The silent treatment refers to the act of intentionally withdrawing from an interaction, refusing to engage further, and shutting the other person out for extended periods of time. When this happens, the person on the receiving end feels invisible, like they don’t matter. Although there are many reasons someone might use the silent treatment, it often has negative consequences and can become abusive.
I provide a quick summary on the silent treatment in this video:
What is the Silent Treatment?
The silent treatment is a refusal to verbally communicate with someone, often as a means of punishment, emotional manipulation, or control. Although this type of behavior is more common in an intimate or romantic relationship, it can also happen with family members, friends, or co-workers. Over time, the use of the silent treatment can become emotionally abusive. Research has found that people who received the silent treatment experienced a threat to their needs of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence.1
This type of behavior reinforces the feeling that someone we care about wants nothing to do with us. It can feel as though you don’t exist.2 No matter what you try to do, you cannot reach the other person. On the contrary, there is absolutely nothing wrong with setting healthy boundaries in relationships and disagreements or sharing that you need to take a time out, break, or step away to calm down and reset. This demonstrates that you can recognize when your emotions are escalating and take the necessary steps to recover, which is a sign of emotional intelligence.
Why Does My Partner Use the Silent Treatment?
There are several reasons why a person resorts to using the silent treatment. First, they often may not know how to manage their feelings; they could be experiencing significant pain and feel emotionally overwhelmed and flooded. They might have also experienced childhood trauma, which can sometimes lead to maladaptive emotional responses, such as shutting down and giving people the silent treatment. Finally, they might also use the silent treatment as a passive aggressive approach to trigger reactive abuse from their partner.
Some reasons why your partner may rely on the silent treatment include:3
- They have poor communication skills and don’t know how to express their needs or emotions
- They struggle with control issues
- They are not self-aware enough about their use of the silent treatment to make changes
- You are in a trauma bond relationship
- They have an avoidant attachment style
- They may be repressing their emotions
- They have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- They modeled this type of behavior from a caretaker
- They are experiencing emotional flooding
- It’s their primary coping mechanism
How to Identify the Silent Treatment in Relationships
It is important to be able to identify when silence and space from someone become the silent treatment. For example, you and your partner argue about plans for the evening. During the argument, one of you gets upset and stops talking. The other person may try to engage in a conversation to resolve the issue, to no avail. The person using the silent treatment may abruptly leave the house and stay out, or completely ignore the other partner the rest of the night, knowing this would be upsetting. In some cases, the use of the silent treatment may last for days or weeks.
On the flip side, let’s say you and your partner have an argument about either one’s family meddling in how you raise your child and one of you starts to shut down to the point of leaving the room. However, it usually doesn’t take long for the upset, silent partner to let the other know whether they need more time, space, and ease any immediate concerns. Often, silence is not the only behavior to look out for—notice whether they go about their day as if nothing is wrong, know this behavior bothers you, seek alliance from other people, or if you feel increasingly anxious.
Here are several signs that you are receiving the silent treatment from your partner:
- They blatantly and frequently ignore you
- They are silent for extended periods of time; you never know when it will end
- They talk to other people, but not you
- You feel like you are walking on eggshells
- You try to talk to them, but they don’t respond to you
- You feel punished by their silence
- They don’t attempt to communicate their feelings to you
- They use stonewalling tactics
Is Using the Silent Treatment Abuse?
Over time, the act of giving someone the silent treatment left unchecked can become a sign you’re in an abusive relationship. If you are experiencing this type of behavior in your relationship, it is important that you are also aware of other warning signs of emotional abuse.
Warning signs that the silent treatment may be abusive include:
- They use it as a manipulation tactic to control the situation or conversation
- They know it bothers their partner or spouse, but continue to do it anyway
- They use it as a form of passive-aggressive communication
- It lasts for an inordinate amount of time
- It leaves the person receiving it feeling more anxious, isolated, and alone
- It forces the partner to reconcile with the abuser
- It begins to erode a person’s self worth or self-esteem
- The perpetrator of the silent treatment explicitly blames their partner for causing the silence
The silent treatment is a negative and controlling form of communication. There is nothing that feels good about being on the receiving end of this type of aberrant behavior. As with other forms of abuse, the silent treatment could also become an insidious cycle of abuse if change does not occur.
