Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Silent Treatment ... by Russ Beck

Case Study
Joe and Mary entered my office and took a seat at opposite ends of the room. Mary stared at Joe through tear filled eyes as he sat fiddling with his cell phone. When I asked what the problem was, Mary folded her arms and turned towards the wall while Joe looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. Joe felt clueless about what was wrong and Mary wasn’t talking.

Through 18 years of marriage, Mary and Joe handled disagreements through avoidance. When offended, Mary typically became quiet and stayed to herself, but in reality she wanted Joe to apologize for his actions. She believed he knew what he'd done yet he chose to ignore it. It infuriated her.

For his part, Joe disengaged. He didn't press the issue and went off to watch TV or mow the lawn. Eventually, perhaps two or three days later, they gradually moved back into a congenial relationship where they spoke to each other again.

This time, however, they were not moving back together. They hadn't spoken for two weeks.

I asked Mary if she could explain to me what Joe had done. After several minutes, Mary looked at me and said she shouldn’t have to, Joe knew perfectly well what he'd done. “It doesn’t take a genius to know when you’ve insulted someone,” she said with her eyes flashing. Joe remained unmoved by this and continued to press buttons on his cell phone. More upset than ever, Mary refolded her arms tightly across her chest, exhaled sharply and turned to stare at me. “See what I mean?” she said in disgust.

The situation with Joe and Mary had reached critical mass. Something needed to be done quickly or they would divorce.

The ability to communicate with others is a learned skill which is vital to a healthy marriage. Joe’s choice to disconnect wasn’t helping and Mary’s expectation that Joe should “just know” what he had done was driving their marriage off a cliff. Joe needed to let Mary know how frustrated he became when she would not explain to him what was bothering her. Mary needed to tell Joe what she was feeling and why. Both were contributing to the problem. Joe failed to let her know how much he loved her and how much he wanted to help her feel better. Mary failed to let him know what he did to offend her.

Mary came from a family where innuendo and slight suggestion was interpreted accurately. It was very much like a second language. When she was young and the family was eating, her mother would say, “Oh, those potatoes look yummy.” Immediately someone would grab the bowl and offer them to her. Whereas, Joe came from a family where members said exactly what they wanted. If someone wanted more potatoes, he asked for them. Because of the difference in family structure, Mary had trouble comprehending why Joe never understood her nuanced statements and hints. She felt he was either being mean or that he just didn’t care. She failed to realize that just like another language, Joe was clueless as to what she was saying, or attempting to say.

In order to help Joe and Mary, I suggested they take time to practice this second language and to make a game of it. Mary was amazed at Joe’s lack of understanding. Over time, she started to help him and it became a shared, fun thing to do. Mary also began to see that not everyone was so adept at the language of hidden meanings. Over time, Joe became more aware of what Mary was saying.

In addition, Mary worked at expressing her needs more directly, rather than couching her requests in hints. It was a difficult transition for her as she felt she was stating the obvious. Mary did come to realize that clear communications gave her what she was looking for. Her convoluted attempts at expressing her needs were not only time consuming, but frustrating for her and Joe. She also came to understand that plain and simple talk yielded the most positive results. Their relationship blossomed and efforts at saving their marriage paid large dividends. Both willingly worked to avoid giving the silent treatment in the future, and to discuss issues as they arose.

Real Life Applications
Trying to get your needs met through hints and insinuations is like trying to catch a fish by sitting on the end of the dock and merely thinking about it. Just like needing a fishing pole, line and bait, it's necessary to use honesty and openness to make your wishes known. Taking the initiative to say, "I feel this way, or I'd like it if you would..." is the first step that's needed to prevent misunderstandings.

If the silent treatment is an issue in your life or marriage, work to change that. Whenever you're tempted to hide behind a stony wall of silence, try expressing your needs as mentioned above. Practice conscientiously, and over time you'll experience a positive change in your life.

Until next time …

~ Russ

* Names have been changed.

-----© Russ Beck, 2011-----

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