The Silent Treatment vs Talking Through the Rough Patches

When your lover or spouse doesn’t want to talk, what do you do? Nag him until he spills whatever is going on? Allow time to do its thing, hoping eventually he opens up?

How about a few other options? Ways to gently encourage communication through the rough patches that occur in any relationship? Or is silence the better strategy – at least some of the time?

Two articles caught my interest recently on the subject of communication. The first addresses the issue of not pushing someone until they’re ready to express their feelings, while the second reminds us how damaging silence can be – as an enemy, or a weapon.

Rough Patches

Although it has been written that long-term marriages may successfully rely on judicious use of silence, most of us would agree that not talking may avoid confrontation, but it also avoids resolution of whatever may be wrong.

And we all go through tough times – something in our own lives that is eating away at us, or something askew in our relationship that we don’t know how to approach. And so a misunderstanding snowballs into a more significant disagreement, which then becomes blown out of proportion if we’re low on sleep, stressed at work, or the kids are driving us crazy. Maybe the source of the rough patch is work, but the drama at the office is seeping into your mood (or your spouse’s), and the result is a series of short-tempered exchanges.

You may know the problem and decide to back off: It’s one of those topics on which you’ve agreed to disagree, and you live with it. Then again, perhaps the rough patch really is a big deal – but you’ve never openly addressed the issue and allowed your partner the benefit of your feelings.

Some rough patches reveal underlying fault lines that were bound to be exposed eventually – a fundamental difference in parenting style or approach to finances, both of which may reflect divergent values.

Can communication help in a case like the former – those inevitable disagreements? I think so. As for the latter – when values clash – I don’t see how it hurts, if you believe that honestly confronting differences is better than living with the status quo. But we do have to be prepared to face some harsh realities about ourselves, our partners, and possibly, the future.

Is Your Partner a Talker? Are You?

The man in my life is a talker (thankfully), but my ex was not. The contrast is startling, and reminds me how it became my habit in marriage to avoid certain discussions or otherwise stay silent. He clammed up, I clammed up, and trust me – it’s a recipe for disaster.

On the occasions when I attempted to broach our differences, I found myself at a loss for words, or I was quickly put in my place by his superior debating skills, which essentially shut me up. And so we settled into a pleasant cadence of relatively superficial conversation – pleasant, but contributing to the growing gulf in our relationship.

I sometimes wonder if I should have insisted more with my ex, or done so earlier in our marriage, or searched out some sophisticated communication methodology. In retrospect, I doubt it would have changed the end result.

The irony is that I was once a talker, or certainly more so. Yet as my marriage progressed, I realized that I was increasingly non-communicative and couldn’t seem to stop the spiral downward. It was only after divorce, as I became more self-aware and attentive to what feeds a healthy relationship, that I recognized my own communication deficiencies and worked to improve them.

Encouraging Talk… When Ready

In this column from Your Tango, “How Pushy is TOO Pushy,” I find suggestions that make sense when you’re up against the silent treatment.

… When your partner clams up, it’s irritating and it’s worrisome too…  You want to know what you can do to support him or make the situation a little bit better… In an excruciating situation like this, the impulse for many is to push… Your intentions are good. So you put on pressure to encourage your partner to open up and tell you how he feels and what is really going on.

And this almost always backfires…

Pointing out that if your spouse wants to be left alone, you’d be wise to respect that fact, you should nonetheless pick a more appropriate time for discussion. In other words, don’t simply dismiss the issue, but defer it to when the emotion or fatigue is less of an impediment to talking. Then address what’s wrong in a clear and mature manner, with reassuring and non-judgmental language.

It goes without saying that if you’re dealing with a potentially painful subject, you need to steel yourself for hearing things that may be difficult – for you.

Silence is Golden? Not So Much

Psychology Today takes a look at the silent treatment from several angles. Noting that when we retreat into silence, we tend to create a sort of script of our own, we may imagine a conversation that is not actually taking place.

And we do so based on assumptions about what is bothering the other person, and how he or she would respond. That means we may be missing the problem altogether, or inadvertently making things worse.

In “Silence: A Relationship Killer,” psychotherapist and marriage counselor Mel Schwartz addresses the damaging effects of the silent treatment, and the importance of expressing our emotions verbally (anger for example). He writes:

… Problematic feelings that go unexpressed tend to percolate and boil over—they take on energy of their own, and the ensuing conflict hours or days later may have little correlation to the original emotional insult.

There is another side to silence as well – one in which the party that keeps his thoughts to himself is using this tactic as a method of control. After all, if we don’t know what he’s thinking, can’t we imagine the worst? Isn’t it a tool for undermining our confidence? A sort of mind game?

… When we don’t share our thoughts with each other, we are often doing so to control the other’s reactions and behavior. If they don’t know what we’re contemplating, then they can’t possibly respond.

Sex Heals All Wounds?

Of course, some couples cover up with sex. They may fight, resolve nothing, wind up in bed, have a great time, get out of bed – and the underlying issues remain an open wound.

Thinking that great sex compensates for poor communication is one way to keep a relationship going, but doesn’t it also create susceptibility to emotional affairs? Don’t most of us crave the sort of intimacy that comes from seeing eye to eye on what we care about? Aren’t those discoveries made in conversation – in bed or out?

Sure, the temporary intimacy (and diversion) can change your mood and lower barriers, as one or both of you becomes more willing to express whatever is on your mind. Or, it may simply postpone the silence, the avoidance, and the resentment that festers when verbal communication remains insufficient.

Then what?

I think back on the days when my younger son gave me the silent treatment, not out of malice, but a seeming inability to address whatever was wrong. I found it helpful to defer discussion to when he wasn’t overtired, he wasn’t hungry, and also – I got him out of the house.

Might these same tactics be helpful, even when dealing with an adult?