Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Partner Gives Me the "Silent Treatment"

QUESTION: I'm a 31-year-old woman with an 18-month-old son. My husband and I have been together for eight years. We have always had a problem with communication and it seems like matters are getting worse since our son was born. My husband will refuse to speak to me for a week or longer at a time. Once we do start talking again, we never discuss the problem. When I suggest marriage counseling, it goes through one ear and out of the other! Can our marriage be saved?

ANSWER: Indeed your husband is stonewalling communication and problem-solving in your marriage. Your relationship is likely to be suffering a lack of intimacy due to unresolved conflict. You are right to be alarmed!

Your husband's "silent treatment" borders on emotional abuse. Remember, this is your marriage, too. Let your husband know clearly that though you love him dearly, but you will not accept his silent punishment or his stonewalling communication in your marriage. All members, including your son, are suffering from the effects of unresolved tension. Your husband's tactics prolong pain and undermine your self-esteem.

Make an appointment with a marital counselor and tell your husband that you would very much prefer to go with him, but that you will go without him, if necessary, to address the effects of his silence on your own mental health. By doing so, you are giving him the message that something needs to change.

The ineffective patterns of communication that your family are experiencing no doubt have their roots in your respective childhoods. Our parents' marriages are the blueprints on which we launch our own families. Ask yourself and your husband what role models are currently influencing how the two of you are handling stress and conflict in your marriage. Who in his family taught him that "silent treatment" is an answer to conflict, or that changing the subject will distract from negotiating marital problems?

How did your parents resolve or not resolve conflict? Did one of your parents "roll over" when the other did something that was unacceptable? Or did they unequivocally require change when it was necessary to the health of the family?

Your family is young. There is plenty of time to change this destructive pattern. But do not delay! Handling problems by putting your head in the sand will not only destroy the affection in your marriage, but does not bode well for the inevitable bumps ahead in raising a child through adolescence and beyond.

Do not pass this painful pattern on to the next generation! Instead, invite your husband to put his efforts wasted on stonewalling to developing communications skills that will breathe life into your ailing relationship. Your beloved will find that he will reap the benefits of increased affection in his marriage, when he turns his energies towards solving problems instead of avoiding them.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com