won't be on your timeline, so focus on progress because perfection's still a long, long way off.

I hope these tips help you change your relationship and take steps 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.

Walking on eggshells only allows your relationship to crumble further. It doesn't fix the problem!

Walking on eggshells only allows your relationship to crumble further. It doesn't fix the problem!

A Special Note About Abuse

When people feel out of control, they seek ways to regain control, as we already discussed.

If your partner is physically abusive, any change you make to how you respond to the silent treatment might escalate their behavior. Be prepared for this by having a plan to leave the environment if 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 avoid 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.

  • 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: My husband has been giving me the silent treatment for over eight months now. I find it very hurtful. What should I do?

Answer: Either find a way for it to stop bothering you, or else start planning your departure.

Question: How do I cope with weeks of no response from my boyfriend?

Answer: Well, you have only a couple of options. You can accept it completely, to the degree that it truly doesn't bother you at all. You can leave the situation entirely. You can struggle with trying to accept it only to find yourself feeling resentful and angry.

Can you honestly say, "I would love to have an unresponsive boyfriend?" If not, then you probably will never reach that acceptance. (Believe it or not, some people might feel fine with this, because they want their own time to get things done, go out with friends, and so on, but to be this way, it's important to let his silence be his own problem without taking it personally.)

If you believe he's unresponsive because he is trying to punish you, well, you can choose to keep being abused. You can leave. You can do neither and stay trapped in turmoil.

Question: My boyfriend said he can't see me for a couple of weeks because he is getting his home ready for winter, and because he's busy on his job. (He can take off whenever he wants, but he lives 40 min away.) He said he'd text me. Do I get a good nite text? No!

I asked him if he wants me with other men.

"No," he said.

Then I asked, "Do you want other women?"

"No," he said. I'm confused 24 hours a day! For two weeks he has had no time for me! What should I do?

Answer: You should remember that interested people act interested.

While it's possible that he's truly so wrapped up in work that his stress level is too high for anything else, it sounds like you know that's not what is happening here. I believe when a person's words and actions don't match up, you should probably believe the one you don't want to believe. In other words, "He says he's busy, but he acts disinterested" means he's probably disinterested. This is especially true if you called his attention to it and he hasn't tried to improve things and hasn't taken your complaint seriously.

Question: My boyfriend of ten years stopped talking to me after I stayed at a party without him at his family's house. What shall I do? I tried calling and texting him, but he doesn't respond, and it's been two weeks.

Answer: What you should do is count your blessings that you dodged a bullet. Possessiveness is an early sign of much bigger problems.

Question: I've been with my husband for 18 years and never got the silent act. Recently, I made a statement about my cell phone. He didn't understand what I said. I repeated myself twice. He balled up his fists, wrecked the dining room and ignored me for two days! I refuse to believe my comment caused all that! There had to be another reason or agenda for all that, right? Can you please help me?

Answer: Yes, it sounds like something else is going on. Have you said, "I'm worried about you?" Your reaction tells me that something's really bothering you. What is it?"

Question: Silence can be golden if you live in my shoes. There are two sides to each story, I believe. However, I feel hurt and feel like a real scumbag by doing this to my precious wife, yet the choice was hers after a warning. Was that wrong?

Answer: There aren't enough details for me to say if you're right or wrong, but judging by how you feel, I'm going with "Yes, it's wrong." It sounds like you made a threat to get or keep control of some situation instead of letting her have any influence on the matter, except to choose to get punished, that is.

Question: What if the silent treatment happens at work, and one person or a few people do it?

Answer: I would encourage you to research "hostile work environment." Workplace bullying is not the same as relationship silence, but might be illegal in some cases.

© 2012 jellygator

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