Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ban the Silent Treatment

Want to improve your relationship? Elizabeth Bernstein recommends that you stop giving each other the silent treatment.

In her words: Ban the silent treatment!

When you have a problem with your partner, engage him … don’t shun him. No one can argue with that advice.

Of course, so many other forms of negative interpersonal communication, from raising your voice to arguing, have been classified as abusive or bullying, it must seem that the silent treatment is the only thing left if you want to express your discontent.

As it happens, research studies have shown that the silent treatment is especially debilitating for those who receive it.

Bernstein reports:

A meta-analysis of 74 studies encompassing more than 14,000 participants, published in the March 2014 Communication Monographs, found the demand-withdraw pattern to be one of the most damaging types of relationship conflict and one of the hardest patterns to break. It often is a predictor of divorce.

She continues:

Researchers found people who engaged in a demand-withdraw pattern had lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy and poorer communication with their partner. They showed personality changes, such as less agreeableness and conscientiousness and more aggression and neuroticism. They even had physiological problems, including impaired immune system, urinary and bowel problems and erectile dysfunction.

And yet, in the world of psychotherapy, the term “silent treatment” most accurately describes one treatment: orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysts give their patients the silent treatment. They have a myriad of ways of justifying their practice. And yet, if the silent treatment produces as much emotional and physical distress as the studies show, does this mean that psychoanalysis--the little that remains-- should be banned?


Lastango said...

I'm *NOT* commenting today.

Ares Olympus said...

Yes, "ban the silent treatment" sounds like a good plan, but does it work to condemn it? The only way it really is banned is to agree it is ok to "punish people who use the silent treatment" and of course then you're just doing what you are claiming to be against.

I don't know how "orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis" works, but assume this means the Doctor asks the patient to speak, but doesn't offer direct feedback? If so, I wouldn't call that the silent treatment, unless the Doctor refused to speak or answer direct questions.

I can imagine some patients might feel their analyst is giving them the silent treatment, but if 90% of people don't feel that way, you might decide that feeling is a subjective response to an authority figure rather than the objective truth of that person or position.

I've observed the ST being used, long and short term, to myself, and others, and I could see contempt or resentment are involved. Wikipedia says contempt is more directed towards someone of lower status, and resentment towards someone of higher status, but perhaps the ST itself is a way to raise one's feeling of status?

Basically if you can gain (positive) attention by acting childishly, that's proof of your status, at least in an immature mind that sees no other options.

Perhaps children who are neglected by distracted parents try to gain the attention of parents, and later on internalize their parents' aloofness?

What's most strange to me is that when the silent treatment works, and positive attention is gained, the person who is responding, whether spouse, friend or family member, really most likely feels pity for the person acting out, or at least after this behavior has repeated.

A bit different than the silent treatment is estrangement, where a relationship is cut off after a conflict with no resolution and then the hurt person refuses to acknowledge that person socially, and I guess this happens for young adults and escaping parental authority, and then all the hidden resentments can be collected together into a forceful contempt against the tyrannical parent, who deserves no compassion. You might imagine people who are estranged from their parents like that will eventually work out their aggressions on a lover or spouse of their own?

What's interesting to me is to see its possible to step above that behavior, and not take it personally, but maybe this attitude itself is an expression of status and superiority that just encourages the wounded person to greater cruelty?

So for me the trick of the ST is that at the beginning, you can feel true empathy for the person who is acting out, but the danger is if you start focusing entirely on the needs of the wounded person, its easy to not take your own wounds seriously, or that's what a people pleaser will do.

I like The Four Agreements:
1. Be Impeccable with your Word
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
4. Always Do Your Best

So if individuals we set ground rules for our relationships, we might "ban the ST", and it makes sense when everything is good, but when communication breaks down then you're free to call out that behavior in your spouse.

Webutante said...

My favorite family systems 'analyst' Murray Bowen described the silent treatment in family relationships as 'cutoff.' He went to say it's the most immature and primitive way of dealing with stress between individuals and in families.

Being one to always want to listen and talk when issues come up, I found my own sister's silent treatment and aloofness---on and off for decades--to be especially difficult. But I gave her a free pass because she was so young when our mother died.

Today, she continues even more deeply in those patterns and I have had to rise above it and not take it entirely personally. She's been on antidepressants for decades which I think contributes to her being unable to function
more productively under stress.

Over the years, I've found my best, most enduring relationships
are those where we can fight, even scream at each other and then clear the air and make up quickly.

In fact, those relationships only get better and deeper. The other kind just become figments of one's imagination and never based on reality.

Ares Olympus said...


I found Bowen has a wiki-bio and section on emotional cutoff, so that seems more about unresolved past relationship conflicts, but suggests this behavior can lead to the silent treatment behavior as a defense in active relationships that trigger these moments of feeling threated and which that can't be talked about.

It does make sense, if a current relationship is triggering a hidden past traumatic memory, then talking won't help because they'll just be called wrong when they try to explain their feelings. So withdrawal serves two purposes - safety, and a chance to rationalize why the other is responsible, for not listening right or whatever.
"Emotional cutoff is the mechanism people use to reduce anxiety from their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other members from the family of origin. To avoid sensitive issues, they either move away from their families and rarely go home; or, if they remain in physical contact with their families, to avoid sensitive issues, they use silence or divert the conversation. Though cutoff may diminish their immediate anxiety, these unresolved problems contaminate other relationships, especially when those relationships are stressed."

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered how professionals -- especially psychologists and others required to consider the health of the human mind -- think human interactions should operate. What would an ideal human interaction look like? Does it allow for diversity of approach, opinion or preference? Is a healthy relationship one where participants just agree all the time and live a placid existence? Would placid become plastic? Would there be any need for emotional response at all, or just a cool, nirvana-like atmosphere? What are we playing the game of life for? No negative feelings or interactions? How do we grow?