How do you deal with the silent treatment when you have marriage conflict?
Who’s gives the stonier silent treatment in your marriage?
When my husband makes me angry, I feel it first in my jaw, which tightens, “I’m fine.”
“Nothing,” is my icy response as I turn and give my husband the cold shoulder.
I stave off his attempt at a hug with a coat of quills, “I’m busy.”
This blog will help you:
- Recognize symptoms of the silent treatment so you can identify the struggle in your marriage
- Help you get what you need so you can transition out of the silent treatment and connect to your spouse
- Brainstorm ways you and your spouse can communicate better and avoid the silent treatment next time there’s a conflict in your marriage
Recognizing the silent treatment and why it happens
Something has gone wrong in your marriage: the trash didn’t get emptied, your spouse gave you advice when you wanted them to just listen, or there was no sex last night even though there was a great dinner with lovely conversation. But no sex.
So, what are you to do? Of course you choose the silent treatment. How else are you gonna get your point across when your spouse seems unable to hear you?
Your body tightens. You get busy with something like rewiring the car stereo or changing insurance companies. Something that you’re willing to ignore most days of your marriage, but today it suddenly feels urgent.
Your amygdala is responsible for this rigid silence. It hijacked your brain to protect you from pain. You can’t fight biology: Flight, fight, freeze.
Your amygdala doesn’t know the different between the fear of a saber-toothed tiger that might eat you and the fear that all the good sex in your marriage is history. Your brain just knows you’re hurting.
How do you thaw the chill of the silent treatment?
You turn your back and freeze out your spouse to protect yourself in your marriage. After all, your spouse—the person you love the most—has hurt you. Of course your body wants to protect you.
When your body signals, “I’m hurting,” don’t ask more of yourself. Don’t let this be the moment in your marriage when you berate yourself saying, “I’m such a b*tch.”
Instead, treat yourself like you would your best friend.
Be kind to yourself.
I hear you. You’re saying, But the silent treatment is so ugly, so immature. I want to be better than that. I know. But giving the silent treatment was your way of trying to protect yourself in this marriage and that seems smart after you get hurt.
Your spouse isn’t always gonna follow the marriage-script you have in your head. And they shouldn’t. After all you’re two individuals.
But you’re hurt.
Hurt people need kindness to feel resourceful again. Don’t wait for your spouse to be kind to you. Start by being kind to yourself.
How to melt your own cold shoulder
Breathe. You resort to the silent treatment because you’re not getting something you really, truly want. So, start with the most basic thing your body needs: oxygen. This calms your amygdala that just hijacked your brain.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, then exhale like you’re bending the flame on a candle, but don’t blow the candle out. Just bend the flame. Take another breath and bend the flame again. And again.
You think this sounds like a waste of time. How is breathing helping my marriage??
Candle-breathing works because it gives you something to focus on while you feed your body the oxygen it needs. Oxygen is the magic that relaxes your amygdala. Then you’re no longer held hostage by your own brain.
After you’ve had a few breaths to relax that freeze response your body sends, give yourself something else kind: take a walk around the block or do a project with your hands—tidy up or knit—to bring you back to center.
Why apologizing to your spouse will make you feel better
Apologize. Once your breath and some sunshine have helped to make you feel better, try apologizing.
Apologize?? Did you feel that? That was your amygdala leaping in again to protect your hurt heart. This time my guess is you’re not feeling so silent. Now, instead of frozen, you’re ready to fight: But I’m the one who was hurt! Why should I apologize? If anyone should apologize in this marriage, it’s my spouse.
I know. And it’s probably true. But you can’t control your spouse. That’s the downside to marriage.
The upside is connection. Soft. Kisses. Kisses that make you feel wanted. Or that lovely nourishing feeling when your spouse hands you a bowl of soup just because it’s your favorite. It’s great to have a spouse, but you can’t make your spouse do anything.
