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February 04, 2010

THE SILENT TREATMENT: HOW TO HANDLE WITHDRAWAL IN A RELATIONSHIP

Paul’s wife Janet was so angry at him that she didn’t speak to him for two days.  When I asked Paul what he meant about her not speaking, he said she literally had not said one word.  Apparently this is not uncommon.  Paul reports that this has been going on for most of their marriage.  One time she didn’t speak to him for an entire week.  Often she won’t speak to him for several hours.  Janet reports that she does this because she needs to calm herself down first before she is able to speak to him.  She also states that when she is hurt or upset, she just doesn’t want to talk to him...or be near him, for that matter.

Although not speaking to your partner for days is on the extreme end of withdrawal, I see this all the time in couples.  What many people do not know is that the silent treatment is one of the most damaging relationship moves a person can make.  When we use a wall of silence, we render our partner helpless.  They can’t repair, discuss or get tuned in to what’s going on for us.  You cannot work on issues in your relationship if one or both of you refuse to discuss them. 

For all you silencers, know that you are OFF.  It’s not okay to give anyone the cold shoulder for a couple of hours and certainly not for days.  The silent treatment is extremely toxic for your children since it sends the message that they are invisible and worthless.  If you struggle with this, get help and don’t justify ignoring people.

For those of you living with someone who silences, send a clear message that ignoring you is hurting the relationship.  First, tell them that you notice they are not speaking to you and tell them what you’re going to do about it.  For example, your first conversation may be:


* “Janet, I’ve noticed you’ve been ignoring me ever since you became angry yesterday.  I want you to know that your silence is not okay with me.  If you’re angry with me, I’d like to sit down and talk it out.  If you refuse to discuss it, then I’m going to assume everything’s fine and you are just choosing to be rude.  If you continue to silence and shut me out every time you’re angry with me, our relationship will be in trouble.” 

* If nothing changes, your second conversation could be: “I will not stay in the house while you ignore me, so be prepared to be alone on those days.  I will also no longer chase you down and try to get you to talk to me.  If I do something wrong, I will apologize and try to repair it, but if you refuse to accept it, I will not continue to apologize.” 

* If your partner continues to give the silent treatment every time they get upset, your next conversation needs to increase in seriousness and consequences: “I also think it only fair for you to know that I no longer want to be in a relationship with someone who is cold to me.  I am thinking about my options regarding that, including moving out of the bedroom, seeking professional help and even leaving our relationship.  My hope is it will not have to go that far, however, if it doesn’t change I will take at least one of those steps, if not more.  Let me know if you’d like to talk about this.”

Silence is not okay.  It’s rude and disrespectful.  If your partner chooses to give you the cold shoulder, be clear that’s not okay for you and protect yourself by setting a limit.  Do not give any mixed messages.  A mixed message would be telling them it’s not okay and then falling over yourself to try to get them to talk to you.  Don’t try to coax them into speaking by endlessly apologizing or being ultra-kind.  You deserve to be treated well—silence is not being treated well.  Don’t settle for it and don’t be rude yourself in response.

CHALLENGE:  If you’re giving the silent treatment—stop it.  It’s rude, not relational and not acceptable.  If you’re on the receiving end of silence, be clear that it’s not okay with you.  Try the scripts above and back your words up with actions.  Silence is another form of bullying—don’t give in to it.  Deal with silence in a straightforward fashion that is honoring of both yourself (no groveling, pleading, etc.) and your partner (stay respectful when you deliver your message, no yelling or silent treatment yourself).

Comments

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My 14 year marriage and 20 year relationship with my wife has involved her giving me the silent treatment. Before I met her I was calm, had no anxiety or depression and never yelled. I loved her and the good far outweighed the bad and I never saw what was happening. Over the years I began to develop depression and anxiety and started feeling worthless because my wife couldn't complete talking about basic issues unable to express herself. She would withhold everything to control me but always accused me of controlling her. She was good asking for a vacation but couldn't say she was short money to pay her personal credit cards and let them rack into the tens of thousands. Many conversations would end me being denied us talking and agreeing on many issues and I would be treated invisible. I wrote letters and emails that would also be dismissed and called "hatemail" though there wasn't a single hatefull word. I would be completely closed off and insulted and sent away regularly ignored. I felt so worthless I became suicidal a couple of times and I always blamed depression, but thought my brain chemistry was the cause and not the intense hopeless conditioning of silent treatment and deliberate withholding of my needs. This wore me down and eventually I would yell at her to listen and force conversations. Now she says that's the reason she dousn't talk whether I yell or not. She thinks she's the victim and until recently I thought I had anger problems because I couldn't understand why I was yelling. I realized how I changed from being ignored. I don't think she'll ever realize how destructive it has been and she so stubborn I don't think she ever will.

My husband is the king of the silent treatment..and he withholds sex. He has been giving me the silent treatment for weeks and he always brings up stuff that bothers him from YEARS ago. It's useless trying to talk to him. I've tried all the talking, waiting it out, Apologizing,crying, all that. Sooooo some othe sites say go on about your day and so I do. He can always speak to me when he needs money for gas or tolls but nothing else. We have a one year old so for now we just co parent. I'm at my witts end with it. He has his own internal issues so I can't compete with the past. I still cook, clean, and give him the few dollars he needs for work travel. Other than the scripts or trying to talk, does anyone else have advice?

