He called in the afternoon to tell his wife, Amy, that he had to work late. During the conversation, it became painfully clear to her that, once again, Kent had completely forgotten her birthday. Not having said a word about her upcoming big event, Amy had hoped that he was planning a special surprise. Her disappointment turned into anger, and when it spilled over a fight erupted on the phone. “You don’t really care how I feel” were her last words before she hung up on him.
The silent treatment is one of the most damaging behavioral patterns, causing havoc in a relationship. Generally, it is the male who withdraws and the woman who tries to force an immediate response to her demands or requests. She wants an answer now. Women are used to sharing their problems with girlfriends any time issues arise. Girlfriends are good listeners, eager to share advice. So why can’t a husband respond?
Men, on the other hand, are generally not comfortable sharing their feelings with others. When confronted, they tend to withdraw to a safe place to think things through before formulating an answer or making a decision. When pressured further, men often feel frozen and unable to respond.
Sometimes the roles are reversed, yet this demand/withdraw tug-of-war is difficult to reverse or remedy no matter who is on which side. However, if there is willingness to recognize each partner’s own destructive behavior and change it, the relationship can survive.
Change starts with understanding the dynamics. Each must recognize in which way she or he contributes to the dysfunctional pattern. Often, the help of a therapist is needed to give the couple the tools to achieve change and harmony. Sometimes a book of advice on demand/withdrawal patterns can offer the guidance that’s required.
For the silencer, give your partner a signal when you need time or a little distance. It’s ok to express your needs. Let the other know what’s going on inside of you. Speak up. “I’d like to think about it and need a little time,” rather than retreating. Ask yourself what makes you pull back, why you react with silence? Make an effort to acknowledge your partners most important needs so you can be more responsive.
For the demander, don’t feel rejected when your partner doesn’t address the issue right away. Don’t take it personally. Appreciate that a delayed response is not a turn-off. Be aware of your own body language and the words you choose during discussions. Both posture and language should express acceptance, not readiness to fight. Remember, it’s the fear of a confrontation that makes the other want to run. A positive attitude conveys your message before the first word is ever spoken.
For both: Avoid “you” accusations and talk in “I” phrases. Never start communication with the words “you always”. Instead, express your feelings: “I feel pressured.” “I feel neglected sometimes.” “I feel cornered.” “I feel not heard.” Realize once and for all that to make this relationship work means focusing on and changing your own behavior.