Dr. Kenner: Here is a question I received. Have you ever been with someone and they give you the silent treatment? I remember my first time – my earliest memory – of a silent treatment. My parents had gone away for a week or maybe more. They used to travel quite a bit. We had a babysitter, I even remember her name, Mrs. P I’ll say for short in case she’s listening, but she did something. We always used to have fun. We’d make pizza together and whatnot and one day she got upset with me. I don’t even know why, and for the entire day, she refused to talk with me. I felt utterly powerless. How do you deal with it when someone refuses to talk? Her refusal to talk to me was worse than if she had yelled at me. And she used to swear at me in Italian, so now I know all these swear words in Italian and I think they sound lovely because it’s a beautiful language, just kind of rolls off your tongue. But I can’t say them because people who know Italian look at me and feel very offended.
So, here is an email about someone shutting down. “Hi Dr. Kenner. I noticed that my boyfriend shuts down when he doesn’t like something I say. Recently he told me that’s how he lets me know that he’s unhappy or upset with me. He refuses to talk. He becomes unreachable. I told him that dealing with anger, frustration or extreme sadness by shutting down is not bad. It’s not a curse but a blessing. I see it as a sign that he’s not in an emotional state to have a good discussion. When I said that, he got frustrated with me. Can you recommend a better way, a more productive way, to help us deal with issues? Thank you, Charlene.”
Charlene, my guess is he got frustrated with you because when you try to tell another person their motivation, such as, well, shutting down is just giving you thinking time, that may not be his motivation for shutting down. He may be shutting down as a control issue. He may be shutting down because he feels insecure and doesn’t know what to say. He may be shutting down maybe because he needs more thinking time, as you say, but people sometimes resent you telling them their motivation – or very often resent that. So that may shed some light on that part.
But what do you do with the bigger problem? That his coping strategy is shutting down, giving you the silent treatment. Well, if I were talking with your boyfriend, I would say to him, “This has an origin someplace.” Things like this, a coping strategy like this, as it’s called in cognitive therapy, a coping strategy, doesn’t just come out of the blue, out of nowhere. It comes from your decisions long ago in your childhood, typically. So, why would someone shut down? Maybe you have irrational parents and you try to talk to them and they don’t listen to you. Or maybe you found that shutting down and using the silent treatment kind of gives you the illusion of the moral high ground. Maybe you had a little brother and just became silent and he became afraid of you and did whatever you wanted. You know, there can be different motivations to why people choose the silent treatment. But, the up shot of the silent treatment is you can’t deal with it. If somebody gives me the silent treatment, they do give me data. I know that they’re upset. But they don’t give me the content. They don’t tell me why they’re upset. So it puts stress on me. I have to try to figure out why that person is upset. Was it something I did just now? Was it something that has built up over time? I start beating up on myself and it puts a lot of stress on me to try and figure out what the heck is he upset about, if it’s my hubby. That’s not a good way to communicate – and it’s certainly not the way my hubby and I communicate.
He needs to learn how to talk. If you want good communication, if you want a good relationship, he needs to understand himself first and then to learn how to talk. Well, maybe you can sell him on it. Really, the view of yourself, when I used to give the silent treatment, let’s say to my sisters – I don’t do that any longer, but that’s one of the benefits of being a therapist, you learn skills to deal better with the people who matter most to you – but when I would give the silent treatment, it would give me a view that I have no right to voice my own opinion, or I'm afraid to voice my own opinion. Or maybe I felt that it was futile to voice my opinion because others wouldn’t listen. And it gives me in a powerless position myself. The person who assumes that stance themselves feels powerless.
So how do you fix someone? He has to know that he needs to give you the words, to put into words what is upsetting to him. And, you can say something to him like, “Honey, you matter to me, and when you shut down, I feel powerless. I feel like we can’t resolve our problems. Then I get upset with you for shutting down and that’s a second problem. If you need time to think about it, could you say so rather than just remain silent? Say something like, ‘I need time to sort through my own thoughts first. Let’s touch base again in an hour and I’ll be able to tell you what’s bothering me.’” Maybe he could even text or write down what’s on his mind. Or maybe he could read a book such as Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton and Heen. That may help him too.
Later in the show:
Now, you know the feeling, we’ve all had this feeling where you work so hard on something. I look at a dance competition, whether you watch Dancing With the Stars, or I’ve actually been to dance competitions because my son is a professional dancer, and I watch when dancers just dance magnificently, whether it’s a foxtrot, a playful, lively foxtrot, or a sexy rumba, and every so often, somebody messes up. They miss a step. And different dancers handle it differently. Some just mess up, like my son, if he messes up, he and his partner just smile at each other, this warm, warm smile, and move on. Man, if I were a judge I would look at them and say, “I love the way they handled that.” Other people don’t handle it so well. I’ve seen people dancing and they misstep and they shoot their partner an angry look like he or she did it, and then the rest of the dance looks ugly. It just looks tense and stressed. Even if it’s technically perfect. So you know that feeling when you mess up? When you mess up, what do you say in your mind? Do you start beating up on yourself when things aren’t going well? Can you learn to deal with difficulty better? How do you keep a mindset in sports or maybe in anything in life where you keep it fun, you keep it realistic, you’re good to yourself if you make a misstep, and you set realistic goals for yourself. How do you help your children do the same thing?