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Couples often employ the silent treatment when they disagree with each other or are arguing about something, but a recent study suggests it is one of the most damaging types of relationship conflict — as well as one of the hardest patterns to break.
In an analysis of 74 studies involving more than 14,000 participants published in the March 2014 Communication Monographs, the silent treatment — also referred to as the “demand-withdraw” pattern — can lead to lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy and, logically, poorer communication. Such a method of arguing is also a predictor of divorce.
Sean Horan, assistant professor of communication at Texas State University, told the Wall Street Journal that employing the silent treatment in a relationship can become a vicious cycle.
“Soon you’re no longer addressing the issue at hand. You start arguing about arguing,” he said.
Each person has a hand in it, yet each blames the other, says Paul Schrodt, a professor in the department of communication studies at Texas Christian University and lead researcher on the analysis. The demander feels her partner won’t open up to her and her emotional needs aren’t being met, while the withdrawer feels he is being hounded. “The more polarized the partners become, the more difficult it is for them to stop engaging in the behaviors,” Dr. Schrodt says.
Scrodt recommends talking with your partner about the pattern and own up to your role in it. Also, try to catch yourselves at the onset of silent treatment and agree to take a timeout, he said.
Before conflicts arise, establish rules for resolution. “Rules give us safety when addressing a threatening subject,” says Julie Nelson, professor of education and behavioral science at Utah Valley University.
If your demands and requests are being ignored, you’ll need to give your partner space. Try to engage his empathy. “The only way to do this is to use the word ‘I,’ ” says Fran Walfish, a licensed psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. Say: “This is how I feel when you pull away.”
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