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The silent treatment: How should you respond?

You walk in the door to say hello and your spouse turns their back and buries their face in the phone. You feel a chill in the air and suddenly your body feels shaky and tentative.

You start dinner in an attempt to cheer up the household, but your spouse won’t even come in the kitchen.

You feel invisible. Your spouse won’t talk to you and you don’t understand why. You’re getting the silent treatment. How do you want to respond?

This blog will help you:

  • Recognize the difference between abusive behavior and poor communication skills
  • Respond to this chilly form of communication with warmth
  • Shake off any freezer burn or shame that this silent treatment sent your way

 

The WARM method: A response to the silent treatment

The silent treatment is harmful to your marriage, to you, and to your spouse. Let’s find a healthy way to respond.

  • Wonder
  • Announce
  • Restart
  • Move-on

However, the first thing you need to determine is whether your spouse is giving you the silent treatment because they are a poor communicator or because they intend to hurt you.

 

Silent Treatment: abuse or lousy communication?

“In the short term, the silent treatment causes stress. In the long term, the stress can be considered abuse.” Joel Cooper, a Princeton professor, told Atlantic Monthly journalist Daryl Austin.

The silent treatment employed to grab at power, manipulate, or punish is abusive and, if you’re experiencing that in your marriage, you should seek the help of a therapist.

If, however, your spouse uses the silent treatment because they are simply lousy at communication, you’re in the right spot to get ideas for how to respond.

 

Do you want to respond to the silent treatment?

Why this helps: No one chooses to have the silent treatment feels thrust on you. It hurts. What you can choose is how you respond. This choice keeps takes the sting of the silent treatment. Instead, you recognize this is your spouse’s issue to fix.

If your spouse is giving you the silent treatment they are struggling. It feels icky to give the silent treatment and your spouse is only doing it because they don’t know how to make a better choice.

Notice that you have a choice how to respond.

If this isn’t a good time to take the high road because you’re tired or too wounded, skip down to step four: Move on.

 

Melt the chill of the silent treatment: The first step is to wonder.

Why this helps: You’re awakening your compassion. When you can feel compassion for your spouse, it’s easier to see that your spouse isn’t just trying to punish you. They are struggling.

First, wonder about a time when you gave your spouse the cold shoulder.

Remember a time when you felt frustrated and didn’t feel like you had options. Notice how it feels in your body to want to turn your back and ignore your spouse.

When you can remember giving the silent treatment, you awaken compassion for the way your spouse is feeling right now.

Second, wonder about what would have helped when you gave your spouse the silent treatment. Crawl inside your skin when you were giving that silent treatment and ask yourself what would have made you feel better.

When we give the cold shoulder it’s because we aren’t getting what we want. Did you need a hug? Did you need help? Did you need your spouse to recognize how you’d changed?

Finally, wonder about what your spouse might need and why they are resorting to the silent treatment. Is there a favor you promised your spouse you’d do? Have you been distracted?

Wake yourself up by wondering about your recent marriage behavior. But beware: be curious and don’t blame yourself. The silent treatment is bad communication practice, and there is nothing you did to deserve it.

Try this:

Wonder.

Recall a time you’ve wanted to give the cold shoulder.

Imagine what would have helped you in that moment?

Ponder your recent behavior, wondering where you need to wake up.

 

Wonder on your own.

Wonder to soften your own heart, not because it’s your job to fix the silence.

Step two: Announce that you recognize the silent treatment

Why this helps: When you name something you can anchor it. You can draw on the wisdom of past conversations about silent treatments and plant seeds for conversations in the future.

It’s tempting to say, “What’s wrong?” But this doesn’t serve you or your spouse. You’ll just hear “I’m fine.” That’s the passive-aggressive pattern of the silent treatment.

Don’t let your spouse get away with being naughty. Name the silent treatment, but don’t blame or shame your spouse. Your spouse is already feeling lousy enough.

Instead, make an announcement, “It feels like you’re ignoring me. This makes me wonder if I’ve hurt you. I’d love a chance to hear about what’s bothering you when you’re ready.”

This clear announcement tells your spouse, I honestly doesn’t know why you’re so frosty. You can see there’s a problem, and you’d like to talk it out.

If, however, when you took time to wonder, you realized you may have disappointed your spouse, announce that and own your mistake. “I think I’ve blown it. You asked for my help with the garden three times in a row and, although I said ‘Yes’ each time, I haven’t followed through.”

