Admit it: We have all resorted to giving our spouse the cold shoulder because confrontations can be exhausting. Besides, the silent treatment has proven to be an effective tool to prove a point ("I'm right, you're wrong, but I am too tired to argue") or to calm things down.
Sometimes, however, the silent treatment goes on — for a long time — because no one wants to admit a wrongdoing, both refuse to dwell on the issue or you think ignoring your spouse is better for your kids, instead of them seeing you in an argument. (Just because they don't see a verbal sparring does not mean your kids are not affected, according to the book Parental Conflict: Outcomes and Interventions for Children and Families for The Institute for Family Studies.
To address the issue of ignoring spousal conflict, we need to know the root of the behavior. Why do people use silent treatment?
Tina Gilbertson, counselor and author of Constructive Wallowing: How To Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them, said that silent treatment is caused by both "hurt feelings and an inability or unwillingness to talk about them," she told The Chicago Tribune. People use silence to try to be in control. But they often have no idea what to say or do when they're hurt, so they withdraw from the situation and refuses to engage instead.
Texas Christian University professor Paul Schrodt qualifies silent treatment as "a pervasive and/or common struggle for married partners." Based on an analysis of 74 studies and more than 14,000 couples, he explains that silent treatment is part of the demand-withdraw pattern — when one partner constantly nags, asks questions, give criticism, or makes demands and the other partner responds by withdrawing, avoiding or giving the silent treatment.
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According to the study, giving the cold shoulder can lead to individuals less relationship satisfaction, less intimacy, and less able to properly communicate with their partners. The researchers also noted some personality changes, such as less agreeableness and conscientiousness and more aggression and neuroticism.
What can you do to stop this unfavorable habit in dooming your relationship and your marriage?
1. Make a promise not to shut each other out when conflicts arise. It's easier said than done, but to openly declare this a relationship policy is already the first step towards making it a reality. Always remind yourself and your partner why it's crucial to talk things out than to keep second-guessing what the other person is thinking. At times, it's not the silence per se that's eating your heart out, but the uncertainty it can create with the relationship. 2. Catch yourself resorting to the silent treatment. Be open to assessing your behavior on the spot, marriage and family therapist Teresa Grella-Hillebrand told The Chicago Tribune. Analyze why you behave that way and try to ask yourself how his or her actions make the other person feel. Acknowledge your role in the bad habit, whether you use silence as a defensive mechanism or cause your partner to use it against you. 3. Agree with your spouse to take time off. "People have to be calm enough to listen to each other," licensed psychologist Diana Weiss-Wisdom told The Wall Street Journal. It's also essential to inform the other person or set a specific time when you both can address the situation properly. Say, for example, "I need to not be in the same room with you when I think. I'll be back tonight, and hopefully, we can discuss this." This practice cam make a difference between using a time-out and just shutting your partner out.
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4. Look into how much you influence your partner’s self-worth. Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. cited in Psychology Today a 2018 study by researchers from the University of Toulouse, in France, that suggests that people often use the cold shoulder when they feel unfairly treated. "The underlying issue of self-esteem, and how much you allow your partner to have that positive identity, is what creates the sounds of silence when something goes wrong," she stressed. 5. Select your words carefully when talking about an issue. Avoid words and labels such as "selfish," "rude" and "uncaring." Try not to be antagonistic or accusatory. Focus on how you think or feel and what you want to happen. Assistant professor of communication at Texas State University, Sean Horan, suggested following a template. "When I see X in situation Y, I feel Z." For example: "When I ask for your attention after dinner, and you pull away, it makes me feel unloved," he told The Wall Street Journal.
Giving and getting the silent treatment can be a vicious cycle. The only way to steer away from falling into that pitfall is to take responsibility and make some changes in how you and your spouse handle conflicts, whether you're the one giving the silent treatment or getting it.