Dr. Bob Wright | October 5, 2016

Passive Aggressive Silent
Treatment: How To Break
the Cycle & Free
Your Relationship

Ever been so pissed off at your partner you put up a wall and enforce “the silent treatment”? (…who hasn’t?!) Or, are you sick of being on the receiving end of the cold shoulder?



Or maybe the two of you are BOTH guilty of this type of passive aggressive behavior. It’s time to break the cycle.

You know the drill. Your partner does something that annoys you, so you think to yourself, “I’m so irritated right now. I’ll show him! I’m not going to speak to him until he notices just how wrong he is—and how frustrated I am.” Then you skulk around, huffing and making just enough noise so he notices you’re there and hopefully realizes you’re ticked off.

Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of the silent treatment. Half the time, do you even know what you did wrong? Nope! You can usually sense your partner is mad. While they say they don’t want to talk about it, you’re definitely aware they’re upset. So you tiptoe around passive aggressively and wait until one of you finally snaps and says what’s bothering you.

When this type of silent treatment standoff happens, it goes nowhere. The two of you sit there battling it out, unsatisfied and unproductive. The silent treatment is useless. It satisfies neither of you, and it doesn’t result in any positive outcomes.

The silent treatment is like creating a field of landmines. You’re not waging a war. You’re tiptoeing around trying not to trigger any major explosions. It’s like walking on eggshells—and it can really take a toll on your relationship. In fact, it can be even more damaging than cleaning up the aftermath of a healthy fight and productive confrontation.

Navigating on a silent battlefield leads to paranoia, indifference and frustration. It creates greater distance and pushes the two of you further and further apart. You’re never quite sure how to step or where to go, and so eventually you either become anxious or you just stop caring. Neither one is a great outcome. While no relationship is perfect, the silent treatment can damage even the best relationships beyond repair.

Why We Give Each Other the Silent Treatment

So if it’s so bad, why do we do it?! Even more, why have we done it since we were in grade school and why did we see our mothers and fathers give each other the silent middle finger so many times growing up?

Many of us are raised to believe that passive aggressive silent treatment behavior is just part of being a couple.

The root of our propensity toward the passive aggressive silent treatment begins in childhood during the terrible twos. We’re just learning how to exercise our own will and to establish boundaries. We want things and we’re demanding. When we demanded something from our parents, our siblings or a friend, chances are we were probably shot down. We didn’t always get what we wanted. As children, when we don’t get what we want, we establish the belief that people don’t want to please us—a belief that lasts into adulthood.

What did we do when we didn’t get what we wanted as a two-year-old? We threw a raging temper tantrum, of course! We probably yelled and cried and stomped our feet. Maybe it worked and maybe it didn’t, but we definitely got someone’s attention. We learned that we could stomp our feet to clue someone in to our displeasure. They might not give in, but in a way, we could punish them. It gave us a sense of control.

So with this belief that people didn’t want to give us our way, we learned to give and accept punishment. Flash forward to adulthood and we’re still engaged in the same self-fulfilling prophecy. When our partner doesn’t give us our way, we’re going to punish them by being silent. Then, our partner gets mad that we’re silent, so they punish us—and round and round we go.

It’s an endless cycle:

  1. My partner doesn’t want to please me,
  2. So I act in a displeasing way,
  3. Which causes my partner to believe I’m a jerk,
  4. So my partner acts in a way that doesn’t please me,
  5. Which confirms my belief that my partner doesn’t want to please me.

Sound familiar?

Recognizing the Limiting Beliefs Behind the Silent Punishment

Unfortunately, none of us were blessed with psychic abilities (and if we were, we’d all be lottery winners). Our partners aren’t mind readers, but yet, we hold out and wait for them to do the things we want them to do. We’re afraid to tell them what we want. Then when they don’t do what we want, we punish them for not reading our minds.

Why? It goes back to our limiting beliefs established well before we were even aware. People that come from mind-reading families tend to believe: If you really love me, you would do X. If I have to ask for X, X becomes less worthwhile. It sounds so adolescent and outlandish, but think back to the last time you or your partner gave each other the cold shoulder. It felt pretty juvenile, didn’t it?

Giving your significant other the silent treatment is really a reflection of your own limiting belief that you’re not strong enough to just ask for what you really want without fear of rejection. When you punish your partner, you’re really diminishing yourself. You’re saying you aren’t equal, you’re weak, and you have to resort to passive aggression over confrontation and conflict. Instead of engaging, you’re disengaging and your relationship is paying the price.

Coming to a Win-Win Outcome: Overcoming the Silent Treatment

So how do we fix this silent minefield we’re battling on? Is it about just letting go of your frustration and irritation?

NO! It’s about embracing what you want, not diminishing it! You need to be able to ask for what you want freely so your partner knows what you want, and then you can make decisions together that make BOTH sides happy! Get to the heart of the fight and embrace the conflict.

When you bristle at something your partner does, like leaving dirty dishes in the sink, teasing you at a party, or not holding your hand in public, get down to the real heart of the issue. What is it you want from your partner? It’s not clean dishes, a better sense of humor, or even a warm hand. It’s respect! It’s appreciation! It’s affection! Those deeper yearnings that counter those limiting beliefs and say, “Yes, I am worthy of respect and I deserve it!”

Articulate your feelings to your partner and let them know what you really want! It takes skills and time to learn how to fully listen to each other and to have productive fights with win-win outcomes, but it can definitely happen! Rather than shutting down, speak up and put it out there on the table. Talk about the situations rather than glossing over them.

Stop Giving Each Other the Silent Treatment – Go For What You Want!

Judith still remembers a moment early on in our relationship when I told her, “I want you to go for everything you want in this relationship—but that doesn’t mean there won’t be times when I’ll want to stop you. So I’m not promising to meet all your wants and needs, but I am saying that, as a ground rule of this relationship, both of us should seek out the fullest satisfaction from each other.”

Many people are more aware of what they don’t want, rather than what they do want. Stop giving each other the silent treatment, and start pleasing each other and going for what you really want in your relationship. Soon, you’ll be battling toward bliss, rather than walking on eggshells.

Learn more by visiting Wright Living. Discover how you can engage, strengthen your relationships, and get more out of your interactions today and every day. You can also join us for our next Foundations Weekend Training, where you’ll jumpstart your social and emotional intelligence skills and learn how to be your best self!

About the Author

Bob-300x250-1

Dr. Bob Wright is an internationally recognized visionary, educator, program developer, leadership and sales executive, best-selling author and speaker. He is a co-founder of Wright and the Wright Graduate University.


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