Breaking the Silence: Why the Silent Treatment Doesn’t Work in Relationships

September 18, 2023

The silent treatment is a pretty common response I see in couples therapy. It happens when you are so angry, disappointed, let down, and you don’t feel like you have any other way to let your partner know just how upset you really are. You don’t want to rage and be overly dramatic. You also don’t know how to talk about it. So instead, you just shut down and close off.

Sometimes you close off because it feels hopeless. You’re discouraged and tired. You’re at the “What’s the point? Nothing works.” stage so you stop putting in effort. I also see couples who close off to punish their spouse. They don’t feel their spouse deserves their attention at that point. The silent treatment leads to a stalemate. It becomes “I’m not going to give you what you want until I get what I want. And until then, I’m just not going to talk to you.”

Now there’s a spectrum of just how silent the silent treatment can be. It can be going to bed angry, slamming the door, or stomping around the house doing your own thing like you’re in the same orbit but not together. I had a client once who completely withheld himself from his wife such that he would walk into the room and  not even acknowledge her unless she made an effort first. He wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t speak to her, wouldn’t even acknowledge her. She felt so invisible. 

When you do that, it is really emotionally abusive.  But it’s also ineffective. Your spouse is never going to be or feel safe enough in the relationship to be honest with you, to show up, to tell you what they’re thinking and feeling, or to give you what you want, if they can reasonably expect this kind of behavior from you.

For the people who are giving the silent treatment, when they’re upset, they usually like to pull back. They don’t want to engage and they don’t realize just how painful it is for their partner. And it really, really is painful. It also creates an environment in the relationship where the partner may elect not to say how they are thinking or feeling because they know if they mess up or rock the boat, they will have to deal with the silent treatment. 

The Silent Treatment crushes the opportunity for connection

 What we all really want is more connection. We want our spouse to listen to us, and to hear us when we’re hurting or upset. But when we respond in ways that make it harder for them to show up the way we want – whether it’s by getting angry or giving the silent treatment – we keep the same destructive patterns going. 

Here’s something interesting to consider: I find the people who tell me they want intimacy and connection the most are oftentimes the ones who are the most afraid of it and don’t recognize true intimacy for what it is. They are the ones who put up barriers in one way or another and don’t even realize it! So, it’s learning how to be more relational, growing ourselves up in our relationship, and being willing to have hard conversations.  

If only one of you wins, you both lose

Do you get mad at your spouse? Of course you do. I do too! There are times when I get so mad at my husband! But the right way to handle it is to let our partner know what we’re mad about, what we’re upset or disappointed about in a respectful way. Now remember, our response to our spouse is not indicative of their response to us. We need to show up as our best self regardless of what our partner is bringing at the moment. Somebody’s got to be willing to do that. 

Another thing I want you to be mindful of is putting yourself in what I call a ‘one up’ position. It’s a power dynamic and the silent treatment, in particular, can be used to convey “I’m okay in this relationship but you are not.” If you have that dynamic in your relationship, some things will need to change, because when one of you goes 1 up, you both lose. 

Controlling what you can control

Some people are very controlling. That may be you, or you may be married to someone that is. Controlling people often attempt to gain control in really unhealthy, destructive ways. A big part of being married is learning what you can – and can’t – control. It’s letting your spouse (or your kids or your friends, parents, etc) have their own thoughts and feelings without trying to manipulate, coerce, or threaten them out of it.

If you’re the one giving the silent treatment, back it up. Next, let’s figure out why that’s the coping skill you go to and determine a better, healthier way to help you get what you want. 

Stay tuned for my Part 2 of The Silent Treatment.  


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