According to John Gottman, stonewalling (Silent Treatment) is one of the most devastating of all the Four Horsemen of the relationship Apocalypse. Further, it is the weapon of choice for narcissists because of its powerful ability to control the relationship. But what if you could take away all the power & pain from the dreaded “Silent Treatment”? Here’s how.
Colloquially known as the “Silent Treatment”, stonewalling is when one person in the relationship decides that the conversation is over. Period. You may be in a heated discussion (ok, an argument. Ok, ok — a fight), or you may not see it coming at all — “what did I do wrong?”. But at the end of the day, one person decides to temporarily check-out of the relationship, no explanation offered. This is called stonewalling.
And, it’s an insidious form of control. According to the Duluth Model of Domestic Violence, it is even considered abuse. It’s favored by narcissists for this very reason — it is the ultimate in passive aggressive behavior, designed to drive the other person crazy. No wonder it is such a high predictor of divorce.
Victims of stonewalling report feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, and loneliness. They tend to blame themselves for receiving the silent treatment, and are convinced that they did something terrible, that they are a bad person, and that there is nothing they can do to make it right. Primarily, they feel undeserving of love, and worthless at their core. They bide their time in anguish, waiting for their partner to deem them worthy of re-engaging.
But what if we can turn the effects of stonewalling around? What if we can empower the victim, and actually regain control of the relationship dynamic? What if, instead of feeling depressed and lonely, we can feel stable and resilient? The good news, is that we can. Here’s how:
Surviving the Silent Treatment
1. The first step to surviving and exorcising the Silent Treatment from your relationship is to not do it yourself. This is basic, but cannot be stated enough. If you dish it out, expect to receive it in return. There are no exceptions from this rule, such as defining your silence as merely a “time-out”, but their silence as “abuse”. There are ways to take a time-out from an argument (ok, ok, a fight), but closing up verbal shop is not one of them. The old “We need to have this conversation, but I just can’t right now because I’m too upset” works wonders. Follow it up with a suggested time when you can re-connect on this issue.
2. The second step is to verbalize your disapproval with this behavior. A simple “I know you get upset and overwhelmed, but just walking out on me is not OK.” Obviously, this is not done in the moment, as that is akin to stalking. Choose an appropriate time to express your discontent with this behavior, and be direct and brief. Share a feeling such as “I feel abandoned when you do this” if necessary.
3. Sometimes, though, your partner will just not agree to cease and desist from stonewalling. Perhaps it is the way they learned to cope with angry parents. Perhaps it was modeled for them as a child. We don’t know. So what do we do when your partner continues to use this as the weapon of choice? Luckily, there is a way to reverse all that negative internalized story telling, and re-empower the victim. Here’s how:
- Make sure they are actually stonewalling (giving you the silent treatment)
- Decide in your mind when you wish to re-engage – 12 hours, 2 days, 1 week, 10 days, etc.
- Do NOT engage with this person before your end-date at all. Even if they are coming-around, make sure you stick to your guns
- At the end date, make an effort to re-engage. If they are open and willing, great. If they are still stonewalling, just rinse and repeat.
Keep in mind — you are not bitter, angry, or resentful. You are not upset or sad. You resist any thoughts of self-blame or depression — it is not your fault this person has chosen to disengage. Rather, you are setting your own boundaries on how you are willing to be treated while they are in need of space. Essentially, you turn-off the lights on the relationship until you are ready to re-engage.
And this is not stonewalling yourself. You are actually doing the other person a favor by giving them space while at the same time controlling your own relationship experience. You are taking back control of your fate — no longer at the whim of somebody else who will determine when you engage or re-engage. Once you take this power back, with the right attitude, stonewalling loses all power over you.
If you have the desire, you can inform your partner exactly what you are doing – “I see you have decided to disengage with no end in sight. I understand you need your space. I too will take a relationship break, and check in with you next Tuesday evening. If you are ready to reconnect then, great. If not, I will take off another week after that and we can try again.”
If done right, your partner’s stonewalling can be seen as an opportunity for a mini-vacation. Lots of stuff can get done during this time, including spending more time with kids, friends, and family. You can pick-up long lost hobbies that you have ignored, hit the gym, or binge watch your favorite shows. Use this as an opportunity for some self-care, and enjoy. Good luck, and bon voyage!