Does the Silent Treatment Work? 

When angry, people sometimes offer “the silent treatment.” An angry mother-in-law offers it to their daughter-in-law, friends offer it to friends after a disagreement, and spouses sometimes use it against their spouse. But many ask the question, “Does it work?”

The silent treatment should not be confused with taking a time out. If you feel too angry to have a civil conversation, by all means, exit the scene. Nothing productive will result from yelling, screaming and name calling. So if you are very angry or your spouse is very angry, walk away without talking. Take some time to calm down. But once you are calm, you need to resume attention and work with your partner on problem-solving.

The silent treatment is different. Long after the initial anger has subsided, people using the silent treatment to ignore the other person. They pretend the person doesn’t exist and don’t pay them any attention. So many people ask, “Does this actually work?” The question alone shows that the silent treatment is meant to create change. Usually, it is geared toward someone wanting to get their way. It is often a means of punishment.

Reasons People Use the Silent Treatment

Sometimes people want to teach their partner a lesson. For example, “You made us late so now I won’t talk to the whole car ride. Then next time you’ll be willing to leave on time.” It is used as a form of revenge.

It can also be a form of control. The person offering the silent treatment may have the mindset of “I’ll make sure I get my way.” By pretending the other person doesn’t exist, they hope it will lead to an outcome in their favor.

The silent treatment can also be considered a form of emotional abuse. Withdrawing attention in an attempt to manipulate the situation is not healthy. And it won’t help your relationship.

Problems with the Silent Treatment

Sometimes the silent treatment may work in the short-term. Your spouse may cave in and allow you to get your way. However, in the long-term it will damage your marriage. Your spouse may grow resentful and angry over time if you continue to use manipulative tactics.

It also doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t allow you and your spouse the opportunity to work together on solving problems. Conflicts can grow and when they don’t get resolved in healthy ways, problems will likely continue.

What Can Help?

If you are used to using the silent treatment as a way to handle your anger, get your needs met, and resolve conflict, it can be a difficult habit to change. However, with some effort you can make changes and improve your relationship.

Address your willingness to work with your partner as a team. There needs to be a natural give and take in the relationship. This means you’ll have to come to terms with the fact that your partner may not always meet your needs or give you what you want.

Learn how to tolerate your own distress. It’s likely that you offer the silent treatment because you are uncomfortable dealing with your anger, hurt, or sadness. Learning new coping strategies can help you confront your feelings and deal with them in a way that is not harmful to your marriage. For example, journaling, talking to a friend, going for a walk, or engaging in a leisure time activity can help you cope with your distress.

Learn alternative ways to solve conflict. It is important to learn to talk to your partner about problems, not ignoring your spouse. Talking about problems will require you to learn how to calmly express your feelings and your concerns. It also means that you’ll need to be able to clearly state what you want and need.

Listening skills are important. If you are ignoring your partner, you aren’t actively listening to hear what your partner thinks and feels. Learning how to show your partner that you care about his feelings and want to work together on problems is important.

Acceptance is another strategy to help you deal with your feelings. For example, if your spouse is chronically late, learn to accept your spouse for who he is. Don’t punish him for it. Just know that he isn’t wrong and you’re right. Instead, being on time isn’t as important to him as it is to you.

Marriage Counseling Can Help

If you struggle to make changes on your own, consider counseling. Marriage counseling can teach you new strategies to resolve problems. It can also help you learn how to work together as a team. Individual therapy is also an option if you need to work on some individual anger management skills. If your spouse gives you the silent treatment and you don’t know what to do, consider seeking counseling as well so you can find some strategies to help improve your marriage.

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