Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why Am I Getting The Silent Treatment?

What do we do when our partner won't speak to us for an extended period of time following a disagreement? How do we cope with getting the silent treatment?

Partners in relationships don't always agree. Each of us are individuals with our own wants and needs. Sometimes those wants and needs conflict. There are many ways to deal with conflict in relationships. Effective communication is the key to resolving differences between two parties. Each has their own point of view which may have validity. Both need to feel heard and validated for meaningful discussion to take place leading to compromise.

What happens when our partner doesn't participate in communication or compromise? Following a disagreement our partner may retreat within themselves and refuse to talk for an extended period of time. This type of withdrawal can last hours, days or even weeks. This does not mean they are not communicating. The silent treatment is a form of communication. It may be an unpopular form for us, the recipient, but it can be quite effective. Our partner is communicating their feelings quite clearly. Their non-verbal message says,"Do what I want" clear as a bell. It says something else as well. It says, "I am unwilling to listen to your opinion, negotiate or compromise".

This extended period of silence is a form of emotional blackmail. Many partners may need some time to process after a disagreement. However, when the time taken has nothing to do with processing and everything to do with punishing, we are no longer dealing with healthy self care, but with unhealthy emotional blackmail. This type of punishing behavior leaves us out in the cold. Our partner believes they can use their anger and silence to control us.

The unsaid message, however, speaks volumes. The emotional blackmailer is unwilling to communicate in an open forum where we can put forth our opinion. Our partner may feel frightened of direct communication. They may not feel adept at defending their views. Alternatively, the emotional blackmailer may feel shamed regarding their lack of ability to communicate or explain their feelings, leading them to refuse to talk at all. Finally, this may be a habit learned from a dysfunctional family of origin during childhood. If caretakers handled conflict in this manner, this may well be the only style our partner has known.

It is difficult to deal with emotional blackmail. The silent treatment may cause bitterness and resentment over time as partners build walls instead of bridges. Stressing the safety of our partner in the relationship and the importance of communication is a beginning. We, as the communicator, have the responsibility to continue to reach out to our partner with loving detachment.

During times when all is calm and we feel centered, we can lovingly set a boundary with our partner that is comfortable for us regarding the time we will tolerate silence. We then enforce that boundary by detaching when our partner becomes silent. We lovingly let them know that we are going to take care of ourselves and enjoy our time without them. They can contact us by telephone when they are again ready to speak. We reinforce that we are not angry and that we look forward to seeing them again when they feel better.

In this way we give ourselves the freedom to enjoy our time without having to witness their attempt at emotional blackmail. Our partner learns that if they want to enjoy time with us, they cannot continue this mode of behavior. When we reconnect we do so in a loving manner. This leaves our partner to begin to deal with their feelings in a new way. Patience and loving detachment are the keys to moving a relationship past emotional blackmail and the silent treatment. As difficult and time consuming as it may be, it is imperative to ensuring the long term survival of the relationship.

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