Disengaging from the Silent Treatment

Many people struggle with the silent treatment as a form of conflict in relationship. The dynamic tends to be as follows: one person withdraws attention from the other, who then responds by trying to get their partner to break their silence.  The more the recipient of the silent treatment attempts to break their partner’s silence, the more the giver of the silent treatment gets the attention they want, the more silent they become, and a vicious cycle has begun.

So, how does one break the vicious cycle?  It depends on which side of the dynamic you are on.  On both sides, it is tempting to respond from a place of pain, and find ways to make your partner feel that pain.  This only feeds the cycle, because you are still focusing your attention on that person.

If you are getting the silent treatment, you need attention, and the only person who can give it to you is yourself.  The best thing to do is to notice how much you are ignoring yourself by trying to get your partner to see you.  You don’t have to play the same game.  You can say whatever it is you need to say, then focus on yourself and tend to your wounds.  Notice how much focus you still want to give your partner when you hope they notice that you are focusing on yourself, and let that thought go.  Keep focusing on your own pain, find your own means of soothing yourself, and do your best to not make this process about your partner and how much of a jerk they are being.  The point is to disengage, not to engage further by giving the silent treatment back at your partner.

If you are giving the silent treatment, because it is a habit you learned, and you want to figure out how to disengage, you are likely going to have to face some vulnerable feelings.  While you are giving the silent treatment, notice what sort of thoughts you are having.  How much attention are you actually giving your partner during this time, hoping that they will feel hurt by your silence?  You are also ignoring yourself if you are sitting there silently punishing your partner.  Use this time to really explore what it is that is upsetting you.  Find out just what it is you hope that the silent treatment will accomplish. Know that speaking will be much more effective in communicating your specific needs and desires.

A relationship is a dynamic between emotional equals.  Even abusive relationships involve an abuser matched with a person who believes that they don’t deserve better.  It is tempting to break the dynamic down into the black and white world of “right and wrong.” The silent treatment is part of this equation.  The best way to change an unfortunate dynamic is to change the part of you that fits the dynamic, rather than try to change your partner.

Update, November 29, 2016: After reading through the comments on this post, I felt like this one wasn’t quite complete, so I have written a sort of Part 2 for it, called Disengaging from the Silent Treatment and Engaging with Each Other: an Experiment for You.  To read more, go here.

More posts that you may find interesting:

Learning to Use Words

What the Pain of the Silent Treatment May Be Telling You

Posts about the Silent Treatment

Learning to Speak in a New Emotional Language

Is It Okay for Parents to Give the Silent Treatment to their Children?

Handling Conflict by Ignoring the Problem



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