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Staying quiet can damage your relationship

Giving your partner ‘the silent treatment’ does much more harm than good, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Baylor University in Waco, Texas have identified the two most common forms of “disengagement” in relationships: ‘withdrawal’ and ‘passive immobility’. Withdrawal is when one partner refuses to speak for a period of time following an argument.

Passive immobility, on the other hand, is when someone expects their partner to know what is upsetting them without being told.

Keith Sanford is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the university’s College of Arts & Sciences and one of the researchers on the study. He said withdrawal was the most problematic form of disengagement because there is “a direct association” between it and “lower satisfaction overall with the relationship”.

He added that withdrawing is “characteristic of unhappiness” and, although everyone does it from time to time, those in “distressed relationships” tend to do it more often. Meanwhile, passive mobility is “associated with neglect” as people worry about how much their partner loves them.

The results of this research were taken from a series of surveys. In one, 2,588 married or cohabiting adults were asked about a single conflict and how they responded to it. In another, 223 adults in committed relationships were questioned about different forms of disengagement. The third survey was taken by 135 undergraduate students, who were asked various questions about conflict with their partners.

Sanford also identified a possible “Catch-22” that can result from disengagement. He said that when there is an argument, it can sometimes lead to a situation where “one person … withdraws and the other demands. The more the one demands and complains, the more the other withdraws”.

The research was published in the academic journal Psychological Assessment.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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