Silence Can be Deadly

By Susan Murray, M.A., M.S., CFCS, CFLE, LMFT

Photo by Dreamstime

The husband needed to be up early one morning to catch a business flight, and he hoped his wife would wake him at the appointed time. They, however, were in the middle of conflict that had led to what’s called “the silent treatment.” Not wanting to be the first to break the silence, he left a note on his wife’s side of the bed. It said, “Please wake me at 5 a.m.”

By the time the sun roused him the next morning, it was 9 a.m. He was furious. He threw back the covers and shouted to his wife, who was nowhere to be found, “Why didn’t you wake me up like I asked you to?” That’s when he saw, stuck to the lamp by his side of the bed, a note that read, “It is 5 a.m. Time to wake up!”

It doesn’t take much to make us angry and create emotional distance from one another. The silent treatment usually begins over something inconsequential. We just want the other person to go away. We don’t want to deal with the person or the situation. We certainly don’t feel like talking about it. So we say nothing and shut the other person out. Sometimes we reason that if anything is said, it will likely lead to something we regret, something perhaps even unforgiveable. Instead we say nothing at all.

On the other hand, realistically speaking, we are adults. We have some understanding of human behavior and how to appropriately use language. We have learned how to avoid many of the pitfalls that happen during arguments, and have other communication skills as well. So if we know all this, why do we give our spouse the silent treatment? Why does our spouse give it to us? Could it be because we both believe we are right? For some of us the stronger our conviction, the more we hold out.

For a while silence can feel like a security blanket. It buffers us, protects us, gives us some space of our own. It offers us an excuse to behave in a certain way. But the truth is that it is one of Satan’s most deadly disguises. The silent treatment can be ultimately destructive. It is used to punish and sometimes provoke. At its worst it ostracizes, manipulates, and is abusive. Research indicates that when someone is ostracized, the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain that detects pain) is affected in the same way as when one is hurt physically. This means that when we give someone the silent treatment, which hurts them emotionally, there are corresponding physical implications.

If there is a pattern of giving or receiving the “silent treatment” in your marriage, or with others, I invite you think about what drives you into silence. Have a conversation with your spouse, or others, when emotions are not running high; and seek understanding. Discuss what you need when you are silent and find out what they need. Don’t loose precious time together. Silent treatments lessen intimacy, increase power struggles and breach important levels of respect.

We serve a God who both seeks and speaks. We have a model in Jesus. He didn’t retreat or refuse others. He remains faithful today, never retreating, never giving us the cold shoulder, or refusing us. What a gift to be the kind of spouse who does the same.