It seems that quite often in the process of working with an obstinate spouse, one encounters the “silent treatment.” This can manifest in many ways. The obstinate partner might stop talking to his or her spouse if they live together. If they are separated, he or she could stop answering the phone. In more severe cases, the obstinate spouse might attempt to block the phone number and/or email of the faithful spouse, or try to erect other barricades in the way of communication.
Think of this as the last line of defense for an obstinate spouse. it is very much like a toddler sticking his fingers in his ears, pretending as if you aren’t really talking. It is very childish and highly immature behavior, and certainly not something befitting an adult.
The right approach here is not to give up and walk away. The right approach is to persevere and to continue to try to reach out to the obstinate spouse. The onus really is on the faithful spouse, for to walk away would be to assent to the obstinate spouse’s agenda, and the obstinate spouse’s agenda typically only has one goal: the destruction of the marriage.
You’ve got to be a bit creative when dealing with the silent treatment. It also helps if you’ve built up a store of goodwill through other acts of generosity and loving kindness. Otherwise, if you were to start from absolutely nowhere and suddenly begin reaching out several times a day to a spouse who is giving you the silent treatment, that could come across as lacking in credibility and possibly even manipulative.
So what do you do? Well, if you are lucky enough to have built up some goodwill, and have established lines of communication with the spouse already, then you simply continue to reach out as you always have. (I’ve mentioned Marriage Fitness before, but if you want to learn how to do this in a practical way, please do visit their website.) This could be idle chitchat about something frivolous, if your spouse lives with you, and it does not matter at all if he or she responds. If you are separated, then you call to do the same. If you were doing this, say, two times a day before the silent treatment hit, then continue with that level of contact. Don’t ramp up suddenly.
If you had no pattern of communication, well, that likely could have been part of the problem. You will now need to establish these habits. Take it easy at first, and go slowly. One contact per day will likely be enough. Over time, you can escalate this to two, or three contacts per day. Your contacts should not be logistical, but should rather just be about frivolous, non-serious matters. Keep it brief, too — 30 to 60 seconds is usually enough.
You can expect pushback; that’s normal. If you’re not sure what to do about that, just read my post about pushback for some ideas. What’s most important is that you do not let the pushback derail you. You can tone it down and back off a bit, especially if you are new to the process of trying to reach out to an obstinate spouse. If, on the other hand, you’ve been at it for a while, then you really should not back off much, if at all. You are responsible for setting the tone, and that tone should be that you will establish and maintain open lines of communication.
I do think that attitude is one of the most important elements in dealing with the silent treatment, yet it is also one that is much harder to quantify. While it’s easy to describe the attitude an obstinate spouse might throw at his or her spouse, how does one describe the attitude one should take in return? I would say it is one of gentle, yet firm insistence. Your attitude simply has to be that you will communicate with your spouse, regardless of his or her behavior. You certainly can be sensitive to your spouses feelings and maintain this gentle-yet-firm insistence. You’re not looking for confrontation; you’re looking for positive connection.
Here’s what I did in this most recent round of silent treatment. As noted in an earlier post, this latest spate of silence began with a rather petulant request by my wife to stop calling her and to leave her along. Now, I already had some months of positive connection and regular phone contact with her — yes, I call her 3 times per day, even if it just goes to voice mail — and so my approach was simply to ignore her request and to continue to reach out as I had been doing for many months. She apparently did not like this very much, and shut off her cell phone, shunting everything straight to voice mail, even to the point of letting her voice mail box get totally full. This required a bit of creative thinking, so I found an iPad app that does voice recordings, and on occasion would make a recording that I’d send by email. Or, perhaps instead I’d send a short video I’d made of something or other. The whole point is that you do have to gently insist on there being no “space” between yourself and the obstinate spouse. This should make sense: if this is your husband or wife, you likely had a heart connection with him or her for many years, and it is exactly this connection you need to recreate. That connection knows no such thing as “space,” either physical or emotional.
Remember, it takes two to play the silent treatment game. Just don’t buy into it. You can change the tone and set the agenda, such that the course is set for reconciliation. It takes time, effort, perseverance, and wisdom, but it is totally achievable if you put your mind and heart into it.