IN my work with couples, one of the most common negative ways people deal with conflict in a marriage or intimate relationship is by giving the other person the silent treatment.
We all know what this means. Very simply, ‘silence’ is being administered as a form of treatment — you are in effect being treated with silence as punishment for something you said.
When it’s your partner that is freezing you out, it can feel anything from awkward to devastating. In my work with couples, it is not uncommon to find that spouses may give their partners the silent treatment for days, weeks, or even months.
The silent treatment is when your spouse or partner angrily shuts-down and disengages from you. This usually occurs if you have mildly criticised him, done something he does not like, or asked him to do something different. It usually occurs after a thorny issue has been raised by you but often you will get the silent treatment and you do not even know what it is that you have done.
It can be used to avoid conflict, but it usually has more sinister motives such as controlling or punishing you. Even if the intent to hurt isn’t there, the silent treatment can have torturous and upsetting consequences for you and should be of real concern if it is repetitive. It works to the degree that it forces you to avoid bringing things up because you know that the response will be the silent treatment. In that way it becomes an effective tactic of control.
The problem is evident in the term ‘silent treatment’ in that the offender uses silence as a means of ‘treating’ you with contempt or disdain. This is different from going temporarily quiet in order to gather one’s thoughts. Telling you he/she needs a certain amount of time out to cool off or collect his thoughts is not silent treatment, because you have not been shut out completely and you have bene given an explanation. In such instances there can be a period of withdrawal, which are necessary to ‘take stock’.
The silent treatment is different. As I mentioned above, it can often go on for days or weeks. It is usually characterised by blatantly angry, sulking, irritable, and mean behaviour.
With the silent treatment, the purpose is to degrade and diminish you. Now the offender will say that they are treating you in this way because you are ‘crazy’, ‘impossible’, or simply because they cannot talk to you.
However, even if this were true to some degree, they would still not need to make family life miserable for days on end by way of their bad mood — they would still talk to you.
If you’re in a relationship that involves violence or other forms of abuse, then silence is another form of abusive control and something for which you will need help — simply because it is impossible in such relationships to not start blaming yourself.
However, in relationships that generally seem to be safe, the silent treatment is an example of very poor emotional control and poor ability to deal with problems or complaints.
Whatever the motivation for the silent treatment, it’s one of the most extreme ways of expressing anger. It usually occurs when the offender becomes defensive in response to a perceived slight or criticism. The inability of offenders to take any kind of criticism usually results in a highly defensive response. They react as if the criticism is some form of betrayal or profound offence. People who give the silent treatment are ready to take major offense and even the slightest of criticism. They then treat your complaint with utter contempt and dismiss you entirely by shutting down completely.
This huge over-reaction is aimed very simply at silencing you. By giving you the silent treatment, they effectively making it impossible for you to raise any issue of concern. The silent treatment is usually a form of punishment which can be “torturous” for you, but very effective in its effects. Controlling, abusive, or bullying types respond to minor complaints with extreme behavior which, in effect, causes those around them to walk on eggshells so as not to ‘set them off’. To the degree that this happens the offender wins.
As a form of control and punishment, there is certainly an element that is quite sadistic. In fact, when people are asked “Why did you give the silent treatment?”, the common answer is “I was punishing them”.
What is harmful is that the person who is silent has more of the power. They are the one that is deciding when the relationship will come back into connection. That’s why it is harmful for the relationship, it’s a use of power that leaves the victim feeling powerless, rejected, and degraded.
Now, sometimes people do it on occasion to avoid conflict and they might say ‘I wanted to stop things from escalating’. Other people may do it because they become “frozen in silence”. I’ve worked with people who just feel so locked into their upset or own reactivity generally that they find it hard to speak. Even if they know their partner is suffering, they can’t get over it. However, none of these things justify it as it has such a toxic effect on the climate of the relationship.
If you know your partner is locked into negative feelings, extending some sort of olive branch once can be helpful but if you are taking responsibility for winning them over that is not a role you want to play long-term.
Next week I’ll look at things you can do to respond to the silent treatment that can help rescue you from the situation.