Don’t apologize for your spouse’s sake. The reason to apologize for giving the silent treatment is for yourself. It helps you break a pattern that’s hurting your marriage.
Do you feel attractive when offering the silent treatment? Do you feel like it’s your finest moment in your marriage? No. I’m embarrassed when I give the silent treatment too.
When we stubbornly continue icky behavior in just to punish our spouse, nobody wins. We feel slimy. Don’t chain yourself to a behavior like the silent treatment in your marriage. Apologize because it will make you feel better.
Disclaimer: if you’re still feeling raw and hurt, don’t apologize. Instead keep offering yourself kind compassion until you’re ready.
Try this script:
I’m sorry I gave you the cold shoulder. When I get upset my jaw tightens and I feel frozen inside. I don’t know how to let you in. I feel lost.
This is not how I want to be in our marriage. I don’t want to freeze you out. I know my silent treatment causes you pain.
I get scared. When I’m scared, it’s like my skin becomes a suit of armor, trying to protect me. But then you can’t get in and I can’t get out. I’m stuck. We’re stuck.
I don’t wanna stay stuck. I really want to create a fun and exciting married life together.
I don’t know the exact fix for my silent treatments in the future, but would you be willing to help me experiment with some ideas to thaw the silent treatment I give you? I want our marriage to grow stronger.
The difference between silence and the silent treatment
After you’ve apologized and asked your spouse if they will be willing to help you improve the next time your amygdala hijacks your brain and silences your mouth, stop talking.
Be silent so your spouse has room to absorb what you said. Let your spouse receive your apology.
Your silent treatment likely hurt your spouse’s feelings. It takes time to breathe enough to soften and accept the invitation to try again. Give your spouse this time.
Ice Melt. Once you and your spouse are fully recovered from the amygdala hijack that initiated your silent treatment, you’re ready for ice melt. With ice melt, you imagine a different way of behaving in the future so there are no icy cold shoulders in your marriage.
I’d like to improve our marriage going forward. I’d like to tell you what hurt my feelings and why I got so icy. Are you ready to hear this?
I feel like I asked you to (here you insert the thing you felt you’d requested) empty the trash, listen instead of giving advice, or set the stage for a romantic evening.
This next part is critical. And it’s crucial you ask this question with the intent to hear the answer rather than just getting brownie points for asking.
Did you hear me ask for that (trash, listening, sex)?
If your spouse heard you make that request, a light will come on in their eyes. “Oh. You’re right. I can see why you got frustrated.” Don’t rub it in that your spouse is a duffus. The more air and space you give your spouse in this moment the more chance they have to own their part in this little dance of the silent treatment next time.
If, however, your spouse didn’t hear your request, believe them.
It’s tempting in this moment to get cold again and punish your spouse because it was so obvious you were making your desire clear. But proving you were right and your spouse was wrong will only make it more difficult for your spouse to understand you the next time there’s a conflict in your marriage.
“I’d like to point to the moment I think I asked for what I wanted. I want to point to it so we can talk about how I might be able to ask more clearly in the future, or how you could do a better job responding to my cue. Can I tell you about that moment?
Then, gently—and this is sooooo hard to do—without blame, narrate the moment as you saw it.
Don’t argue: “Yes I did.” “No you didn’t.” Arguing about who’s right won’t help your marriage. Instead, ask your spouse how you could give a clearer signal next time. This is the ice melt. Because you’ve invited your spouse to receive the signal you offer next time.
Will this really work to eliminate the silent treatment from our marriage?
Probably not the first time. I’m inviting you to fundamentally change your behavior. You’re learning to over-ride your biochemistry, and that takes time. Be patient and consistent.
This process will certainly help you get better at communication rather than causing wounds that further alienate you in your marriage.
Part of good marriage communication is practicing and honing habits like this one so you can speak the same language. It takes time. Be patient with yourselves, because changing habits changes who you are, and your marriage will benefit more than you can possibly imagine.
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