Six Ways to Respond to the Silent Treatment in Relationships


What Is the Silent Treatment?

The silent treatment is when one person in a relationship ignores the other person, refusing to acknowledge them verbally or through any other method. This usually happens after an argument, but it can also happen when the silent partner is angry and the other person doesn’t know why.

Being on the receiving end is painful and frustrating. It’s a form of ostracism, and it can feel like a punishment and even a form of pressure to get a response to criticism or submission to a request.

If you’re on the receiving end, it’s important that you know that no one, male or female, should accept the silent treatment as an acceptable behavior. You don’t deserve it. While both parties are responsible for creating healthy communication in a relationship, no one ever deserves to be ignored, and you didn’t agree to this type of passive-aggressive communication.

The silent treatment is a common pattern of conflict for committed, romantic couples, and it can be damaging if left unaddressed. It is important to break this communication pattern, and there are constructive ways to respond and, hopefully, find a way to move forward that both of you can agree on.

Here are some ways to respond to the silent treatment.

1. Take Time to Cool Off

During a time of silence both partners should pause to reflect on what led up to the silent treatment episode, especially if it was preceded by an argument, fight, or emotional outburst. If you’re on the receiving end you may feel frustrated and angry, so take a cooling-off period to get a breath and calm down.

2. Give Your Partner Space to Think

Avoid trying to figure out what your silent partner or spouse is thinking. You’re not a mind-reader. The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive form of communication. If you do their thinking for them, they won’t learn how to be direct when sharing their thoughts and feelings.

3. Don’t Apologize Unless You’re Truly Sorry

Never apologize for something when you don’t believe you did. How can you have an authentic, connected relationship by being false? Instead, try to empathize with your partner by saying you understand that they’re upset or angry and that you would like to bridge the gap that has come between you.

4. Apologize if You’re Truly Sorry

Think about whether you really may have done or said something to hurt your partner or make them angry. Admit and acknowledge any wrongs that may have caused offense and apologize sincerely.

5. Ask Yourself Whether it’s Just a Personality Difference

Is your partner an introvert while you are more of an extrovert? Introverts need more time to process their emotions, especially when things get intense or they feel that they’ve been attacked or insulted in some way.

If this is the case for you, tell your partner that you’ll give them a certain amount of time to themselves and that you’ll be back after the time is up to talk. Of course it’s best if they agree to this plan.

6. Set Rules for Healthy Communication

When communication is difficult it can help to create some rules. Give your partner (and yourself) permission to calm down.

Sometimes when we feel waves of anxiety, panic, or rage, our bodies become saturated with adrenaline. This is called “flooding,” and it happens when intense feelings, thoughts, or sensations are just too much to integrate in the moment.

“In a conflict, when one person gets flooded, they usually choose either fight of flight,” says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a marriage counselor in Boulder, CO. “In this case, flight would the silent treatment or stonewalling. Regular stonewalling is toxic to a healthy relationship.”

Fisher recommends that couples recognize that one or both partner is flooded and then separate for a period of time to calm down. Then they should come back together at an agreed-upon time when they are relaxed to talk through the conflict.

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