THE SILENT TREATMENT: HOW TO HANDLE WITHDRAWAL IN A RELATIONSHIP
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).