Ask Allison: 'When we fight, my boyfriend gives me the silent treatment'
Our resident therapist answers your queries about sex and relationships
Q: When my partner and I have an argument, he gives me the silent treatment afterwards. Sometimes this can go on for days, and the disagreement doesn't have to be very serious for him to do so. When I'm angry, I can usually get over it quite quickly and I don't understand how he can manage to keep giving me the cold shoulder, especially as we live together. He says it's how he processes things, but it's horrible for me to experience this and I don't know how to deal with it. What do you suggest?
A: You are being stonewalled. This is an awful, isolating feeling and such a lonely place to be within a relationship. The question we need to ask is 'what behaviour is behind his wall of silence?' and 'why is he shutting down?' One of the hard parts of being in a healthy, connected relationship is to take responsibility for things that on the surface look much easier to blame on someone else's behaviour, such as being on the receiving end of a cold shoulder.
I fully acknowledge to you, that it must be so painful to be ignored by the one you love. However, blame, anger, resentment and a sense of injustice over how you feel you are being treated will not help either of you. So in that vein, I am going to come at this from a scientific viewpoint as to why he is stonewalling and then look for its solution to bring understanding and connection back or in the least to start talking with each other again.
Stonewalling is more commonly a male response, possibly not helped by the 'strong, silent male' stereotype, and some men are unaware that they are even doing it. As a behaviour, it also has the unfortunate statistic of being a predictor of divorce with 90pc accuracy. So this is a pattern that is certainly worthwhile changing. In all arguments, there is the start and the middle and this inevitably leads to, how the argument will end.
The shame of feeling shut-out by your partner is not one we often hear about openly. But trust me, stonewalling is very common and you are not alone.
From a female perspective, here's the anatomy of how stonewalling is broken down. It feels painful, isolating and lonely. A common reaction would be to become more angry or infuriated and to demand that they talk with you. The only result would most likely be an extension of you getting more time getting the silent treatment. This will only negatively spiral your anger as you fight with him in your mind and it builds minute-on-minute and day-by-day.
Anger is the core emotion that we need to deal with, yours - and how he deals and reacts to it.
He mentioned that this is how he processes the aftermath of a fight. We need to take one step back and look at the beginning of the argument and to his family norms of how anger played out.
Every family deals with anger differently, was it something to be stifled, or did you see it healthily displayed where people made up afterwards, apologised and moved on? This is a conversation that I propose you put forward to your partner as you offer an olive leaf. Tip: Watch your tone.
I would recommend going in with what Gottman calls 'a softened start-up' this is the key to opening up communication again. This is easier said than done when I'm sure you feel aggrieved. Relationship skills demand a lot of personal growth, maturity and generosity to flourish and grow.
The truth is, being an adult in a romantic relationship is tough, but with new skills so worth it.
How to take the wall down:
1. Ask him for his version of events. (Listen and don't reply back.)
2. Perception is reality. (Both of yours are probably quite different.)
3. What was the trigger for him to stop talking with you?
4. Ask him how he saw his parents argue?
5. How was anger shown in each of your families?
6. Are they different? Was anger shown through passive-aggressive silence or did they shout and one shut down?
7. How do each of you find having challenging conversations?
8. How would you like or propose to change or work on this?
People stonewall when they feel attacked. This can occur if they feel criticised by their partners negativity towards them such as anger. It is felt physiologically with a quickening of the heart and it feels deeply upsetting, so much so, that they retreat to make it stop. If the heart rate goes over 100 beats per minute the person feels 'flooded' this is why most people stonewall to avoid feeling like that. Your partner may become hypervigilant to any cue that you may get angry and this is why seemingly small arguments get blown-up very quickly. The danger is, if this continues that he could disengage from the relationship.
Learning together how to manage the anger ice-berg is vital to changing this dynamic which may have roots in his family of origin. Under the tip of the anger ice-berg lies the real emotions of hurt, pain or vulnerability that can be addressed together by changing how you start arguments or at least knowing when to hit the pause button when it feels overwhelming.
If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org