Why the "Silent Treatment" is a Commitment Killer

When our son was small, my husband and I used to fight all the time.  Who fed him last?  Who changed him?  Whose turn was it to go off by themselves for a while?  A lot of the time we yelled at each other until someone just gave up and walked away.

But the most damaging fights were the ones when we stopped talking to each other.  Now a new study has found that the “silent treatment” can ruin a relationship.

As a child, my mom pulled the same sort of thing.  She was great at withdrawing.  When I was older, I learned that it was from depression and numbing herself with alcohol and painkillers.  But she just wasn't there.  I learned to get around it but I'd have to say it affected me for life.

They say you marry your mother (even women), and my husband, sad to say, used to share a lot of qualities with her.  It didn't take much to make him mad, and when it did, he would retreat into silence for sometimes days. I think we even went for a week once.

He'd slam doors and cabinets but he wouldn't say a word. 

As our son got older, and I, busier with work, I would just ignore him and eventually one or the other of us would pretend it never happened and life would go on.  But the anger would linger, eating away at our relationship. And I'm guilty, too.  If he looked bored when I talked about my friends, or refused to stand up for me when his mother insulted me, I'd go silent, too.

“It’s the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,” says Paul Schrodt, Ph.D., professor and graduate director of communication studies at Texas Christian University, at newswise.com. “And it does tremendous damage.”
Research shows couples engaged in this kind of behavior experience lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy and poorer communication. That was certainly true for us.  I came close several times to leaving my husband, but didn't have enough finances or outside support.  The damage can be emotional and physical; this "demand-withdraw pattern" can, big surprise, cause anxiety and aggression.  There were some scary moments as well, when I saw the anger build.  I even took my cell with me once on a run, just in case he got violent when I got home (he didn't). 

It’s also a very hard pattern to break.

A lot if it had to do with me feeling insecure.  If he loved me, would he really not be interested when I had a problem?  (When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, he only went once with me to the doctor.  I now know it was abject fear but back then, I was sure it was because he didn't care.)

So, I'd stop talking to him.  (Of course, most of the time he didn't have a clue why!)  But a lot had to do with how much I loved myself.  Becoming a mother was great but I hated leaving the workplace.  My whole identity was tied up in being a writer (I didn't learn this till much later) and having to stay home with a baby -- and a husband who was disengaged -- left me feeling pretty unimportant and worthless.

 “Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,” says Schrodt. “Both partners see the other as the problem.” Ask the wife – whom research shows is more often the demanding partner – and she’ll complain that her husband is closed off, emotionally unavailable, he says. Ask the husband and he’ll say he might open up if she’d just back off. Regardless of the role each partner plays, the outcome is equally distressing, the professor says.

Either way, “It’s a real, serious sign of distress in the relationship," adds Schrodt.


These days, I don't know whether it's just that we're older or that life has gotten shorter, but I can't remember the last time we did this.  It probably has something to do with the fact that I finally realized I wasn't angry, I was hurt.  Deeply wounded.  Many people had left me, or "disappeared" in my life, and I was terrified he was leaving, too.

Usually now, when one or the other of us gets mad, someone says, sorry (ooh, that was painful, in the beginning), and sometimes, we even hug.  I guess we've finally grown up.





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