The Silent Treatment in Relationships

by | Jul 4, 2012

Do one or both of you retreat too often into the cone of silence?

In an article earlier this year, I spoke about the devastating effects of verbal abuse. A retreat into a “cone of silence” by one or both partners in a marriage or relationship can potentially be just as devastating. Sure, some people are simply quieter, less communicative, or more contemplative than others.

But if a couple\’s normal level of conversation drops off to survival level, then the relationship could be in serious trouble. (Think “How was your day?” “Fine,” or “Can you pick up some milk?” “Sure,” as the conversational highlight of the day.)

If any of this strikes a chord, or if you think you may be headed in that direction, consider the following points and think seriously about addressing this problem while it\’s still addressable.

  • What is the silent treatment? Some couples talk less than others. With others, talk can drop off over the years as partners drift into a state of tranquil comfort, without the need for frequent conversation. Those adaptations aren\’t necessarily relationship-threatening. However, if one or both partners change behavior in a short period—say less than a year—it could be a sign that a deep dissatisfaction within the relationship is percolating. Some people address their issues directly and productively by talking honestly and lovingly. Some, unfortunately, express frustration loudly and abusively. But there are also those who stuff their frustrations inside, leading to an increasing distance between partners, much like two companion ships on a voyage losing touch with each other in the night and drifting apart.
  • What behaviors can accompany the silence? Often silence is not the only behavior threatening the relationship, although it can be the most noticeable. Silence can be accompanied by increased involvement in, even addiction to, hobbies, TV, or other pastimes. At first the new obsessions can seem situational. You might hear that the new Texas Hold \’em software is really cool. But after a few months, the novelty has not worn off. In fact, time spent going all in on a poker hand—rather than your relationship—has doubled. In other cases, passive-aggressive or “martyr” behavior can accompany the silence. After an hour of silence, you might hear “Oh, sure, I\’ll do that for you if you\’re busy,” when a partner is asked to do a chore. What\’s really being communicated there is “I wish you\’d do it yourself and leave me alone.” With other couples, gestures, such as sighing, raised eyebrows, a soft little “hmmpf” or murmur can accentuate the silence.
  • Why silence? To take a Darwinian perspective, what survival benefit can silence have for one or both partners? There can be many reasons to avoid communication. Some people cannot tolerate direct expression of dissatisfaction. They may be culturally conditioned not to express feelings or have had life experiences that have left them wary about communicating negative thoughts. In other cases, the person initiating the silence may not realize that it is a power play—that he or she needs to punish or win the fight and silence can be a tough adversary. Silence can also be a deep defense. It can seem to protect a partner from his or her own anger, which can be difficult or impossible to express. In all of these cases, the silent partner typically does not realize that the choices are not limited to silence or anger. There is a large middle ground where communication can be productive and rewarding
  • What is not being spoken? Maybe one partner feels abandoned because the other is spending too much time with one of the kids. Or one partner feels the other does not understand, appreciate, or respect some deep, defining trait and feels invalidated. Regardless of the underlying issue—and there always is at least one, and usually a few—the silence is just a symptom of some deeper dissatisfaction.

If it hurts to hear any of these descriptions, you may want to begin addressing the silence issue right away. Her are a few suggestions to get you started.

  • Use your instincts. With so little communication, your first step may be to trust your instincts. If increasingly frequent silence feels bad to you, chances are something is wrong and it\’s time to communicate.
  • One partner needs to step up. Just as one partner typically initiates silence in a marriage, either partner can initiate a reconnection. Start talking as soon as possible. It may seem difficult, but the longer the silence is allowed to persist, the harder it will be to reverse. If you try to talk and it does not work, Orange County couples and marriage counseling can help you move your communication in the right direction.
  • What are the best communications strategies? The first strategy is good for all scenarios: If your goal is to do some good, be kind and loving when approaching your partner, not challenging and critical. Ask questions. Reassure your partner about how much you value the relationship and that you are willing to listen and work at it. Another good strategy is taking turns. Give your partner a chance to express dissatisfaction in one conversation. Then you talk the next time. Be sure you both keep your comments to specific instances of things that bothered you or specific feelings you are experiencing. Avoid making any blanket statements about the character or quality of the your partner.
  • Silence could mean depression. Silence could mean the engines have stopped and your partner just doesn\’t have the life energy to say much or deal with the everyday problems in life. If this strikes a chord, your partner could well be clinically depressed. Orange County depression counseling can help.

At bottom, silence in a relationship signals that something important is not working, and that a couple is running away from the problem, rather than dealing with it. Most couples are surprised when they learn that getting started often means using the right kind of communication and working at it consistently. The education component in getting the process started is huge, and Orange County couples and marriage counseling can make a big difference.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here:


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