Silence. And more silence. Feelings of loneliness, disengagement and hurt alternating with anger and resignation. You are not happy, you want to reconnect, to restore the good dynamics in your relationship but it feels as if you are banging your head against the brick wall.
You are on the receiving end of silent treatment after getting into an argument with your partner, only to have them completely shut down for days or weeks. It happened again and it stinks. All you want to do is fix things immediately when you’re dealing with conflict and unhappy feelings in a relationship only to find out again that your partner is not receptive to dealing with their feelings.
You know that conflicts are best resolved with healthy communication and you’ve asked your partner several times to talk but they won’t. It is way too tempting to resort to similar behaviour yourself but you resist the temptation because you know that someone has to keep the communication lines open, or you will both sink deeper into the conflict.
Conflicts are a normal occurrence in any relationship. What makes them different is the nature of the conflicts and how quickly they are resolved. According to the marital expert Dr John Gottman, one of the destructive communication patterns that contradict love and really destroy relationships is the act of stonewalling or silent treatment. It is especially destructive to relationships because it can make one’s partner feel abandoned and rejected.
Whether you are the victim or perpetrator of silent treatment it’s absolutely important to realise the dangers of engaging in this mind game which can damage your relationship beyond repair. The negative consequences of silent treatment or stonewalling can spread its toxic tentacles into other areas of your relationship which only adds to the problem.
The domino effect of silent treatment is significant – it decreases relationship satisfaction for both partners, diminishes feelings of intimacy, increases the risk of suffering from anxiety, depression, use of alcohol and drugs, and reduces the capacity to communicate in a way that’s healthy and meaningful.
The silent treatment is part of what is called the ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern in a committed, romantic relationship and it happens during or after the conflict when one partner wants to discuss the issue or has some requests or demands and the other shuts down the communication by responding with silence and emotional distance.
The ‘stonewaller’ might appear stubborn and say that they don’t want to talk or they may actually physically leave. The common form is ‘woman demand-man withdraw’ that happens more often during discussions of intimate relationship problems (intimacy, behaviour, communication, habits, commitment) than other problems.
For the partner who adopts silent treatment, it is often a way to avoid dealing with the problem, to control the situation and exercise power, to get attention, to punish another person, or it is used as a way to express anger. Or they might be just making a poor choice in their communication thinking that they are just avoiding a confrontation, and not realising they’ve gone about it the wrong way. Whatever motives are behind it, giving your partner silent treatment only makes things worse – it is one of the quickest ways to end your relationship.
The person receiving the silent treatment will grow increasingly frustrated by the lack of response, which will lead to even more demands that in turn frustrates their partner who withdraws even further.
Soon you’re no longer addressing the issue at hand. The conflict escalated and you start arguing about arguing.
What seemed to work for the moment may lead to exactly what you didn’t want in the long run. In its essence, the silent treatment is immature behaviour pattern often used by people who want to avoid honest talk about an issue or problem. They might be in denial about their behaviour, secretly hoping that by using the silent treatment the other person will give up and forget about the behaviour that caused the conflict in the first place.
Taking time out from your partner to collect your thoughts and reflect is different from seeking to end or avoid discussion of the issue. In the long run stonewalling is nothing more than a mechanism to drive your partner away. Communication in close relationships largely determines whether the relationship is satisfying for the partners and endures over time. Open, honest communication should be part of every healthy relationship. Knowing that you are being heard is one of the experiences most likely to cement a feeling of connection to another.
Zana Busby is an experienced psychologist and author, having spent over 20 years studying and practising psychology and psychotherapy.