Spousal Silent Treatment and Withholding Affection

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Mention spousal or domestic abuse, and most people think of black eyes and broken bones. But a spouse who routinely uses the silent treatment against you or forces you to sleep on the sofa is abusing you every bit as much as if he struck or otherwise physically harmed you.


Behaviors, such as silent treatment and withholding affection, often overlap. Both are forms of rejection, but they are actually two separate things. When your spouse gives you the silent treatment, she refuses to acknowledge your presence. When she withholds her affection from you, she is acknowledging you, but by pulling away from you or pushing you away. Both are a means of withholding approval, says relationship expert Margaret Paul, Ph.D., on the website Mental Health Matters.


Both the silent treatment and withholding affection are ways of meting out punishment or gaining control of a situation. You’ve said or done something your spouse doesn’t like, says Patricia Jones, M.A., of the Dove Christian Counseling Center. Maybe you asked for something he does not want to give, or requested that he do something that he does not want to do. In response, he turns you into a non-entity. Both behaviors are caused by an abusive spouse making sure you know he is displeased.


Jones says that the silent treatment can take many forms. Your spouse may be present in the same room with you, but she refuses to speak to you or react when you speak. Or she may vacate the room whenever you enter it. Your spouse may even leave the home for hours or days without telling you why or where she’s gone. Withholding affection usually involves her leaving the marital bed and sleeping elsewhere, or making you do it. You might attempt to kiss her on the cheek, and she will pull away before you can make contact. Or she may sleep in the same bed with you, but she may refuse to touch you or to engage in sex.


It’s human nature to want to be loved. When they’re pushed away or frozen out, most people will alter their behavior to fix the situation, says Jones. When you do this, you allow your spouse to win. His psychological game has worked on you. You’re effectively training him to believe that if he does this to you, he will get the result he wants. Abusive wives may withhold sex until they get something they want. The end effect is a husband who stops feeling loved or wanted for himself, but rather for what he can do or buy for his spouse.


Paul suggests leaving your spouse’s company, either physically or mentally. You can take control back by leaving the scene. Walk the dog or visit a friend. If this isn’t possible, try reading a book or turning on the television and focusing on that. He can’t ignore you if you pay him no mind. Don’t try to touch him if his method is to pull away from you. Never try to engage him in rational conversation. It won’t work, at least not until he’s gotten over being angry at you.