Written by Writer’s Corps member Jenny Koza
We can all agree that there are definitely things you shouldn’t say to your partner during a heated argument. But have you ever given your partner the cold shoulder instead? Uh-oh. Red flag. The silent treatment might seem like a convenient way to opt out of a conversation that is bothering you but it’s also super unhealthy. What most people don’t know, is that the cold shoulder is a subtle form of manipulation. Sounds extreme but let me explain. The silent treatment (also known as withholding) is used to punish and regain control of a person. It may feel good to ignore your partner when you feel slighted but, it keeps you from finding real solutions to the problems that are bugging you the most.
I’ve been on both sides of the silent treatment. I’ve been the person that uses silence as a weapon and the person being stonewalled with it. I had no idea that responding to the silent treatment gives the person doing it a false sense of control. That’s definitely not OK. Left unchecked, the silent treatment becomes a pattern of behavior and emotional abuse that is used to manipulate over time. Fear not! There are a few things you can do to deal with the silent treatment in a relationship. Let’s break it down.
When Silence Rules
If the silent treatment is such an awful experience, why do we do it in the first place?
1. Silent Treatment = Self-Protection
I can’t tell you how many times a day I just wish people could read my mind so I didn’t have to actually express my feelings. Why do I have to use my words when people should just know when they’ve done something to hurt me?
But the reality is, as much as I wish it were true, human beings are not mind readers. Most of the time, you actually have to say the words “Hey, what you did hurt me,” even when you would rather keep your mouth shut and protect yourself from all of the feels. Even when your partner means well, it pays off to speak up when they say or do something to upset you. We’re human and sometimes putting our foot in our mouth is part of the deal.
When healthy communication habits aren’t modeled by our parents, speaking up can feel like a chore. We either grow up with parents that yell at the top of their lunges or parents that refuse to address disagreements at all. Neither provides a good foundation for handling conflict in a healthy relationship. The bottom line is the silent treatment is not a healthy coping technique for you or your partner.
2. It’s an Unhealthy Way to Regain Power and Control
A part of what makes vulnerability so hard, scary, and uncomfortable, at least for me, is my inability to predict and control what is going to happen once I share my what’s bothering me. That usually makes me pretty angry. I particularly struggle with this when:
- A) I know the person didn’t hurt my feelings on purpose, or…
- B) I’m scared that saying something and opening up about my feelings will make that person want to leave or negatively change the relationship.
On top of that, I feel out of sorts when I’m trying to balance knowing that I am upset and being mad at myself for feeling the way that I do. It’s during these moments that I have like I’ve lost some of my power and control over my own feelings. When this happens, I do what feels natural and try to take it back: enter the silent treatment.
Other times, my silence is merely a way for me to create the space I need to process my feelings. But again, the other person is not a mind reader, so neither reason is truly a healthy way to deal with the situation.
How to Deal With The Silent Treatment
So how can you deal with the silent treatment? The answer is deceivingly simple. You’re going to have to use your words(I know, ugh). Whether you are the person receiving or giving the silent treatment, there are actions you can take to start a conversation:
1. Name The Experience
You can avoid the silent treatment by compassionately acknowledging what you’re feeling. Avoid accusations or hostile language and try not to overthink it. I know for me, a simple “I know I’ve been quiet lately” or “Hey, I noticed you’re not responding to me” opens the door to healthier communication.
2. Acknowledge The Other Person’s Feelings and Share Your Own.
Being heard and seen is one of our basic needs as humans. Acknowledging your partner’s feelings not only validates their experience, it creates space for a larger conversation. Through larger conversations, you can lay the foundation for trust and signal that you’re interested in understanding their point of view while being honest about how the silent treatment makes you feel.
To put this into practice, you might say:
Bae, I care about you and I really want this relationship to work, that’s why it hurts when you choose to ignore me instead of telling me what’s bothering you. When you ignore me because you’re upset, it makes me feel like you don’t care. I’m always here to listen but I need you to tell me what’s going on.
3. Suggest Next Steps
When I have to bring up any type of problem or issue in a situation, I try to always have next steps to bring to the table. This helps me keep the conversation focused and away from getting caught in the blame game.
Communicating after the silent treatment is sensitive ground to cover, so keep it simple and state your boundaries and avoid emotional minefields. Often, the silent treatment is an indication that one or both people need a little bit of space to sort things out.
Putting this all together could look like this:
“Hey, I noticed you’re not responding to me. I’m not sure why, but I’d like to understand. I know when I stop talking to someone it means, I’m angry, or upset, or sad. If you’re not ready to talk, or need space- I get it. The silence is hard for me- could you let me know? Maybe we can find a time to talk next week? But, I can’t continue with this relationship if you keep shutting me out.”
If you’re the person giving the cold shoulder, you can start a conversation like this:
“I know I’ve been quiet lately- and I know that’s not really fair to you. The truth is I’m hurt and confused and trying to sort some things out. I need some space. Not sure when I’ll be ready to talk, but I’ll be in touch when I am.”
Getting over the silent treatment isn’t particularly easy or pleasant. And yet, it’s work worth doing. Not only will it help you become a better communicator, it also helps you build a relationship based on trust and healthy communication.
Not to Burst Your Bubble, But…
Keep in mind that these communication strategies may not work on your partner if they are already aware that the silent treatment is an unhealthy behavior. We all do unhealthy things sometimes and it doesn’t make you or your partner a monster. If you’ve had a conversation about the silent treatment with your partner and the behavior continues, it may be time to consider leaving the relationship–because we all deserve healthy relationships.