The silent treatment is part of the most common toxic pattern in a relationship, psychologists have found.
It is when one partner stops communicating in response to demands for change from the other.
The pattern is most often triggered by marital topics, such as habits, personality, communication and intimacy — not so much children, work or outside relationships.
Psychologists call it the ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern, as one partner is demanding an issue is resolved, while the other wants to avoid it, so shuts down communication on the topic.
Both behaviours damage the relationship: demanding change causes friction, as does failing to communicate.
That is why the tactic is linked to low marital satisfaction, more negative emotions and an inability to resolve marital conflicts, research finds.
When one or both partners are also depressed, the pattern becomes even more toxic as couples are more likely to fall into the pattern.
The conclusions come from a study in which 116 couples kept diaries of their marital conflicts and were asked about any depression symptoms.
The results showed that the demand-withdraw pattern was linked to anger, sadness, fear and even threats and aggression, the authors write:
“Demand-withdraw patterns were consistently related to greater likelihood of negative tactics (i.e., threat, physical distress, verbal hostility, aggression) and higher levels of negative emotions (i.e., anger, sadness, fear), and to lower likelihood of constructive tactics (i.e., affection, support, problem solving, compromise) and lower levels of positivity.”
Husbands and wives were equally likely to be the one making the demands, the authors write:
“…both husband demand-wife withdraw and wife demand-husband withdraw patterns were displayed at nearly equal frequencies, a finding that counters others’ demonstrations that wife demand-husband withdraw is more commonly expressed.”
Demand-withdraw patterns are not related to personality.
In other words, couples are not stuck with them — they can change.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Personal Relationships (Papp et al., 2015).