Hands up who has given their partner the silent treatment in a relationship?
Now let’s have another show of hands for all those that didn’t think it caused their partners any real pain? Would you be surprised to learn that silent treatment in a relationship causes actual physical pain?
This is because ignoring someone activates the same area of the brain that responds to physical pain. This area is the anterior cingulate cortex or the ACC.
The ACC is involved in many complex human processes. These include decision-making, impulse control, empathy, and emotion. Studies show that it is also involved in how we experience pain. Before we go any further, it’s important to talk about how the brain recognizes pain.
Most of us would associate the feeling of pain with an injury to our body. In fact, there are two kinds of pain:
- Sensory-discriminative (the location, intensity, and quality of the pain)
- Affective-emotional (the feeling of distress, unpleasantness, and the threat of the pain)
In other words, one aspect of pain is the actual physical sensation and the other is the emotional feeling we attach to the pain.
Silent treatment activates the ACC, the same area that detects physical pain. In addition, we feel this pain whether the silent treatment originates from a close family member, a loved one, a complete stranger or even someone we detest.
So how does this affect silent treatment in a relationship?
Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University says: “Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done.”
What actually is a silent treatment in a relationship?
The silent treatment is when one partner refuses to engage in communication with the other person. This can be verbally or through other methods. These other methods include with-holding sex, compliments, not answering requests or simply ignoring the other person.
When we get attention from our partners we feel loved, valued, cherished, and validated. When we are ignored we feel the opposite of all that. Not to mention that as a passive-aggressive behavior it is a very powerful tool.
Likewise, it’s easy to get away with. You can’t deny a verbal tongue-lashing or physical assault. Unlike accusations of ‘Are you ignoring me?’ They can be dismissed with excuses that you’re busy, they’re imagining it, or you’ve got no idea what they’re talking about.
Therapists call this pattern of behavior‘ demand/withdraw’. Where one person constantly makes demands while the other person withdraws. Studies show that this is one of the most common patterns of conflict in relationships.
Although this may be true, the problem is that most couples don’t realize quite how damaging it is. Furthermore, get locked into this pattern of behavior and it can be extremely difficult to get out of it.
Why silent treatment in a relationship is so damaging
Paul Schrodt, Ph.D., Professor of Communication Studies, knows all about the damage of silent treatment in a relationship. He reviewed over 70 relationship studies with a combined total of more than 14,000 participants. His analysis revealed that silent treatment is ‘tremendously’ damaging to a relationship.
Not only that but:
- It reduces the capacity for healthy and meaningful communication
- It dimishes feelings of intimacy
- Relationship satisfaction for both partners decreases
As well as being an incredibly common behavior pattern for couples, it is also an extremely difficult one to break. This is because both partners blame the other person. Typically one partner will accuse the other of being too demanding or critical. The other one will complain that their partner is never emotionally available.
“Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,” explains Schrodt. “Both partners see the other as the problem.”
How to deal with silent treatment in a relationship
Communication is the key to resolving this conflict pattern of behavior.
In many demand/withdraw patterns, it is the woman making the demands and the man who then withdraws. Of course, this pattern can also work the other way round. The way to resolve this behavior is to work out the following:
- Who is making all the demands
- What is the reason for all the demands
- Why this is making the other person withdraw
The person making the demands should try and be less hostile and use more positive language. Whereas the withdrawing partner should try and listen more so they can better understand their partner.
Equally important is for both partners to understand their partner and to validate their identity.
Why we need to be understood in a relationship
One study looked specifically at the demand/withdrawal pattern and how it affected married couples. This behavior ‘significantly decreases both spouses’ perception that they are understood’.
When one spouse wants to discuss an important topic which is then ignored, that spouse can be left to think their beliefs are insignificant. By the same token, if their beliefs are insignificant, so must be their feelings, their values, their opinions, indeed, the very essence of who they are.
Why it is important to validate your partner’s identity in a relationship
There are three reasons why it’s important to validate your partner’s identity.
- We are attracted to people who support the way we view ourselves.
- Those that are good at supporting our identities make the most rewarding partners.
- We expect our partners to accept and understand us if they want an intimate relationship with us.
How to deal with silent treatment in a relationship
1. Take time to reflect
This is not the same as ignoring your partner. You are purposely taking some time out to think about the problem that led up to the silent treatment. Whether it was you that dished it out, or you that was on the receiving end.
2. Give your partner time to reflect
Of course, it’s not all about you reflecting, your partner may need time to think as well. So don’t feel that as soon as you’ve sussed out the problem you can go barging in to sort things out with your partner. They might not be ready and need more time.
3. Agree on ground rules for communicating in the future
Some couples never go to sleep on an argument, others have a chat in the mornings over breakfast. To ensure you don’t fall into the demand/withdraw pattern again, set your own rules for communicating.
They could include:
- Agree that you will not use aggressive or hostile language.
- Think about how you say things, the tone of your voice, etc.
- Allow one person to speak and then the other.
- Never leave the room until you have dealt with the problem.
- Always wish each other good night or good morning.
- Remain calm and patient.
- If it is too difficult to talk openly, use another method, such as email, text or a letter. But do communicate.
Silent treatment in a relationship can be particularly damaging. Furthermore, you will never resolve relationship problems unless both partners are willing to talk to each other. If yours won’t, it might be time to move on.