Whether you’re on the receiving end of it or you are giving it to your partner, the silent treatment can create a toxic relationship environment. Most of us know what it feels like to be so frustrated during an argument with our spouse that we simply want to shut down, surround ourselves with metaphorical walls, and brood quietly. We might feel tempted to walk around in stone-cold silence, hideaway (or leave), and stop responding to our partner. But while this learned reaction might help us feel safe and in control at the moment, it doesn’t do much good for our relationship.
What we’ve described here is the all-too-familiar “silent treatment.” Why is it so problematic and what can we do to avoid it?
The Problem With the Silent Treatment
To be clear, silence isn’t necessarily bad. Sometimes staying quiet is an emotionally intelligent strategy that helps you avoid saying something you’d regret later, or helps you gain clarity about your thoughts and feelings.
What is Silent Treatment?
But the silent treatment — an abject refusal to communicate — is a harmful transgression against a marriage. Here are a few reasons why:
- It fosters (and is fueled by) resentment and animosity, which can erode the appreciation and positivity needed for a marriage to thrive
- It leaves both partners with unmet needs
- It can turn a situation from bad to worse by prolonging an argument and preventing a resolution from being found
- It creates an unhealthy power dynamic, with the partner giving the cold shoulder attempting (consciously or not) to exert control over their partner
- It severs emotional connection—and if repeatedly used then over time can create a nearly impassable emotional chasm between partners
3 Ways to Avoid the Silent Treatment
1. Verbalize What You’re Feeling
Repressing your feelings doesn’t make them go away. Unexpressed feelings can become more pronounced over time and lead to consequences ranging from a major fight to stress-induced illnesses. So, the next time you’re feeling strong emotions during a disagreement with your spouse, use simple “I” statements to express how you’re feeling. “Hey, I’m feeling really frustrated right now.” Being honest about your feelings helps keep the conversation going and encourages both of you to be mindful of the way you’re interacting. Just be sure to avoid using language that criticizes or shifts blame to your partner.
Of course, we need to feel safe to express our feelings. If this is something you or your partner struggle with, working with a licensed marriage counselor or couples therapist can be extremely helpful.
2. Learn Self-Soothing Techniques
The silent treatment often comes as a result of a person feeling “flooded” with strong negative emotions, to use a term from relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman. To avoid becoming so overwhelmed by negativity during or after an argument, practice self-soothing techniques to help you stay more present and mindful. This can be hard to do at the moment, but simple strategies like putting a hand over your heart, taking three deep breaths through your nose, or shaking your whole body for a few seconds can be effective ways to deescalate some emotional and physical tension.
3. Find Silence When You Need To—But Agree Upon a Time to Continue the Conversation
- How to Cope with Silent Treatment in Marriage
- Learn What You Should Do to Break the Silent Treatment When Your Wife Won’t Talk
- Is Name-Calling Verbal Abuse?
- Book an Immersive Marriage Counseling Retreat In Person or Online
It’s perfectly okay—and sometimes a great idea—to ask for a time-out during a heated discussion. But if you call for a break, just make sure to agree on a time to come back and finish the conversation—whether that’s five minutes or five hours later. This allows your silence to come from a place of loving intention (I want to be calm before continuing this discussion) instead of hurtful power play (I’m shutting you out to make you feel shame and help me feel in control).
Learn How to Stop Silent Treatment
Let your voice be heard. Communicate your needs. Speak your truth — and help your spouse do the same. Contact The Marriage Restoration Project today to schedule a free relationship clarity consultation call with Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin.