6 Ways To Deal With The Silent Treatment In A Relationship
I once knew a man who seemed to be everything I wanted.
He was good-looking, well-mannered, and articulate.
He had an opinion on every topic under the sun and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. As someone who valued intellect and honesty in a partner, I couldn’t help but be captivated by him.
So when he gave me the silent treatment for the first time, I chose to ignore it.
It was the first anniversary of our relationship, and I wanted to go someplace special. Since there was already a venue I had in mind, I decided to simply inform him of the particulars (date, time, meeting place) and take him there.
But when we arrived at the venue, I noticed he was tense. I thought he was just tired from our travels, so I told him to relax and enjoy.
The tension never melted away, though. He hardly spoke during the vacation, and even when we were ordering at a restaurant, he refused to say a single word. Instead, he’d either grunt or gesture using his hands.
Knowing him to be a talkative man, I knew something was wrong. I decided to save the questions until the end of our trip since I didn’t want to add to the tension. It was only when we left for home did he say, “I didn’t want to come here, you know.”
Naturally, I was surprised. “So why didn’t you tell me?” That was what I wanted to say, but instead, I replied, “I see. I’m sorry I didn’t ask you for your opinion before the trip.”
Ever since he would use the silent treatment more and more. He’d keep his lips sealed and refuse to talk whenever I did something he didn’t like, or if I refused to do something he wanted.
Sometimes he even gave me the cold shoulder for no apparent reason. He would just stonewall me when I would ask him what was wrong.
Finally, I had enough. When he came to visit me one day, I chose that moment to meet him at the door and tell him it was over between us. I was glad to be free of him at last.
From that relationship, I learned that silent treatment isn’t something I — or anyone else — should ever have to put up with. It is hurtful and is a type of emotional abuse that is used as a manipulation tactic.
Why do people use the silent treatment?
As my story demonstrates, silence is a weapon. It can be used to punish, control, disempower, or run away from a person or problem.
People who use silence as a weapon often have the following characteristics:
- They never learned to express themselves assertively.
- They have strong narcissistic tendencies.
- They know that silence is an effective way to emotionally manipulate someone, maybe because they’ve been victims of emotional manipulation themselves.
If you know someone who displays these characteristics, and that person gives you the silent treatment on a regular basis, know that you are not powerless against them.
To cope with silent treatment in a relationship, here are the six things you can do:
1. Dig deep into the reasons for the silent treatment.
Sometimes, people who give the silent treatment aren’t doing it out of malice.
They may have trouble expressing themselves, especially when it comes to negative emotions like anger and grief. They may also be afraid of how you’ll react if you knew how they really felt or if they did something they thought you wouldn’t like.
On the other hand, serial abusers don’t care if they hurt you with their silent treatment.
Before doing anything drastic about the silent treatment, make sure you know where the silence comes from.
Ask the person directly why they clam up and let them know how it makes you feel. If you are met with defensiveness or a lack of empathy for your feelings, you'll know you are dealing with a toxic personality.
2. Avoid letting the silent treatment get the better of you.
One way to cope with silent treatment is to act like it doesn’t affect you even when it does.
Remember that people who give the silent treatment are looking to get a particular reaction out of you. If you refuse to play into their hands, they’ll know better than to try to get you into the game next time.
For example, if your boyfriend hasn’t phoned you for days, resist the urge to keep calling and calling him until he picks up the phone.
Instead, act as if the silent treatment doesn’t bother you at all. Preoccupy yourself with other things to keep your thoughts away from the incident.
Once you’re face-to-face with him, talk to him like you normally do. If he insists on not responding to your words, say “I understand. If you’re ready to talk and be close again, please know that I’m here for you.”
Make it clear to him that you won’t allow silence to be used as a weapon against you.
3. Keep calm, and talk to the person kindly but directly.
At some point, you will have to confront your partner, even if your partner doesn’t want to. When that time comes, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and ask your partner to talk in a private, comfortable place.
Then, use the “sandwich method” of offering feedback. Start off with a positive, factual statement. Be specific and matter-of-fact about the things your partner does to hurt you and use “I” statements to express how you feel. Make an offer of reconciliation.
For example, a conversation with your girlfriend may look like this:
“Honey, I love you, and I want our relationship to be enjoyable and supportive for the both of us. So when you avoid talking to me about things that bother you or just clam up, it makes me feel isolated and unloved. I need to feel connected to you, and I want you to know I’m here to listen if there’s something on your mind.”
4. State your boundaries.
If your relationship has soured because of the ongoing silent treatment tactic, you may want to end it outright.
Or you may want to state your boundaries and consequences plainly before you decide to end things. You might say, “I can't be in a relationship with someone who manipulates me and shuts me out. If you insist on giving me the silent treatment, I’m afraid I’ll have to break things off between the two of us.”
Your partner might balk at that last statement.
He might beg you to give him another chance. If you think there’s the slightest chance your relationship can be saved, give him one more chance, but make it clear that you will follow through if the behavior continues.
If he goes back to his old, passive-aggressive ways after you’ve made up, break it off and don’t look back. You deserve better.
5. Take care of yourself.
When someone gives you the silent treatment, it’s easy to get thrown off-balance.
You might feel like you’re grasping at straws and beat yourself up for not being able to know what a loved one is thinking. The moment you start to feel like that, STOP.
Stop beating yourself up. Stop berating yourself for not being a mind reader. Stop thinking it’s your responsibility to help an immature person mature.
If someone gives any indication that they want to change, offer to help them. Otherwise, let them be.
Also, surround yourself with positive people. Keep your diet balanced, and exercise as regularly as you can.
Practice positive affirmations daily. Remind yourself that you’re not a terrible person for being in a relationship with someone who gives you the silent treatment.
It's their issue, not yours.
6. Consider therapy.
Putting up with silent treatment can take its toll on you.
You may become angry, depressed, and anxious because of how you’re being treated.
In that case, seek professional help. If possible, ask the person giving you the silent treatment to go into therapy with you.
Should the person refuse, schedule appointments for yourself anyway. Prepare to pack up and leave if things take a turn for the worse.
Being the recipient of silent treatment is can make you feel crazy and lonely.
Do what you can to get the other person to open up, but if it's clear the behavior isn't going away, you need to put yourself first.
You deserve love, respect, and kindness from others. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
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