The ‘silent treatment’ is a sign of an unhealthy relationship

Communication is one of the most important factors in any healthy relationship – whether it’s with family, friends, loved ones, coworkers, bosses, or whomever. And much of the social conflict we experience in our lives is due to some type of miscommunication or lack of communication.

One study published in the journal Personal Relationships has identified one pattern that’s common in most negative and toxic relationships.

Psychologists looked at over 100 married couples in the U.S. and had them keep diary reports of the status of their marriage and current marital conflicts. The participants also rated their individual depressive symptoms. By analyzing these reports, researchers discovered that a “demand-withdraw” pattern was one of the biggest predictors of marital dissatisfaction and symptoms of spousal depression.

A “demand-withdraw” pattern is when one individual attempts to “demand” a change from their partner, and the partner “withdraws” from the conflict by walking away, being silent, or pretending to ignore the other person.

Both types of behaviors can be damaging toward a relationship: 1) Trying to force someone to make a change, and 2) Not communicating with your partner.

One of the most popular examples of this type of communication style is the “silent treatment.” This is when someone tries to express that they are mad by completely cutting off any communication with the other person: no verbal responses, no answering phone calls, no text messages, no eye contact, etc.

While it may feel good in the moment to give someone the “silent treatment” because you feel you are “getting back” at the other person and expressing your anger or disgust at them, it often leads to harmful consequences in most relationships.

Of course, being comfortable with silence is healthy, whether it’s enjoying a peaceful moment together, or simply listening to your partner without needing to interject or get the last word in. There’s nothing wrong with “silence” in itself.

The “silent treatment,” however, is often manipulative and purposefully designed to get a response out of your partner or make them feel a certain way. And that can be unhealthy.

In the article “How to Defuse Heated Arguments”, I summarize the model presented in the book Crucial Conversation which explains how both “silence” and “violence” are different ways of shutting down communication.

Both “silence” and “violence” are ways we cut off meaningful dialogue, stop the flow of information to one another, and ultimately hurt our ability to understand one another and resolve social conflict.

While certain situations may call for us to withdraw and not respond (especially if a conversation is already too intense and not going anywhere productive in that moment), we ultimately need to learn how to speak our minds in a respectful and deliberate way.

According to the authors of the study…

    “Demand-withdraw patterns were consistently related to greater likelihood of negative tactics (i.e., threat, physical distress, verbal hostility, aggression) and higher levels of negative emotions (i.e., anger, sadness, fear), and to lower likelihood of constructive tactics (i.e., affection, support, problem solving, compromise) and lower levels of positivity.”

This is why tactics like the “silent treatment” are a big sign that you are in a toxic relationship.

If you or your partner are someone who consistently uses the “silent treatment” to get your way or manipulate the other person’s behavior, then that is often just creating unnecessary hostility and negativity. You can’t find solutions to problems if you aren’t talking about them.

If this sounds like you or your partner, it may be time to re-think your communication style (or the overall strength of your relationship).

The “silent treatment” doesn’t solve anything. It just makes the other person feel they are being hurt or ignored, causing negative emotions and resentment. It doesn’t usually bring a couple any closer to a solution or compromise that will help the relationship grow and improve.

To start, we should be more mindful of when the “silent treatment” is being used in our relationships and recognize that it is often an unhealthy and destructive pattern.

The most important thing to learn is how to communicate your feelings in a constructive way that doesn’t come off as manipulative or aggressive. Being honest about how you feel and expressing yourself is essential to making a relationship work.

Of course every relationship is going to come across new obstacles and difficulties. That’s just a part of making a relationship work. People don’t just get married and everything becomes magically “perfect” for the rest of their lives. But ignoring these problems isn’t the best answer – it will only make things worse.

While it may be uncomfortable to talk about the problems going on in your relationships, it’s often better to experience that short-term discomfort and have a difficult conversation than to continue to let it build silently and allow it to transform into a more long-term struggle.

If you choose to ignore the problems in your relationships or be silent about them, then you should only expect that those problems will continue to occur and get much worse. Problems don’t often solve themselves by you ignoring them or refusing to talk about them.

Stop using the “silent treatment” to manipulate others! It doesn’t work!