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The Truth About the Silent Treatment and How to Avoid It

Michael Tierney
October 13, 2022

Relationships can be frustrating, especially when they involve outspoken individuals who regularly disagree. Virtually every couple on the planet will argue or disagree over something. When these disagreements occur, it is not uncommon for things to get heated and feelings to be hurt. While this is common, it can be challenging to deal with since no one wants to be in an argument with their significant other.

Dealing with disagreements in a relationship requires patience and understanding, especially since we sometimes respond poorly to these issues. Arguing is not inherently wrong, but our responses to these arguments can lead to significant problems. One of the most notable adverse reactions to a disagreement is the "silent treatment."

The silent treatment is an oft-employed tool that one or more members of a relationship might employ to circumvent an argument or display their displeasure. Unfortunately, the silent treatment can be highly detrimental to your relationship and damage your rapport with your partner. Sometimes, employing the silent treatment is an involuntary response and one you might be eager to stop using.

When we disagree with our significant other, the silent treatment tends to exacerbate the issue, so avoiding it is in everyone's best interest. The challenge is figuring out how to prevent its use.

What is the Silent Treatment?

The silent treatment is little more than a tool to avoid conflict or unpleasantness while simultaneously spurning the recipient.

Solution The silent treatment involves cutting off all communication with your significant other and leaving them unsure of your thought process. The silent treatment might offer a brief flash of satisfaction in the short term since you are essentially getting back at your partner.

The problem is that the silent treatment is not viable for a long-term relationship. The reason is that every healthy relationship is rooted in communication, which enables the resolution of issues.

Arguing with your significant other is not only common but healthy since it allows major issues to be aired. Arguments only become a serious problem when you or your partner refuses to acknowledge the situation and instead goes silent to take it out on the other person. Ultimately, the silent treatment is a way of punishing your significant other for arguing with you or making a mistake. Scientific research proves that silent treatment is ineffective for resolving issues and exacerbates conflict.

The Silent Treatment

The silent treatment can also negatively affect your partner's mental health and cause more serious disagreements that could have been avoided. In some instances, the silent treatment has been cited as a form of emotional abuse weaponized to force your significant other to yield. While the silent treatment might be considered abusive in some instances, not everyone intentionally uses it to harm their partner.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to use the silent treatment before you or your partner realizes the issue. While this might be disheartening, it is possible to avoid the silent treatment whether you are using it or on the receiving end.

How to Avoid Using the Silent Treatment

It takes remarkable self-awareness and communication skill to successfully prevent yourself from employing the silent treatment. Often, you might find yourself in the initial stages of using the silent treatment before you realize you have stopped talking. This can be extremely damaging to discourse with your significant other, so the best way to avoid committing to the silent treatment routing is to exercise communication techniques instead. The important part is that communication does not necessarily mean you have to sit and talk things through right then and there.

One phrase allows you to circumvent the silent treatment while still getting the time you need to process your emotional and psychological response to the issue:

"I need a few minutes to gather my thoughts and process things."

That phrase grants your carte blanche to step away from your significant other and actively process what was said and the underlying cause of the argument. This will give you the resources and time to determine why the argument occurred and why the exchange hurt you. Once you have a grasp on those details, you can return to your significant other and give your explanation.

Using the Silent Treatment

Providing insight into how the argument affected you and why you were upset creates an atmosphere for healthy communication. This communication can help you and your significant other work through the real issue, understand why the other was so affected, and come to a reasonable compromise on avoiding repeat incidents.

Solution Ultimately, communication is the only effective tool for avoiding the use of the silent treatment.

Unfortunately, you might not always be the one giving the silent treatment, and you cannot control how your partner will respond. However, you might be able to get your spouse to recognize the silent treatment for what it is and nudge them toward a more productive response.

How to Respond to the Silent Treatment

Being the recipient of the silent treatment is much different from being the person inflicting it on someone else. While you maintain full control of your communication skills and responses to conflict, your significant other retains control of theirs. You cannot choose how they will respond and must be respectful of what they need, just as you expect them to respect what you need. Unfortunately, the silent treatment does not leave much room for discourse and conflict resolution, which means you must learn how to respond to the silent treatment.

Certain responses might be able to shake your significant other from their silence and restore civil discourse. The most common is simply identifying the situation and making your significant other aware they are giving you the silent treatment. Like how you might be unaware of your use of the silent treatment, your significant other might have subconsciously gone silent to process the situation rather than weaponize it.

When noting their use of the silent treatment, phrasing is crucial to ensuring they do not feel attacked. The simplest method is to say something along the lines of:

"I cannot help noticing you are not responding to me anymore."