How to Respond to the Silent Treatment
Despite the negative impact of being on the receiving end of the silent treatment, there are things you can do to address this issue and learn how to communicate more effectively. Developing healthy communication skills could improve your relationship, even if you have tried before and regardless of the stage of relationship or marriage you are in. Doing this will provide the opportunity to improve the relationship and manage relationship conflict more effectively.
Here are five healthy ways to respond to the silent treatment:
1. Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries in relationships is important to determine when silence and space go too far. This can look like telling the person that what they are doing is hurtful and not what you want or will tolerate in the relationship. If you did something wrong, then offer up an apology. But never apologize if you didn’t do anything wrong.
2. Create a Structured Conversation
A way to create healthy communication in a relationship is creating structured conversations. This means changing your communication patterns; one way to do this is learning fair fighting rules. Despite your moments of frustration and wanting to yell or lash out at the person who is giving you the silent treatment, a couple ways to approach the situation are:
- Use ‘I’ statements that put you in the driver’s seat by expressing how you feel without blaming. For example, “I feel hurt and frustrated when I’m being shut out.”
- Acknowledge and name the situation. For example, by stating, “I have noticed that you shut me out or are not responding to me. Can we talk more about this and if so, when would be a good time for both of us?”
3. Practice Self-Care
The silent treatment can be detrimental to one’s emotional health, so it is important that you take care of yourself during these situations. Do something for yourself to make sure you prevent emotional burnout.
Some things you can do to practice self-care include:
- Practice mindfulness
- Read! There are books on communication, emotional intelligence, and self-love that can help during difficult times
- Practice journaling for mental health
- Talk to a friend, whether it is about this situation or something that takes your mind off the issue.
4. Don’t Take It Personally
Don’t personalize it. This can be a very challenging thing to do, especially in the moment. However, if you take it personally, you end up feeling worse, making it about you, and the other person doesn’t have to take any of the blame or responsibility. Ask yourself, “Is this about me, or is something to do with them that they need to resolve?” Most likely the latter.
5. Stay Calm
Stay calm. Yes, this is a big ask, but if you can do this, your response will likely be less emotional, allowing you to communicate more clearly. This will also demonstrate to your partner that their abuse will not work on you.
When to Seek Couples Counseling
Seeking marriage or couples counseling is a personal decision, but one that can help you and your partner work through some of your issues. There is no perfect time to seek therapy, but as with all issues, the sooner the better. A qualified couples therapist can help you uncover the pain that might be at the center of this type of aberrant behavior and learn more effective communication skills through techniques such as emotionally focused couples therapy.
The silent treatment can stem from trauma, such as attachment injuries, trauma bond relationships, and childhood trauma, so it may also be especially helpful to consider individual therapy. This can help each individual dig deeper into their individual behaviors and help improve relational and communication skills. If you’re wondering how to choose a therapist, an online therapist directory allows you to see complete profiles on therapists so that you can find someone with specific criteria, such as gender, location, insurance, and expertise.
While space and silence are human needs, the silent treatment is a form of manipulation and abuse. Although there are many ways to address and change this behavior, the person who uses the silent treatment will ultimately have to decide if they want to put in the effort to find more effective ways of communicating. Whether you and your partner choose to stay together or not, therapy can be a great tool for people struggling with unhealthy behaviors and relationships.
For Further Reading
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health
- Narcissistic Rage: Understanding & Coping With Narcissistic Rage, Silent Treatment & Gaslighting.
- The Gottman Method
- What Are John Gottman’s Four Horsemen?
- 10 Best Journal Apps for 2023
- The 5 Best Online Marriage Counseling Services
- Best Books About Separation & Divorce for 2023
- 15 Best Self-Help Podcasts
- 15 Best Self Improvement Books
- 15 Best Meditation Youtube Channels
- 15 Best Books on Emotional Intelligence