Your partner, once again, forgot to do the dishes in the morning, and when you get home that night, there’s a sink full of dirty coffee cups, glasses, and plates. This violation of the arrangement you have with your partner to share the household chores makes you furious because it seems to be part of a pattern. You let out your feelings in a slight fit of rage, and it seems to you that your wrath is well-justified. What happens next, though, is something you wouldn’t have expected. On previous occasions, your partner apologized and vowed never to do this again, and you kissed and made up. In this instance, your partner turns and walks out of the room, shuts the door, and doesn’t come back out until it’s time to go to sleep. Not a word is said, and the silent treatment goes on until well into the next day. Your texts go unanswered, and it isn’t until dinner that your partner finally starts to speak again.
Silence can sometimes be better than conversation, especially if you and your partner need to take a break from an argument and just cool off. When one partner refuses to speak, however, the silence can seem unbearable, especially if it continues. In the dirty dishes scenario, it would seem like your partner is resorting to silence as a way of getting back at you. Perhaps you’ve been unreasonably making demands or failing to fulfill your end of the housekeeping bargain without realizing it. Or it’s possible that your partner feels resentful over some more deep-seated issue. New research on silence in the workplace can help shed light on what causes people to use this communication strategy as a coping mechanism when things aren’t going well. Using this research as a base, you can gain some insight into how to handle the silence that occurs in close relationships.
Karim Mignonac and colleagues (2018), of the University of Toulouse (France), examined the process of “navigating ambivalence” in the workplace. Their study focused on the ways that employees use cynicism and silence as stress-busting strategies when they believe their organization doesn’t support them. Their study is based on social identity theory, which proposes that “individuals are generally motivated to maintain or enhance perceptions of their self-worth” (p. 1). In the workplace. Social identity theory implies that you want to feel cared about by your employer. You also feel pride in your organization, if you feel that it is a well-respected one (think 5 stars on Yelp). When you feel valued, and feel that your organization is valued as well, you can hold your head up higher but also, from a practical standpoint, you’ll work harder and be more productive.
When you feel, instead, that the outward image your company projects conflicts with the way they treat their employees, this will create a state of ambivalence. For example, imagine that you work at a company that advertises itself as being socially responsible, but when it comes to protecting their employees from harassment or unsafe working conditions, they fall far short of this idealized image. It’s also possible that your company treats you extremely well, but it has a far from perfect reputation in the community (think 2 stars on Yelp). In a relationship, you can feel a similar type of ambivalence if either everyone thinks you’re a happy couple, but you feel constantly berated by your partner. Alternatively, you may feel loved and valued by your partner, but as a couple, you seem to be a 2-star couple, because no one ever invites the two of you out for dinner or to parties. The conflict between outer and inner regard creates problems for your social identity, as you don’t feel that your relationship is one that confirms your sense of self-worth.
The result of ambivalence created by such conflict is, according to the French research team, cynicism. They define cynicism as a state marked not by any particular emotions, but by “beliefs that their organization lacks integrity and, even more specifically, their beliefs that organizational choices are inconsistent, unreliable, and based on (concealed) self-interest” (p. 5). Again, returning to your relationship, you’ll feel cynical about it if you believe your partner doesn’t really care about you. The cynicism, in turn, is what prompts the silent treatment. You will withhold “your ideas, information, and opinions” as a way of reducing your state of dissonance. In relationships, as in the workplace, this means that if you’re treated unfairly, you’ll use the passive-aggressive state of silence in an effort to defend your sense of self in way that is less risky than speaking out about the unfairness. You can’t get in trouble, so this reasoning goes, for what you don’t say.
Across a set of three studies involving part-time students in management degree programs, Mignonac and his co-authors established a relationship between organization ambivalence and use of silence by employees. The situation was far worse when the external prestige of the organization was high but the support of employees was low than vice versa. Silence, assessed by items such as the frequency of withholding ideas and thoughts, was similarly predicted by a combination of these two organizational factors.
Now let’s look at what happens when you face the silent treatment in your home life. The University of Toulouse study suggests that people will react with silence when they believe they’re being treated unfairly, a treatment that conflicts with how the relationship is perceived by outsiders. Your partner may feel not just resentful to you for being overly demanding, but also cynical about the outward image you project to friends and family about what a great partner you are when in fact, there are real problems in terms of the support you provide when your partner needs you. The situation with the dishes isn’t just about who does what in the house, but about how much you allow your partner to feel a sense of self-worth and pride as a person.The underlying issue of self-esteem, and how much you allow your partner to have that positive identity, is what creates the sounds of silence when something goes wrong.
To sum up, if your partner gives you the silent treatment more than you feel is reasonable, look inward at how much support you provide for your partner’s self-worth. Both you and your partner need to feel this deep sense of value to have a fulfilling relationship that lasts over time.