My husband doesn't just stop talking, he literally walks in the bush (we live in an isolated community 500km from the nearest urban centre - our community is classified as very remote. He did this a week ago and I can't let it go. He did this to me about 8 years ago just after my mum passed away and emotions erupted over a bedsheet. I sat up all night waiting for him stressing out. He promised not to do it again. And yet - a week ago he did it again in front of our 9 year old (adopted) daughter. I am now at the point where I hope a poisonous (taipan, death adder) bites him to serve him right for this behaviour. I am trying to save our marriage right now. I'm up against a (his) family pattern of not communicating and using silence. I just want him to see the other side. But he goes all 'victim' on me. I don't do victims - have had some horrendous things happen to me but refuse to be a victim. Like someone said earlier - the good times are great. but I can't let my daughter think this behaviour is okay. Guess I will be following in my mother's footsteps of not sticking around for the father to negatively affect the child
T

Dear Ellen,
I'm so glad to hear that. The silent treatment is cold, disrespectful and hurtful. Have your back and don't silently accept the unacceptable--do so respectfully, calmly and powerfully.
Warm Regards,
Lisa

I have suffered this throughout my 25 year marriage
. Why have I stayed because the good times out weighed the bad times and the fact we are so good together sometimes. I have had counselling on and off.
Now I'm too old to deal with weeks of silence. We are into day 1 now and I'm going to follow through with suggestion above because it poisons the house

My husband would give me silent treatments so often that I went crazy. The longest one was 4 and half months, and during that time I had to have surgery and look after our two young children. I was in such depression that I became a compulsive gambler. When he found out he was very violent. I tried to committee sucide 3 times, because of the help from my family now I left him and am very happy and at peace. He was passive aggressive and knew how I hated the silent treatment so he used it often. I used to run around to please him so he would talk to me, now I know he was the sick one.

My wife has done this to me ever since I have known her. It will last anywhere from a day to a week or more. As I write we are on day 6. It normally starts with her getting annoyed about something that most people would just shrug off, then it sometimes turns into criticism, shouting, throwing things and breaking things before the silence commences. This time we have gone straight from the criticism stage into the silence. She has set up in the spare room and will only ever communicate by text message. What is said to me is always negative, derogatory, and plain nasty. My wife will be happy to tell me about how I am feeling and what I think and will make out a story that makes me into the bad person every time. I have tried everything from being super nice, apologising (even if I have not done anything) to just letting her get on with it. I don't know what to do but I think after 10 years of this I have finally had enough. The only time I persuaded her to get help she refused to speak to the counsellor and burst into tears when he tried to address her problems rather than doing what she thought he would do, which was to focus on me! I feel I have tried so hard to make this relationship work through all the challenges we have had including a number of miscarriages 6 years ago and ongoing fertility problems. My wife never admitted to being depressed but clearly was. Now I think she just hides it. Recently I have been having a really hard time and freely admit I am depressed, but she won't let me take medication due to the fertility problems and tells me to 'just be happy'. I try but it's not always easy and rather than argue I withdraw, but I don't get rude or shut myself away. Now I just don't know if it's worth it anymore, and wonder if I should start afresh and escape this emotional roller coaster altogether.

What about silent treatments in other relationships? I have a sibling who would give the silent treatment to our parents (as an adult) for weeks at a time. She has gone for years "not speaking" and being "mad" at one of our sisters. I agree it is a form of bullying!

Ms. Merlo-Booth,

Sometimes there is just nothing left to say. You choose not to keep having the same conversation over and over.

The lesson isn't learned. You can't keep repeating yourself just to try to 'get through' to him, but his actions are still not okay.

You've tried counseling. You've tried writing out what to do for him to avoid the issue.

It's naturally frustrating and the anger isn't good for anyone.

So you just stop talking.

That's not rude or not relational. Talking didn't work.

Maybe silence will, in that it lets him not feel on the defensive, gives him time to process this thing he's done...yet again...gives him time to learn.

It also prevents you from escalating to yelling, attacking, changing to a person you don't want to be because regular discussion doesn't get through to him.

That's choosing not to do battle, choosing not to send him away or go away.

You choose to give yourself time to process and scab over the fresh hurt.

It's giving him silence, but not false forgiveness, in the hopes that his brain will remember this - that it will sink in - and he'll stop choosing to neglect and do damage.

It's a type of honesty.

It's when you've run out of options.

It's not always so much about the person being silent.

Sometimes it's about that other person and what that does to the relationship dynamic.


Dear Wateva:
Giving your husband the silent treatment in response to his verbal abuse is still taking his abuse. If you truly don't want to take his abuse then set limits on it don't silence in response to it. A limit is a behavioral action not just words.
When we silence in response to poor treatment, we send the message that the poor treatment is okay.

I'm glad you're tired of his poor treatment and hope you find the courage to set limits (even if that means moving out of the bedroom; not going out in public with him, no longer cooking fro him etc.).

Warm Regards,
Lisa

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