You don’t know what you did, but you know you did something — and your partner is pissed. The anger isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the way they’re handling it. Instead of communicating about your transgression, they’re not saying a thing. Maybe they’re stomping around or sighing heavily, but they certainly aren’t speaking. Ah, the silent treatment. Now you’re walking on eggshells, hoping the ice will melt quickly and you two can get back to normal.
The silent treatment is a common game of emotional chicken that can be extremely debilitating to a marriage. Luckily, whether this is a rare thing in your relationship or a go-to defense mechanism, you can break through the invisible wall, address the real issue in the short term, and work together to make the silent treatment a thing of the past.
Why the Silent Treatment Happens
In general, the silent treatment “is a way to try and inflict emotional pain on someone as a consequence of feelings of anger or frustration,” explains relationship therapist Megan Harrison, LMFT. “Through withholding approval, they are non-verbally expressing that your actions and words are unacceptable.”
Someone may use the silent treatment if they are angry or overwhelmed and don’t know how to explain themselves in a healthy manner. They might turn to the silent treatment because they’re conflict-averse and don’t want to get into big discussions, or it may simply be a tactic used to gain the upper hand by forcing the other person to try and make things right. The silent treatment could be a learned behavior (perhaps a parent used it and they know no other way) or simply a maneuver they know works.
Regardless, the silent treatment is a petty, passive-aggressive tactic used in emotional warfare. It breaks every rule of healthy communication, which is why the silent treatment or “stonewalling” is listed as one of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen, a quartet of traits that often spell doom for a relationship.
Now, it should be pointed out that there’s a difference between the silent treatment and your partner saying they need some time to cool down after a fight. The latter is perfectly fine if they explain their intentions and address the issue at hand once they’re in a calmer place. It’s the act of completely locking someone out that is the problem. “They refuse to interact and become non-communicative and non-responsive,” says Elisabeth Gordon, MD, integrative sexual health psychiatrist and sex therapist.
Why the Silent Treatment Is So Harmful
The silent treatment is a harsh tactic. When you’re on the receiving end of the silent treatment, you may feel powerless, disrespected, invisible, frustrated, or angry — or you may cycle through all of these emotions.
“Many people feel powerless because we, as humans, are inherently social creatures. Our brains are structured to recognize social inclusions because those signal safety and the ability to keep going,” Gordon explains. In fact, the part of the brain that perceives social connection also perceives pain and threat. No wonder being stonewalled by a loved one hurts so much and makes us long to reconnect so we can feel safe again.
The silent treatment also “doesn’t create a situation where you can discuss and resolve the issue that started” the stonewalling, Gordon says. And any lack of communication is never positive since it’s essential in every relationship to be able to openly and honestly express your feelings.
Even worse, when taken to the extreme, the silent treatment can become a way to manipulate and control someone. So be mindful and notice if your partner gives you the silent treatment infrequently, does it on a more regular basis but is open to talking (perhaps after a few hours or a day), or if you think it’s becoming emotional abuse.
How to Respond to the Silent Treatment: What to Say and How to Say It
Harrison says that the best thing to do when your loved one won’t communicate (and may be giving you the death stare) is to not escalate things. “Don’t take it personally. Be calm and patient. Do not respond in anger, don’t be patronizing or condescending, and don’t beg your partner to respond,” she advises.
What you can do is respond to their silence. “Communicate about the silent treatment, stating what you observe by using ‘I’ statements,” Gordon says. For example, “I notice you’re shutting down and not responding to me.” Then use more ‘I’ statements (because those don’t place blame on the other person) to explain how their silence makes you feel. Follow that up by gently explaining how this makes it harder to resolve the underlying issue.
Once you lay all of that out, Gordon says to propose some alternatives, such as a cooling-off period since emotions may be high right now. You could say something like, “If you are too upset to talk now, fine, let’s not talk. But let’s set a time to reapproach this later.”
When you do talk about it, Gordon recommends giving your partner the floor. “Wait until they are done to speak; that gives them space to discuss what is bothering them,” she explains. When it’s your turn, first thank them for talking and not engaging in a more toxic reaction. If they’re upset because of something you did, consider apologizing, which can help de-escalate the situation. “Then try to have a discussion about both the resolution of [the] issue and, either then or later, about how to not get into that situation again,” Gordon says.
How to End the Silent Treatment for Good
If the silent treatment is a fairly common reaction from your partner, address that during this initial conversation. “Talk about how you would prefer if they didn’t use this, with an emphasis on why it’s damaging, how you feel, and how it doesn’t help resolve the situation,” Gordon recommends.
Bringing it up now can help prevent the silent treatment — or remedy it more quickly — in the future. If your spouse begins building a wall between the two of you, remind them of the conversation you had.
“Remember that time [fill in the blank] happened, and what we talked about?” Recall how, together, you worked through the issue and achieved some form of resolution and success, Gordon says. “That helps make it about the behavior, not the immediate situation at hand,” she adds.
For a softer approach, create a code word that brings to mind the time when you two worked things out or that makes you both laugh, Gordon says. Anytime your partner uses the silent treatment, say that word or phrase. It can help dispel some tension and nip the issue in the bud.
Of course, all of this is easier when you can both communicate without accusing and judging. So work on this if you need to.
Lastly, if your attempts to resolve the silent treatment don’t help, consider couples therapy. “It might be a learned behavior,” says Gordon. “Your partner doesn’t know other ways to engage and resolve conflict.” A professional can help with this. And if the silent treatment is part of a manipulative pattern, seek professional help for yourself so you can stay safe.