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The Benefits Of Countermoves: A Follow-Up

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Dear Dr. Respler:

Having enjoyed your column, The Benefits of Countermoves (Dear Dr. Yael, 8-17), I am now seeking your suggestions regarding my problem in this area.

My husband practices the “silent treatment,” whereby if I tell him something not to his liking or if I do something that does not meet his approval (these acts are not meant to hurt him) he can stop talking to me for hours or even for one or two days. After awhile, he returns to his normal behavior and we never discuss the issue again.

I am almost afraid to raise this issue since he may return to the silent treatment. By nature I am a bubbly, gregarious person while he is quieter and more subdued. When we get along he loves my personality. However, if I become too bubbly or gregarious when we are among Shabbos guests or extended family and he disapproves of something that I said, he will stop talking to me. He can become this way with little provocation.

My husband’s behavior can be triggered if I tell someone something about myself that he thinks I should keep private. I will beg him to stop, tell him that I love him and even cry – but he won’t relent. He becomes cold and silent and I am at his mercy. I will try to do nice things for him and act lovingly toward him, but nothing works. When he gets like this I cannot reach him and he totally controls me. As a result, I become very tense and upset. He can ruin a Shabbos and destroy hours of happiness – all for nothing. Sometimes, I am not even sure what it was that I said that set him off.

We are in our first year of marriage and spend a lot of Shabbasos and Yamim Tovim by our parents. We are both from large families and both sets of parents have lots of guests on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Do you have any countermoves for my husband’s silent treatment? Other than the times I’ve described, we get along. But I am tired of crying and want my husband to stop with the silent treatment!

A Frustrated Newlywed

Dear Frustrated:

I have a great countermove for the silent treatment. To begin, you must stop giving your husband so much power over you. Thus, stop crying! It only feeds his power trip. Then tell him something like, “I understand that you need your space and I did not mean to upset you. When you are ready, I would love to talk to you.”

Then get busy with other things. Please do not feed into his need to control and upset you. If he persists in his no-talking mode, go out with friends. This will show him that you are busy and not upset. If you are close to your mother or sister, spend time with one or both of them – out of the house. When he sees that you are not begging him to be with you and that you are happy and content doing other things, you will see how quickly things will turn around.

What use will he have in playing the silent treatment game if you are not there to receive it? What pleasure will he derive if you are not upset and simply understand that he needs his space? Trust me that the silent treatment will disappear. You will be surprised at how quickly he will realize that it is no longer challenging or exciting to upset someone, namely you, who is so busy with her own life and is allowing him to sulk.

I have worked with many patients using this tactic. Sometimes it is the wife who practices the silent treatment. I had one patient, a husband, who would buy his wife expensive jewelry every time she went into her silent mode. When he tried my approach, she ended her shtick since it stopped getting her more jewelry or attention. He began learning more and spending more time in shul when she went silent. This caused her to quickly realize that she was losing all of his attention with her behavior. Believe it or not, she stopped using the silent treatment.

I do not like the “silent treatment.” It is passive-aggressive behavior (deeds that are acted out passively but that are, in reality, very mean and aggressive). This behavior is, in essence, extremely manipulative. For instance, jokes at the expense of a spouse (or anyone else) are not funny; they are passive-aggressive. Passive-aggressive behavior is generally a result of an inability to express anger in a healthy way. A person’s feelings may be so repressed that they may not even realize they are angry or are feeling resentment. A passive-aggressive individual can drive people around him or her crazy, and does not seem to realize what he or she is doing – even when confronted with the behavior. Due to their lack of insight into their feelings, passive- aggressive people often feel that other people misunderstand them or are holding them to unreasonable standards. Thus, as you mentioned, it would probably be unproductive to confront your husband about his behavior, as it will likely lead him to give you the silent treatment.

If you feel that you need to speak with your husband about the way he is acting, it is best to use the “I feel” message. I usually recommend talking about the way you feel, rather than talking about what you do not like in the other person’s behavior. This is especially important when dealing with someone who uses passive-aggressive defense mechanisms. Make sure to stay away from attacking your husband’s behavior and try instead to make your feelings the topic of the conversation. For example, consider saying something like, “I feel bad when you stop talking to me. It would be much easier for me if you discuss with me what is bothering you.”

My recommendation: change your countermove first and then speak with your husband if he continues to act in this manner. If these ideas are not helpful, please seek professional help. Hatzlachah!

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