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Thursday, October 17, 2002
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Silent treatment from spouse can ruin relations,
psychologists say

Psychologists say the silent treatment is one of the most destructive behaviors in a relationship — and women are a lot better at it than men.
By Ross Werland

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Receiving the silent treatment from one's spouse, life partner or extended date can be like waking up with a horrible blemish on your face and stepping in front of the mirror for the first time that day.
Whoa! You did not see it coming, and you certainly cannot remember doing anything to deserve it. But there it is, buddy, and you are going to deal with it all day, maybe for several days, whether you like it or not.

Rumor was that Hillary Clinton treated Bill to about eight months of it after the Lewinsky matter. If true, in that special case maybe eight months was a tad lenient.

In extreme cases, though, some people might find the silent treatment preferable to the non-silent treatment. But those are extreme.

Relationship counselors list the silent treatment right alongside other poor behaviors, the most serious being physical abuse. In fact, they consider the silent treatment emotional abuse.

Now, this should not be confused with a cooling-off period of, say, half an hour or maybe even a couple of hours, which is preceded by something like, “Gee, I’m so incredibly upset with you right now because you did (fill in the blank), and if we tried to talk about it at this moment I’d probably just spit on you. So why don’t we stay away from each other for an hour or so until I calm down, OK, sweetie?”

To this point we have not differentiated by gender. Certainly the silence technique has been used by men and women, but popular notions would suggest women have honed this sharp stick a bit more vigorously than men have. Or at least, when asked an objective question about the silent treatment, women tend to answer as a hunter would about his choice of weapon, and men tend to answer as a deer would about the last time he got shot.

When asked about their use of the treatment, some of our test women said they have resorted to it rather than say something so dreadful that the spouse might shrivel and die on the spot.

One woman did point out, somewhat legitimately, “With guys, how can you tell you’re getting the silent treatment, because they don’t talk anyway?”

That aside, clinical psychologist and associate professor Linda Roberts of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has asserted in the Journal of Marriage and the Family that such withdrawal can be just as destructive to a relationship as plain old anger, barring actual violence, of course.

And now psychology professor Kip Williams has stumbled on a truth that many victims of the silent treatment have always felt: that it can be damaging to the individual’s emotional health.

Those who have been so treated, he explains, report a sense of not belonging, loss of control, lower self-esteem and a feeling of unworthiness.

For the record, Williams works at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where, of course, the non-natives are descended from some of the most severely ostracized people the world has known.

As Williams told the Northern District Times earlier this year, family life has developed an officially sanctioned version of ostracism called the “time-out” for children. Many family therapists would argue that these cooling-off periods are therapeutic but should never be too long.

Looking at the virulent strains, from romantic relationships to the workplace, Williams uncovered a truth that should prompt a new look at the whole situation.

Williams said he detected differences in the way males and females deal with ostracism, or the silent treatment. He found that ostracized females work very hard to win back the good graces of others and that males do not.


There we have it. So a woman who uses the silent treatment, figuring she will elicit the behavior she wants, most likely is wrong. She will inflict damage, yes, but the guy most likely will not comply.

In fact, due to the typically competitive male nature, a woman may get something like, “Oh, the silent treatment. You want to do the silent treatment? I’ll show you the silent treatment.” This would be followed by a day or two of monosyllabic answers and head nods at best.

And if the other part of the equation is true, that once subjected to the death ray of silence, women eventually will fall at the feet of the inflictor, well, argument over.

Girls, you just can’t win on this one.




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