Ms. Opinionated: My Spouse is Giving Me the Silent Treatment

Nicole Georges
View profile »
Nicole J. Georges is an illustrator, pet portrait artist, and zine teacher living in Portland, Oregon.

ms opinionated logo

Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Nicole Georges talks about the silent treatment (and draws some adorable sloths!). 

Hello dear advice givers,

My spouse and I have known each other about 5 years and got married last year in a truly joyous celebration. She still has issues with living with a child—my 13 year-old daughter—and has a hard time with my my ex, my daughter's father.  My spouse has said she hates him and doesn't want me to have any contact with him. I have tried to explain to her that I will have contact with about our daughter and we also still have many friends and family in common. I am NOT interested in ever getting back together with him or EVER having sex with men again, but she seems insecure about this.

This past week, my car developed trouble and I needed a ride to work because the car was not drivable.  My ex drove me to work very early in the morning when my spouse was sleeping, as she works second shift and I work an early first shift.  She has been barely civil to me since then. I have apologized, explained the car was not drivable and that I didn't want her stranded on the highway.

Her mother gave her the silent passive aggressive treatment when she was growing up and this is my spouse's fallback mode.  I want to talk things out ASAP, apologize right away and clear up misunderstandings. She has done a lot of work through therapy to raise her skills but this PA still comes up. So, what is the best way do deal with passive aggressive behavior?  Of course there is more to this dynamic, I'm outgoing, she's an introvert; I'm an artist she likes to doze in hammocks.  I love her and want her to be happy, and I wish she felt the same about me.

Thank you for your consideration,

Perplexed in Pennsylvania        

Dear Perplexed, 

AUGH! I am so, so sorry that you are hurting. 

I have something terrible to tell you, and you are not going to like it, but somebody has to say it out loud: Your spouse is being emotionally abusive. 

Phew! That's it. 

a sloth holding a sign saying that the silent treatment is not acceptable

Everything you are describing here does not sould like a joyful marriage. 

Nobody likes when the radical feminist starts quoting Dr. Laura, but I have a well-known history with her, so here I go. Dr. Laura has a saying that I hold dear. It is: "Choose Wisely, Treat Kindly." Your partner chose someone who is a lovely, outgoing person who is dedicated to a child and has contact with a man from her past in service to that child. It doesn't seem she is treating you kindly.

Somebody who makes you self conscious about being outgoing, who has issues with living with a child, and who is barely civil to you for doing something she doesn't agree with? That is NOT GOOD BEHAVIOR. That is not loving, mature behavior. 

The silent treatment is something she has learned, and maybe it's a strategy that served her well in her family of origin, but it is not helping your relationship now. 

What you deserve is someone who loves your outgoing, child-having, co-parenting self. 
The facts are: You aren't going to cut yourself off from the father of your child. Duh. 
You also aren't going to kick out your 13-year-old! Double duh!
You also aren't going to have a different personality than you do (outgoing is a great personality, btw), and you aren't going to obey her every command just because she is insecure about men. Sorry, spouser. Not going to happen.

My first advice, the harshest I have to lay down, is that you should run, not walk, away from this person. 

She may be in therapy, which I think if fantastic, but until she works out her feelings and responses independently, and can come to you with love and not resentment, I cannot see this boding well. Resentment is not great relationship food.  

It is very important right now that you role model good behaviors and relationships to your daughter. Even if she is a haughty, independent teen, she is observing and internalizing everything she sees, and her brain is building ideas based on this input. 

In the meantime, and because I know disentanglement is not as simple as an advice-giver makes it out to be, here is a strategy:
You can only worry about yourself and your daughter. 
You can only control your own actions.  
You are not the one who is acting like a child. 

Silent treatment? That is passive aggressive, immature, emotionally abusive behavior. DO NOT bow to that. Do not follow her around trying to get her to see your side. 

If she is so mad that she can't talk to you in the moment, then you need to go about your day. You need to detach (understand that her behavior has everything to do with her, and nothing to do with you), and summon up a list of things that make you happy and comfort you when your spouse is in this zone. This could mean you go for a walk, you take your daugher to the movies, you go to the gym, or enjoying an ice cream cone.  I'm serious! Get away from her when she is like this.

