Giving the silent treatment is one of the most common ways to avoid conflict in a relationship. Dealing with the silent treatment in marriage or any relationship is difficult because of its very nature! When your husband or boyfriend doesn’t want to talk to you, how do you solve the problem?
“I love my husband, but he withdraws whenever we disagree about something big or little,” says a She Blossoms reader on Why He’s Not Talking to You – and How to Open Him Up. “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 becomes 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. 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 research professor also found that the damage caused by the silent treatment can be both emotional and physical.
The silent treatment causes surprising physical and emotional health problems. Couples who often deal with the silent treatment are more likely to cope 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 discussed or resolved, it can be “unlearned.” 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 take responsibility for your part of the problem. The only person you can change is you. You can’t force your husband or boyfriend to stop giving you the silent treatment, but you can change how you perceive and respond to him. Research shows that in marriages with regular occurrences of the silent treatment, the wife is more likely to be the demanding partner. Wives more often complain that husbands are closed off, emotionally unavailable, emotionally distant or remote.
4 Tips for Dealing With the Silent Treatment
It hurts when someone you love refuses to acknowledge or talk to you no matter what you say or do. Dealing with the silent treatment is frustrating and hurtful; some therapists classify it as a form of emotional manipulation and control. Giving the silent treatment is an immature way to deal with hurt feelings. Remember that it is an immature coping strategy. Your husband or boyfriend hasn’t learned how to deal with uncomfortable emotions in healthy ways.
The silent treatment originated 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 society.
Today the silent treatment isn’t about physical life or death, but it affects the length and health of your relationship or marriage. That’s another reason learning how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships is so important.
1. Learn why he 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 boyfriend or husband uses the silent treatment in your relationship? Understanding the reasons behind his behavior can help you deal with it.
2. Talk about the silent treatment with your husband or boyfriend
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 husband how much you care about him, and how important he are to you. Share how it feels when you get the silent treatment and how it affects you. You might even share that you feel like the “clingy girlfriend” in your relationship when you get the silent treatment. It’s important not to “give as good as you get” when you get the silent treatment. Shutting down increases hostility and negative feelings, and puts more of a wall in between you and your boyfriend or husband.
3. Accept his 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” silence.
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 or boyfriend is using silence). Try walking away and leaving him alone during an episode of silence. If you cajole, beg, whine or threaten your partner while he is giving you the silent treatment, he’ll withdraw even more. It’s better to let his anger run its course. Eventually he’ll return, hopefully ready to start talking again.
4. Learn the pattern of the silent treatment in your relationship
Some husbands or boyfriends who give the silent treatment need their wives or girlfriends to make the first move. After you’ve given him 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 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 to deal with it. If your boyfriend or husband often needs two days to cool off, don’t approach him earlier. If your partner refuses to talk until you apologize first, then you need to meet him where he’s at if you want to stay in the relationship.
Quick tips for 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 boyfriend or husband tells you what is wrong. It’s not up to you to fix the problem
- Don’t try to read his mind – it’s impossible!
- Don’t give the silent treatment back
- Let your boyfriend or husband know you care about him and want to know why he’s upset
- Invite him to talk about what is bothering him when he’s ready
- Don’t engage. Don’t play his game. Try not to get angry or frustrated
- Talk to a relationship therapist or marriage counselor about dealing with the silent treatment with your husband or boyfriend
These tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships are easier said than done. But if you can stay calm and cool-headed, you’re more likely to deal with the silent treatment in healthy ways.
If it’s time to start emotionally detaching, read How to Let Go of Someone You Love.
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.
Is your relationship in trouble? Get 7 Steps to Fixing Your Marriage from relationship coach Mort Fertel. It's free and helpful, no strings attached.
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