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How to Deal with the Silent Treatment in a Relationship

Extend the benefit of the doubt, but only so far.

Key points

  • Researchers found that withholding negative feelings can be a form of covert, destructive conflict.
  • The study showed that relational silence could be due to anger or apathy.
  • Some partners use silence, not as a weapon but to avoid saying something they might regret.

One of the most frustrating situations within a romantic relationship is when your significant other does not want to talk. Whether you suspect the reticence stems from anger or apathy, the silent treatment is no fun. How then do you coax your other half to open up? Or should you simply respect the silence? Research has some ideas.

Breaking the Silence

One of the most important aspects of weathering the silent treatment from a loved one is learning how to break it. Christine E. Rittenour et al. (2019), in a study aptly entitled “Socializing the Silent Treatment,” examined this issue in connection with parent and adult child communication.i

Recognizing the silent treatment as “a relational-harming means of communicating disappointment in interpersonal relationships,” they focused on the silent treatment’s role and use within a family. They began by recognizing the withholding of negative feelings as a form of covert, destructive conflict, which sometimes reaches a breaking point in the form of unkind direct communication. But they also recognize what most people within relationships have experienced: hurtful feelings often stem from the withholding itself.

Rittenour et al. noted that even without an emotional flareup, interpersonal displeasure could manifest through denial, such as insisting everything is “fine” or disengagement. They said that by definition, the silent treatment is motivated by a desire to keep the recipient uncertain as to his or her status in the mind of the silent partner, which they note makes it more difficult to weather than more unconcealed forms of expressing grievance or displeasure.

Among intimates, Rittenour et al. stated that researchers have established that long-lasting silence causes great pain for the receiver (citing Williams, 2001).

What the Silent Treatment Looks Like

Because partners imposing the silent treatment don’t talk, we are left with interpreting what we see. Rittenour et al. noted that individuals who sanction through silence might exhibit aloofness, engage in less eye contact, and often ignore the receiver. Because receivers are often driven to terminate such nonproductive relationships, researchers found what we might expect: a negative association between commitment and the use of the silent treatment (Wright & Roloff, 2009).

But what if remaining silent is not malevolent but benevolent? Couples should certainly consider times when silence might save a relationship.

Slow to Speak, Quick to Listen: When Less Is More

Most people have said something they wish they could take back. Whether speaking out of anger or insensitivity, sometimes our emotions get the best of us. Remember the “Count to 10” trick before you speak out of emotion? Similarly, some partners use silence to avoid saying something they will regret, recognizing that a closed mouth gathers no foot.

When a partner is silent, you need to know why. He or she might have stopped communicating out of anger or apathy. But also consider that some partners might go mute not out of malice but to maintain their relationship. It depends on the circumstances because context interprets content (or lack thereof). Within established relationships, both partners will no doubt be familiar with each other's conflict management style. Some couples take a time out; others talk it out. It is a deviation from the norm that usually signals relational discord.

So when one partner needs some space and silence, extend the benefit of the doubt. Take the time to reflect on the positive aspects of your relationship and how it can be improved, and emerge refreshed, recharged, and prepared to re-engage lovingly.

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[i] Rittenour, Christine E., Stephen M. Kromka, Russell Kyle Saunders, Kaitlin Davis, Kathryn Garlitz, Sarah N. Opatz, Andrew Sutherland, and Matthew Thomas. 2019. “Socializing the Silent Treatment: Parent and Adult Child Communicated Displeasure, Identification, and Satisfaction.” Journal of Family Communication 19 (1): 77–93. doi:10.1080/15267431.2018.1543187.

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