This announcement feels even better to your spouse than an apology. It feels like the sun on pavement in August. It will go a long way to melting that silent treatment.

Try this:

Announce.

Name the behavior you’re experiencing: “This feels like the silent treatment.”

Announce what you see: “It looks like you’re hurting.” Or, “It hurts me when you shut me out.”

Announce that you want to take responsibility for what is yours: “I feel a bit blind. I don’t want to be blind in our marriage, but sometimes I need help waking up. If I’ve hurt you, I’d like to talk about it. I don’t want to hurt you. Our marriage is important to me.”

Step three: Restart so the silent treatment doesn’t become a marriage habit

Why this helps: The silent treatment is a bad communication strategy. You respond by rebooting your marriage patterns, rather than falling prey to the punishment of the silent treatment.

Two kinds of restart are needed for the silent treatment. One is the restart on your marriage. The other is the restart for yourself.

Think of a computer that has frozen up. In order to get that computer working again, you need to restart it. In that restart, all the programs that were stuck now get loaded again ready to work effectively.

When your spouse gives you the silent treatment, your relationship needs a restart.

You can restart by reaching out. Accept your spouse in this space. Don’t make it about who’s right or wrong. Accept your spouse even though they’re using such poor communication. Don’t blame them. Remember the compassion you feel for your spouse’s hurting heart.

This kind of full acceptance is magical when it comes to restarting your marriage. You have refused to be cowed by the silent treatment, but you have not treated your spouse poorly in return. You’re installing a new way to communicate.

You can restart by walking away. Sometimes the silent treatment is too frozen to melt in this moment. So you need to exit.

This is your kind but firm refusal to play by the rules of the silent treatment.  You respect yourself when you refuse to chase after your spouse begging to be accepted and loved again.

This will feel cleanest when you also refuse to find fault. Don’t blame your spouse. Don’t blame yourself.

Try this:

Restart.

Reach out:

“I see you hurting. I want to help. I’m right here. I’m ready to listen to you or hug you.” Accept your spouse in this space. Don’t make it about who’s right or wrong. Simply restart.

 

Walk away:

“Looks to me like you’re not ready to talk to me. I want to talk when you’re ready. For now, I’m gonna go do my thing because it hurts me to be near you when you’re giving me the silent treatment.” Don’t beg. Don’t blame.

The silent treatment is naughty. I choose that word because it calls to mind a young child who doesn’t have control over their emotions yet. Your spouse is feeling out of control and they’re desperately trying to regain control. This is a horrible feeling for your spouse.

By walking away without blame and without begging you send the message, I won’t participate in poor communication strategies. Our marriage deserves more than that.

It’s key that your restart be loving and open-hearted rather than merely a revenge-silent-treatment.

 

Step four: Move on for your health and the health of your marriage

Why this helps: You’re sending a message to your spouse that you value your marriage and the habits you’re developing as a couple. You’re telling your spouse—gently but firmly—the silent treatment is not welcome in our marriage.

For some people moving on is easy. For others, this is the hardest part of the WARM formula for dealing with the silent treatment. It hurts to be alienated from your spouse. It’s tempting to beg and plead to be accepted rather than shut out by your spouse.

The silent treatment is lousy communication. Don’t foster it by catering to it. By this point you’ve offered your suffering spouse love and acceptance. You’ve cleanly invited your spouse to engage with you constructively, instead of the passive-aggressive silent treatment.

If your spouse isn’t ready for constructive communication, you owe it to your marriage and to yourself to move on.

Moving on is very different from abandonment.

You are not abandoning either your spouse nor your marriage when you decide it’s time to move on. On the contrary, you are choosing to cultivate only the healthiest habits in your marriage.

Try this:

Move on.

Move your body. Run, walk around the block, or do a few Turkish get-ups.

Move your mind. Purposely choose something else highly engaging for your mind so you can remember that you are valuable and loveable.

Move your energy. Create something: knit, build, draw. When you use your hands in a creative endeavor, your spirit has a chance to heal your hurt feelings.

Will the WARM method stop my spouse’s silent treatments?

If you’re willing to continue to be WARM and your spouse doesn’t mean to hurt you with their silent treatments, I feel confident this method will result in fewer silent treatments and more constructive conversations in your marriage.

But it will probably take more than one time. Marriage is a practice in loving yourself as you love your spouse. Practice more.

Wonder. Announce. Restart. Move on.

Which WARM strategy helps you most?

If this article helped you, please share it with a friend.

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Rebecca S. Mullen
PO Box 346
Mesa, CO 81643