Does your spouse use the silent treatment to punish you?

We’ve been talking this week about how to feel emotionally connected. And one of the best ways to absolutely blow up emotional connection is to use the silent treatment in your marriage. A while ago, after I wrote a post on how to stop the emotional abuse cycle, a woman wrote in about a different type of emotional manipulation:

I’m curious. What if the abuse occurring is more of a withholding affection kind of thing? What would you recommend to end that cycle for a spouse whose uses neglect and the silent treatment as their form of emotional abuse? Example: wife inadvertently and unknowingly does something which upsets her husband. For the next week he purposely withholds affection and attention and will not tell his wife what she has done to upset him, as a method of “getting back at her”…You can walk away if someone is yelling, but you can’t force someone to talk to you and communicate through issues or give you affection.

Wow. Such a hard issue!

So let’s deal with some basic truths about the silent treatment first.

Using the silent treatment is a form of emotional manipulation

Sure, the person isn’t yelling or calling names. But refusing to talk and withholding communication is a form of punishment and manipulation; it’s just a little more subtle. The person can claim innocence; “Well, she hurt me and I had to distance myself.” It’s a passive aggressive way of getting what you want without having to be mature and communicate your needs and your feelings.

When mature people who want what is best for the marriage have an issue, they talk about it and work through it, even if that conversation is difficult.

A person who has poor communication skills and does not want to improve upon them, uses the silent treatment and is not trying to better the marriage or resolve a conflict; a person who uses the silent treatment instead is trying to pressure the spouse to doing things his or her way. It is inherently a selfish, manipulative act that destroys the marriage, not builds it up.

The silent treatment can be very emotionally destructive

When we marry, we do so to feel connected to another person. In fact, we are supposed to feel more connected to our spouse than to any other human being.

If your spouse stops talking to you, then your spouse is depriving you of one of the most basic needs you have in marriage. Just because there’s no yelling involved does not mean that it isn’t hurtful. In fact, for many people the silent treatment is MORE hurtful than yelling so setting boundaries is important.

People who use the silent treatment are often either extremely selfish or extremely broken

If a spouse uses the silent treatment, it is often because they are narcissistic or controlling, and they know that they can manipulate their spouse into acting the way they want. In fact, that’s often the purpose. So if a wife makes a reasonable request, for instance, and the husband doesn’t like it, he can use the silent treatment to humiliate and frustrate his wife, showing her that she must never make requests of him or she will bear the consequences.

There is another time when the silent treatment may be used, though, and that’s when someone grew up with absolutely no examples of healthy ways to resolve conflict. Then when there is a problem, it scares them so much they retreat. Underdeveloped communication skills can be incredibly harmful to a marriage.

It’s important to know which one your spouse is coming from: are they running from conflict because of fear, or are they running from conflict because ultimately they want to control? If your spouse is simply a very broken person, then an approach that focuses on getting counselling and not on blaming can be more helpful.

One other extra thought: If you are very extroverted and like to talk everything out immediately, while your spouse is very introverted and needs to think before they talk, then it may not be the silent treatment per se. Your spouse just may need a few hours to process before you discuss a resolution to a conflict! They may not be punishing you; they just may be thinking, though it may feel like the silent treatment.

But if it goes on for more than a few hours–then it definitely is the silent treatment. So let’s talk about what to do!

You should reap what you sow–even with the silent treatment!

As I’ve talked about a lot on this blog, God set up this world so that people reap what they sow. It’s one of His main vehicles to help us learn moral lessons. But we can interrupt the law of sowing and reaping when we give cover to someone’s bad behaviour. So someone may sow discord (by giving the silent treatment), but we reap the punishment (we give in to what they want) instead of them reaping the consequence (they suffer distance in the marriage).

Dealing appropriately with someone involves stopping bearing the consequences of other people’s bad behaviour and putting those consequences back on them.

So if a person is sowing distance in the marriage by using the silent treatment to cut off emotional connection, what should they reap? Distance in the marriage. If they sow discord, they should reap the discord.

I am not saying that you should cause problems for your spouse; I’m just saying that you should not fix the problems your spouse is creating.

Do you see the difference?

So how would this play out? If your spouse uses the silent treatment for more than a day, and if it’s a regular occurrence in your marriage, then something drastic may be required. Here’s just one idea: You can say,

“Honey, I understand that you are angry at me, but you are not telling me why, so I have no way of addressing the issue or talking it through. It is clear by what you are doing that you do not want to be close to me right now, and so I am going to abide by your wishes. I will be moving out of the bedroom. This is not what I want; but I do want to honour you. I would like to put our marriage together and improve our communication and make sure that we are both meeting each other’s needs, because I love you and I want you to be happy. However, I am not a mind reader. We obviously have some pretty big issues, and I no longer feel that we can work these out on our own. So I will be making an appointment with a marriage counsellor, and I would request that you go with me. Unfortunately, if you choose not to, then I don’t know how we can return to sleeping in the same bedroom. I will, regardless, be seeing the counsellor on my own, even if you don’t come, because I need some help to deal with the emotional turmoil you are causing by not talking to me. Again, I love you and I want to be with you. But I cannot share a bed with someone who routinely cuts himself off from me like this. That is not right, and I want our marriage to honour God.”

Does it sound drastic? Likely. And there are many other options; I’ve only mentioned one here. (And don’t use this as a first resort! This is when the silent treatment is being used regularly and when it’s been going on for a long time!).

If it’s more that your spouse just is uncomfortable talking about things, then a calm, peaceful approach where you’re open about things may work as well.

But if someone is routinely using the silent treatment, they are causing major discord and craziness in the relationship, and it is time for that merry go round to stop. It needs to be dealt with appropriately, and it needs to not be tolerated, because it is toxic.

Remember–even if you set boundaries, you are not the one who is causing distance in the marriage. Your spouse did that by using the silent treatment.

And you have made it abundantly clear that you will gladly resume closeness in the marriage once your spouse agrees to talk. But allowing your spouse to understand that this behaviour will not be tolerated now gives your spouse the shove they may need to address either the selfishness or brokenness in their lives.

God does not want your spouse living in a state of selfishness or brokenness.

God wants your spouse growing! So when your spouse is sowing major discord in the relationship, make sure that your spouse then feels the repercussions of that, so that one of God’s best vehicles for getting us to grow–reaping what we sow–is fully functioning.

How spouses who are dealing with the silent treatment can get their partners to actually deal with the conflict in a healthy and mature manner

Have you ever had to deal with the silent treatment? How did it feel? What strategies helped you work through it?

UPDATE: A reader just sent me this great link to The Gottmann Institute talking about “stonewalling“, which can look like the silent treatment. It’s when someone is so overwhelmed with the criticism and bad behaviour of their spouse that they literally can’t take it anymore, and they start completely tuning out. In this case, it’s a defence mechanism for individuals in dysfunctional or even sometimes abusive relationships. He’s got some great tips on how to help you self-soothe and stop tuning out so that you can actually address the issues. If you’re the one giving the “silent treatment” but it’s more of a self-preservation thing, this may help you!

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