Dealing with silent treatment

Dealing with silent treatment

Learn why it’s actually okay, and how to work with it.

It’s no secret that men and women tend to handle things differently. Sometimes the different ways you and your partner deal with issues and situations can cause tension, but understanding why you handle things so differently can help you work through situations together in a healthier way.

Stefan Blom, Cape Town-based clinical psychologist and author of The Truth About Relationships (NB Publishers), shares a few theories around the different methods of communication in men and women, and how to navigate them.

Talking it out versus keeping it in

‘The perception that women “talk it out” and men tend to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves
is often true,’ explains Stefan. ‘In my experience, women are usually very surprised to hear that their partners
have just as much to say as they do when they’re in a safe space like therapy. It’s important to remember
that you and your man are equally affected by what happens within your relationship, and often in similar ways.

Just because you process externally by speaking openly, and he processes internally by working through his
thoughts quietly, doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about things or need to talk about them.’ Stefan says that over the last
20 years, he’s seen women and men communicate a lot, but talking isn’t the only or most important method. ‘We don’t only communicate through talking, we also communicate through actions, sex, intimacy, facial expressions and
body language, finances, and small everyday behaviours. I encourage couples to acknowledge all forms of
communication as equally valuable.’

However, if an issue causes continued tension in your relationship, he recommends sitting with your partner and talking it out. ‘This is one of the biggest gifts you can give in your relationship,’ he says. ‘All couples need to learn how to turn their private, internal dialogues into external spoken conversations for effective communication.’


Why we communicate differently

Stefan believes the way we communicate has a lot to do with culture. ‘Women’s culture seems to encourage emotional expression more than men’s culture,’ he explains. ‘Women often engage verbally with other women from a young age and are encouraged to ask questions, show interest, and share. Interestingly, our society often discourages women from sharing this open verbal communication with men, encouraging them to rather keep their real thoughts and feelings to themselves.

‘Men generally grow up in a culture of doing and fixing rather than talking and sharing so, unlike women, they have less opportunity to learn valuable communication skills from a young age,’ he adds. ‘Because talking and sharing aren’t always expected or encouraged, men tend to carry the burden of keeping their true thoughts and feelings to themselves.’

Something else Stefan’s noticed is that men often convince other men that it’s better not to speak up in their intimate relationships because it’ll only lead to ‘fighting’. ‘The truth is, holding back your thoughts and feelings, and avoiding
healthy dialogue, is what results in an unhappy relationship,’ he says. Not every discussion has to lead to an argument; it’s important to learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way instead of avoiding conversation entirely.

‘The newer generation of men and women understands the importance of sharing and communication, and I’m glad to see more couples changing and trying to improve their communication, because they understand the
power of speaking up and its positive effects,’ says Stefan.

The sound of silence

If your man isn’t part of the younger generation that embraces verbal communication, it might worry you when he becomes quiet but, as Stefan explains, worrying isn’t always necessary. ‘In the absence of honest dialogue, we tend to “colour in” silent spaces with our own thoughts. If you don’t know where you stand and your best attempts to talk it out fail, overthinking the situation is a very human thing to do,’ he explains.

The general perception is that women overthink more than men do. It seems that women are usually more verbal. They analyse and think about their relationships, and they can end up chasing after their partners to get clarity after failed attempts to talk things out. However, despite this general perception, Stefan often questions whether it’s actually true. ‘I’ve found men think as much about their relationships as women do, but they’re not as vocal in expressing their thoughts and feelings. Men also tend to “talk” by doing, rather than actually speaking. Your man’s silence doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about your relationship. In fact, it probably means his mind is very
busy and full of thought,’ he adds.

‘Silence has many meanings and it isn’t always a negative sign,’ says Stefan. ‘It can mean he’s processing or reflecting, too upset to speak responsibly, needing space, or just relaxing. Silence that doesn’t create tension shouldn’t be taken personally, but accepted as a healthy part of any relationship.’ However, if silence is all you get and there’s no explanation or understanding of what’s going on, it’s normal to panic. ‘Silence that creates tension or anxiety needs to be lifted with dialogue.’

When your man’s quiet and you ask what’s going on and get no answer, you start questioning yourself and your relationship. You immediately assume the worst: He’s not interested in me anymore. He’s found someone else. I’ve
done something to upset him. He’s going to leave me… Does that sound familiar?

Stefan explains that not getting answers or not knowing where you stand is often a painful trigger from your childhood. ‘It reminds you of being ignored, not chosen, and rejected, and that’s why silence often leads to panic.
You need to understand how your past hurts play out in your adult relationships to reduce their negative impact. Learn to calm yourself down and ground yourself independently of your relationship. Your relationship shouldn’t be
responsible for calming you down.’


Approaching the silent treatment

Stefan explains that in quiet moments, most people don’t like simply being asked ‘What’s wrong?’ because this question doesn’t show real concern or interest. ‘Remember that each person in a relationship is responsible for themselves,’ he says. ‘This means that if your man’s upset, even if you caused it, he needs to bring his feelings to
the table and not act them out.’

Stefan recommends a two-step approach to handling the silent treatment:

  1. Acknowledge the uncomfortable silence and use your words carefully to address it. Try saying, ‘I can see something’s bothering you’, or ‘You’re very quiet’.
  2. Invite your partner to speak to you about it. Try saying, ‘Talk to me when you feel ready’ or, ‘I’m here for you when you want to talk about it’. ‘This is the best you can do; after that, step back and stay as calm as
    possible while you give him time to gather his thoughts and come to you to discuss his feelings,’ he says.
    Stefan believes that the way you speak to and treat one another plays a huge part in creating and maintaining a happy and loving relationship. ‘Respect is one of the most important elements in navigating your most sensitive topics and strong emotions, and it goes a long way in helping you both learn the
    essential skill of disagreement and conflict resolution.’




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