Every couple disagrees, but there are healthy and unhealthy ways to argue.
The silent treatment may be a common response to conflict in relationships, but it is also one of the most destructive, according to a paper published last year in the journal Communication Monographs. The analysis examined 74 studies that looked at the effects of an overarching behaviour called the demand-withdrawal pattern.
The silent treatment is one form of “withdrawal” in a demand-withdrawal pattern, which occurs when one person asks or demands something, for example attention or affection, and their partner rejects these requests by refusing to engage or ceasing communication all together.
“Marital therapists and clinicians have been dealing with this issue since the 1930s, but … it has only been since the late 80s that researchers have studied it,” Texas Christian University professor Paul Schrodt, the study’s lead researcher, told Business Insider in an email. “And most of the research that we cited mentioned it as a pervasive and/or common struggle for married partners.”
Schrodt’s study shows that demand-withdrawal, including the silent treatment, can lead to relationship dissatisfaction and even be a factor in divorce. “The more polarised the partners become, the more difficult it is for them to stop engaging in the behaviours,” Schrodt told The Wall Street Journal, where we first learned about the study.
Past research has shown that, compared to other couples, those who practice the silent treatment are:
- less satisfied with their relationship
- less intimate with one another
- poorer communicators with their partners
It’s a bad habit that must be abandoned if a relationship is going to thrive.
Why We Go Silent
“The silent treatment is caused by a combination of hurt feelings and an inability or unwillingness to talk about them,” Tina Gilbertson, who was not involved with the study, told The Chicago Tribune. Gilbertson is a counselor in Portland, Oregon and author of “Constructive Wallowing: How To Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them.”
Schrodt’s analysis encompassed studies on over 14,000 participants. In heterosexual relationships, he found, women were usually (though not always) the demanders while men were the ones who tended to withdraw from their partner’s demands, or responded with silence.
The person giving the silent treatment and the person receiving it should both take some responsibility, Schrodt told The Wall Street Journal. One thing that couples tend to do, he said, is to blame the other person for the situation, which will in no way help resolve the conflict.
What’s worse is that the person receiving the silent treatment will grow increasingly frustrated by the lack of response, which will lead to even more demands that in turn frustrates their partner who withdraws even further.
“It becomes a vicious cycle,” Sean Horan, an assistant professor of communication at Texas State University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Soon you’re no longer addressing the issue at hand. You start arguing about arguing.”
Breaking The Cycle
Practicing the silent treatment is a bad habit for couples, and it also places an unnecessary amount of emotional and physical stress on individuals.
In a handful of studies that Schrodt and his colleagues examined, researchers found an association between couples who practice demand-withdrawal patterns and individuals who suffer from anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug use, mental health symptoms, and even physiological changes.
Schrodt has advice on how to break the bad habit of demand-withdrawal patterns like the silent treatment, including:
- Talk with your partner if you feel like you’re beginning to give them the silent treatment or you think they’re giving you the silent treatment.
- Agree to take time to cool down and then come back to discuss what’s triggering the conflict when you’re both calm and willing to listen to on another.
- When talking it out, avoid offensive language like “selfish,” “rude,” and “uncaring.”
- Acknowledge the role you play in the silent treatment and recognise how your actions could explain the undesirable behaviour of you partner.
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