What the ‘silent treatment’ is really saying

Deven Dusseau, 21, a nursing student from Clinton and Jessica Chappell, 18, a photographic technologies student from Ypsilanti.

Deven Dusseau, 21, a nursing student from Clinton and Jessica Chappell, 18, a photographic technologies

News Editor


If relationship problems are bricks, and the silent treatment is glue, some couples may be building walls of unresolved problems so thick that they won’t be able to tear them down.

That is the comparison made by Dr. Cassandra George-Sturges, a psychology instructor in the Behavioral Sciences department at Washtenaw Community College.

When partners shut one another out, they may underestimate the seriousness of the act they are committing.

“It’s a way of control,” said Candice Worthy, a mental health therapist at Worthy Counseling Services in Trenton. “Another word for it would be emotional abuse.”

This behavior is ingrained long before a person’s first romantic relationship.

“It’s a learned behavior,” George-Sturges said.

The feelings associated with being ostracized, resulting from the silent treatment, are the foundation of what makes the well-known and widely-used “timeout” so effective with children. The pain of feeling ostracized leads them to change their behavior so as to not feel that way again. Children may also observe their parents using the silent treatment against each other.

“My mother used the silent treatment a lot,” George-Sturges said. “As a child, to me, it was torturous.” She cites this as one of the reasons she’s so against it today.

The silent treatment, dubbed the “demand-withdrawal method” by researchers, is a passive-aggressive, manipulative behavior that puts the person using it in control of the situation. The individual on the receiving end, however, is left in the dark.

“You don’t know what that person’s thinking; you don’t know if they’re going to leave, and you don’t know what their next move is,” George-Sturges said.

A disconnect in communication can spell disaster for a relationship. It can also manifest physically due to the effects that being ostracized has on the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, which detects pain. Giving someone the silent treatment can cause that person physical pain.

“It can cause anxiety, low self-esteem, confusion, inability to communicate and miscommunication,” Worthy said. You also forget what needed to be resolved.

Math and science major, Brandy Bradley, 33, of Chelsea, is adamantly against the silent treatment and refuses to allow it in her marriage.

“That seems like a lot of work,” Bradley said. “I believe in getting it all out there. I will follow you around.”

But old habits die hard when it comes to giving up the silent treatment.

“How can you stop using something that causes people to call you consistently and make up with you?” George-Sturges said.

It’s important that couples seek help for this problem early on. Part of being in a relationship is the vulnerability of communication.

“To tell someone how you really feel makes you look vulnerable and maybe insecure,” George-Sturges said. “But I’d rather be vulnerable and insecure than to just stop speaking to you.”

How can couples communicate more effectively?

It is important to address issues when they transpire, particularly small issues, such as someone not washing the dishes. But it must be done productively.

“Instead of immediately attacking, find different ways to suggest ways to complete the task,” Worthy said.

It is also important to use the word “I,” instead of “you.” Using “you” is accusatory, and can cause a person to feel the need to defend themselves, potentially worsening the situation.

“It’s to take accountability and ownership for your own feelings,” George-Sturges said. “That’s a big and really brave thing to do.”

Partners giving each other a cooling-off period before confronting an issue may be one of the best options.

“If you tell this person, ‘Look, let’s not talk for a couple days; I need to clear my head,’ that’s not the silent treatment.” George-Sturges said.

Bradley’s husband believes in cooling off before taking on heated issues.

“If there’s something big, he’ll walk away,” Bradley said.

The silent treatment speaks volumes about a relationship. Whether it’s known as the silent treatment, the cold shoulder or stonewalling, this method of conflict un-resolution can have long-lasting, damaging effects on couples.

“A relationship is the secrets you share with somebody. That’s what makes a relationship special,” George-Sturges said. “When you stop communicating, then what else are you doing? There’s nothing else there if you aren’t sharing your thoughts, your ideas and your feelings.”

In other words, silence isn’t always golden.



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