When your spouse gives you the silent treatment, it can be frustrating, painful, and confusing. It happens when one spouse refuses to communicate, ignores, withdraws from, or totally avoids their partner. It may not mean there’s absolute silence. You might still talk about daily tasks like who’s picking up the kids, who’s handling laundry, or dinner. The silent treatment shows that one person is unwilling to address an issue or connect in any meaningful way.

Ouch.

If you’re getting the silent treatment, what do you do?

Process On Your Own

What triggered the silent treatment? When did it start, and what were you discussing? Did something happen that may have been viewed negatively? You may not even know, but thinking about it can help you understand your partner’s perspective. 

What’s the goal? Is my spouse trying to punish me, hoping I’ll feel the pain they feel? Are they withdrawing so they can process their own thoughts and emotions? Are they trying to protect themselves? 

Processing can help you listen to and better understand yourself and your spouse, but try not to let it cause you to look down on your spouse.

Address it Carefully

Start with Compassion. Often, we use silence when we don’t have or can’t use healthy conflict resolution skills to deal with issues. 

Is the silent treatment a healthy approach? No. Especially when it’s used to control or manipulate. It can be abusive. (More on this later.) 

Provided this situation is not an abusive use of the silent treatment, remember, this is your spouse — and something sparked the treatment. This doesn’t mean you justify or excuse the behavior. It’s purely recognizing that something caused your spouse emotional pain. And different people respond to pain in different ways.

Speak directly to the issue. You might say something like, “I know you haven’t been talking to me lately. I’d like to discuss what started this. Can we talk?” 

Never forget, your body language and tone of voice communicate 93% of your message to your spouse. Getting the words right isn’t as important as having a healthy attitude toward your spouse.

Be Willing to Listen and Understand. When your spouse is ready to talk, put your energy into understanding their thoughts and emotions first. Some people give the silent treatment because they feel unheard. Let your spouse know you want to understand their thoughts, feelings, and their desires.

Model Healthy Skills to Resolve issues. You can’t change your spouse, but you can control yourself. Demonstrating respect, openness, and transparency while working together to resolve conflict can paint a picture of the kind of communication many people crave.

Things to Think About While Talking 

Don’t play the blame game. Focus on the ultimate goal: resolving the issue in a healthy way. Using lots of “I” statements and as few “You” statements as possible can keep you from blaming each other and getting distracted.

Own your contributions. Frame it this way in your head. “I understand that I hurt you when I did or said _______.” This focuses on the pain without justifying their response to the hurt. And when appropriate, apologize for the pain you triggered.

Be self-aware of your emotions. Your spouse may express a lot of pent-up emotions. They may flood you with more than you were expecting, but try to keep your emotions from controlling you. Be aware of your feelings as they share. At an appropriate time in the conversation, share. Remember, though, one of the reasons for the silent treatment could be they don’t feel heard. 

What if the Silent Treatment Continues?

Know what you can and can’t control. You can’t control how your spouse responds to emotional hurt. But you can control how you respond. You can gently let them know you’re ready to talk when they are. And you can choose to acknowledge the issue without letting it control you.

Don’t badger or nag. You can’t force someone else to talk. Don’t try.

Seek help. If you need to talk to a trusted friend or seek a counselor for your own mental health, it’s worth the effort. If you don’t go together, going alone can be helpful.

When is the Silent Treatment Abuse?

Consistently using silence to control someone can be abuse. Healthline lists the following signs to look for: 

  1. It’s a frequent occurrence and is lasting for longer periods.
  2. It’s coming from a place of punishment, not a need to cool off or regroup.
  3. It only ends when you apologize, plead, or give in to demands.
  4. You’ve changed your behavior to avoid getting the silent treatment.

I don’t recommend the silent treatment as a strategy for solving marriage problems. But a good starting point is to talk with your spouse about how you can resolve conflict in healthy ways. Your spouse may feel like you haven’t heard other attempts to solve problems, and understanding that may help you find better solutions together. It may be something as simple as asking for a timeout and agreeing to discuss later. Or it may take some effort for them to feel you’re an emotionally safe person to talk to. Whatever the case, learning to be compassionate without excusing the behavior may be the trick to eliminating the silent treatment in your relationship.

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***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at:1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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