The Silent Treatment
by Leslie Vernick
There are a couple of extremes when it comes to conflict. One is the “in your face” person who yells, slams doors, and maybe even becomes physically abusive.
Then there’s the person who does none of that. They simply live life as though nothing ever happened and the person who offended them isn’t even alive. We commonly refer to this as the silent treatment. And, while it may not be as scary as dealing with a rage-a-holic, the silent treatment is still damaging to a relationship.
It’s important to point out that there’s a difference between taking a healthy time-out during a heated exchange and giving someone the silent treatment. It’s perfectly okay to step away from an argument that’s escalating in order to calm down, pray, and be able to deal with the problem in a healthier manner.
To keep a time-out in the healthy category, you should follow a couple of guidelines. First, a time-out should not go beyond 24 hours. Any longer than that and you’re slipping into silent treatment territory.
Second, the person who initiated the time-out should really be the person who initiates the conversation again. That way the other person doesn’t have to guess when it’s okay to reconnect.
But, maybe what you experience is nowhere close to a healthy timeout. You are regularly on the receiving end of the silent treatment…for days, weeks, even months. I once worked with a woman whose husband didn’t talk to her for over a year. She pleaded with him to talk but he wouldn’t flinch.
Maybe you’re the one giving the silent treatment. It could be to your husband, your kids, or anyone who upsets you. Some women feel this is the only power they have…the power to not engage.
But this isn’t simply withdrawing your presence from a heated conversation. The silent treatment is a withdrawal of communication, attention, and care. It’s a form of punishment. And, the person giving the silent treatment is a person who operates out of a victim mindset.
A victim mindset believes he (or she) is powerless to change anything. He blames circumstances or others for the way he feels. Despite being hurt and angry, he’s unwilling to do the work of dealing with his feelings and expressing them in a constructive way. He’s also unwilling to listen to another person’s perspective and to care about that person’s feelings.
Instead of working towards a resolution and repair of the relationship, the silent treatment is used as a means of manipulation, punishment, and even control. The silent partner ultimately wants to punish you for upsetting him and he wants you to take full responsibility for his emotional upset. And, he knows, given enough time, you will beg him to talk, plead for an end to the silence…and that will give him more opportunity to reject you through more silence. More punishment.
So, how do you deal with a spouse who gives you the silent treatment?
The most important thing you can do is ignore this tactic. Do not react to his passive-aggressive form of punishment. Too often, people will respond to the silent treatment by rescuing, pleading, and begging, or they go to the other extreme and go on the attack…yelling, shaming, and living in a state of constant anger. You might even go back and forth between the two extremes. Regardless, the person giving the silent treatment gets to stay in the role of the innocent victim and you’ve taken on the role of the bad guy…the reason for all of these problems.
Seriously, don’t go there. That is a destructive dance and you don’t want to be a part of it. As awkward as it might feel, go about your life. Go out with friends. Let him brood in silence while you continue to live your life.
Try not to take his rejection personally. Remind yourself that his behavior is an extremely immature response to being unhappy. It’s his inability or unwillingness to deal with feelings or solve problems.
What you can do is simply say, “I’m happy to discuss what’s wrong when you’re ready. Just let me know.” Then go about your life. That is telling your husband that his attempt to control you isn’t going to work. You will not rescue him. You will not beg for attention. Simply put, you are going to behave like a healthy adult.
Remember, you can invite someone to have an adult discussion but you cannot force him to talk. And you cannot fix something if you don’t know what’s broken.
This approach could backfire with him sinking deeper into a victim mentality. He may tell himself, “She doesn’t care about me,” because you won’t fall all over him trying to work it out. Or, he may leave his passive-aggressive manner and go on the attack…blaming, accusing, and berating you for everything that’s going wrong in his life and in your marriage.
This is where you focus on staying in CORE Strength. Try to have compassion for the fact that your husband doesn’t have the skills to express himself in a healthy manner.
If he explodes in anger, you can respond with, “I see you are very upset and I’m glad you’re ready to tell me what’s bothering you. But I cannot and will not listen when you’re attacking me. I’ll give you some time to collect yourself and figure out how to calmly tell me what’s wrong.” Then walk away.
This invites him into a mature, adult conversation. You are willing to talk about and resolve the issue. He may decline your invitation and continue his destructive ways. But, remember, you don’t have to be part of his unhealthy pattern.