In our dream relationship, it’s all clear sailing. There are very few disagreements and when they come up, we talk through them, calm and collected. We always listen actively. We never go to bed angry.
But oftentimes, that’s a far cry from the relationship we actually experience. The reality is a lot messier. Sometimes, the communication starts out rocky. Sometimes things start out great—open, candid, compassionate—but as time goes on, you start to drift and your communication suffers. But, from time to time in most relationships, one or both of you is probably going to act in a not-so-mature way. And one of the most common ways this can happen is with the dreaded silent treatment.
Yup, that old chestnut. Some people are more prone to giving the silent treatment than others and, if you’re not someone who ever does it, then it can be a confounding and frustrating thing when someone does it to you. It’s amazing the huge distance that can grow between people when one of them shuts down emotionally—even if you’re lying next to each other in the same bed.
And a silent treatment is never the mature way to go about things—I’m not going to make any excuses for it—but, by understanding why your partner is doing it, you have a better chance of reaching them. It’s not about excuses, it’s about finding the best way to deal with it. Here’s what you need to know.
Sometimes They’re Doing It as a Punishment
This is probably the least mature choice you can make when it comes to communication, but it happens—people use the silent treatment to punish their partner. Either they want to make it clear that their partner has done something they don’t approve of—stayed out too late, said something too harsh in a fight—when they don’t actually want to deal with confrontation.
Sometimes, it’s just your partner being immature, but sometimes it’s more sinister—silent treatments are an effective form of coercive control. They manage to put you on edge and often make you desperate to make it up to the person and make the punishment stop—even if what you did wasn’t actually wrong. If your partner gives you the silent treatment a lot, make sure that they don’t display other manipulative behaviors.
Sometimes It’s Because They’re Shutting Down
Even though the silent treatment is never a great choice, this version of it is a little more understandable—sometimes a person because so overwhelmed, hurt, or frustrated, that they just emotionally shut down. It may not even be a choice—for some people, it’s a form of self-protection. If your relationship has been sliding into a really bad place—or if something happens suddenly that changes your dynamic—the silent treatment might be them retreating and collapsing in on themselves.
Either Way, You Need to Face It Head-On
The silent treatment can happen for very different reasons, but you should know your partner well enough to guess which one it is. The silent treatment as a punishment is an aggressive move, but if your partner is retreating, that’s more reactionary. Either way, you need to break through it. Tell your partner that you’ve noticed that they’ve changed and ask what you can do to help make it better. Say that you’re willing to listen—really listen—and let them have the floor first. If they’re resistant or difficult, point out that it’s not a very mature way to handle a disagreement. Explain how it makes you feel—that you’re hurt by the silence and wish they would meet you halfway.
But, sometimes the silent treatment is a really punishing form of control. If it’s paired with other controlling behaviors—like if they give you the silent treatment because you saw your friends—you need to call them out on that. If they think that’s an OK way to behave, it might not be the relationship for you. Try to view the silent treatment in context to see if it’s part of a larger toxic relationship or just your partner struggling to express themselves.
Although we’d all like to have perfect communication all the time, the silent treatment still rears its ugly head—and more often than we’d like to think. If your partner is giving you the silent treatment, work out if it’s because they’re hurting—or because they’re trying to hurt you. Either way, make sure you deal with it directly and come up with a plan to keep it from happening again. Maybe it means you need to check in with each other more regularly or that you both need to control your tempers more when you disagree. Once communication is established, figure out a way to move forward. Neither of you deserves the silent treatment.