The Silent Treatment

24 May The Silent Treatment

“And then he just stares at me like an idiot! It’s like he doesn’t even care!” You started arguing about how he was supposed to take out the garbage. Somehow the argument escalated and cut back and forth from issue to issue in your relationship. Finally the argument ends with him giving you the “silent” treatment. Is it because he doesn’t care about you? Has he just given up? Is he trying to punish you? Has he had a mild stroke? Probably not.

So why does he just blankly stare at you like he’s recovering from the roadrunner dropping an anvil on his head?  Ask him after he’s able to speak again and I bet he’ll say something like, “I had a really good point at the beginning of this argument, but now it’s like it was all written on a chalkboard, and you came in with an eraser and wiped everything out. My mind goes blank and I feel numb. I just have no words”

So what happens? Why does someone who can normally talk ad nauseam about cars, or politics, or who would win in a one on one battle between Chewbacca and The Incredible Hulk, suddenly find himself unable to produce a single rational thought? It’s because you’re holding a knife to his throat. I mean, not literally, but you might as well be … let me explain.

Everyone knows about fight or flight. When our brain perceives a threat, we go into fight or flight mode, but that’s only the first part. If our brain believes that we are neither strong enough to fight the threat, or fast enough to escape it, we go into freeze mode. We play dead. The funny thing about our brain is that it doesn’t really distinguish between a physical threat and an emotional threat.

Your pressing of the issue when he has run out of fight or flight options throws him into freeze, just as if you had him cornered with a knife at his throat. So he freezes; his brain kicks into survival mode and shuts down all of the “unnecessary functions” like rational thought and coherent speech, because the parts of the brain that control these “unnecessary parts,” are much slower than parts of the brain that control survival.

So is it the silent treatment? Most likely not. What is probably happening is that his brain feels so threatened that it has to limit itself to the elements necessary for survival. He feels that he cannot win the fight, and that he cannot run. He literally cannot think of anything to say, and he probably doesn’t understand why.

“Great, now I know why he shuts down, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am trying to hold a conversation with the human equivalent of a potato.” Here are some things that you both can do. Notice the signs and reduce the threat. If you see him start to drift away, stop. Check in with him and ask him what he is feeling. If he notices it happening, he can let you know as well, although this may be difficult for him at first. Give him a minute to collect himself. This does not mean walk out of the room. Stay in the same place as him so as not to leave him feeling abandoned. Let him begin the conversation again once he is able to articulate his experience.

That’s a good place to start. Remember, this is something that is going to take some practice. Your relationship won’t change overnight but you should notice that your arguments will become less volatile and more productive. If you are looking for more reading, Hold Me Tight by Dr. Susan Johnson is an easy and helpful book for working on your relationship. If you feel you would like more help, you can contact your local EFT couples therapist.


Eran Montiel, MA MFTI, is a Marriage and Family Theapist Intern. He currently works in private practice at Coastal Counseling. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Eran, please call 1-888-470-4415.

This article and the information herein are for educational and informational purposes only. It is not meant as a substitute for professional psychological or therapeutic services.  The self-help information provided by this blog are solely the opinion of the bloggers and should not be considered as a form of therapy, advice, direction, diagnosis, or treatment of any kind. Instead, the information is designed to be used in conjunction with ongoing treatment provided by a mental health professional. Use the information in this blog at your own risk. All of the information is provided “as-is,” with no warranties of any kind, express or implied.

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