Dear Dr. Yael,
My wife uses the silent treatment on me often. I feel so shut out. I ask her to communicate what upsets her. The silent treatment makes me feel so helpless. Please help me reach my wife.
People usually use the silent treatment in relationships as a manipulation tactic and it generally leaves important issues unresolved. Furthermore, when one spouse uses the silent treatment, the other is left feeling worthless, unloved, hurt, confused, frustrated, angry, and unimportant. In abusive relationships, the silent treatment is used to manipulate the other individual and to enact power over the other individual. In non-abusive relationships, the silent treatment often has different motives and it may actually be referred to as demand-withdraw interactions. It’s called this because one person in the relationship makes demands, while the other person withdraws or becomes silent. Although these interactions may seem similar to the silent treatment, in demand-withdraw interactions, the demanding person feels ignored and that their emotional needs are not being met, while the withdrawing person resorts to silence because of hurt feelings and/or an unwillingness or inability to talk about those feelings. While this is not abusive, research shows that couples who have this type of relationship are often less content in their relationship and have less communication as well as less closeness. Research also found that there is more anxiety and aggression in relationships with demand-withdraw interactions.
It is important for you to ascertain what is happening in your relationship. Is your wife using the silent treatment as a manipulation tactic or is she using it because she doesn’t know how to talk about her feelings? If your wife is using silence as a passive-aggressive, manipulative tactic, it would be prudent for you to seek professional marital help and for your wife to see a therapist to help her learn to be less passive-aggressive. It is hard to give suggestions for this issue as it is deeper and needs professional intervention. However, if your wife is struggling to express her feelings and is afraid to do so, she may be protecting herself by using the silent treatment. In this case, it may be helpful to empathize with your wife. It is also very important to find better ways to communicate and to deal with difficult feelings and situations. Using “I messages” to express your feelings is generally less threatening than saying “you statements,” as starting a sentence with “you” almost always puts people on the defensive. Seeking a marriage counselor to help you both communicate better and more effectively manage conflict can be extremely beneficial. In the meantime, you can try some of these ideas.
- Stop trying to get your wife to talk to you or acknowledge you.
- Walk away if your wife is giving you the silent treatment.
- Do something you enjoy (if your wife is trying to upset you by ignoring you, it will be helpful to not let it “bother you” and to do something you like to do, so she realizes she doesn’t have that kind of power over you).
Hatzlacha in dealing with this challenging situation. Please seek professional help to facilitate better communication in you relationship.