He gives me the silent treatment

Why does he do that? And what should I do in return? Give him the boot? Or just be nice?

Published February 25, 2011 1:30AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've been in a relationship for a year and a half with a man the same age as me (33). We moved in together five months ago and things have been going great the majority of the time. We've looked at places to buy and discussed marriage/kids. Our families both like our significant other, we have great conversations, have similar interests, great sex, laugh a lot, you get the picture.

My issue, though, is that he is very sensitive. When things are going well, this is a great quality to have. But if we have an argument or even a slight disagreement, he gets extremely quiet and gives me the silent treatment. He won't even look at me or acknowledge my presence. Often it can take a full day or day and a half for him to start speaking to me again. If I try to interject some levity or simply try to start up normal conversation, he gives me the cold shoulder or says he doesn't feel like talking.

This tears me up inside! It makes me feel unloved, crappy, worthless and I absolutely cannot stand it. When I am honest and tell him how this makes me feel, he says that this is how he copes and that he cannot just "get over it quickly" like I do, and that I need to just accept that it takes him time. He also says I'm over-analyzing the situation and that I am the one being sensitive. Am I being unreasonable? 

I do not ever want to force someone to change, but I think compromise is important in a relationship. This seems so ingrained in his personality, though -- is this a fundamental difference in how we deal with conflict that will never get resolved? I love him so much and don't want this one issue to be the deal-breaker for our relationship; however, I can't see myself living with the status quo for the long run.

Worth Not Being Ignored

Dear Worth Not Being Ignored,

The silent treatment should be outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. It's torture, plain and simple. My research shows that it is also ineffective. While it does cause pain in those on whom it is practiced, it does not elicit reliable information for fighting terrorism, or even for getting to the movies.

I know because I used it for years on relationship prisoners. I didn't know what else to do. Lately, having accepted the futility of the silent treatment, I have turned to other methods -- conversation, making concessions to the enemy, negotiating, recognizing the enemy's limited rights, having patience, that kind of thing.

Still, it's tempting under duress to return to the silent treatment. It's what I am used to and what I know best. But really, it doesn't work.

So to help you understand what's going on, here's a secret. Some of us men are not all that emotionally healthy. We look OK on the outside but on the inside we are quivering and unstable, like nitroglycerin being transported in horse-drawn wagons. We have to be handled gently. But we won't tell you we have to be handled gently because that doesn't sound manly.

When a threat appears, we go silent, like submarines. We dive deep, hoping not to be detected. 

Sometimes it's resentment, sometimes it's fear and sometimes it's sheer screw-you orneriness. Whatever the cause, it's hard to stop using the silent treatment. It's hard to give up the feeling that you're right and you've been wounded and the other person is to blame.

Sometimes the silence is a sign of true depression. And sometimes one just feels broken and desolate and needs to be left alone.

But on the whole, I just think that when a guy is in a relationship he has to fight his way out of the silence. It is an unfair weapon. If he wants out of the relationship he can just say so. Otherwise ...  and now I'm talking to you, fellow sensitive, thin-skinned dude, really what you're doing in that moment is you're checking out of the relationship. And a relationship is not a hotel you're visiting. It's a house you live in. You can't just check in and check out. You can't treat the people there like employees and you can't give them the silent treatment and expect them to understand your angst and they're not going to wash your socks and leave USA Today outside your door. It's intimacy. You're naked together. There's nothing off the table. You can't hide. So you may as well confess.

That's interesting. I said he might as well confess. If he's torturing you, why would he have to confess? He's torturing you and yet he feels he is your prisoner. That's weird. Each feels like the victim. Well, I guess usually when the silent treatment is being used, something vital is being withheld. It might be information or it might be feeling. And there's some twisted kind of reciprocal hostage-taking or something there. I can't quite figure it out.

Anyway, I'm talking to the guy again now. I'm saying that at times the relationship will cause you real pain, but that is the pain of growth. It doesn't mean you should just leave. You're not being tortured. You're just having to change. Your brain might tell you every time you feel pain you should leave. And in a sense, by using the silent treatment, you are leaving. You're leaving but you're still there. That's the silent treatment. And you can't really do that. Because it's not a hotel.

You really do have to change to live with another person, and that means you're going to have to feel some pain, and you're going to have to give up some cherished ways of dealing with pain. Among those is the silent treatment. You're just going to have to give it up and start talking.

p.s. You know, in "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," the Alcoholics Anonymous guide to how to work the AA program, the chapter on Step 10 ("Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it") uses the phrase "silent scorn." I bring this up because we alcoholics are often thin-skinned and silent scorn is a favorite refuge. Here are some quotes from that chapter:

"It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also. ... A spot-check inventory taken in the midst of such disturbances can be of very great help in quieting stormy emotions. ...  We must avoid quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven argument. The same goes for sulking or silent scorn. These are emotional booby traps baited with pride and vengefulness. ... We can try to stop making unreasonable demands upon those we love. We can show kindness where we had shown none. With those we dislike we can begin to practice justice and courtesy, perhaps going out of our way to understand and help them. Whenever we fail any of these people, we can promptly admit it -- to ourselves always, and to them also, when the admission would be helpful. Courtesy, kindness, justice, and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anybody."

Whether you are a fan of the 12 Steps or not, Step 10 will put hair on your chest.

p.p.s. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention spells out the proper treatment of all persons taken prisoner in a relationship: "Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall, at all times, be humanely treated, and shall be protected, especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity."

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