‘It’s the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,’ says Schrodt.
‘And it does tremendous damage.’ It’s an incredibly hard pattern to break because both partners lay the blame at the feet of the other.
The silent treatment can tend to present itself as a response more fitting of the ‘high road’, one of grace and dignity, but research has shown it is anything but.
Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University who has studied ostracism for twenty years, explains, ‘Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.’ The ability to detect ostracism is hardwired in us – it doesn’t matter if you’re being ignored by a group or a person you can’t stand, the pain still registers.
Williams suggests that instead of reverting to the silent treatment, try ‘I can’t talk to you right now, but we can talk about it later.’ Nobody engages the silent treatment expecting it to damage the relationship, and that’s the danger.‘Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,’ explains Schrodt.‘Both partners see the other as the problem.’ One partner will typically complain that the other is emotionally unavailable.The other will accuse his or her partner of being too demanding or critical.When couples become locked in this ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern, the damage can be both emotional and physiological include anxiety and aggression as well as erectile dysfunction and urinary and bowel problems.