What's worse than a screaming match? Not talking at all.
You approach your partner with something important you need to talk about or a conflict you want to discuss. You start the conversation, say your piece and wait for a reply that never comes. The longer you wait, the harder you try to provoke a response. Your blood boils. You've been hit with the silent treatment.
On the other side, your partner demands your attention, and hounds you to talk when you aren't ready or prepared. You're thoroughly ticked. But something keeps you from speaking what you're really thinking. So you shut down. The louder and angrier your partner gets, the longer you say nothing. Your rage rises in the quietness. You've perfectly executed the silent treatment.
In the silent treatment, one partner demands while the other withdraws.
My clients Lizzy and Jack had been married for 60 years. People marveled at the length of their successful union. But after his death, Lizzy revealed that Jack had been an ace saboteur with the silent treatment.
It always started with a serious disagreement; Lizzy would become the demander and was prepared to battle it out. But Jack would only ever reply to her with "you're acting funny," and then give her the silent treatment — for hours. Meanwhile, Lizzy was baffled and growing angrier by the minute as she wondered what in the world she had done this time. Jack was a frustrated withdrawer and would feed his rage with all the things he wanted to say but couldn't. Hours later, Jack would explode in anger. It turns out they spent decades in this demand-withdraw pattern, which left emotional and physical damage in its wake.
The silent treatment is dangerous.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, research finds "the demand-withdraw pattern to be one of the most damaging types of relationship conflict and one of the hardest patterns to break." When people exhibit this pattern, communication, intimacy and relationship satisfaction plummet. People become less agreeable and conscientious and more aggressive and neurotic. They have urinary and bowel problems, weakened immune systems, and even erectile dysfunction. Clearly, something needs to change.
Of course, silence itself is not the problem. After all, a moment of silence allows us to honor precious memories or gather our thoughts before speaking. But with the silent treatment, something golden becomes punitive and quietly aggressive. Extended silence functions as a relationship weapon. We need to lay down this weapon and face our disagreements in a constructive way.
Outwit the silent treatment with House Rules for Arguments.
Change your focus. To outwit the silent treatment, forget the content and observe the process. Pay less attention to what's being said, and more attention to your communication pattern. The process is what needs to change — immediately. Talk with your partner about the silent treatment process when you are NOT in it. Honestly discuss what you each need to do when tempers flare. Do you need time and space to process things? Does your partner feel rejected or abandoned when he or she is left alone? As you work to understand yourself and your partner, you'll be able to negotiate the change you need.
Agree to create something new. Thinking about change, agree to create your very own House Rules for Arguments. These rules will govern each person's behavior — just like ring rules control a boxer's behavior. They'll exclude what is harmful to the relationship and include what is necessary for your emotional and physical safety.
Make silence golden. So ideally your House Rules won't allow the silent treatment. But if you do think some quiet time will help, I encourage you to allow a time-out in order to calm down before blowing up. If you're not calm enough after X-minutes, check in with your partner and take another X-minute time-out. These time-outs are for gaining self-control — not for punishing anyone. Agree on the lengths of your individual time-outs. You might need 10 minutes, your partner might need 30.
Answer these questions individually to create your House Rules:
- What is OK for me to do during an argument?
- What is off-limits for me to do during an argument?
- What is OK for my partner to do during an argument?
- What is off-limits for my partner to do during an argument?
Negotiate your House Rules. Meet to discuss your unique answers and negotiate what will be acceptable and unacceptable for each of you. Listen to what your partner wants, and think about what you can each tolerate. Remember to nix the silent treatment and add a golden time-out.
Live by the House Rules. Make sure you each leave this conversation knowing what is and is not acceptable for you. These are your House Rules for Arguments, and they will help you outwit the silent treatment. Your job is to abide by the House Rules that apply to you — even if your partner totally messes up. Someone needs to lead by example in this relationship. Let it be you.
If the silent treatment has taken a toll on your relationship, I encourage you to reach out for help. A relationship counselor or coach can help you lay down this weapon and face arguments constructively. If you're in Northern Virginia, contact me, I've faced it, and I'm here to help. For instant help to jump start relationship change, grab my FREE guide, How to Make Your Relationship Work. Now over to you: How have you learned to deal with the silent treatment?