Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

5 Steps to Take If Your Spouse Gives You 'the Silent Treatment'

5 Steps to Take If Your Spouse Gives You 'the Silent Treatment'

What is the Silent Treatment?

Who of us isn’t guilty of giving someone a strong dose of the silent treatment? Feelings bruised from words spoken or actions taken, we retreat into our silent world, all the while hoping our actions make our mate pay for the harm they’ve done to us.

Withdrawing is not something new. Watch your four-year-old pout and you’ll recognize the early signs of ‘the silent treatment.’ They refuse to talk because they’re mad. Truth be known, they’re really deeply hurt and make the decision to hurt back—and it works!

Many couples coming to work with us at The Marriage Recovery Center are disconnected, often by one or both partners choosing to use this immature behavior. Many have used this form of communication for years, with the patterns of interacting becoming ingrained.

Why do people use the Silent Treatment?

Why do we continue to use ‘the silent treatment’ if it is so destructive? It gets back to basics—‘hurting people hurt people’—and research shows that ‘the silent treatment’ is particularly effective in causing damage. No one wants to be on the receiving end of this form of treatment, and we all know it.

While not proud to admit it, I’ve used ‘the silent treatment’ in my marriage. I’ve rationalized it by telling myself I was just taking time to myself to think. While partially true, I knew my actions were also hurtful and did not quickly stop it. Perhaps you can relate.

To be fair, there are times when we must cool off, and this can actually be a healthy action to take. When feeling overwhelmed, it is important and even responsible to pull back, reflect and choose your actions carefully. If you let your mate know you are taking some time to consider how to effectively respond, they will likely be understanding and even appreciative.

Helpful Scripture

Scripture speaks clearly on this issue. The Apostle James instructs us: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). The Apostle James knew full well the lethal power of the tongue, but also seemed to know that there is a place for quiet spaces in a relationship.

The words of James are very apropos to relationships. We need to be slow to speak and slow to become angry. We must learn to be quick to listen. These are skills that are easier said than done and should never be confused with using silence to hurt.

Here are Five Steps to resolve "The Silent Treatment"


1. Confront the behavior.

Just as we would confront the four-year-old who refuses to talk, we do the same for the adult in our lives. We must do this carefully, however as we don’t want to give the pouter extra clout. We should simply acknowledge that they have withdrawn and we want to give them an opportunity to talk it out effectively. Offer them the opportunity to talk, OR to take an agreed-upon timeout.

2. Hold them accountable for withdrawing.

We must make it clear that we notice the behavior, and now invite them to speak directly to you about whatever is bothering them. Additionally, you note to them that their behavior is hurtful. While you cannot make them talk, you can let them know you notice what they are doing.

3. Share your feelings with them.

As you invite them to talk directly with you, let them know the impact their withdrawal has on you. You might say something like this: “I’ve noticed that something seems to be bothering you. You seem to have withdrawn. I want to invite you to talk directly to me about whatever is troubling you. I also want to let you know that I find your prolonged silence to be very hurtful.”

4. If your mate chooses to talk, continue to have a healthy dialogue about the issue.

If they choose to talk to you, share your appreciation with them. Thank them for sharing, reinforcing positive behavior. This will be a quick fix to a potentially troubling situation. If they continue to give you ‘the silent treatment,’ you have no choice then to give them the space they are creating.

5. Be ready for connection when they choose to reconnect.

At this juncture, however, they will need to take responsibility for withdrawing in an unhealthy way and for creating more hurt in the relationship. Hold them accountable for withdrawing and share that you are ready to reconnect when they acknowledge the damage they have done by giving you ‘the silent treatment.’

In summary, silence is a particularly painful weapon and has no place in a healthy relationship. Taking a time out, agreed upon by both people, can be an effective way to get space to reflect, pray and consider a healthy response. You should allow for ‘time outs’ and must agree that ‘the silent treatment’ will never be tolerated.

Related Resource: Listen to our new, FREE podcast on marriage: Team Us. The best marriages have a teamwork mentality. Find practical, realistic ideas for strengthening your marriage. Listen to an episode here, and then head over to LifeAudio.com to check out all of our episodes:

mrc2We are here to help and offer phone/ Skype counseling on issues related to this article. Please go to our website, www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and discover more information about this as well as the free downloadable eBook, A Love Life of Your Dreams, including other free videos and articles.  Please send responses to me at drdavid@marriagerecoverycenter.com and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage. 

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Dr. David Hawkins, MBA, MSW, MA, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has helped bring healing to thousands of marriages and individuals since he began his work in 1976. Dr. Hawkins is passionate about working with couples in crisis and offering them ways of healing their wounds and finding their way back to being passionately in love with each other.

Over the past ten years, Dr. Hawkins has become a leader in the field of treatment for narcissism and emotional abuse within relationships. He has developed several programs for treatment of men dealing with these issues and the women who love them. Dr. Hawkins is also a speaker & trainer for the American Association of Christian Counselors and writes for Crosswalk.com, CBN.org, and iBelieve.com. He is a weekly guest on Moody Radio and Faith Radio and is a best-selling author of over thirty books.