The silent treatment—I’m guessing every spouse has given or gotten it at least once. It communicates a ton without saying a word, conveying feelings like anger, frustration, bitterness, resignation, disappointment, and sorrow. It can be manipulative. And long bout of silent treatment can hurt a marriage.
The habitually silent spouse isolates the other, who becomes a lonely spouse. If you’re the lonely one, suffering in silence, there is hope. Here are 12 ways to respond to your spouse’s silent treatment.
1. Don’t make assumptions about the silent treatment.
The reasons your spouse gives you the silent treatment can be complex and varied. Making assumptions about what’s going on in your spouse’s head and heart can be counterproductive. If your spouse hasn’t explained the silence, your assumptions can cause defensiveness, anger, and extended silence if you’re seen as oversimplifying or arrogant.
2. Explain your need and desire to communicate.
This may seem simple, but misunderstandings and assumptions happen all the time in marriages, hurting the couple. They may think the silence is golden, causing a false sense of peace, and not realizing that the silence is damaging your relationship.
3. Be ready to listen, not just talk.
Communication is a two-way street that requires talking and listening. Listening skills are as important, if not more so, than explaining yourself is when you are trying to coax your silent spouse. If a spouse senses that you just want him or her to talk as a set-up for you to take the floor and give him or her a piece of your mind, your spouse likely will clam up. Learning effective listening is critical to communication.
4. Be gracious when your spouse does talk.
Avoid being sarcastic or caustic—no “it’s about time” or “oh, you figured out how to talk after all!” Say thank you instead. Sarcasm can kill any genuine progress you might be making in communicating together, so drop the eye rolls and the sarcastic comebacks.
5. Practice the golden rule.
Dealing with silent spouses can elicit a lot of negative emotions, and it can be hard to treat them the way you want to be treated. But it’s important, in part, because you are trying to model for them how you want them to interact with you. Don’t use the golden rule as a manipulation; simply put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and think before speaking.
6. Show empathy instead of winning sympathy.
Empathy is hard to do, especially for someone who is hurting you. If you want their sympathy for your loneliness more than you want to empathize with and understand their pain, you are probably encouraging the silent treatment.
7. Be willing to let go of a grudge.
Grudges can be natural, even understandable, in certain circumstances—but they are also devastating. Some people who are carrying a long-term grudge think it doesn’t impact the rest of their lives. But a grudge tends to leak out into other parts of life. You’ll need to work on letting it go.
8. Make time.
Getting a silent spouse to talk takes time. And you might need to schedule a time when you can just be together without distraction. If you’re not in the habit already, this might be a good reason to start planning date nights for some time away from kids and work and everyday stuff to focus on communicating.
9. Be ready to ask for forgiveness.
Sometimes the silence comes from an unspoken hurt you’re unaware you caused. If it surfaces, don’t be defensive, but be willing to evaluate it and apologize for it. Asking for forgiveness in a meaningful way can be a powerful help to a marriage. At times when Susan has given me the silent treatment, I’ve found that one of the best ways to get her to open up is to offer a sincere apology—“I apologize. I was wrong. Will you please forgive me?”
10. Be ready to offer forgiveness.
Sometimes silence comes from your spouse’s guilt or shame. If this surfaces, having a forgiving heart may be just what’s needed to open up the gates of meaningful conversation again with your spouse. Forgiveness is a decision. When you really forgive someone, you are making a decision to release, embrace, pardon, and grow.
11. Understand passive-aggressive silence.
Silence can be a manipulation tool in the hands of a passive-aggressive spouse. And that can make everything more difficult. If you suspect that, click here to see my post on handling the passive-aggressive spouse.
12. Don’t give up.
Complacency is so destructive in marriage. If you are feeling worn down by the loneliness and the silence, find friends and family who will encourage you and hold you up.
This list is not exhaustive or magical. Communication and marriage are just hard work sometimes. But prayerfully and patiently pursuing peace and resolution can help your marriage get stronger as you emerge from the valleys of silence and loneliness together.
Have you given or received the silent treatment from your spouse? How did you respond to make it better? Please share your thoughts with me below.