Have you ever been in an argument with your partner where instead of talking through the issue, you decided to give him or her the silent treatment? Yeah, we probably all have. Sometimes just ignoring the person who is making you want to lose your mind is easier than hashing it out!
Interestingly, this relational response has been documented by clinicians since the 1930's but hasn't been thoroughly researched until recent times. A meta-analysis (when a large body of research on a topic is analyzed to find common threads and patterns) was conducted on this current research . Collectively, these studies showed that giving your romantic partner the silent treatment is one of the quickest ways to doom your relationship. Disturbingly, it's also one of the most frequently used responses to conflict in romantic relationships. Yikes!
The silent treatment is part of what is called the demand-withdraw pattern, which happens when one partner makes constant requests of the other and is met with frequent repudiation. Typically, the way the refusing partner expresses their denial is by ignoring their partner, which is of course what is known as the silent treatment.
Exactly how destructive is the silent treatment? One study showed that it can bring about relationship dissatisfaction, and even divorce. Partners who engage in the silent treatment generally have worse communication than their non-silent treatment practicing counterparts and have less intimacy.
Why do we practice the silent treatment, anyway? "The silent treatment is caused by a combination of hurt feelings and an inability or unwillingness to talk about them," an Oregon counselor reported to the Chicago Tribune. Another therapist who reported to the Tribune says "Ultimately, it has nothing to do with the argument but needing to feel like you are in control of something when everything else around you is spinning out of control."
Basically, we go silent when our partner makes constant demands of us, because we want to grab hold of control in the relationship. This will then lead your partner to feel the same way and you're caught in a never ending power struggle, with a side of resentment.
Interestingly, women are more likely than men to be the demanders in the demand-withdrawal cycle, when it comes to the silent treatment. Could this say anything about gender? Even though the researcher didn't look into this factor, I'm guessing that women are probably overwhelmed or want their partner to help them relieve their stress (which are where the demands come from), while men just see this behavior as incessant nagging that doesn't need to be addressed. After all, women still do the majority of the housework, even when both partners work full-time.
Caught in the middle of the cycle? To break free of the silent treatment, talk it out. Researchers suggest finding a time other than the middle of a heated argument to address this pattern in your relationship. It's important to take ownership for your role in the silent treatment though, since placing blame usually doesn't do much to improve the state of your relationship. The researchers also found a connection between couple's in the demand-withdrawal cycle and mental illness, so you also may want to consult a psychologist if you suspect that's contributing to the problem.
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