Is the Silent Treatment, Silencing your Relationship?


Do you withdraw and close the door to your partner when things don't go your way in an argument?

We all know the scenario. You are having a great time with your partner, and then a touchy topic comes up. All of a sudden you note your partner’s mood changing. You ask them what is wrong and they say very flippantly, “Nothing.” You know the thing this is not, is “nothing.” So as a good gesture you put your arm around them and say “Come on, I know something is bothering you.” You get stone silence instead. No matter what you say, nothing will draw your partner out. Your partner then walks into another room. You let them go because you are a bit irritated now. This is child-like behavior and you don’t like it. You begin doing your own thing and your partner is seething in silence.

This pattern of arguing (the silent treatment) was recently researched and written about in the Journal of Marriage and Family. It has been around since relationships began but head researcher Kira Birditt Ph.D. of the University of Michigan reports it severely damages the longevity of marriage. Apparently rather than seeing this silent time as a cool off period the partner perceives it as a lack of investment in the relationship.

Birditt’s team used data from the early years of marriage study which is the largest and longest research project on the patterns of marital conflict. Over 16 years 272 couples were interviewed four times. The interviews began the first year of marriage. The study results were fascinating: 29 percent of husbands and 21 percent of wives reported no conflicts at all during the first year of marriage. By the study’s end 46 percent of the couples had divorced (16 years later); the first year of marriage had no effect on who divorced and who didn’t. This means that even if the silent treatment was used in the first year it didn’t matter in regards to increasing or decreasing longevity of the marriage. After the first year, it did matter. Overall, husbands reported using more constructive behaviors and fewer destructive behaviors than wives.

But over time, wives were less likely to use destructive strategies or withdraw while husbands’ use of these behaviors stayed the same through the years. The researchers couldn’t explain the reason why wives used more silent treatment and withdrawal in the beginning of the marriage and then mellowed and why men remained constant (in other words, men didn’t seem to be invested in improving, nor did they get worse), but did suggest it may be because as women are married longer the relationship becomes more important to them and they realize a better way to communicate. They did not suggest why men did not come to the same realization as women do, but my own theory is that men may feel like they don’t know what works, so if their woman uses withdrawal or the silent treatment, men just let her be. They may feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If the woman is able to come to the point where she can sit down and be direct with her husband and tell him what she reacted to, and why she felt hurt, he may be able to offer options for both of them in the event the same argument comes up again.

Tips to use instead of the silent treatment:
1. Come up with a mantra instead of using the silent treatment. A mantra is something you repeat to yourself that empowers you and helps you see the bigger picture. For example, a mantra to recite in the middle of an argument may be “Stop, think, let go.” The more you can let go of what doesn’t matter in an argument the better. Most arguments are silly, when you reflect on them later.
2. Remind yourself to choose your battles. If your silent treatment happens every holiday when yours or your spouse’s mom drinks too much and says hurtful things, maybe this year have a talk before the parents come. Decide on when to cut the alcohol so no one will drink too much and say something offensive.

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