Welcome friends! Today I’m talking about my old friend, the silent treatment. Man, do I know this one well. It was my go-to. As soon as a partner did something that I didn’t like, I would shut down and ignore them.
I gave zero thought as to how that affected them, and I was in complete denial about the wedge I was putting between us. So, let’s talk about it.
By the way, you can find the transcript for this episode at http://partnershipaligned.com/4
Let’s begin by identifying the difference between silence and the silent treatment. Everyone needs a time out once in a while. Studies show that silence is helpful for emotional regulation. That’s just a fancy way of saying that quiet time helps you be a calmer person.
It’s healthy to take time for yourself and sort through your thoughts and feelings. I know I need time to cool off after a fight. And I’m always amazed at how my perspective changes after some space. All healthy stuff.
The silent treatment is a manipulation tactic. It is a method of controlling someone by intentionally shutting them out.
So, what’s the big deal here? Well, to put it bluntly, it damages relationships. Let’s look at three reasons why.
- It keeps you completely stagnant and stuck. There is no communication, no clarity, no compassion, and no movement forward. You don’t get to say what you need to say and neither does your partner. You have essentially placed yourselves in glass boxes. You’ve now deprived yourself of what you’re actually looking for; to be understood.
- You create an environment where it is not emotionally safe for your partner to be themselves. If every time they do something you don’t like or argue a point you disagree with, they get ignored, keeping quiet begins to look like the more pleasant option to them. This leads to a relationship where no one is being authentic. They can’t relax and be themselves and you can’t communicate when you’re mad. Again, everyone is stuck.
- If you have kids, you are teaching them to be emotionally manipulative when they are upset and to ignore others when they disagree. You are modeling explicit behaviors for how to handle conflict. They don’t do what we say, they do what we do. You may want to think about that. If you don’t have kids but you plan to, do your future children a favor and tackle this issue now.
It wasn’t until I started really working on myself that I even had the desire to ask… Why? Why was I giving the silent treatment?
Well, for me it was a learned behavior.
Growing up, my dad and I didn’t really get along. When I was a preteen and did all kinds of preteen girl things, he had a really hard time with it, and he would ignore me for long periods of time under the same roof. Sometimes months.
This was of course hurtful to me, but I protected myself by trying to hold out longer than he did. I actually gave the silent treatment competitively at a young age. It felt powerful in a powerless situation. So, you can only imagine how embedded that behavior was as I tried to have healthy adult relationships.
Eventually, we would have these long talks and work out the issue of the month, but the periods of silent treatment overpowered whatever connection we sporadically had, and it was all too easy to resort back to ignoring as soon as one of us was upset.
Fast forward to adult romances, when I felt powerless within an argument or dynamic with a partner, it felt so natural to just give them the silent treatment.
It almost felt like it was the only option. It took a lot of self-reflection and working on my behaviors to break the habit. Understanding WHY I silently stewed was the first step for me… and the same goes for you.
So, let’s review three common reasons as to why people give the silent treatment in relationships. By the way, I relate to all three.
- You are acting out a learned behavior from your childhood. Maybe someone significant like a parent or sibling used this tactic either towards you or someone else in the family when you were young. We act on what was modeled for us.
- You’re in a power struggle. Maybe your partner has also shut down, maybe not. Either way, you’re dead set on them being the first one to concede. You think that if you stop giving them the silent treatment, that that somehow gives the message that they are right, and you are wrong. You are silently making a point.
- You’re punishing them. This one makes me giggle because I remember thinking to myself, “well if he’s going to act like that, then he doesn’t have the privilege of accessing me!” I was so arrogant. I would withhold love from the very person I wanted more love from!
I used to take it one step further and intentionally enter the room my partner was in just to show them that I was still not talking to them. I would sigh loudly as I kept myself looking busy with the sole intent of not paying them any attention. In hindsight, I just can’t help but laugh at the immaturity.
But the truth is it’s no laughing matter. If you take a minute and think about the repercussion of this type of behavior, it’s a thief. It takes your time, your energy, and your connection with your lover. It’s a defense mechanism produced by your ego. It tricks you into thinking it’s protecting you when really, it’s depriving you.
In those moments, we forget that we can get our point across with a direct conversation. Susan Scott, author of Fierce Love, says that the conversation is the relationship. So, if you’re never having a conversation, what does that mean about your relationship?
It’s time to stop the manipulative behavior and start being real with yourself about what it is you really need.
Here are 4 steps to stepping out of the silent treatment while still getting the silence you need.
- Tell your partner you are taking space. “Honey, I love you, and I am going to go take some time to sort through my thoughts. I really want to communicate with you, but I want to figure out exactly how I feel and what it is I need before I do. I’ll be back to talk to you as soon as I’m ready.”
- Go figure out what it is you need. I often have clients sit in a quiet space, close their eyes, and ask themselves what they need. It’s usually something really basic like acknowledgement or compassion. The needs are human and deserved, but the tactic makes it impossible to have the needs met.
- Write it down. There is magic in pen and paper. Write down how you feel, everything you wish you could say, GET IT OUT!
- Go back to your partner and express yourself as best as you can.
Some people naturally express their feelings better than others. All that matters is that you’re genuinely trying and that your goal is direct communication. If you’re someone who usually gives the silent treatment and this time you try and talk it out, your partner will be happy with your best in that moment. To them it will be clear progress and movement forward. And YOU should be proud of yourself too.
So, I encourage you to take a step back and really look at the damage you’re doing when you give the silent treatment. Do you want to be manipulative? Probably not. You probably just want to feel seen, heard, and understood. Totally understandable!
But good intentions with hurtful delivery gets you nowhere. If this topic resonates with you and you want some personal direction, let’s have a clarity session. It’s the only single session offer I have. So take advantage!
The silent treatment is a perfect topic for that session and I can help you break the pattern. Go to partnershipaligned.com/clarity to find out more.
So, I’ll just leave you with this. We all just want to be loved, understood, and accepted. When we feel like we are not getting that from the person we’re in love with, we do some wacky things. But the quickest way to feel connected again is to talk rather than sulk.