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Dr. Judith Wright | July 18, 2022

Does the Silent Treatment Work? Here’s What You Should Know

We’ve all had moments in a relationship when we silently stew about something our spouse says. But does the silent treatment really work in relationships? Are we “showing” the other person how we feel, or are we just creating more of a divide. Here’s why the silent treatment isn’t the answer–why you should speak up and engage, even if it gets messy!

does the silent treatment work

I remember one night when Bob and I had fought. I was SO mad, I stomped out of the bedroom and slammed the door.

There. That will show him, I thought!

It was winter, cold, and here I was pacing around the icy living room. But I was showing him, right? So, I kept pacing and fuming and freezing, all while he was warm and snug in bed.

But as I thought about our big pillows and cozy comforter, I got even madder. What was happening? Here I was trying to punish him, and there he was all cozy in the nice warm bed and I was the one who was freezing!

So, I shifted. That is the power of the social and emotional intelligence training we do at the Wright Foundation, and which Bob and I have been studying and practicing for years. I started to orient toward our shared vision for our relationship: to go deeper, talk about what’s bothering us, tell deeper truths, and work to understand ourselves and each other– and grow closer as a result.

Fortunately for me, our vision for US was, and still is, bigger than my foolish pride. I didn’t need to “save face” by continuing to stomp and fume in the freezing cold. I could simply go back in and talk about what had gotten me so upset in the first place.

What a gift!

 

Vision Helps You See Your Relationship Clearly

When I would give Bob the silent treatment, he said it was one of the things that would hurt him the most. I was punishing him without telling him what I was punishing him for! And in my heart of hearts, he was the person I wanted to hurt the least!

If I didn’t have my vision to orient myself towards every time I got angry, then stomping, fuming, and door slamming would have been all I had. And, I would have been too “proud” to back down and actually talk things through without a compelling higher vision to orient toward.

Every journey begins with a vision. When we want to achieve something, we often envision the outcome and work toward that idea, whether it’s buying a house, getting a promotion at work, or raising children. Nothing happens without first having a picture of the desired end in our minds.

When we begin the journey of a partnership, we can explore each other’s individual visions, AS WELL AS the shared vision of the relationship. When we align our yearnings and our hearts’ deep desires, we stack the odds in favor of the relationship growing positively in love.

For most couples, yearnings and unmet yearnings are at the heart of every fight. We often say that meeting yearnings make couples tick, and unmet yearnings tick couples off.

We all want to make our relationships tick as much as possible, right? No one wants a fight, but the truth is, seeking conflict SHOULD be a regular occurrence in relationships. Let’s not shy away from being ticked off!

Am I actually saying that we should get mad at our partners? Yes! Because we’re going to get mad at them anyway. Life IS conflict. So let’s get mad purposefully.

Being angry is simply an opportunity to speak our yearnings, our visions for ourselves, and our relationships out loud. To remember what is at the center of our hearts, individually and together.

When we can do that, our path brings us right back to love. And each other.

 

Is Silence Ever Acceptable?

The silent treatment is non-productive and hurtful. Think about it. You’re coldly punishing someone. You’re withdrawing your affection without telling them why.

The silent treatment, also known as stonewalling, is NOT a tool you want in your relationship toolbox.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute, talk about stonewalling as one of the “four horsemen” that can rip apart a relationship. In the New Testament, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times: conquest, war, hunger, and death. The Gottman’s use that metaphor by naming the four horsemen that represent the end of a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Not sure if you’re stonewalling or being stonewalled?


Stonewalling happens anytime the listener withdraws from the conversation and tunes out, turns away, acts busy, or engages in obsessive or distracting behaviors.


It’s important to recognize that when you are tempted to stonewall, you might be in a triggered psychological state and unable to discuss anything rationally. Think about it—you’re trying to get another person to feel as bad as you do by acting passively-aggressively.

What can you do instead of slamming the door and walking out? Have a Time Out! Ask for a 20-minute reprieve and take care of YOU. Love yourself. Go deeper inside yourself to know what is triggering you, what you are really feeling. Do whatever helps you feel more connected to your heart. Take a walk, read a favorite book, listen to a favorite song, hug a beloved pet. But make sure you go back to the fight or the topic within a certain amount of time–don’t use the time out as a stonewalling tactic!

This is SO important. Once you start, stonewalling can be a habit that’s hard to stop. Having an alternate plan to intervene with your triggered behavior is crucial.

But can silence in a relationship ever be acceptable?

 

When Silence Speaks Volumes

There is a way to use silence that CAN be productive.

This kind of silence occurs when we’re present. When we’re there to be a witness. To be witnessed. To allow our presence to speak and hear volumes.

When we use silence like that, we are saying that we’re delighted to have the privilege to be there just to listen. That we know that we, too, will be heard.

We are saying that we trust that each of us has everything we need to solve our own problems.

Marina Abramovich is a performance artist who spent seven hundred hours exploring this at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. Seven hundred hours of sitting in a chair just being. Each day, she was present and silent while people came one after another to sit in the chair across from her. In this profound encounter of someone just being with them, beholding and seeing them, their faces filled with emotion–many spontaneously bursting into tears, others beaming with deep joy.

We don’t have to be silent for 700 hours. But if we could be willing to sit across from the ones we love for one minute of silence now and then, and take in everything about them without trying to change anything, just imagine what we might hear.

 

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