The silent treatment is one of the most common ways to “fight” in a relationship. Here’s how to deal with the silent treatment in marriage or any relationship – as well as help undoing some of the damage it causes.
“I love my husband, but he withdraws whenever we disagree about something big or little,” says Marianne on Does He Love You? 7 Signs Your Marriage is Over. “I know this is a ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ thing. Men have their caves and they hide whenever there’s a problem in a relationship. But what can I do? There must be some way for me to learn how to deal with the silent treatment in my marriage. I really feel like it’s getting worse instead of better. We’ve been married 6 years. Any advice for me?”
If the silent treatment is taken too far, it’s actually emotional abuse. The silent treatment is one of the most common warning signs of relationship problems because it’s so easy for couples to fall into the habit of doing. The tips in this post on how to deal with the silent treatment are geared towards couples in romantic relationships, but can be applied to all types of partnerships: work, school, family, or even neighbors.
The silent treatment is part of what’s called a “demand-withdraw” pattern in a relationship. It happens when one partner pressures the other with requests, criticism or complaints and is met with avoidance or silence. Below are the results of a research study on the silent treatment in relationships, plus tips on dealing with it.
Research from Paul Schrodt, Ph.D. at Texas Christian University shows that couples engaged in demand-withdraw pattern experience lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy, and poorer communication. This professor and graduate director of communication studies also found that the damage caused by the silent treatment can be both emotional and physical.
And, believe it or not, the silent treatment is associated with anxiety and aggression as well as physiological effects such as urinary, bowel or erectile dysfunction.
What is the silent treatment?
The silent treatment occurs when someone – your partner, best friend, family member – ignores you and refuses to speak to you. While the silent treatment is a learned pattern of communication that isn’t easily admitted or healed, you do have the power it takes to unlearn it and create a healthy relationship.
It’s a hard pattern to break, but my tips for dealing with the silent treatment will help you get started. They’ll also help you see your partner’s behavior in a different light.
“Couples get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,” says Schrodt in What the “Silent Treatment” Says About Your Relationship. “Both partners see the other as the problem.”
The most important tip on how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships is to own your part in the problem. Why? Because that’s the only power you have. You can only change how you perceive and respond to your husband.
Ask the wife – whom research shows is more often the demanding partner in relationships – and she’ll complain that her husband is closed off, emotionally unavailable. Ask the husband and he’ll say he might open up if she’d just back off.
How to Deal With the Silent Treatment in a Relationship
The silent treatment is when someone you love refuses to acknowledge or talk to you, no matter what you say or do. It’s frustrating and hurtful, and is a form of emotional manipulation and control. It’s an immature way to deal with hurt feelings – but if you know how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships, you can protect yourself.
The silent treatment came from early cultures long ago, when ostracism or being expelled was a form of punishment. Even today, not being included in a group or community is a terrible thing to experience. In early cultures, being ostracized meant almost certain death because people couldn’t live without the protection of a society.
Today the silent treatment isn’t about physical life or death, but it can affect the longevity and health of your relationship. That’s another reason learning how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships is so important: it can make or break your bond with your partner.
1. Learn why your partner uses the silent treatment
Sometimes people can’t express their thoughts or feelings, so they clam up. Other times their emotions – anger, hurt, fear – are so strong that they simply can’t talk. Sometimes people feel that they aren’t a match for their partner verbally, so they shut down. The silent treatment can be a way for your partner to protect him or herself. The silent treatment is a form of bullying, and it’s often used to get what is wanted in the relationship. This type of passive aggressive communication might be all your partner learned as a child – it may be how your partner controlled his or her world.
Why do you think your partner uses the silent treatment in your relationship? Understanding the reasons behind his or her behavior can help you move forward in your relationship. If you feel like you’re somehow contributing to this pattern of relating, read How to Heal Codependency in Your Relationship.
2. Talk about the silent treatment with your partner
You can’t deal with the silent treatment when your partner isn’t talking to you, but you can bring it up after the storm has passed. Tell your boyfriend or girlfriend how much you care about them, and how important they are to you. Share how it feels when you get the silent treatment, and how it affects your relationship. You might even discuss other examples of verbal abuse in relationships, so your partner sees how serious it is.
