“Silence is golden” may be a nice sentiment, and sometimes remaining quiet during a conflict is helpful. For example, if you or your spouse are too upset to address your issue without letting your emotions direct the traffic, take a brief time-out until cooler heads prevail. It will save you time and emotion in the long run.
But most of the time, prolonged silence is a dangerous communication tool. The silent treatment—withdrawing and refusing to engage in any conversation at all—is destructive.
“It’s the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,” says Paul Schrodt, PhD, professor and graduate director of communication studies at Texas Christian University. “And it does tremendous damage.”
Schrodt led a meta-analysis of 74 studies, including more than 14,000 participants, which combined and contrasted results from different studies to identify patterns on a broader spectrum. According to Schrodt, the demand/withdraw pattern in a marriage occurs when one spouse makes what seems like a demand (which often is no more than a request or a suggestion) and the other spouse withdraws or retreats into silence. Frustration grows as the refusal to communicate continues over time.
Schrodt’s research shows couples who use this approach routinely report low satisfaction with their relationships, less intimacy, and poorer communication than those who do not select this response. The damage can be emotional and physical. Emotional effects are such things as anxiety and aggression; physical damage shows up as symptoms of anxiety, such as headache and digestive problems.
The demand/withdraw pattern is also very hard to break. We’ve known couples who could go three or four days without speaking to each other. As a couple, we don’t have that kind of self-discipline. Sooner or later, we’d find it necessary to remind each other about taking out the trash or making the bank deposit. It’s just not a helpful approach and requires an incredible level of self-discipline to maintain. If you have that much self-control, we’d suggest you have the ability to manage your conversation in a productive manner from the beginning.
So why do some choose to suffer in silence instead of getting to a solution? Shutting a partner out is a powerful way to convey dissatisfaction or displeasure: Let me be clear: I’m not happy and I’m particularly unhappy with you. It is even more powerful if the silent one is lavishing conversation and positive attention on others while giving you the cold shoulder.
Shutting a partner out is a powerful way to convey dissatisfaction or displeasure.
The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive action. Remaining “silent” is never actually a silent act, since it “speaks” in other ways. It achieves a very important objective: It provides the spouse the assurance he or she is hurting or punishing the other person. There may also be a feeling of power from creating uncertainty over how long the “silence” will last. This is one more form of manipulation.
The silent treatment may have been learned from childhood—part of the baggage someone drags along. But if the mate engages in this behavior regularly as a grown-up, it is a deliberate choice. This is important to remember if you are prone to try and “fix” issues in the relationship or if you feel you have done something to cause the other to withdraw.
Fixers may go into action to redeem the situation when their partners freeze them out. They often try to:
- jolly their spouses out of it.
- provide extra positive attention.
- offer sympathy.
- spoil them (for example, by cooking their favorite meals or suggesting a movie they might want to see).
- grab their attention and shock them into response by being abusive or aggressive.
- request others to intervene on their behalf (including friends or children).
- wait till the thaw, and then freeze them out with the silent treatment as retaliation.
If your spouse is the strong, silent type, what happens upon coming out of the deep-freeze phase? Do you discuss it and if so, how? Are you left being blamed, or does your spouse take responsibility and ask forgiveness? Is the silence discussed, or do you simply resume life because you’re glad to have poor partner back? These are important questions to consider and address.
Once the thaw has occurred and you are able to discuss and decide on a decision, help your mate understand your expectation for the future. That is, the next time you are frozen out you will acknowledge the upset but will leave him or her alone until conversation resumes. No begging or leading, and no going on as though nothing is wrong. This is not a form of punishment; it’s a statement of the consequence of your partner’s behavior you are no longer willing to reward. It’s our nature to gravitate to the reward; when it’s absent, we often move away from the behavior. That’s the goal: to help your mate recognize the silent treatment will not be effective going forward. You are breaking the cycle of the past and pointing the way toward better conversations for you both.
In some cases, talking it through is enough to help a partner understand the upsetting impact of his or her actions. For others, it may take a few instances of standing your ground for your spouse to realize silence is not going to achieve his or her desired results any longer. This puts the ball in your partner’s court and he or she must make a choice: continue with an unsuccessful approach, or take a more productive path.
In theory, dealing with this kind of behavior is simple. In practice it can be very difficult, as it will take time for you to unlearn your usual reactions, just as it will take time for your partner to stop the silent treatment as a means of communication and control. In fact you may face resistance to your efforts to break the pattern and your partner may leave the discussion, retreating into silence once more. Follow through on your stated expectation; allow some space. Use the time to pray for your mate and for the relationship. Be cordial and open to any indication of the thaw. Allow your spouse to make the first move and greet it warmly.
In his study, Dr. Schrodt’s observation of which spouse retreats more often is interesting. “One of the most important things we found is that even though wife-demand/husband-withdraw occurs more frequently, it’s not more or less damaging,” he says. No matter what role each partner plays, it’s the pattern itself that’s the problem.
Excerpted with permission from Don’t Go to Bed Angry, Stay Up and Fight by Deb and Ron DeArmond (Abingdon Press).
Deb DeArmond is a sought-after executive coach and expert in the fields of leadership, communication, and relationship and conflict resolution. Deb is co-founder of MyPurposeNow.org, a website for Christian women 50+. She is the author of Related by Chance, Family by Choice and I Choose You Today. Ron DeArmond has served in ministry positions with Christian Men’s Network and Faithful Men Ministry and has ministered internationally, teaching men’s curriculum. He is currently the director of men’s ministry at Catch the Fire/DFW. Ron and his wife, Deb, have been married for more than 40 years. Together they wrote, Don’t Go to Bed Angry, Stay Up and Fight.