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By: Mozelle Forman, Lcsw

In my last two columns we looked at gender differences and personality differences that affect how we deal with conflict. Men tend to use words to solve problems and women tend to use words to create connection, so their approach to addressing issues may actually inadvertently lead to conflict. Turtles tend to stick their heads into their shells, and hailstorms want to hash out and resolve conflicts immediately. The pursuer-distancer dynamic comes into play with these two personality types. Turtles may resort to silence and distancing, which leaves the hailstorm partner feeling abandoned. When tempers are high and “emotional flooding” occurs, a last resort “conflict resolution tactic” may be the silent treatment.

What the Silent
Treatment Does

Refusing to speak to someone, not acknowledging what they say, pretending that you can’t hear them, distancing yourself, or avoiding their company as if they were contagious, ignoring their express requests or needs, or any kind of behavior that seeks to make a person feel invisible or invalid are all tactics of the silent treatment. While it alleviates the immediate discomfort of the person feeling flooded, it is actually considered an abusive behavior.

Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done. Research has shown that the act of ignoring or excluding activates the same area of the brain that is activated by physical pain. The silent treatment, even if it is brief, activates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends, or enemies. The silent treatment causes severe psychological harm to the person on the receiving end, and extensively damages relationships.

To be clear, most silences are not abusive. Many silences are a last resort for someone overwhelmed by a wave of emotional flooding. According to the Gottman Institute, when one partner feels emotional flooding s/he experiences: “a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive problem-solving discussion.”

When one spouse feels pressured by requests, criticism, or complaints and withdraws either by physically leaving the room or by simply becoming unresponsive, then we can assume that emotional flooding has occurred. They may need a time-out from the argument. They may need “space” but did not bother telling their spouse. They could just be avoiding a confrontation, and did not realize they have gone about it the wrong way.

A “Time Out” for Adults

Recent studies show that most men use silence to escape feelings of shame and inadequacy. When a man believes that he is responsible for his wife’s happiness, then when she is expressing her unhappiness or disappointment, he immediately feels like he has failed her. It is difficult for him to then “listen” when he is feeling ashamed of his failure. This is hard for women to understand, because in healthy relationships the idea of shaming your spouse never comes into play. Women seek to engage in conflict in an effort to get closer to their husbands, which many men consider a ridiculous strategy.

Gender differences and personality differences aside, the majority of marriage counselors agree that ‘time-outs’ are a vital part of conflict resolution between spouses. If one presses their partner extensively into discussion when he or she is not emotionally ready, that spouse risks pushing the other to seek desperate, harmful measures, like the silent treatment. On the flip side, if one spouse consistently refuses to address his or her spouse’s concerns, they risk arousing feelings of abandonment in the other, and risk pressing the other into a discussion before they are ready.

The goal of the ‘time-out” is to reduce your emotional reaction tothe conflict so you can have a more rational, connecting discussion. Sometimes you can self-soothe on the spot. At other times, you may need totake a break from the interaction. Make a plan with your spouse that if either of you gets too activated in an argument to hear the other, that you will plan to take a time-out in order to avoid saying things you will regret later. Agree to come back together to continue the discussion within a certain period of time, but do not delay indefinitely. Use the time to actively soothe yourself rather than obsessing over your version of what went wrong, which will just keep you activated. The point here is to disengage from your reaction so you can re-engage with your spouse.