Chronic Communication at Home: How the “Cold Shoulder” Hurts Your Relationship

Jim was feeling annoyed with his wife, Linda. He needed her to give him a hand with a home project he was trying to finish but that, due to some limitations resulting from his chronic condition, he was going to need her help on. He didn’t like having to ask for help but he wasn’t going to get it done otherwise.


Jim thought that Linda had agreed to help on Wednesday evening. He sent her a text from work reminding her of what he thought were their evening plans. So imagine his surprise when she texted him back letting him know she had a meeting to attend of a community group she is involved with, which she had forgotten about until that day. She apologized and suggested alternate times.


When he received Linda’s text, Jim started to fire off an angry response then stopped himself. No need to get into a text argument when they were both at work. So instead, he didn’t respond at all.


The afternoon wore on, and Jim continued not to respond. Linda had followed up to make sure he had received her text, and Jim ignored her.


“I’m gonna let you stew for awhile,” Jim thought to himself. “Then you’ll know what it’s like to be treated like an afterthought.” He felt angry and disrespected. And he was reminded of how much he disliked having to ask for her help. In fact, asking for help from his wife was hard for him to do, so being forgotten cut even deeper.


When Linda returned home that evening, Jim mumbled “hi” when she greeted him. Then he turned back to the TV. Linda got the message and backed off.


Jim continued to give Linda the cold shoulder for another couple of days. What he realized later was that, the longer he sat with his angry feelings, the easier it was to not communicate. Linda, out of her frustration with Jim’s reaction, had also stopped communicating. The cold shoulder was rapidly giving way to an all out deep freeze.


Finally Linda said: “Let’s figure this out, Jim.”


What about you? Ever give your partner the cold shoulder when things don’t go as you had expected or hoped? Or have you been on the receiving of the cold shoulder lately?


It’s only human to feel disappointed when your partner lets you down, no matter how unintentional. Initially, you may not know what to say. Or you may not speak out of fear of saying something you will later regret. You may want to avoid a blowup. Or, as in Jim’s case, you may just want to inflict punishment on your partner. Regardless of how you got there, the cold shoulder can lead to a breakdown in communication that can place your relationship at risk.


Here’s what you can do when you’re hit by the urge to give your partner the cold shoulder:


Ask yourself: Is it worth the risk? Most likely, your answer will be something like, “the silent treatment would sure feel good for awhile, there’s no denying it.” And yes, living with a chronic condition can cause you to that much more sensitive to how your partner treats you, making that cold shoulder seem that much more justified. But that’s only going to make you both feel worse and delay addressing the issue. Keep in mind that the cold shoulder can go on and on, while the feelings that caused it increase way, way out of proportion to whatever the cause was in the first place.


What is it that I need to say but don’t want to say? The cold shoulder can be a way to punish your partner. But at the root of the cold shoulder is not being willing to address the issue and instead avoiding it. Look at it this way, even when the cold shoulder goes away over time, the original issue is still there. And chances are, it’s going to come up again. Our friend Jim, for example, has most likely felt uncomfortable in the past when he had to ask his wife for help. In fact, he may be so uncomfortable with asking for help that if his wife seems anything less than willing, and even enthusiastic, he may immediately assume he isn’t a priority and “get an attitude.” So this may be an issue that he and Linda need to work on together. If they addressed it, and found a way forward, the temperature at their house might be a lot warmer.


Focus: What can I do to promote growth in our relationship? Just think about the potential of your relationship with your partner if your goal, first and foremost, each and every day, was to do your part to bring the two of you even closer. With that goal in mind, you would most likely not be considering how best to drive your point home, or how to punish your partner, when they didn’t meet your expectations. Instead, your goal would be to get the issue out in the open and resolve it together. And while you’re at it, how about giving your partner space to be human?


You and your partner. While you may feel justified in giving your partner the cold shoulder, frigid temperatures aren’t good for the long-term health of your relationship. Be honest and be kind: two important building blocks for a solid relationship.