If you're suffering in silence - or because of it - your relationship may be more endangered than you realize, according to new research that shows those whose interactions include the "silent treatment" can spell ruin for the future.
Although researchers say the cold shoulder is the most common way people deal with marital conflict, an analysis of 74 studies, based on more than 14,000 participants, shows that when one partner withdraws in silence or shuts down emotionally because of perceived demands by the other, the harm is both emotional and physical.
"The more this pattern emerges within your relationship, the greater the chances one or both partners experience heightened levels of anxiety or may use more aggressive forms of behavior," says Paul Schrodt, a professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, who led the study published this spring in the journal Communication Monographs.
"Each partner sees the other person's behavior as the start of a fight," he says. "If you go to him and ask why he's so withdrawn from his wife, it's because 'she's constantly nagging me and constantly asking a million questions.' If you ask her why she's making demands of him, it's because 'he doesn't tell me anything. I don't get the sense he cares about our relationship.' Each partner fails to see how their own behavior is contributing to the pattern."
In much of the research, Schrodt says, the man tends to be more silent; but psychologist Les Parrott of Seattle says he has seen less of a breakdown along gender lines.
"I see plenty of men get demanding," he says.
It's that pattern, Schrodt says, that is so damaging, because it signals a serious sign of distress in the relationship. The research, which spanned from 1987 to 2011, wasn't specifically about the silent treatment; however, the silent treatment is part of a broader pattern that extends not just to romantic relationships but to parenting styles as well, which also were part of the research, he says.
Parrott, co-author of The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring you Closer, a book published in April, says the silent treatment is a very difficult pattern to break because it's such an ingrained behavior.
"We learn this strategy very early on - just as little kids - to shut somebody out as a way to punish," Parrott says. "Many of us are prone to sulk or to pout, and that is an early form of giving somebody the silent treatment."
Parrott, a psychology professor at Seattle Pacific University, says nothing good comes from the silent treatment because it's "manipulative, disrespectful and not productive."
Schrodt's analysis found that couples who use such conflict behaviors experience lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy and poorer communication, which is also associated with divorce. And, he says, some of the studies found the effects were not just emotional but physiological, such as urinary, bowel or erectile dysfunction.
"Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause," Schrodt says. "Both partners see the other as the problem."
Parrott and Schrodt agree being aware of the destructive pattern can help resolve it.
"Conflict is inevitable, but how you manage it can make the difference," Parrott says.
How to break the pattern of the silent treatment
1. Become aware of what's really going on. The person making demands feels abandoned; the silent person is protecting himself. Each needs to ask: "Why am I behaving this way? How does my behavior make my partner feel?"
2. Avoid character assassination. It will do more damage to label your spouse as "selfish" or "rude."
3. Use the word "I," because the more you use "you," the longer your squabble will last. You can say something like, "This is how I feel when you stop talking to me."
4. Mutually agree to take a timeout. When the cycle emerges, both partners need to cool their heads and warm their hearts before engaging. And some people just need a bit of time to think before they speak.
5. Genuinely apologize as soon as you are able.
Source: Les Parrott, psychologist at Seattle Pacific University; co-author of the 2014 book The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring you Closer.