3 Steps For Overcoming The "Silent Treatment"

What do you do when your lover turns to stone? Understand why and follow 3 steps to overcome it.

3 Steps For Overcoming The "Silent Treatment"

The "silent treatment" is an unpleasant dynamic that brings anger and despair to many couples. They often give up trying to achieve satisfactory communication and live lives of frustration and loss of love. See if you identify with these couples.

Terry was dealing with issues of low self-esteem and trying to figure out why she had so much trouble finding a happy relationship. She was depressed because, when she and Eddie had been dating for a month or so, they were sitting in his car after going out to the movies and something went wrong. They were discussing the film and started to disagree about what the scriptwriter’s message was.


As the argument intensified, Terry felt pressured and criticized. She discovered that although the words she wanted to say were inside her head, she couldn’t say them out loud. She became frozen. Eddie was confused by her silence. He tried to get her to reply, and when she didn’t, he just shrugged and drove her home. He never contacted her again. She shared with me that this wasn’t the first time a relationship fizzled because she went silent.

Dave, a short, slim man had been married for over five years to Alicia, who outweighed him by 30 pounds. They wanted marriage counseling because they were having trouble communicating. Apparently there were times when they argued that Dave became sullen and wouldn’t speak. When this happened Alicia became irritated and escalated her demands. Then Dave would blurt out, "I have to get out of here." At that point Alicia would say, "You can’t go until we finish this discussion!" She would then block the doorway so he couldn’t leave the room. At times this standoff culminated in a physical fight that left them bruised and unhappy.


Pauline and Frank had been living together for seven years and were constantly rubbing each other the wrong way. They maintained that they loved each other, but they were continually angry with the other. When Pauline would say something critical to Frank, he would become defensive. When Frank criticized Pauline, she tried to share her side of it but there was never a satisfactory conclusion. After a short time Frank would simple clam up, purse his lips and glare at her.

When that happened, Pauline became more forceful to no avail. The more Frank withdrew, the louder Pauline’s voice got. As she screamed at him, Frank became frantic but couldn’t express himself. He just wanted to escape. Pauline was at her wits’ end and was furious with Frank since he had turned into a solid wall and did not appear to hear her or be able to explain what was happening inside of him.

The problem I have just described is called Stonewalling. Pauline described Frank as a solid wall. That wall imprisons one person and keeps them from expressing strong emotions while keeping the other person outside the impenetrable barrier.

Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and researcher, has been studying couples in his University laboratory for more than twenty years. Stonewalling is a problem that he recognized as detrimental to a happy relationship. In his research he found that some people become physiologically overwhelmed or "flooded" when a situation heats up.


As a result, they turn off and tune out. It is as if they are paralyzed, unable to say what is going on. Their partner sees this "silent treatment" as a red flag and usually becomes more and more frustrated. The more the annoyed partner escalates, trying to get a rise out of the stony partner, the more that partner withdraws. The result can be miserable for both parties. Once a person understands that the stonewaller is truly paralyzed and is not just being uncooperative or obstinate, he or she can stop being angry and start to have compassion for the silent partner.

If you recognize yourself as a stonewaller or you are in a relationship with someone who gives you the silent treatment, it is vital for you to understand this problem and know what to do in order to keep your relationship from disintegrating. Since stonewalling is the result of a physiological state, there are things that couples can do if one partner suffers from this reaction to stress.

Here are 3 solutions to this vexing problem:

1. Recognize the signs.


One of the solutions to stonewalling in a relationship is for each person to recognize the signs and decide on a response that is kind and reasonable. Alicia acknowledged that when Dave said, "I have to get out of here." It meant that he was in dire discomfort. Frank's signal was pursed lips.

2. Decide on an appropriate action.

Alicia agreed that when Dave said, "I have to get out of here," she would let him go. Additionally, they had an agreement that they would make an appointment to meet again within 24 hours to resolve whatever problem was on the table so Alicia would feel understood.

Pauline asked Frank if it was ok for her to ask him if he needed a "time out" when she observed him starting to purse his lips.


3. Use a stress releasing method to calm down.

One of the most rapid and effective methods I teach my clients to calm themselves when they freeze is called EFT Tapping. EFT stands for Emotional Freedom Technique. Simply touch or gently tap these acupuncture points for about 3 seconds using your index and middle fingers as you focus on your emotional overwhelm or physical stoniness.

Begin by tapping what we call the Karate Chop spot that is the fleshy part on the outside edge of your hand below the little finger. Then tap each of these points:

  • Eyebrow point on the beginning of the ridge of the eyebrow, nearest your nose.
  • Side of eye point on the bone outside the outer corner of your eye socket.
  • Under the eye point under the middle of your eye but above the cheekbone.
  • Under the nose point, directly under your nose and above your upper lip.
  • Under the lower lip point in the indentation under the lower lip.
  • Under the collarbone point approximately one inch below your collarbone.
  • Under the arm point approximately four inches below the armpit on the side of the body.

Another of Dr, Gottman’s discoveries is that when the heart rate escalates, a person is not able to stay centered. EFT raises the Serotonin in the brain and relaxes the body. EFT Tapping can, "soothe the savage breast." Therefore, the stonewaller should tap around and around until he or she feels calm and can communicate without anger or frustration. As relaxation takes place it becomes easier to resolve disputes and think and speak clearly.


Once Terry realized that she wasn't crazy when she clammed up, she resolved that in her next relationship she would discuss this with her partner and let him know what stonewalling was and how she would handle it now that she too knew that it wasn’t a defect but a physical reaction to stress.

The partners or spouses of stonewallers can also tap to keep their reaction from getting out of hand. In fact, it works better if you both do it. Stonewallers deserve love and understanding. Practice the 3 simples steps to improve communication and let your love grow.

Learn more about how to use EFT in my FREE eBook "Creating Happiness."

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