Do not bother explaining your strategy to your spouse. The more you defend your actions, the easier it is for a manipulative person to poke holes in your story and to make you do their bidding. Just say, "I'm sorry you feel this way. I love you, and I'll be back later." And live your life, as happily as you can, understanding that you have no control of whether or not she acts childish and whether or not she comes out of it. 

She might come around later, she might not, but at the end of the day, you made yourself happy. 

a sloth making a list of things that makes them happy

You may be wondering to yourself, "But Nicole, how do you know what it's like?" Oh ho, friend, but I do! I have personally been betrothed to someone who could be so generous and kind, and then suddenly punishing and cold when I did not do their personal bidding (in this case, cutting myself off from any male friends whom I had previously been romantically affiliated with). This person's feelings around the subject took up all the space in the room, with me paddling and struggling to try and explain that my friends were no threat. I eventually started keeping secrets, hiding my interactions, and cutting myself off from male humans who actually had been a thousand percent kinder to me than my current date! 

At the end of the day, it wasn't my work to do. She had her own demons to fight or not fight, and it wasn't my choice of when she did it.

When someone enters into a relationship with you, they should be ready for a relationship. Part of that includes doing your emotional work so, even if you're not perfect, you are in good working order. This includes not being mean to your current partner, or depriving them of love as punishment. 

I wish you the very best, and I hope you get the love you deserve. 

Sincerely, 

n.g.

a sloth watching TV and thinking "life is okay"

Do you have a question for advice columnists Andi ZeislerSydette Harry, or Nicole GeorgesSend it in! All questions will remain anonymous. Read previous installments of our feminist advice column

 

Still Reading? Sign up for our Weekly Reader!

11 Comments Have Been Posted

Well said! Silent treatment

Well said! Silent treatment is emotional abuse. My kids father use to pull that on me, and well, eventually I walked away. Although we have joint custody if the kids, I often. Have to revert to detachment with him because he still loses it when I'd itn do what he wants. The great thing is it doesn't affect me the same way it use to be! Good advice about funding what makes them happy without the 'silent' abuser. It's a tough go, but it's necessary if one wants to find their own happiness! Again I say well done!

Just some thoughts...

You're right about many things. Giving someone the silent treatment is not acceptable behavior, and it seems like there are some deep, personal issues that Perplexed in Pennsylvania's spouse is still working on confronting. The fact that this person has engaged in therapy to improve old tendencies is a sign of willingness to change, which is not to say that continued therapy (or even family counseling) might be necessary. My criticism of your advice is that you seem to be drawing too personally from your own experiences in an effort to be helpful. You have stated your negative opinion of the marriage, told your reader to run away from the relationship, and given that this does not seem to Perplexed in Pennsylvania's desire, I think you've missed the mark. Not every situation deems a flight reaction. I think there are healthy ways to approach this unhealthy situation. Furthermore, the advice you give seems slightly contradictory in nature: there is a huge leap between running away from someone and removing yourself temporarily (your advice to detach and focus on other very important things) from a negative environment. I'm not excusing bad behaviors. I'm simply saying that there tends to be a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to relationship advice that generally runs along the lines of "Your relationship is terrible; just leave!" Ultimately, it is up to this individual. I would simply say that while I agree that the behavior is absolutely not okay, some things can be worked through. And I would perhaps caution against being heavy-handed with advice in these matters.

Two sides to every story.

There are two sides to every story. I guess to write an interesting column, one has to pick a side and then defend it in an interesting way.

What got ignored here was the spouse said she feels unsafe. The writer belittles those concerns and then in crisis chooses actions which ignore her partner's concerns. I don't actually think that retreating to think about things is "childish" when you feel at risk, make an opportunity to talk about it, and then have your concerns ignored.

I suspect the columnist is correct in saying the relationship is headed for an end as the writer decided to complain to an anonymous magazine writer about her partner's retreat instead of trying to re-engage with the partner in the places she's already signaled she needs to be heard.

