How to tell what’s behind the cold shoulder.
Of all the things people can do to hurt each other, the cold shoulder is right up there with the worst. We usually think about punishment as physical pain or deprivation. But in any kind of emotionally bonded relationship, giving someone the cold shoulder causes unique harm. When we ignore others and reject their overtures, we can make them feel distressed and helpless.
Some forms of cold shoulder are pointed and blatant. You feel frozen out, and it’s very clear that the person is angry and has withdrawn his or her love from you. The most insidious effect of the cold shoulder is that you don’t know exactly what you’ve done wrong, leaving you to stew over your possible misdeeds.
Other forms of the cold shoulder are subtler and make you wonder if you’re crazy for sensing that something’s wrong. You might get a cool stare, or the person may appear pleasant and even chipper, but you know the closeness is gone. When you inquire, you may get innocently raised eyebrows, as if to imply you are imagining the whole thing. The irony at these times is that although the person claims to be doing nothing, you know something is off.
Whether pointed or indirect, the cold shoulder damages the togetherness between people who care about each other. Instead of closeness, you feel separation and isolation. If you are a person who cares about getting along with other people, such treatment can feel like you’ve been sentenced to solitary confinement. Nothing you can do restores the connection with that person.
All of this is bad enough from an emotional perspective, but a cold shoulder has unseen physical effects as well. When someone turns away from you, they are in fact dysregulating a part of your nervous system—the ventral vagal nerve—that creates a sense of safety and supportive connection with others.
A cold shoulder can activate primal fears of insecurity and even emotional collapse over the thought of losing someone’s love. The chemical and electrical effects of this can cause all kinds of distress in our major organs, blood pressure, and the balance between our different internal systems. The loss of relational safety and emotional connection can send our body into a state of misery and physical imbalance.
A cold shoulder makes us realize how much we need each other’s good will. Because emotions are contagious, we all have the power to make others feel either safe or emotionally endangered. When the relationships are very close, such as between romantic partners or between parent and child, others’ responses can feel like thumbs up or thumbs down to our survival. When someone communicates he or she doesn’t want to be with us, it depletes our life energy, whether in small or big ways.
What Should You Do If You Get the Cold Shoulder?
Respond Actively with a Friendly Comment—Then Drop It.
First realize that the person is using behavior instead of words to express their feelings. They probably learned it in their family and are just passing it along to you. Assume, therefore, that they don’t know how to talk about feelings or disagreements.
But you don’t have to make their shunning the centerpiece of your attention by obsessively worrying what’s wrong or just feeling “bad.” Instead, treat them as if they are indisposed, saying something like: “I see that I’ve upset you. I wish you could talk to me about it, but I’m going to assume you can’t right now. Let’s talk later on when you’re feeling better.” Then drop it. Just being active instead of passive will instantly make you feel better.
The power of a cold shoulder is the way it shuts you down. When you instead respond actively with a friendly comment and then drop it, the power drains from their acting out. By seeing their behavior not as punishment but rather as their limited ability to communicate, you refuse the guilt. You have correctly redefined it as a problem with emotional communication, instead of a blanket rejection. The cold shoulder is the atom bomb of relationships only if you agree to accept the blame.
Do you ever give the cold shoulder? Perhaps you can try responses that are less damaging to the relationship. How about telling the other person that you are having a hard time processing what just happened and ask for some time to sort it out? You can also make it explicit that you’re not rejecting the person, but you need some space. You can promise to talk about it when things have calmed down a bit. Later you can explain that it’s just too hard to keep talking when you’re really upset.
Close relationships are so full of need and meaning that our behaviors have a big impact. We can make our corner of the world a better place when we can disagree and express hurt without withdrawing our love. When we give up the cold shoulders, we can stop punishing each other for being human and preserve our connections instead.