Avoid “giving as good as you get” when you’re on the receiving end. It doesn’t help to deal with the silent treatment in relationships by giving the silent treatment right back to your partner! This just increases hostility and negative feelings, and puts more of a wall in between you and her.
3. Accept your partner’s unwillingness to talk
I admit that I’m guilty of giving the silent treatment to my husband. It seemed like a good idea at the time – it seemed to be an appropriate way to deal with him! But it’s not appropriate. It’s actually very harmful to a relationship, even though it seems like “just” the silent treatment.
The reason I tend to fall back on the silent treatment as a way of communicating – and it is a method of communication, believe it or not – is because I’m too scared or insecure to share how I really feel. Something is threatening me. It may be real (eg, my husband has legitimately pointed out something I’ve done wrong) or perceived (eg, I mistakenly thought my husband was still attracted to his ex-girlfriend, so I was jealous).
One of the best tips on how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships is to ignore it – depending on the reason your husband has clammed up on you. Walk away and leave your partner alone during an actual episode of the silent treatment. If you sweet talk, beg, or threaten your partner while he or she is giving you the silent treatment, you’ll only make it worse. It’s better to just let your partner’s anger and childishness run its course. Eventually she’ll come back to you, ready to end the argument and start talking again.
4. Learn the pattern of the silent treatment in your relationship
Sometimes people who give the silent treatment need their partners to make the first move.
After you’ve given your husband time to cool down, maybe you have to be the first to apologize. It doesn’t seem fair, but often the giver of the silent treatment is the one who needs to be approached.
What’s the pattern of the silent treatment in your relationship? If you can identify it, then you’re in a better position for dealing with it. If your partner needs two days to cool off, then don’t approach her before that. If your partner refuses to talk until you apologize first, then you need to meet her where she’s at – if you want to stay in this relationship.
5. Quick tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships
Remember that getting more talkative or vocal when you’re getting the silent treatment won’t help your relationship. Here are a few strategies for dealing with the silent treatment with someone you love:
- Remind yourself that the problem can’t be solved until your partner tells you what is wrong. It’s not up to you to fix the problem
- Don’t try to read your partner’s mind – it’s impossible!
- Don’t give the silent treatment back
- Let your partner know that you care about her and want to know why she’s upset, when she’s ready to talk
- Invite your partner to explain what is bothering her, when she’s ready
- Don’t engage. Don’t play your part of the game. Instead, go about your business and try not to get angry. She will eventually have to change her behavior
I know these tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships are easier said than done! But, if you can stay emotionally healthy when you’re faced with the silent treatment, you’re more likely to deal with it the right way.
If you feel like you can’t live without your partner, read How to Let Go of Someone You Love. I wrote it to help people deal with everything from the silent treatment to the loss of a loved one.
Help for Difficult Relationships
In Toxic Men: 10 Ways to Identify, Deal with, and Heal from the Men Who Make Your Life Miserable, Lillian Glass describes how to identify, handle, and heal from men who make you miserable. You’ll learn tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships – plus how to handle all types of men, from the “Sneaky, Passive-Aggressive, Silent-But-Deadly Erupting Volcano” to the “Instigating, Backstabbing Meddler.” Dr. Glass offers ten practical ways to deal with every type of toxic partner.
I list Lillian Glass’ book below because it’s incredibly important to learn how to deal with toxic relationships if your partner refuses to stop giving you the silent treatment. Learning how to communicate better or finding tips on dealing with the silent treatment in relationships won’t help unless you know you’re with a toxic person. Equip yourself with the tools you need to deal with difficult people, or think about breaking up with your partner.
You might also find How to Know if a Man is Emotionally Available for Love helpful.
I welcome your thoughts on how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships, but I can’t offer advice or counseling. If you share what you’re experiencing, you may feel better – and you might gain clarity and insight into your relationship.
May you experience healing and growth in your relationship – as well as peace and joy! May you and your partner have good conversations, and work towards building a healthy relationship that doesn’t involve the silent treatment.
If it doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s wrong for you.
Your thoughts are welcome below! I don't give advice, but you can get free relationship help from marriage coach Mort Fertel.