Yesterday, I read an article by a “life coach” who said that silent treatment was justified mostly because your partner “probably deserved it”. I read on hoping that the article would clarify this by looking at “time-outs” and drawing a clear distinction or that she might be referring to “no-contact”, a clear strategy when dealing with abuse or narcissism. I was, however, disappointed and the line continued that giving your partner “the cold shoulder” after conflict is fully justified. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, one can only hope this “coach” is not dealing with anyone trying to deal with conflict in a serious manner. Let me make it clear, silent treatment can never be justified and adds absolutely nothing to the process of conflict management in a relationship. It is passive-aggressive, emotional abuse of the highest order and no-one has the right to administer such punishment without consequence.
Where codependents are concerned, the effect on their emotional state can be devastating as they battle with the very issues of rejection and abandonment that caused the codependency in the first place. Such people plus anyone who has an anxious attachment style will struggle and will often “nag” their partner, hoping to end the torture of their silence. Often self-centred or “narcissistic” people will use the knowledge they have about their partner’s issues to consolidate their control over them and silent treatment is just one way they do this. In my experience, by the time the silent treatment ends, the person on the receiving end will often basically concede that they were wrong and apologise. If not and they try to set boundaries afterwards, they are met with “gaslighting”, ridicule or total denial from their partner of any responsibility.
I have often dealt with couples where one (or sometimes both) use silent treatment after conflict. When questioned as to why, they often describe a process that they were trying to de-escalate the situation, were afraid of releasing their own emotions or were stuck to know what to do and their flight response kicked in. These can be seen as valid reasons for a “time-out” but this always needs to be expressed:
“I am having an issue with what is happening here and I need (insert time) to gather my thoughts. Afterwards, I will be willing to discuss with you but please give me the time I ask for”
This protects the integrity of the relationship and manages expectations. Once said, both parties can prepare themselves emotionally for the discussion. Silent treatment or complete emotional withdrawal, on the other hand builds a defensive wall and is damaging for the relationship. It builds walls instead of bridges.
Another aspect here that cannot be ignored is the concept of punishment and control. Many people who live their life by strict rules or are abusive will use silent treatment as a form of punishment. ” you dared to challenge my assumption of what happened so you must be punished”. Such people will unfortunately use the same tactics on their children using emotional and sometimes physical withdrawal as a control tactic. It is designed to the leave the person on the other end with their feelings and thoughts to themselves and to “think about what they did”.
While I admit that it is hard for codependents to handle the following without help, there are some measures you can take when someone gives you the silent treatment and some realisations to come to if they continue. Please remember, the power in silent treatment comes very much from so-called “push-pull” dynamics of a relationship. Someone giving you this treatment will fully expect you to chase them to end it, thus giving them more control over the outcome and the process. I always tell my clients to acknowledge the space anyway:
“Ok…I see you need some time, I understand and respect that. However, I feel disappointed that you do not feel you can engage with me in a mature manner. Take what you need but you have to accept that I might not be ready to discuss when you decide you are ready”
This one statement can take away the power of silent treatment and puts the emphasis and responsibility on the person who dishes it out. If your partner continues to use silent treatment as an abusive tactic and will not change, then you need to realise that staying in the relationship means that you are sending the message that it is fine to abuse you.