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Silent treatment: Time for reflection

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • June 6, 2010 - 3:46 PM

Dear Carolyn: My husband's angry with me over a minor issue. I apologized, but it's been several days and I'm still getting the silent treatment. I don't know how to talk to him about it, and feel uncomfortable being at home.

I have the worst feeling about it and have been crying at my desk, but that obviously doesn't help the situation. I feel like we're growing apart, and I don't know what to do.

Carolyn says: I'm sorry. There's a certain desperation that comes from being purposefully ignored -- which is of course why people use this tactic. It's non-contact torture.

Although you probably feel helpless, you have significant power. Your husband controls only one parameter here: whether he'll cooperate. He's currently refusing to, so, fine. It's time for you to get your own thoughts straight anyway.

You have the power to do extensive, independent thinking. You say you feel like you're growing apart, which I'll take to mean that this isn't the first round of silent punishment you've received from your spouse. Based on that, here are some questions to get you started:

Do you deserve this treatment; does anyone; are you generally content, or is your happiest state one of relief when things aren't bad; is this the way your husband's parents taught him to handle a marriage; is he willing to try to do better -- i.e., admit fault; is the status quo worth the emotional price you're paying to preserve it; is crying at your desk really your only recourse?

Simple yes/no questions, all of them, but none of them simple to answer. Give yourself time to read your heart and mind, and to read him.

Then: Once you've turned all this over to your satisfaction, and you're comfortable with where you stand, you can tap two other sources of considerable power: honesty, and speech.

Say to him, point-blank, where you are emotionally. Maybe that's: "Every time/day you shut me out like this, my feelings for you die a little."

Or: "If what I did was so bad, then have the courage to leave me. If it wasn't that bad, then have the courage to talk to me -- now, not after torturing me for a week."

Or (after you've secured your assets and valuables): "I am going to stay in my friend's guest room. When you're ready to treat me with basic human decency, I will be happy to meet you in counseling."

In other words, state the level of mistreatment you will not accept, and back up words with actions. I urge counseling solo, regardless.

There's an important difference between calmly asserting yourself and escalating this battle into a war -- and the distinction lies mainly in your willingness to remain open to conversation, open to change, open to him.

Your fear of growing apart suggests you're still receptive to working on your marriage. If that is indeed the case, then say that to him -- and make it clear, too, that your receptiveness is conditioned upon his ending this punitive silence. If he chooses not to cooperate, if his response is just "This is the way I process things," then you have power in the form of a choice: Status quo, or go?

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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