Silence may be #1 Killer in Relationships

In my soon to be published memoir, Ragdoll Redeemed:Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe, I talk about how protracted silences affected me during my teenage marriage to Marilyn Monroe’s step-son, Joe DiMaggio Jr.

Joey withdrew into silence without notice and sometimes without apparent reason. These silences could last as long as twenty-four hours. So grateful was I when he began speaking to me again that I happily went along with pretending nothing out of the ordinary or hurtful had happened. Never realizing how my silent complicity was contributing to the eventual downfall of my marriage.

Bob & Marlene Neufeld, who based their work on Dr. John Gottman─a leading expert on relationships─offer examples of common silences that occur in relationships.

Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict.  Partners may think they are trying to be “neutral” but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness.

  • Stony silence
  • Monosyllabic mutterings
  • Changing the subject

These behaviors are serious because the silent partner holds all of the control. There is absolutely no way to communicate with a stone. Furthermore, this is the quintessential example of passive/aggressive behavior.

Most people think of passive/aggressive behaviors on a continuum with indecisiveness and complicity at one end and aggressive behavior, like rage or dominance at the other end. In actuality, silence itself is aggressive. Silence is aggressive because of the total control it exerts over your partner.

For example, after waving goodbye to the few people that attended our wedding, the moment we got into the car to begin our weekend honeymoon, my new husband suddenly became a stone refusing to talk with me.

He did not speak a single word until the next morning. My thwarted attempts at communication, met only by silence and ice cold distance, escalated my panic by the minute. I frantically searched my memory for hours trying to figure out what I had done to cause him to withdraw. This is a common response for the partner that has to endure the silence all the while struggling to determine what they did to cause the silence.

As has been reported in various publications written about the Monroe-DiMaggio relationship, but unknown to me for many years, were Joe DiMaggio’s extended silences. Apparently, during their marriage, Joltin’ Joe would go for weeks without speaking a single word to Marilyn.

Oh, in case you were wondering about our wedding night. When we got to our hotel Joey went straight to bed. Sitting alone on the balcony, overlooking the colorful sights and sounds of Sunset Boulevard, sipping my celebratory pint of vodka, I wept. I am certain my young husband was just as miserable alone in bed struggling with whatever demons he was dealing with.

As time and relationships went by, I felt self-righteously justified in my withdrawal behaviors after or during an argument. It took me years (and a lot of therapy) to understand how mean my behaviors were. How punishing and distancing it felt to my partner. In effect, I was teaching my partner how NOT to be honest with me because I was too sensitive or fragile to deal with words and/or the reality of their dissatisfaction. Then I would bemoan the lack of intimacy in our relationship.

I finally had to ask myself which was more important the discomfort (Ok, terror) of facing into honest confrontation or the lonely, disillusioned, resentful feelings I was holding leading to the inevitable demise of my relationships.

I had to learn to speak up no matter what if I wanted to contribute to the intimacy in my relationship.


Photo by: Thinkstockphoto

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  1. Hi Dawn,

    I used to do the silent thing too until I found out how it wasn’t very useful for a relationship. It must have been tough for you as a young girl to be alone on the balcony as your husband went to bed the night of your marriage. It sounds like he had a lot of baggage that he was carrying with him.

    It’s true what you said about teaching our partners how to deal with us. Every relationship that we have with another we have to teach them how to relate to us.It’s a never ending process. 🙂

    • Good to hear from you. I love your blog site. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yep! It was a really hard way to start a marriage. Best to you, dawn

  2. Yes, the silent treatment (intentional or not) drives me crazy. So my immediate reaction is to withdraw and be quiet too, as if to say so there! Like that works. So, regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel about communicating what I am truly feeling and facing the confrontation, I try really hard at staying current with partner. Surprisingly enough, usually it actually works out better then I think it would work out and makes things better (most of the time). If you do not communicate there is no relationship. Wonderful blog, very helpful! Thank you!!

    • Hi Ann,

      Thank you for visiting and commenting on my blog. I am glad that you have found this post helpful and I hope you visit again soon.

      Blessing to you always, dawn

  3. Oh boy…sounds familiar. I was raised by a dad who did the silent thing….then married a guy who did the same thing. ouch! I was doing my own ‘stuff’ to him too. Thank goodness for growth in both of us! We have now been married 45 years and have figured out how to honor each other and have alot of fun together. Thanks for your part in helping us grow, Dawn~
    Blessings to you, Merrily

    • Hi Merrily,

      So good to hear from you. I know of what you speak. It took me a long time to get past the silence thing. Thanks for commenting, dawn

  4. Omg silence is killing me inside. My partner gives me the silent treatment all the time. There is no reason for it. At the beginning I thought she was just shy and innocent but after so many years I realized she is mean and cold. I had lost myself and in my mind only death is the solution to my miserable life. Silence can definitely kill you.

    • Dear Carolina,

      There are other options besides the one you mentioned. For example, you could go to therapy or leave the relationship. Here is a list of the four most damaging communication elements of any relationship.

      The Gottman Relationship Blog is a fabulous place to begin to explore communication styles. Following is an example of his great work.

      Good luck and thank you for reading my blog. Warmly, dawn

      “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.

      The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint! The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack: it is an attack on your partner at the core. In effect, you are dismantling his or her whole being when you criticize.

      Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
      Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”

      If you find that you are your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horsemen. It makes the victim feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt, and often causes the perpetrator and victim to fall into an escalating pattern where the first horseman reappears with greater and greater frequency and intensity.

      The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

      “You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid – try to be more pathetic…”

      In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner – which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It must be eliminated!

      The third horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.

      She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
      He: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

      He not only responds defensively, but turns the table and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:

      “Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.”

      Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.

      The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you. Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.

      Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones. This Friday, we will introduce you to the antidotes!

      Tip: Practice, practice, practice! Pay close attention the next time you find yourself engaged in a difficult conversation with your partner, a friend, or even with your children. See if you can spot any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on the people involved.”

      All for now,
      Ellie Lisitsa
      TGI Staff

  5. Oh my god this is my ex he never really spoke to me he always seemed to be doing something cooking or cleaning, I used to wonder why he had invited me over. If I tried to discuss any relationship issues he would be silent! All he said was he didn’t agrue, I wasn’t argue I wanted to discuss. I felt so frustrated, confused and like he didn’t care for me at all. Every now and again he would loose his temper shouting, calling me names and point in my face. I told myself I wasn’t scared of him but I was. I managed to end the relationship after having unwanted sex. I was scared of another episode of aggressive silence or worse.

  6. Going through this stonewalling right now with my partner.It’s hell!!!She won’t talk to me or sms me,yet we live in the same house.It’s been four days now & I can’t handle it anymore.

    • WOW!!! That sounds really difficult. Perhaps you could seek counseling to help you find ways to deal with this type of reaction in the future. We mistakenly try to change our partners instead of ourselves relative to their behaviors/actions. Good Luck, dawn

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