February 23, 2015 by Shawn Smith
Michelle sent this question via Facebook:
“I’ve recently come across some articles you’ve written on relationship dynamics, specifically situations in which men ‘go silent.’ They’ve been very interesting and helpful but there’s one question to which I’ve not found an answer…. When dealing with a man who is giving you the silent treatment for days, causing your own buttons to be pushed (and badly) what is the best course of action to take? I understand giving space to someone, but I also wonder about taking care of yourself and the feelings/anxiety that come with being ignored by a partner (not living together).”
This isn’t Cosmo magazine, so I have no sassy, reckless advice to offer: Girl, you need to kick that dog to the curb! Curl up with a good book and a sweet guy named Chardonnay! You’re a tiger! Don’t let any man take that away!
Right. Luckily, I don’t think that’s what Michelle is seeking. There’s a larger issue here: how do you respond to a partner who is behaving badly—in this case, stonewalling? This might seem like a controversial stance, but dammit I don’t care: I am opposed to couples mistreating each other.
In the past, I’ve come to the defense of men who fall silent during conflict. I’ve explained why some men stop talking, and how women might respond (here and here). All of it has been predicated on the assumption that the silent man is, in his own way, trying to preserve the relationship. Good men sometimes try to mitigate conflict by withdrawing.
Michelle’s man gave no indication that he was trying to reduce conflict. (She explained the situation to me via email.) He didn’t say, I need time to think, or please give me some space. He didn’t even offer an honest, I just don’t know what to say right now.
Unlike the men I’ve written about previously, he offered no glimmer of hope. No next step. No paltry gesture toward reconciliation. He cut her off completely. That is not silence; that is abandonment. He put her in a terrible position and left her to worry over the fate of a relationship she cherished.
Here are the events as Michelle described them. The problem began with a tense interaction between her and her man. As she described it, it was the sort of small, common conflict that most relationships easily survive. But rather than addressing the problem, he went silent for two days, resurfacing only once via text message to express his unwillingness to discuss the problem. After six more days of silence, he ended the relationship by way of email. Michelle indicated that she thought the relationship was fine prior to his departure.
She told me that being cut off completely was “one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced relationship-wise,” adding about the breakup, “I was perplexed… from the sound of it, he perceived that something was wrong for a period of time. I had no clue as he not once spoke with me about it.”
One gets the sense that he withdrew long before he went silent, masking his thoughts and leaving Michelle with no way to repair the relationship… which brings us back to her question: what is the best course of action?
There’s no easy answer for one simple reason. By treating her poorly, Michelle’s man deprived her of all but two options. She could 1) tolerate the mistreatment or 2) take firm action to reclaim influence. Those are crappy options.
Don’t Shoot Your Heart in the Foot, and Other Turns of Phrase
Treating a partner poorly isn’t merely rude. It’s foolish. It’s the emotional equivalent of spitting into the wind.
For eight days, Michelle tolerated bad treatment. Perhaps her man saw this as a trivial concern since he ended the relationship anyway, but his silence and avoidance come at a cost to him. Callousness begets comeuppance, and comeuppance precedeth the go-down-ance.
Irrespective of the pain he caused Michelle to endure, he did himself no favors by foregoing the opportunity to handle the problem constructively. Avoiding people and problems almost always comes at a cost. For one thing, the pain he caused will surely be foremost in her mind if he ever hopes to rekindle their romance. He may have forever burned that bridge.
But even if he moves on to other relationships, he has just spent eight days practicing pitifully ineffective problem-solving. This will haunt him when he inevitably faces problems in a relationship that he would prefer to save. He pissed away a golden opportunity to practice peacemaking, or at least ending on a positive note and fostering goodwill. Instead, he practiced abandonment—a dubious skill that he’s now more inclined to repeat the next time things get tough.
Now let’s imagine that Michelle hadn’t tolerated his silence, but instead chose to exercise what little control she had over the situation. Foregoing the kind of destructive reactions that reasonable people avoid, like temper tantrums and threats, a cornered partner has precious few options. Here are the two most obvious, neither of which I would want to be on the receiving end of.
Desperate Option #1: Issuing an Ultimatum. There are times, after all other options have failed, when reasonable people protect themselves by drawing a line in the sand. As in, for example: if you don’t stop drinking, I’ll leave.
Of course, that manner of wording is likely to put the recipient on the defensive. Offering choices is a better alternative. It conveys the same basic message in a more compassionate and nonthreatening way. Here’s that same ultimatum delivered in a way that might end positively:
I realize that alcohol is important to you, but it is causing irreparable damage to our relationship. As much as I love you, I’m not willing to continue as things are. I’ll let you decide whether you would like to enter treatment and continue our relationship, or whether we must separate. If you don’t enter treatment this week, I’ll be very sad but I’ll know that I should move on.
(It probably goes without saying, but one shouldn’t bluff about an ultimatum. A failed bluff only ensures that you will never again be taken seriously by your partner.)
Desperate Option #2: Breaking Up. It may seem odd coming from a relationship repairman like me, but divorce (or breaking up) is a wonderful invention. It hasn’t always been the case in human history that a dissatisfied party could leave a relationship. Those of us in the Western world who possess this option should be grateful for it. Why?
Imagine that you had an employee who could never lose his job, no matter how lazy or insolent he became. What a disadvantage you would be at! That employee might decide to work exclusively on his terms, your interests be damned. He might even stop working altogether while still demanding his paycheck. It’s simply a fundamental reality of human nature: we are more careful with people when we know they’re willing to walk away. The possibility of being fired improves job performance, and the possibility of splitting up improves relationship performance.
Ultimatums and breakups. These are rotten options, and they’re painful for both parties. It’s rather sad to see someone mistreat a partner—intentionally or otherwise—and then wonder why their partner acted aggressively in response. When you diminish people’s options, you reduce their ability to bring their best behavior to the conflict. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but for some reason it surprises many.
Fine, But What about Michelle?
Sorry Michelle, I’ve been discussing you in the third person.
You were kind enough to share your story with the hope that others might benefit from it. Based on what you told me, I don’t know what you might have done differently. You were probably wise not to issue an ultimatum—at least not yet—since you didn’t know why he had gone silent. And breaking up was clearly the opposite of what you were trying to achieve.
You avoided the third rail of reconciliation: drama and tantrums. I’m sure we’ve all known people who used histrionics to gain compliance from their partners. Stonewalling is so anxiety-provoking that it almost encourages the kind of high drama that would have forced your man to reengage against his will. In the long run, that probably would have made things worse. You kept your cool, and so you can leave the relationship with a clear conscience and your dignity intact.
It seems the remaining option was to endure his stonewalling in the hopes of regaining love. How long you should have tolerated that pain is a question that only you can answer.
As to why he acted as he did, anything I offered would be pure speculation—though I tend to err on the side of good intentions. If I had to wager, I’d guess that he didn’t mean to hurt you as he did. Most people don’t.
His motives might remain a mystery, and that stinks. Sometimes we simply don’t get to know why others act as they do. All that’s left is to avoid becoming jaded and to choose how we’ll respond the next time someone forces us into a corner.