Where did the spouse say she

Where did the spouse say she felt unsafe? She said she felt insecure, but emotionally insecure isn't the same as physically unsafe.
You're right that retreating isn't necessarily childish, but I think there's a big difference between the shut-down response that is described elsewhere in the comments and the "barely civil" one described here.
I don't have much faith in this relationship either, mostly because I think the spouse has demands that the LW will never be able to meet, and their communication styles don't mesh at all.

in addition

Very difficult, I hope she will start talking. It's important that you can communicate without problems.. even if it is emotional. I have to add though, if you yourself haven't been in this situation of dealing with a partner's child and ex, please know that you don't know -at all- what that could feel like. It is working out for me, but I don't know how I would deal if my partner would get full or partial custody. I for sure cannot imagine living all the time with someone else's child.
But most important it is working out in our relationship because I can be honest about what exactly hurts my feelings in such a situation, and he acknowledges my feelings, I back off where I need to and I don't get angry.

Silent treatment not necessarily coming from manipulative place

So, firstly I'm a bit confused at the response to Perplexed because it makes some massive implications about the question. Among other things, nowhere did the asker say that her spouse had any problem with her outgoing personality.

The main problem with this response is that it doesn't take into account the other side of the story at all. Whilst the silent treatment is definitely an emotionally abusive behaviour when done on purpose and with the intention to get what you want from the other party, it might not actually be coming from that place. For example, I grew up in a horrible physically and mentally abusive household and came away with many mental health difficulties and problems. One problem was that I completely closed down when I felt emotionally hurt. When I got into my first (and ongoing) relationship, I couldn't deal with even perceived slights from my partner (and lots of times it was just the case that I was being paranoid or over-anxious- but because of the fact that I had never actually had a healthy relationship before and had severe self-worth issues and was very defensive). If my partner had, at that point, followed this advice and ignored me, it would only have confirmed my internal dialogue about him not really caring. Instead, he always sat with me and asked what was wrong (and if it was a very long time, sometimes we'd sit silently until he asked something again) until I could finally break down the internal barriers freezing me up and speak. Eventually, I began to trust him properly, and because he always communicated with me and made me feel like I mattered, I began to unlearn the previous abusive responses. Now, more than a year on, I almost never close down or flinch, and he can immediately see when I do and has learnt exactly what to do. Similarly, I can read him very well and understand his coping mechanisms. We almost never argue, and when we do, it now takes the form of a discussion (we never shout because it's triggering for me and he can't stand confrontation either).

Long story short- if you love your partner and want to work on your relationship, cutting her out might make it worse. She is acting like this because she is hurt. Have a mature discussion with her and tell her why the silent treatment is unacceptable- but also ask if you can help out with overcoming it. Ask her if there is any specific thing you could do? Or maybe you could have short-hand ways of telling each other things when she is finding it hard not to revert to old habits. Communication is SO important, and the advice above surely would cause it to break down? It sounds like she has a lot of insecurities about your relationship, so the best way to solve this would definitely be to talk constructively. Maybe even have a weekly check-in to see how you're both doing and what could be improved.

I hope this helped :) x

I appreciate your perspective

I appreciate your perspective but I just have to point out that emotional abuse doesn't have to be intentional. your partner may be wonderful, and you might want only the best for them, but they are sacrificing something for you when they work within the framework of your needs.

for 10 years I was with someone who grew up in an emotionally abusive household he could not find a way to disentangle themself with. they were in therapy the whole time we were together. I'm not syaying I was perfect, but I worked largely on their terms, and took time to really talk about issues and feelings in ways that worked for them. and 10 years later I had to leave because even though they never intended to hurt me I had lost myself in their needs.

and now 4 years after leaving, I have a hard time trusting other people's intentions because I spent so much time having to decipher his behaviors. I had gotten so good at it I could basically tell the future. but now I'm with someone who isn't passive aggressive, but is quiet, and I'm on edge when he, say, doesn't reply to a text, because I got 10 years of conditioning that that is a sign of anger and aggression. there are other ways that relationship has had lasting negative affects but that's the easiest example. I still love him and we're friends though I still have to very intentionally not get caught up in their issues and actively not try solve their problems. but he was unintentionally abusive and I have been better off not being his partner.

