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Put an end to the silent treatment

Every month, Sarah Abell invites you to try a 30-day experiment to improve your love life – this month, why stonewalling or sulking should sound the alarm bells

by Psychologies

sulking and silent treatment

The project

Hands up if there is a sulker in your relationship? Do you or your partner tend to clam up, withdraw or display the cold shoulder when the other makes a demand?

If you answered ‘Yes’, then you might want to change your patterns as recent research suggests that when one partner stonewalls or shuts down emotionally, it is a serious sign of distress in the relationship.

The aim

If you want to improve your relationship, break the pattern of the silent treatment before it causes irreversible damage.

The theory

Conflict is inevitable but what makes a big difference is how you deal with it. Recent research has found that the ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern is the most common way people deal with conflict in a committed relationship. This is when one partner pressures the other with their requests, criticisms and complaints and is met with avoidance or silence. 

The analysis of 74 studies and 14,000 participants found that couples engaged in this kind of behaviour experience lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy and poorer communication. It can cause anxiety and aggression as well as physiological effects such as urinary, bowel or erectile dysfunction.

One of the report’s authors, Paul Schrodt, explained: ‘Each partner sees the other person’s behaviour as the start of a fight.’ The one who withdraws is reacting to their partner’s nagging or criticism and the one who nags believes they have no choice because their partner doesn’t respond as they want them to. Both struggle to see how their own behaviour contributes to the unhealthy pattern.                                             

Try it out

  • Be honest. Often naggers feel abandoned and stonewallers feel inadequate. If you are a nagger think about reducing the number of requests you make a day. If you’re a stonewaller, practise voicing your thoughts more often.
  • Use ‘I’ not ‘you’ statements. Whenever you want to talk about what your partner has or hasn’t done – mention how it made you feel rather than using accusations or hurling insults. And avoid ‘you never…’ or ‘you always…’ statements.
  • Put connection first. Disagreements are easier to sort out if you feel like you’re on the same side. Pay each other a compliment, hug, make love or do something fun. It’s easier to talk when you aren’t attacking or avoiding each other.

Sarah Abell is an author and relationships coach. Find out more at nakedhedgehogs.com. To buy her LifeLabs Practical Wisdom online course How to Save Your Relationship, please click here. You can try a free 3-day taster trial first too.

More inspiration:

See Psychologies editor Suzy Greaves interview author and psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler on how to listen so we really hear and talk so we're really heard on LifeLabs

Photograph: iStock

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