A simple phrase that gently calls out their silence enables them to consider the effect their silence is having so they can respond as befits their needs.

Responding to the Silent Treatment

From there, it becomes a matter of making sure their feelings and issues are adequately acknowledged so they do not feel the need to become defensive. Asking them to share their feelings and thoughts when using the silent treatment can help them break the silence. It also ensures that they are aware that their emotional state and response are valid and not something they need to feel defensive about. When your significant other clarifies their emotional state, you must be present and attentive and genuinely listen to what they say.

Solution Sometimes, your significant other might respond with hostility. In situations where their response is threatening or aggressive, it is in your best interest to remove yourself from the conversation.

This gives them the time to cool down and consider the ramifications of their response. It is crucial you do not escalate the issue by provoking them with aggressive or petty responses. This behavior will only exacerbate their issues and likely lead to a bigger argument rather than conflict resolution.

It can be difficult to respond properly to the silent treatment since it can be painful to know your significant other is unwilling to talk to you. The only effective countermeasure to the silent treatment is ensuring they feel their emotions and concerns are valid and that you will not punish them for voicing them. Unfortunately, not every couple can work through the silent treatment independently, and sometimes help is needed.

Counseling Can Help

While you might want to deal with your relationship troubles independently, sometimes the issues are deep-rooted, and you or your significant other need help addressing them. Usually, the silent treatment is employed when you or your significant other feels like what you are saying is not being taken seriously. Other times, it is because they were never taught how to properly express themselves or were derided for doing so in the past.

In these situations, the underlying psychological issue will make white-knuckling the silent treatment almost impossible. Fortunately, resources are available that enable us to express these underlying issues and address the root cause.

Couples counseling is a commonly employed tool for couples struggling to find common ground when an argument arises. If it feels as though you and your significant other have the same argument over and over again and the silent treatment is a common issue, counseling might be the right tool.

Couples Counseling Session

Counseling involves a 3rd party psychologist who mediates your conversations and works to uncover why these maladaptive behaviors are being used. It is important to remember that the counselor is not there to take sides and will remain objective about the arguments between you and your significant other. Their services will only work toward figuring out why one or both of you employ certain toxic behaviors, and they will offer alternatives to help promote a healthier relationship.

Unfortunately, counseling is not a perfect tool and will only be viable for couples genuinely interested in mending bridges. If you or your significant other enter counseling with the intent to "win," the counseling will fail outright. Furthermore, counseling is useless if your significant other employs the silent treatment as a form of emotional abuse. Abusers are not likely to be open to correcting their behavior and will not commit to counseling. This is because abuse is not a result of an unhealthy relationship but is caused solely by an abusive personality.

While counseling can be beneficial, you must also remain aware of how healthy communication works. While your counselor might help with that issue, you should remember the primary principles of communication.

Remember the Primary Principles of Communication

Healthy communication with your significant other can be attained even if you have a history of arguments.

Couple Healthily Communicating

To successfully create a healthy rapport, you need to remember these 4 principles:

  • What you say is not always what is heard: Whenever you say something, no matter your intent, the person you speak to will have emotional and psychological responses to what was said. It is common for sentiments to be misunderstood and feelings to be hurt because of what was said. The only countermeasure is to remember their reactions are still valid, and you might need to reassure them that your intent was not to upset them.
  • You are always communicating: Whether you realize it or not, you can never not communicate with others. Ignoring someone is not an absence of communication but rather a communication that you are ignoring the other person.
  • Mind the content and feeling of what you say: Whenever you say something to someone, you will have vocal inflections that betray your feelings. For example, angrily telling someone that you are not mad at them proves you are mad since your tone indicates anger.
  • There is verbal and nonverbal communication: What you say is not always as powerful as the look on your face or the way you carry yourself. If you speak calmly but bear clenched fists, the person you speak to might feel threatened despite your tone.

These principles will help you promote healthy communication with your significant other. You only need to remain aware of how you conduct yourself in conversation.

Learn the Law

As common as the silent treatment is, it can destroy your relationship if you are not careful. The silent treatment will never be the right tool for any conversation, especially if you are trying to resolve an argument. While most people use the silent treatment subconsciously rather than as a weapon, some people use it to abuse their partner emotionally. If your spouse is emotionally abusive, no amount of communication can resolve the issue, and you might need to consider divorce.

Studying the Law

We realize this might not be what you want to hear, but some relationships are too toxic to be saved. There is plenty of information about how divorce works and how an abusive relationship affects the process. While this is likely an unpleasant thought, we hope this article helps you avoid that result.

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Written By:
Michael Tierney

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