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How and why to ban the silent treatment from your relationship

A few years ago, Bruce and Melinda Williams had a big fight on their second wedding anniversary. Mr. Williams was on the road for work and didn't call home until evening—then forgot to mention the anniversary.

Ms. Williams let her husband ramble on during the call. When he was getting ready to hang up, she reminded him of the date and told him she was deeply hurt. Mr. Williams became defensive. Ms. Williams got mad and yelled. Both spouses hung up angry. And then Mr. Williams didn't call—or return his wife's calls—for three days. "It was the longest three days of my life," says Ms. Williams, 35, who lives in Orange Park, Fla.

The silent treatment, one of the most common forms of conflict within a relationship, especially a romantic one, is part of what researchers call the "demand-withdraw" pattern. It happens when one partner repeatedly approaches the other with a request, whether asking for attention or change—or giving criticism—and is met with avoidance or silence.

Frustrated by the lack of response, the person who made the demands makes more. The person who withdrew retreats further. "It becomes a vicious cycle," says Sean Horan, assistant professor of communication at Texas State University. "Soon you're no longer addressing the issue at hand. You start arguing about arguing."

A meta-analysis of 74 studies encompassing more than 14,000 participants, published in the March 2014 Communication Monographs, found the demand-withdraw pattern to be one of the most damaging types of relationship conflict and one of the hardest patterns to break. It often is a predictor of divorce. According to the analysis, the partner making the demand is typically a woman (women love to talk things out) while the one withdrawing is typically a man (men prefer to process feelings alone). Sometimes the roles are reversed, but it doesn't matter who does what. Both get hurt.

The damage is emotional and physical. Researchers found people who engaged in a demand-withdraw pattern had lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy and poorer communication with their partner. They showed personality changes, such as less agreeableness and conscientiousness and more aggression and neuroticism. They even had physiological problems, including impaired immune system, urinary and bowel problems and erectile dysfunction.

Each person has a hand in it, yet each blames the other, says Paul Schrodt, a professor in the department of communication studies at Texas Christian University and lead researcher on the analysis. The demander feels her partner won't open up to her and her emotional needs aren't being met, while the withdrawer feels he is being hounded. "The more polarized the partners become, the more difficult it is for them to stop engaging in the behaviors," Dr. Schrodt says.

To break the cycle, Dr. Schrodt says each partner has to become aware of the pattern, of his or her role in it and of the other partner's point of view. The person making demands feels abandoned; the silent person is protecting himself. Each needs to ask, "Why am I behaving this way? How does my behavior make my partner feel?"

Dr. Schrodt suggests talking with your partner about the demand-withdraw pattern and your own part in it. Catch yourself next time you start to engage in it. "Say, 'You know how we talked about this whole demand-withdraw thing? Well, I am really starting to feel that way,' " he says.

Agree to take a timeout. It helps to decide on a signal ahead of time. "People have to be calm enough to listen to each other," says Diana Weiss-Wisdom, a licensed psychologist in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "Cool your jets, and come back together at a specified time to talk about the feelings underlying the conflict before you try to solve anything."

Before conflicts arise, establish rules for resolution. "Rules give us safety when addressing a threatening subject," says Julie Nelson, professor of education and behavioral science at Utah Valley University. If your demands and requests are being ignored, you'll need to give your partner space. Try to engage his empathy. "The only way to do this is to use the word 'I,' " says Fran Walfish, a licensed psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. Say: "This is how I feel when you pull away."

Be careful to avoid labels such as "selfish," "rude" and "uncaring." Communication experts call this "evaluative language." Dr. Horan, at Texas State, suggests taking a "Mad Libs" approach: "When I see X in situation Y, I feel Z." Fill in the blanks, and tell your partner: "When I ask for your attention after dinner and you pull away, it makes me feel unloved."

If you are the one who withdraws, acknowledge your need to pull away, and learn to telegraph when you need space. "At least the other person won't feel shut out," says Warren Kennaugh, a leading behavioral strategist based in Sydney, Australia, who works with clients on this issue. "It's the non-explanation that drives them to a high level of discomfort." Break your concerns down into bite-size pieces, so they are easier to think about. Try to approach your partner more. "Be courageous about how you feel," Mr. Kennaugh says.

When the Williamses started dating five years ago, they talked endlessly, about religion, money, children from previous marriages, their future. Mr. Williams was in the Army and stationed in Kuwait, so much of their communication was by phone.

They got married, and Mr. Williams retired from the military after 34 years of service. Ms. Williams looked forward to having her husband home permanently. But Mr. Williams, not working, began to feel depressed and got a job as a truck driver. He left for weeks at a time while Ms. Williams was home with the children. That's when their problems began.

Ms. Williams became stressed and resentful about holding down the fort alone. "The hurt turned to anger," she says. She began calling him several times a day while he was on the road. Whenever she expressed unhappiness, Mr. Williams would shut down. "I am the kind of person who needs to think about what I am going to say," says Mr. Williams, who is 56. "But by the time I figured it out she was already mad because she felt ignored."

Ms. Williams prayed for guidance. Then it dawned on her. "God needed to fix me before He fixed my husband," she says. She took a Bible class and read self-help books, including "The Love Dare," by Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, and "Becoming Your Husband's Best Friend," by David Frisbie and Lisa Frisbie.

She adjusted her attitude (no more expecting the worst from her husband), her tone of voice (no more sarcasm) and her body language (no more eye-rolling). She made herself remain calm, even when she was upset. "I wanted to give him a safe space, where he didn't have to worry about the confrontation," she says. Mr. Williams noticed the changes and altered his own behavior. He made an effort to talk about how he was feeling. Now, the spouses say they understand each other.

"If he is in any type of confrontation, he needs time to process," Ms. Williams says. "I can respond more easily because I know it won't turn into an argument," Mr. Williams says. "It's just a discussion."

Elizabeth Bernstein