What are the effects of using the silent treatment in a marriage?
We can understand them by looking at what the silent treatment (also know as “ostracism”) does to us emotionally.
Dr. Amen of Amen Clinics shares this with us: According to a Purdue University expert, ostracism can cause pain that often is deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury.
‘Being excluded or ostracized is an invisible form of bullying that doesn’t leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact,” said Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences.
Being excluded by high school friends, office colleagues, or even spouses or family members can be excruciating. When a person is ostracized, the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain, also feels this social injury,” Williams said.
The process of ostracism includes three stages:
- The initial acts of being ignored or excluded
Fundamental to human needs are the feelings of belonging.
Exclusion or ostracism is so painful because it threatens this need, and the core of our self esteem. ‘Again and again research has found that strong, harmful reactions are possible even when ostracized by a stranger or for a short amount of time,’ said Williams.”*
As you can see, the silent treatment is more than a silent message of “I don’t want to talk to you.” It’s a tool for deep psychological hurt, that sends the message to the receiver that they “don’t belong.” So, who would want to live with a spouse who is hurting their feelings and causing pain to their brain? Sending the message that the opposite spouse isn’t wanted or needed is always negative and always damaging.
In a passive aggressive marriage, the silent treatment is a common device that is used to control the victim. Women married to passive aggressive men can attest to the damaging feeling of not being wanted and not being loved in the relationship. Some say that it makes them feel as if they are married to “a brick wall,” “a petulant child,” or simply, “a stranger.” In other words, they feel they are living the marriage alone.
It is not just passive aggressive marriages that have to be careful. The fact that we learn to use the silent treatment in childhood could be the reason why so many marriages nowadays struggle to handle conflict in a healthy way. Our first reaction should not be to retreat into ourselves and “punish” the other person with a removal of our attention and love. Relationships falter when they are built on “punishing” each other when mistakes are made; it creates an environment of constant fear and instills an assumption that things “could end at any moment.”
So, what do we need to learn now?
Perhaps from the very beginning, the relationships skills that allow us to express ourselves, explain our needs as a legitimate demand, and be able to negotiate with the other person how they will be satisfied…Lacking those skills condemn us to a life where, unable to communicate directly with loved ones, we need to resort to power tactics like “teaching the other person a lesson by giving him/her the could shoulder.” This lack of communication skills only can lead to more unhappiness…because it replaces face to face dialogue with painful manipulation of the security and belonging feelings of the other.
We are married because we trust the other person as being able to understand, and improve their behavior according to our needs. If they know their sad impact, they will treat us better, is the assumption. And, just in case they can’t treat us as we need to be treated, we focus on what options are available for us…Should we stay or should we leave the relationship?
Here is where our self-esteem needs to be strong enough as to decide what is more nurturing and respectful of our life path, and be able to pay the price of separation is the pain received is larger than the nurturing.