inexperience

the advice giver's youth seems to be showing. instructive advice like "that's against the rules, run away!" shows a well intentioned, but very inexperienced perspective. Perplexed knows PA is against the rules, it's why she wrote in. she was also very fair in her wording, noting that her partner is a spouse - e. g. indicating a higher level of commitment, as well as "there's a lot more to this dynamic," e. g. omitting her own participation for the sake of brevity. i interpreted the question way different than the advice giver. i thought she was just asking for practical advice on how to get through the frustration of having to wait to talk. i also wondered if what Perplexed is calling "silent treatment" is simply her spouse retreating until such time as she's able to respond maturely. anyone who's been married for any length of time knows that there's immense value in waiting to talk, especially about the big stuff. once you're committed, there's less urgency for a lot of things and you can take your time to respond carefully, avoiding saying things you don't mean. conversations in the moment are almost always longer and more intense than they need to be. it's smart to take time, gather your thoughts, and have an attentive conversation about the issue. not to mention the fact that forcing your spouse to have a conversation they're not ready to have is itself emotional abuse. if Perplexed is trying to make her spouse talk when she's not ready, that's not cool. this wouldn't be the first married couple to have divergent communication styles, most of us take years to learn how to communicate with our spouses effectively and compassionately. assuming that this person is being abusive for not speaking right away is taking a pretty huge leap and in my view, an immature one. marriage is a long road, and they're at the beginning. if there are any red flags here, it would be the spouse's insecurity with the child and child's father. but thankfully, the spouse seems willing to work on that too.

i read this days ago and couldn't help thinking, "wow, i hope Perplexed is considering the source."

condescension

I don't know how old you are or how long you've been married, but I read the question the way georges did and agree with her advice. and obviously my reading is informed by my own marital experience, but here's the thing: someone who isn't being abused is still going to get from this column advise on how to get through the silent treatment. but someone who -is- being abused would read your response and stay in the abusive relationship.

I know people I'm successful marriages have skills and advice they want to share. but being in a healthy relationship can also blind you to the reality that not every marital hardship is pat for the course. it is a HUGE DEAL that this person's spouse is uncomfortable with their child and the child's father. it is it uncompromiseable.

ad hominem

i logged in to see if i could edit, cuz i realized i didn't adequately express myself and i was worried my comment would be misinterpreted in this way. point taken on condescention. while it wasn't intended, i could see how it came across that way. please bear with me while i try again.

the point i attempted, and apparently failed, to make was: georges seems to have focused on the lesser of two troublesome aspects. the insecurity with the kid/kid's father seems more potentially damaging than divergent styles of conflict resolution. it seemed to me that this particular question might have been better routed to a columnist with more marriage experience.

i'll also admit to being a bit defensive in that i wondered if we'd be so quick to tell a hetero woman to run from her spouse over an occasional silent treatment. (assuming, of course, that it is occasional and not abusive. none of us know.) Perplexed came across to me as well aware that the PA needs to change and spouse is in therapy to work on it, but also that she <i>married</i> this person. i agree with previous commenters that the advice misses the mark on this. i thought the question was about how an extrovert can work out conflicts with someone who retreats under stress. if i'm right, this is a solvable problem. i hope this clears up any misunderstanding, as i mean no offense to anyone.

that said, "someone who -is- being abused would read your response and stay in the abusive relationship."

that's a very definite statement. kindly refrain from such red herrings in the future. thanks.

"I love her and want her to

"I love her and want her to be happy. I wish she felt the same about me," is a -very- intense statement and the introvert/extrovert dynamic is mentioned secondarily. she talks about a specific incident that is entirely not a big deal and not actually at all ok for her spouse to be upset about at all. so any sort of silent treatment is inappropriate.

I'm not sure why you think marrying a person makes some kind of difference in commitment level. people get married for all sorts of reasons, and don't get married for all sorts of reason. you can't use whether or not someone is married as an indication of much of anything. they've been together for 6 years and the spouse can't deal with perplexed having a relationship with her baby daddy. again, after someone is with you for 6 years but you don't trust them to not have sex with their ex, who they have -not- been with for at least 6 years?

you've made some sketchy definitive statements yourself. and I'm not sure you're using red herring correctly, but people who are emotionally abused often resist that idea and will latch on to any other explanation to explain their situation. "they're just very sensitive." "they're just looking out for me." "they're only jealous cause they love me so much." so no they might read advice that doesn't mention abuse and come away knowing they are being abused and being proactive about it. they might. but it would be pretty surprising.

I do think you're right about heterosexual women not getting the same advice generally, though I think in this context (from Bitch) they likely would.

Add new comment