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Is the ‘Silent Treatment’ a Godly Approach to Conflict?

Otou and Katayama Yumi likely hold the record for awkward silence. Otou reportedly lived in the same house in Japan with his three children and wife yet never spoke to his spouse, Yumi. While Yumi continued to talk to her her husband, for more than twenty years he would only nod or grunt in response. Otou later explained he had been giving his wife the silent treatment out of jealousy for the attention and care she gave the children.

“Yumi up until now, you have endured a lot of hardship. I want you to know I’m grateful for everything,” said Otou before adding, “There’s no going back now I guess.”

The bizarre and sad case of Otou and Yumi is an extreme example of abusive behavior. Yet it highlights how there are two basic ways for marital communication to go wrong: loudly and quietly.

While most people recognize the damage caused by shouting matches and harsh words, fewer may realize the equally destructive effects of the “silent treatment” (i.e., the act of deliberately ignoring or refusing to speak to someone as a form of punishment or as a means of expressing displeasure or anger). Some Christians even believe that when dealing with disagreement, their duty is merely to avoid overly aggressive behavior. Since they haven’t shouted or resorted to violence, they assume they’ve responded in an appropriate—perhaps even godly—manner.

Though it may seem a lesser evil, this approach fails to align with the biblical requirement for resolving conflicts and nurturing a healthy marriage. A spouse who gives the silent treatment is likely to also engage in a broader cluster of similarly sinful behaviors—a pattern of behaviors first named during World War II.

Punishment Through Passivity

This approach fails to align with the biblical requirement for resolving conflicts and nurturing a healthy marriage.

In the 1940s, the U.S. military faced a problem with soldiers who displayed a type of behavior difficult to categorize. These soldiers weren’t openly defiant but would express their aggression or resistance indirectly through actions like procrastination, sullenness, stubbornness, and deliberate inefficiency. This behavior was seen as a “passive” way of expressing hostility or aggression, as opposed to more overt or “active” forms of defiance.

In 1945, William Menninger, a colonel and psychiatrist and the director of the Armed Forces Medical Corps, used the term “passive-aggressive” in a technical bulletin to describe this behavior. The term was used as a personality type to describe soldiers who weren’t openly insubordinate but displayed a “passive resistance” to following orders or completing tasks.

After the war, the term “passive-aggressive” began to be used more broadly by mental health professionals to describe individuals who express negative feelings indirectly. It was included in the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) in 1952 as a personality disorder.

Over time, the term has become more widely used in everyday language to describe behavior that expresses resistance or hostility indirectly and subtly. While it’s no longer considered a distinct psychiatric diagnosis, “passive-aggressive” remains a popular term for describing this type of behavior in various interpersonal contexts, including relationships, the workplace, and other social situations.

While the term has become overused, it can still help describe a broad range of sinful behaviors—including the silent treatment—frequently encountered in marital relationships. Passive-aggressive behavior is a way of expressing negative feelings indirectly, often through withdrawal, sullenness, or stubbornness. It’s a means of punishing a person to get what we want. While it’s harmful in any relationship, it’s particularly detrimental for husbands and wives since it subverts the nature and purpose of marriage.

How to Deal with Conflict

Marriage is a symbol of Christ’s covenant marriage to his Bride, the church (Eph. 5:31–32). When people see your marriage, it points them to something greater and more permanent. Earthly marriage is a living illustration of this heavenly marriage. We’re putting on a play for the world to watch, and we do so by taking on our assigned roles. God assigns those roles by saying, “Husband, you’re going to represent Jesus in this play, and wife, you’re going to represent the church” (v. 23).

The question we should ask is whether it’d ever be fitting for the church to act passive-aggressively toward Christ or for Jesus to act in a passive-aggressive manner toward his Bride, the church. If not, why would we think it’s appropriate for married couples to act in such a manner?

Would it ever be fitting for the church to act passive-aggressively toward Christ or for Jesus to act in a passive-aggressive manner toward his Bride?

Instead of relying on passive-aggressive behavior to get our way, we should follow Scripture’s clear principles for resolving marital conflict. In Ephesians 4:15, we’re called to speak the truth in love. The proper Christian response to marital conflict isn’t silence but open, honest, and calm engagement. James 1:19 advises us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We should therefore strive to understand our spouse’s perspective before responding. Both spouses should have the opportunity to express their perspectives without interruption or defensiveness.

Colossians 3:13 instructs us to forgive as the Lord forgave us, letting go of grievances and extending grace. We must be willing to acknowledge our faults, apologize when necessary, and always extend forgiveness. Finally, 1 Corinthians 13:4–5 reminds us love is patient and kind, not irritable or resentful. When emotions run high, it may be necessary to take a break and return to the discussion later, but this should be communicated clearly and not used as an excuse for withdrawal. If conflicts persist or escalate, it could be a sign you need to seek wise counsel from a pastor, a biblical counselor, or a mature and godly married couple.

Like all passive-aggressive behavior, the silent treatment violates these biblical principles in several ways. First, it avoids speaking the truth directly and lovingly. Instead of openly expressing his or her thoughts and feelings, a spouse engages in an indirect form of hostility. Second, the silent treatment reflects anger and an unwillingness to listen and understand the other person’s point of view. Third, it withholds forgiveness and prolongs conflict by shutting down communication. Fourth, it’s neither patient, kind, nor loving but rather a form of emotional retaliation and punishment.

Remember What You’re Illustrating

While the silent treatment may seem like a less destructive way to handle marital disagreements, it falls far short of God’s standard for communication and conflict resolution. In extreme cases, it can even become a form of oppression or emotional abuse. In all situations, it should be avoided.

The silent treatment is neither patient, kind, nor loving.

Passive-aggressive tactics are ungodly because they promote division over unity, reflect anger rather than understanding, and withhold forgiveness and love in an effort to gain control. As Christian spouses, we’re called to reject such behaviors and instead communicate openly, listen humbly, forgive readily, and seek help when needed.

By doing so, we can build stronger, more Christ-centered relationships that honor God, bless our spouses, and present a living parable that points people to the relationship between Jesus and his church.


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