When Jim returned home from his Saturday fishing trip, his wife, Marlene, was withdrawn—cold as ice. Alas, the all too familiar silent treatment had set in. He asked Marlene if there was a problem. With her head turned away, she murmured a mere, “No.” Remaining calm and unaffected, he said, “Well, you’re not acting as if nothing’s wrong.” He then encouraged her to say more. She didn’t respond. At this point, Jim had two alternatives: either invest agonizing energy into altering her mood, or just let it play out. He chose to let it play out.
A wise choice on his part, because silent treatments are best ignored. Attempts to squelch them have a way of simply reinforcing them. Silent treatments are a substitute for verbalizing. As children, indirect communication may have been the sole option for some. Perhaps they were screamed at or ignored for speaking up directly.
As a young child, Marlene may have been taken seriously only when she got quiet and emitted vibes of being annoyed or hurt. If so, she learned that there is a greater payoff for going quiet than for speaking up. Her manner, though, is self-defeating in an adult partnership of equals. How can Jim be attuned to her needs if she alienates him—if he’s left in the dark?
Before he started counseling, whenever Marlene would go silent on him, Jim’s urge to fix the situation would be overwhelming. Tormented with guilt and unrest, he would try anything—short of turning cartwheels—to appease her. It never made a difference. Instead, it only left him feeling disgusted with himself.
Now, Jim doesn’t get caught up in those antics.
He has come to realize that the solution to dealing with Marlene’s silent treatments lies in changing conditions in himself as opposed to changing external factors.
In the past, if someone was withdrawn or angry with him, Jim automatically assumed he was at fault. But Jim is no longer inclined to accept blame that doesn’t belong to him.
In our counseling sessions, I emphasized to Jim: “Don’t be managed by silent treatments. Refuse to take the bait.” Instead, I urged him to practice integrity. Silent treatments are designed to control or punish. Thus the term “punishing silences.”
Inherently, they are an insidious form of aggression. Not only do the aggressors hide their weapons, they don’t see themselves as aggressors. Intent on believing they have been wronged in some way, they view themselves as victims and therefore feel justified to punish.
Being on the receiving end of a cold shoulder can be an intensely frustrating experience. Because there’s an unwillingness to discuss the unspoken complaint, people in Jim’s position are declared guilty without knowing why and without being given the opportunity to defend themselves.
The fair and open approach entails dialogue between both parties, mutually engaged in seeking a satisfying resolution.
Jim made such an attempt soon after returning from his Saturday fishing trip. In a forthright manner he invited open dialogue, giving Marlene ample opportunity to express what was on her mind. He wasn’t nasty about it, nor did he come off like a puppy deserving of a good whipping. He merely attempted to address an obvious problem.
Jim went as far with it as he could—the rest was up to her. Her manner exuded alienation, leaving him no healthy alternative to backing off. In so doing, the responsibility for Marlene’s mood was appropriately placed squarely in her lap.
Jim and Marlene went about their weekend barely speaking a word. The atmosphere was thick with silence—and tension. By Sunday evening the silence broke.
Apologizing for her behavior, Marlene explained what her problem was. She was disappointed when he chose to go fishing because she had been anticipating a romantic weekend—time with just the two of them. Ironically, since Marlene failed to be up front about her desires and expectations she sabotaged the entire weekend with her sulking. Her apology was a victory for integrity.
Had Jim manifested his former pattern of absorbing blame and engaging in feverish attempts to appease his wife, a different outcome could be anticipated. More than likely, the silence would have culminated with Jim groveling apologetically and Marlene enshrined in her self-righteousness.
Instead of surrendering to guilt, though, Jim displayed strength and poise, thus uplifting the dynamic between them. Quite possibly, Jim’s demonstration of unyielding integrity stimulated some healthy soul-searching on Marlene’s part.
Her use of silent treatments may become a relic from her past. Now, at least, Jim is breathing new life into the pattern of their relating. By changing his behavior, he’s stimulating Marlene to follow suit.
(c) Salee Reese 2018
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.