Disengaging from the Silent Treatment and Engaging with Each Other: An Experiment for You to Try

I’ve written extensively about the silent treatment on this blog.  I wrote my first post about it because I was receiving the silent treatment myself, and I felt that my energy would be better spent writing about it than trying to get the attention of the person who was giving it to me.  The person giving me the silent treatment at the time was not someone I had an intimate relationship with, so it was easy for me to disengage.  I had nothing to lose if that particular acquaintance ended, and it did end.  I had no idea that the original post would touch a nerve in so many people who receive or give the silent treatment in much more intimate relationships than the one that inspired it. I have learned quite a bit from those who have commented on this blog about their experiences, and those comments have pushed me to look more deeply at the silent treatment from different angles than I’d originally written about.  Sometimes these comments show me that there is more to say about something; that one post is only the beginning of the story.

Recently, a person commented on the post I’d written about disengaging from the silent treatment.  This was a post directed at both the person giving the silent treatment and the person receiving it, with suggestions for how to disengage from the dynamic of the silent treatment and how to redirect focus away from the person on the other end of it, to one’s self. The person who commented was receiving the silent treatment from her partner, was feeling distressed, and was looking for help.  Part of her comment jumped out at me: “I am trying to just go on with my daily things, work, house cleaning etc. Trying to show that it is not getting to me.”  This was not what I was trying to encourage when I wrote the post about disengaging from the silent treatment.  That post now feels incomplete because it only addresses how to disengage from the silent treatment but it does not talk about how to re-engage with either the person giving it or the person receiving it.

If someone is giving you the silent treatment, they likely feel that they can’t get to you any other way.  Another way to say “get to you” is “have an impact on you.”  The person giving the silent treatment is doing so because it has an impact.  This person is angry or hurt, and wants to have an impact on you and this is the only way that they know how to do it, the only way that works.  It is a waste of energy to pretend that they are not having an impact.  By pretending that the silent treatment is not having an impact, you are giving yourself the silent treatment too.  Do not ignore yourself just because your partner or friend or whoever is ignoring you.  Feel your feelings.  Attend to those feelings.  Treat yourself the way you want your partner to treat you, and prepare to talk to your partner about what it is you want to happen that is different than this.  Prepare to hear your partner talk, even if what they have to say might not be easy to hear.

If you are giving your partner the silent treatment, it is likely that they have done something to upset you and that you feel that there is no other way to make them stop doing the thing that upset you.  You might be afraid of telling your partner what they have done to make you angry enough to stop speaking to them altogether.  It might feel easier to let them rage until they’ve worn themselves out or let them apologize enough times, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem if you don’t tell them what the problem is. Prepare to talk to your partner, even if what you have to say will be hard for them to hear.

When you are changing a dynamic in a relationship, it can be scary and quite difficult to know how to do it.  If you are on the Internet reading articles such as this one, it is because you are looking for help, which is a very positive thing to do.  The downside is that whoever writes the articles does not know you or your partner. I know some things about the silent treatment and its many different manifestations, but I do not know you or your partner’s particular situation and history.  I am writing this post as a sort of springboard to get you started in talking with your partner on either side of the silent treatment, not so much as an endpoint that solves your problem.

Before trying to approach your partner from either side of the silent treatment, ask yourself if it is safe to do so.  Some commenters have described the silent treatment as part of an overall physically abusive relationship.  If you are in that situation, it may not be safe for you to be with your partner, and if you sense that this is the situation, no article about the silent treatment will help you.  If you are in a physically dangerous situation, you need to seek help from experts in the domestic violence field in your area.

If it does feel safe to try something new and approach your partner from either side of the silent treatment, then I offer the rest of this post as an experiment for you to try.  Before speaking to your partner, write them a note saying that you are trying to do things differently, but you don’t know where to begin.  Let them know that you have read a blog post that has some suggestions, and invite them to sit with you and read it together, in the same room.  Let them know that there are some ideas in this post that you would like to share, and that you would like to know what your partner thinks of these ideas, whether they resonate or whether they do not.  Just because this post resonates with you, that does not mean it will with your partner, but at the very least, you can share your perspective and offer to listen to theirs.  If you can agree to listen to each other without attacking or interrupting or name calling, just listen, you are at a great starting point.  If this feels impossible to do, it might be time to look into couples counseling, just to help you get started.

If you are caught in the dynamic of the silent treatment with your partner, it is important to understand that both of you contribute to it and that each of you needs to change something in yourself.  This is not a matter of right or wrong, and if you get stuck thinking so, you won’t get very far.  This is a matter of two people who want to have an impact on each other who don’t know how to in any other way.  If you are open to talking to and hearing from your partner about how you have impacted each other negatively, the chance for change is good.  The silent treatment only exists if two people are engaged in it.  Each person plays a role.  It is common in relationships to focus on what your partner is doing wrong, but harder sometimes to look inside and see how you’re contributing.  If you are the person giving the silent treatment, examine your behavior.  Ask yourself why you want to inflict pain on your partner by withdrawing into the silent treatment.  Do you need to learn to speak more?  If you are the person receiving the silent treatment, examine your behavior.  Do you need to learn to listen more?

One way to learn to talk and listen better is to stop talking altogether and instead, read and write, which brings me back to the experiment part of this post.  If you are reading this and imagining yourself writing a comment here, what would that comment be?  Instead of writing it here, both of you take a moment and write that “comment” and give it to your partner.  Know first that I have a policy of not approving comments that are mean-spirited or involve name-calling, so when you write the comment to share with your partner, imagine that it is being moderated by a therapist, and write it in a way that conforms to the moderation rules on this site.  It is totally possible to express anger without being mean-spirited or calling names, but if you feel tempted to do so, replace the mean-spirited words such as “stupid” with the phrase “I feel angry, or “I disagree” and replace any names you want to call your partner, such as “asshole” or “bitch” with “I feel angry.”  When you are done, agree to give each other some time to really read the comments you have written to each other.  Let each others’ writing sink in for a while.  Sit quietly together, and then decide together whether you are ready to speak, or if more writing is in order, but continue to stay with each other.  Understand that both of you have some big, ugly feelings and it might take a while to get them out.  This is just a first step toward transforming the overwhelming dynamic of the silent treatment to a new way of communicating.  If it works, keep doing it, and feel free to share the results here.  If it doesn’t, keep looking for ideas and trying things because that is how you grow!

Share if you are inspired.