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Girlfriend's silent treatment leaves him at a crossroads

Girlfriend's silent treatment leaves him at a crossroads

Q: My girlfriend of four years is behaving in a way I can't understand, and I can't decide whether it's a fatal flaw. Recently, after dinner and live music, we ended up at my house. The next morning — Mother's Day — my teenage daughter called asking if I could bring flowers from my garden for the vase she'd bought her mom.

When I told my girlfriend where I was going and that I would be back in a few minutes, she said, "Well, then I'm leaving." "Um, okay," I said, kissed her and wished her happy Mother's Day (and not in a sarcastic way).

When I returned less than 10 minutes later, I was surprised to see she'd scooped up her stuff and left. I sent her a quick text that she needn't have left — I had food for breakfast — but no reply.

I've not heard from her in eight days, other than a two-sentence e-mail thanking me for a favor she asked of me before this happened. This abrupt departure and silent treatment were not preceded by any fight or discussion.

I haven't called her because (a) last time, she defended the silent treatment by saying she does not want to talk when she is angry, (b) I had a big deadline anyway, and most important, (c) I cannot see how anything I unknowingly did to annoy her would justify ceasing communication for eight days, so I don't know what I would say if I did call.

She has done something similar, of shorter duration, once or twice before. We get along great otherwise, and she has lots of qualities I like, but I can't see living under the threat of this childish, uncommunicative conduct for the rest of my life. Is there any reason to think couples therapy might get us past this? She's in her 50s and has been married twice, so it's not like she's just learning how to participate in a relationship.

Baffled and Blue

Carolyn: Divorced or widowed?

B&B: Her two marriages ended in divorce, each after five or six years.

A: Ah. When things got routine, and she/they lacked the skills to stay close.

So maybe she hasn't yet learned how to participate in a relationship (but hasn't stopped trying). Experience alone doesn't teach doodlesquat; to learn, people have to critique and correct their own actions throughout, particularly when something goes wrong. Only then will their skills improve.

While experience (heh) has taught me not to generalize, I think it's safe to make a general connection between silent treatments and a refusal to accept blame for conflict. Her going silent without explanation doesn't just punish you. It also serves — very effectively — to deny you a chance to defend yourself, give your point of view, or (this is huge) point out anything she might have done to cause or exacerbate the problem. People who are willing to admit their own frailty have strong incentives to engage in give-and-take conversations when something goes wrong; people invested in remaining innocent victims have three choices: blame, dodge or both.

An unwillingness to admit fault doesn't bode well for couples counseling. However, with two marriages down and the silent treatments accruing, she just might be ready to revisit her tactics. You have nothing to lose by asking.

Girlfriend's silent treatment leaves him at a crossroads 06/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 7, 2011 5:30am]

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