How 'The Silent Treatment' is Damaging Your Relationship

Giving someone the cold shoulder or the silent treatment after an argument is increasingly common, especially among those involved in a romantic relationship. What many of these couples don’t realize is that this method of showing your anger is utterly toxic for your relationship. When you refuse to discuss a problem and avoid any sort of communication, it only creates frustration and resentment. Dr. John Gottman, marriage researcher, calls this Stonewalling and one of the 4 deadly horseman to relationships. Save your relationship before the silence becomes a living breathing thing and creates too much space between the two of you, and you forget what it was like to be in an open and honest relationship.

Mother holding child’s hand while father turns his back to them.

4 Effects of Silent Treatment:

Passive-Agressive Rage

Often the one administering the silent treatment believes that they are taking the moral high ground by not yelling and screaming, they are wrong. The silent treatment is not a lack of retaliation, in fact, it is a calculated and strategic move designed to hurt the other person and make them feel unworthy of your words. You may not be screaming and shouting, but your silence is packed full of aggression, and is a manifestation of the rage you feel. It is not the absence of a response, but a response itself, one specifically used to manipulate the partner into seeking forgiveness, even if they were right.

The Power Struggle

Ultimately, this is about winning. You are aware that your silence will provoke feelings of guilt. When you are the one reacting, it automatically signals to the other person that they are wrong, and should be begging for your attention and forgiveness. Your partner may respond with full on aggression to combat it, and the argument worsens. Experts call this demand-withdrawal. One partner demands attention from the one who withdraws, making them angrier and more demanding, which causes further withdrawal from the second partner, devolving the relationship into a vicious cycle of hurt and anger.

Strategic Action

The silent treatment is a strategy, and it can result in the other partner feeling unworthy, invisible, and unimportant. You are telling them, without using your words, that they do not matter to you until they apologize. You are portraying yourself as so hurt and upset that you are speechless, when you are actually calculating coldly a strategy to not engage in finding a solution, but rather your partner having to take most of the blame. The silent treatment is a form of emotional manipulation, much like intentional crying when it is used to make someone feel guilty. Most of all, the silent treatment is a strategy put in place to divert the attention away from what caused the argument, and onto you and your silence.

Their Feelings

It’s important to consider what this does to the other partner. They are angry and upset because of the argument you just had, and they believe that they were not 100% at fault. They are looking for you to explain what they did and why it upset you, but you don’t – instead you retreat into the deadly silence. Your partner cannot read your mind, and they are frustrated because they can’t understand how to resolve the situation. Now there are two arguments; the one you originally had, and also a second one about how you are being unreasonable on finding a solution. You may both get locked into the position that the other person is at fault, and this will begin to erode your relationship and build resentment, which eventually can lead to the end of your relationship.

Remember silence is not a conclusion to the argument, this is a delaying mechanism, and the fight is sure to resurface. If you turn the other way and hunker down on finding a way to resolve, the issue will only resurface or cause more damage to the relationship.

An argument can only be truly resolved when you communicate. Talk openly and honestly, without holding anything back. Discuss your perspective on the situation, and let them discuss theirs. Maybe one of you will see the other person’s view as reasonable, or you will be able to reach a compromise. But this will be done through discussion and honesty. Nothing is solved by the silent treatment, and it’s time to eradicate it from your relationships.

Couple and family therapy can help improve communication and conflict resolution. Give Jennie Marie a call at 310-853-3638.