The Silent Treatment Is Deadly for Relationships. Here’s What to Try Instead
Maybe you say “I’m not talking about this anymore,” and leave the room. Maybe you don’t say anything at all, pull out your phone, and start ignoring them.
Either way, know this: experts say giving your partner the “silent treatment” is one of the most destructive habits you can fall into.
Why? Well, for one, can leave them feeling hurt and invisible. Not only that, but giving someone the silent treatment means you’re far less likely to make any progress on the issue at hand — because you’re avoiding communicating your feelings.
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Ultimately, therapists say that changing your ways requires first understanding why you’re giving the silent treatment. What are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to avoid saying something cruel you don’t mean? Or are you trying to make your partner feel bad?
Once you have a better understanding of your own intentions and needs, you can start replacing this toxic behavior with other, healthier alternatives.
Here’s what to know about why the silent treatment is so deadly in relationships — and what you can try instead.
Why People Give the Silent Treatment
According to Dr. Danielle McGraw, a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Flourish Mental Wellness, there are two common reasons why you might resort to the silent treatment:
You don’t know how to communicate big and complex emotions: Jeremy McAllister, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Lifekey Counseling, notes that when confronted with the possibility of conflict, some people go into a “freeze” state. This may happen when you’re feeling emotionally flooded, and therefore, unable to communicate about your feelings effectively, says McGraw. As a result, you shut down and withdraw.
You’re trying to gain and maintain control: “At its most harmful, the silent treatment is an intentional punishment,” explains McAllister. “When feeling trapped for hours in endless loops of conflict, sometimes the threat of silence seems like the only strategy to get an anxious partner to stop.” Celeste Labadie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, adds that this can be the silent partner’s passive-aggressive way of communicating, “I’m upset and you are bad.”
“This is a strategy that people have often learned to employ when hurt or angry,” explains Dr. Paulette Sherman, a psychologist, relationship expert, author of Dating from the Inside Out and the host of The Love Psychologist podcast. “Sometimes they have seen a parent do the same.”
In non-abusive relationships, the silent treatment is sometimes referred to as a demand-withdraw dynamic. This refers to situations where one partner regularly nags and makes demands, while the other avoids or withdraws.
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Why the Silent Treatment Is Toxic
Research has shown time and again that the silent treatment doesn’t do your relationship any favors.
Specifically, a 2014 study found that couples engaged in a demand-withdraw pattern experience poorer communication, less intimacy, and lower relationship satisfaction. Not only that, but the damage can be emotional, physical, and physiological, causing everything from anxiety to erectile dysfunction.
“Ultimately, silence is devastating in any relationship, especially when silence is weaponized against a partner that we know has suffered through the trauma of abandonment during developmental years,” explains McAllister. “Most of our automated attachment strategies tend to backfire later in life, and this is no exception. More often than not, it escalates our partner’s anxiety and feeds the conflict we’re trying to escape.”
A 2012 study, meanwhile, revealed that people who regularly feel ignored report lower levels of self-esteem, belonging, and meaning in their lives.
According to Dr. Julie Landry, a board-certified clinical psychologist and founder of the Halcyon Therapy Group, the silent treatment can cause your partner to feel disrespected, confused, helpless, worthless, unloved, wounded, and unimportant. Over time, repeatedly giving your partner the silent treatment may leave them feeling frustrated, angry, or resentful.
“A significant part of the emotional connection between couples is answering the question, ‘are you there for me?’” adds Lindsey Schafer, LMSW, a couple’s therapist at Wise Therapy Associates. “I have found from my work that when the silent treatment happens, a partner is essentially not there for their co-partner. When someone fears their partner is not there for them, it may lead to feeling disconnected and lacking trust in their relationship.”
And by the way — this approach hurts the person giving the silent treatment, too. You end up living in a perpetual state of bitterness, unable to have your feelings understood or validated by your partner because you’re unwilling to share them.
“Without ongoing open communication and repair attempts, more distance and resentment can build,” explains Sherman. “People can shut down and stop caring.”
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Not to mention, McGraw says your issues will never get resolved and continue to resurface if you keep resorting to the silent treatment.
“Ultimately, the silent treatment creates an unsafe environment for the couple to repair their disputes,” says Labadie. “couples who use silence will likely never resolve those disagreements and will begin to have layers of resentment toward each other. These become very hard to untangle.”
Healthier Silent Treatment Alternatives
The first step to ditching this problematic behavior is recognizing that you’re engaging in it. Then, McAllister suggests doing some research on attachment styles so you can better understand the “why” behind this habit.
“You may realize that you push away your partner’s anxiety because you don’t know what to do with their emotions, or you’re afraid of getting it wrong and staying stuck in conflict,” he says. “And in your absence of communication, you avoid setting any boundaries. Your partner needs your presence, and your boundaries help you maintain the energy to remain present.”
If you’re someone who tends to shut down during conflict out of stress, fear, or anxiety, Landry recommends taking a brief timeout rather than resorting to the silent treatment. For example, you might say something like:
“I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now and I don’t think I can talk about this any further — I think I’ll step away for 30 minutes to calm down and then we can try again later.”
During this time-out, McGraw suggests doing something that relaxes you — whether that means meditating, going for a walk while listening to music, reading a book, or doing some breathing exercises.
This approach has benefits for both of you, Sherman says. Your partner will get the reassurance they need that you do care about the issue and you’re willing to discuss it with them, and you get the time you need to process your emotions and self-soothe before re-engaging in the conversation and trying to repair the problem.
Another option, according to Labadie, is to have a code word or phrase that you use when you feel tempted to withdraw or shut down. For instance, you could say, “the tornado is here!” or “here comes the hurricane!” That simple phrase could signal to your partner that you need to press pause before things escalate further.
If you’re having trouble implementing these alternative techniques and breaking your pattern of giving the silent treatment, experts strongly recommend trying couples therapy. McAllister notes that a therapist can often better identify the underlying issues driving a problematic dynamic.
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