“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” – William James
We all feel hurt and angry with our friends or loved ones sometimes, and most of us have fairly predictable ways of dealing with our feelings. Although we might blur the lines once in awhile, most of us fit into one of several categories.
Aggressive people go on the offensive right away.
Let’s say there’s a team meeting at work, and a presenter refers to a colleague in a less-than-complimentary way. The aggressive personality blows up right on the spot—or the minute they’re out the door—and she’ll defend herself in no uncertain terms.
Passive types tend to avoid conflict.
When they do confront people, they’re usually not very forceful. The passive individual might look for just the right moment to beat around the bush until the other person (hopefully) gets the message. If he doesn’t, the passive person is likely to just let it go.
Assertive folks confront directly and calmly with a goal in mind.
This type isn’t afraid to initiate a discussion and say she feels hurt or angry. She’ll expect an explanation, possibly an apology, and she’ll ask that the action isn’t repeated. She’s also ready to apologize for misunderstanding if that’s what happened.
Passive-aggressive personalities express their feelings indirectly.
As the term suggests, a passive-aggressive personality type is aggressive, but he expresses his aggression passively or indirectly without accountability. He’s angry all right—he might even be furious—but he won’t show it because to do so would mean admitting weakness or vulnerability. Instead, he (or she) gets back at the person or seeks revenge indirectly and discretely so that no one would ever guess he did it.
Giving the “silent treatment” is very common in people with a passive-aggressive personality type.
He might ignore the colleague who offends him, but it won’t be obvious. Maybe he won’t respond to an email, and later he’ll claim that he never received it. If he does respond, he might skip over important questions or reply with a “word salad” which makes little or no sense, especially if he’s explaining something or giving directions. He might even make those directions deliberately confusing or faulty.
A passive-aggressive personality type will stop short of any act that’s openly aggressive because it will give him away. He’s usually very clever about it, and his behavior can be confusing, unsettling, and quietly disruptive.
In an intimate relationship or marriage, the passive-aggressive person might do any of the above but he also gets quiet—and stays that way—when asked a specific question or is expected to discuss a problem. He’s silent not because he needs to think about it but because he’s not willing to answer the question much less discuss it.
John Gray, in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, popularized the notion of a man going silently into his “cave” because, supposedly, that’s just what men do. But women frequently give people the silent treatment as well. If he—or she—eventually comes out of his “cave” and is able to discuss an issue and resolve it, that’s one thing. But when he shuts down completely—for days—without explanation and never returns to the subject, even when asked, it’s a different matter altogether.
The silent treatment can feel like a slap in the face because it’s insulting. Invalidating. Humiliating. And it can make a person feel rejected and utterly powerless.
Dr. Kip Williams says it’s a form of rejection or social ostracization that can be extremely painful. According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, the emotional pain felt from the silent treatment is much like physical pain because of shared neural pathways in the brain. In other words, when we pull a muscle or break a bone, the pain we experience is much the same as the pain felt when a loved one—whose validation and attention we seek—rejects us and gives us the silent treatment.
Dr. Williams and his students conducted experiments and numerous interviews, and he reports in the article that, “One woman, whose husband both physically abused her and ostracized her, said that the bruises would heal quickly, but the silent treatment was more damaging.”
The silent treatment can be a form of emotional abuse.
And that’s every bit as damaging as physical abuse—sometimes even more so because the victim can’t make sense of things or understand why he’s hurting over someone’s apparent inability to talk about something. Or she blames herself, thinking she asks too much, wants to talk too much, or that something must be wrong with her for feeling hurt.
When a colleague or a friend gives you the silent treatment, that’s one thing. But if you’ve experienced frequent, hurtful episodes of the silent treatment from someone you love and care about, educate yourself and talk it over with your partner. Find out whether the silent treatment you’re experiencing just means he’s collecting his thoughts until he’s ready to talk.
If you suspect that what you’re experiencing might be a form of abuse, please seek help from a trusted friend, spiritual leader, or professional counselor.
On the other hand, if you’re someone who regularly gives the silent treatment to someone you care about and love, even though that someone makes it clear that he wants to talk with you and that your silence is hurting him, think about it. Educate yourself.
If you just get overwhelmed sometimes, or if you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, say so. Ask for a time out, and reassure your loved one that you just need time to think. Within 24 hours or a few days at most, revisit the subject and work out some compromises or solutions to the problem.
If you know your partner has been upset and hurt when you give him or her the silent treatment, please talk with someone you trust.
You might also consider getting professional help to learn more effective ways of dealing with strong feelings as well as discussing and resolving problems.
None of us are born with skills for communicating about difficult subjects or resolving problems. We’re taught—directly and indirectly—and we pick things up along the way on our journeys to adulthood. But as adults, we have choices.
We can choose to confront people aggressively and risk damaging our relationships. We can turn away passively when we’re a target and put our own self-respect at risk. We can strike out with slaps and punches and, though they’re silent and invisible and we don’t take responsibility for them, we can hurt someone deeply and destroy our relationships. Or we can choose ways of communicating that allow us to respect ourselves and also those we care about and love.
What about you? Have you ever experienced the silent treatment? Do you give it? Join the discussion.
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