Silent Treatment in a Relationship: What It Is and How to Deal With It

What’s the longest you haven’t spoken with your partner after a fight? Has it been days or weeks? While nobody likes to be ignored, especially by the ones they love most, silent treatment in a relationship happens more often than we’d like to think.

The common scenario goes like this: you fight (usually over a stupid thing) after which you get the cold shoulder for at least one or two days. During this time there’s tension and you get frustrated because your feelings hit a wall. Your partner’s refusal to openly communicate his or her thoughts can be absolutely infuriating and painful. Even more, silent treatment in a relationship can feel like a form of punishment or pressure to getting a certain response.

According to specialists, silent treatment in a relationship is never a good sign. It can be the first step to your relationship’s demise and it shouldn’t be ignored or accepted.

Why we Experience Silent Treatment in a Relationship

Phrases like “my partner ignored me for 4 days after our last fight” or “he didn’t speak to me the entire trip” are not uncommon in couple counseling. But why do we do it? What determines someone to completely block out the person they love most?

There are two major trains of thought that lead to silent treatment in a relationship:

  • The high road
  • The blame game

The High Road

The silent treatment can be confused with taking the high road. In layman terms, a person would rather not speak to you than get into a fight or say something they may regret later. And it’s a legit approach (at first).

When you’re upset with your partner it’s very easy to use hurtful words. You will definitely regret doing so, but in the heat of the moment, words just slip out.

However, the silent treatment isn’t the better alternative! According to a paper published in the Communication Monographs journal, this is the most destructive response you can offer. It is scientifically proven that being ignored (aka, the silent treatment in a relationship) causes the same chemical reaction in our brain as being physically hurt.

The best way to take the high road when you don’t want to voice your feelings in anger is to take a few hours to cool down. But it’s very important to let your partner know about this cool down period – tell them you need a bit of alone time and ask them to be patient.

What you should take out of this

Even the happiest couple in the world goes through painful moments. It’s absolutely normal to fight with your partner but it’s how you deal with these moments that will determine your happiness in the relationship.

Don’t just slam the door and walk away; find a way to communicate your need for a cool down time!

The Blame Game

Let’s say it’s your two years anniversary as a happy couple. Your partner is working late or they are dealing with problems at work, and they simply forgot about this joyous occasion. On the other hand, you prepared a nice dinner or a fun evening out, only to be left alone and disappointed.

It’s absolutely normal to get angry and feel frustrated or hurt in this situation, but how do you voice this and who is to blame?

In a well-balanced relationship this scenario would end up with a fight or at least a heated argument, but both partners would get to communicate their thoughts. But, if you use the silent treatment to punish your partner and coerce them into getting you an expensive gift, you’re manipulating the situation to your advantage.

This is where the silence can be considered emotional abuse.

People who practice this behavior lack the emotional maturity required to resolve conflicts like an adult and use manipulation tactics to get what they want. They also place all the blame for a conflictual situation on their partner, which is not fair or healthy for the relationship.

The sad part is that, many don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong and hurtful towards their partner. The silent treatment in a relationship may not be intended as a punishment, it may just be poor communication skills and an inability or unwillingness to deal with hurt feelings.

How to Deal with Silent Treatment in a Relationship

First, it’s important to understand that you shouldn’t ignore or accept this type of behavior from your partner! Silent treatment in a relationship must be addressed and resolved the first time you identify it.

I always recommend openness and honesty in a relationship, but there are several steps to take in this direction. Below you can find an in-depth guide that will hopefully lead to a better relationship with greater communication.

#1: Understand your Partner’s Reasons

The silent treatment in a relationship is not always a sign of narcissistic tendencies. Try to see your partner’s point of view and understand why they use silence against you. Are they bad communicators in general? Did they have an abusive past and now they have troubles expressing negative emotions? Or are they just trying to gain power over you by placing blame and guilt?

It may be difficult to do this when you’re upset, but it’s important to analyze their behavior. First, let your partner know how their silence makes you feel (rejected, hurt, ignored). Ask them why they consider silence a good behavior and what is it they consider you’ve done so wrong.

If your attempts are met with lack of empathy and defensiveness, you may be dealing with a toxic personality who still has some growing up to do.

#2: Don’t Let the Silence Control You

The only way the silent treatment gains power over you is if you allow it. The best way to deal with the silent treatment in a relationship is to not give into the behavior that’s asked of you and keep your calm.

For instance, if your partner doesn’t answer the phone when you call, don’t keep calling desperately. Just send them a text saying you understand they need their space and you’ll be there for them when they’re ready to talk.

This sends a clear message that you won’t allow control and you don’t accept their silence as a manipulation technique.

Yes, it’s difficult to keep your calm and put out a strong face, but it’s the only way to keep control of the situation. It’s also a way to understand if your current partner is the right person for you. Someone who has true feelings for you will see their mistake and will try to improve their behavior.

#3: State your Boundaries

If the silent treatment is a constant in your relationship it’s time to think about your goals. Are you looking to continue this situation even if your partner may never change? Is this something you can understand and continue?

If the answer to these questions is negative, it’s time to consider ending the relationship. However, the first step is stating boundaries. Say to your partner “Honey, I can’t be with someone who makes me feel ignored and rejected every two weeks. I need to feel connected with the person standing next to me and right now I don’t feel that from you. If you insist on giving me the silent treatment, I have to break things off.”

The situation can go two ways from here: either your partner realizes his/her ways are wrong and ask for another chance, or they feel insulted and get defensive. If it’s the latter, you’re better off; but if it’s the first, make sure to let them know there won’t be a third chance.

#4: Don’t Give In

The silent treatment in a relationship is a treacherous situation because it makes you doubt yourself. It’s not your job to do the thinking for your partner so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t guess what they want. You’re not a mind reader!

A healthy relationship is based on open communication from both partners and, while we all make mistakes, being ignored or punished through silence is never something anyone deserves!

It’s normal to want to help your partner change, but you can’t do anything if they don’t have the initiative. It’s not worth risking your confidence and general quality of life because your partner isn’t mature enough.

Keep your morals high by practicing positive affirmations and surround yourself with positive people who see you for who you are. The silent treatment in a relationship can be a very difficult behavior for both the person giving it and the one receiving it, so make sure to not accept it as a form of validation.

#5: Seek Professional Help

Couple counseling is a fantastic way to deal with this behavior, but you both have to participate. If you can’t bring your spouse or partner to therapy, schedule some sessions for yourself – it will help you gain perspective on the situation.

 

At the end of the day, it’s important to understand that the silent treatment in a relationship is not a way to deal with negative emotions. It may be helpful in situations when you don’t want to hurt someone, but you must know how to apply it. If you want your relationship to work, always find a way to communicate with each other, regardless of the feelings involved.

Theodore
 

Theodore created PracticalPsychology in his mother's basement after quitting university at age 19. From there, a dream was born to change lives by helping people understand how their brain works. By applying practical psychological principles to our lives, we can get a jumpstart on the path of self-improvement. 1,500,000 Youtube subscribers later, and that dream continues strong!

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