The silent treatment is the refusal to engage in verbal communication with someone, often as a response to conflict in a relationship. Also referred to as giving the cold shoulder or stonewalling, its use is a passive-aggressive form of control and can, in many circumstances, be considered a form of emotional abuse.
Sometimes there’s really nothing to say. A disconnect can be so clear that, in the interests of prudence, each party goes off to their respective psychological corners to reflect, regroup, then resume with a mutual desire for clarity.
Arguments of this nature are never pleasant (what argument is?), but they will come and they will go, leaving perhaps a new understanding in their wake.
Except we’ve all been at that point where we simply don’t want to go back to a disagreement, and not even out of fear of escalation. We withdraw in order to punish.
The Silent Treatment.
Considered the number one weapon in the arsenal of passive-aggression, it keeps one’s “opponent” on tenterhooks while providing you a false sense of empowerment.
It makes demands of a sort of mental and emotional perfection from others that, quite honestly, exists in none of us.
Ignoring someone in this way can be extremely hurtful. The psychological effects can be lasting. And, quite frankly, it is so very unfair.
Why The Silent Treatment Is A Form Of Abuse
‘Abuse’ is such a loaded word. Nobody likes to think of themselves as abusing another person. We conjure up images of twisted individuals doing horrible things to others when we think of that word.
But giving someone the silent treatment can be a form of abuse for these reasons.
1. It’s a means of exerting control over the someone.
In any type of relationship, both parties should feel free to act how they choose. Yes, they may make bad choices and do things that hurt others or themselves, but they do so of their own volition.
Of course, a person can have boundaries and can assert those boundaries when another person crosses them.
But the silent treatment doesn’t assert those boundaries in a healthy way. It doesn’t communicate precisely what the boundary was or what the other person did to cross it.
The silent treatment screams: you should know: (1) what you did wrong; (2) how I feel; (3) what you need to do to end this silence.
This puts the other person on the back foot, which is a form of control. By giving the silent treatment, you are inferring that you are in the right and they are in the wrong and that it is their responsibility to fix this.
You give them no choice in the matter – if they do not do what you want, the silence will carry on.
2. It’s a means of punishing the other person.
When disagreements occur, of course you are going to have some ill-feeling toward the other person. You may be hurting and you tell yourself that hurting them back is justified.
And so you stop all communication, you stonewall them, and you do so to punish them.
You want them to feel bad for making you feel bad.
But consciously choosing to make someone feel bad is an abusive act. It is you saying that the other person deserves to suffer.
3. It makes the other person feel anxious.
If one person uses the silent treatment on a regular basis, it sows the seeds of anxiety in the mind of the other.
After all, they may never know when it will be used against them. That unpredictability is sure to put someone constantly on edge, anxious that they may trigger another period of silence.
This, again, is a form of control because it gives the one who wields the silent treatment as a weapon the upper hand. They aren’t the ones who have to feel anxious about what the other may do.
The silent treatment also causes anxiety during the event. Whilst one person closes off, the other is left searching for ways to make peace, though they also don’t want to make the situation worse, so they feel nervous when they try to make amends.
4. It can be used as a threat.
A threat is one person saying, “If you do this (or don’t do that), you will suffer the consequences.”
You can see, then, how the silent treatment can be seen as threatening someone.
It says, “If you don’t fix this, you will continue to face more silence.”
It says, “If you don’t fix this, we’re over, we’re through, I’m done with you.”
It says, “If you make me mad again, I’m going to make you pay again.”
Though it may not instantly appear as threatening behavior, the silent treatment can do just as much emotional damage as more obvious threats.
5. It makes a person doubt themselves and their actions.
Sometimes, the silent treatment can be used over small matters; things that shouldn’t bring out such a strong reaction.
In these instances, it serves to sow seeds of doubt in the other person’s mind. Do I deserve this? Am I stupid for acting the way I did? Am I a terrible person?
This doubt can stop them from acting freely in the future. Of course, if they really did do something to cause hurt, they should try not to do it again. But if the silent treatment is a regular occurrence, they may start to wonder if anything they do is right.
Then there is the effect it can have on a person’s self-esteem. If they are met with silence again and again, it conveys the message that they are not worthy of open and honest communication. They are only worthy of suffering.
6. It withholds affection.
When the silent treatment is in use, there can be no closeness, no love, no affection.
And whilst the person being silent may be okay with that (for a time, at least), the person on the receiving end almost certainly won’t be.
They seek resolution. They want to be touched, hugged, affirmed with words.
But they get nothing of the sort. They are left feeling unloved and uncared for. This is just another form of control and punishment.
7. It lays all the blame at one person’s door.
When one party takes a temporary oath of silence after a disagreement, it is their way of telling the other person, “You did this. You are to blame. I am innocent.”
This is rarely the case, of course, but that doesn’t change the message the silencer is giving.
Again, this can adversely impact the other person’s self-esteem because they will feel like they are flawed in so many ways.
They will start to believe that everything really is their fault and will begin to accept blame for things that are not their responsibility.
8. It wears you down.
The effects of abuse are rarely instantaneous. Instead, they build up over time.
The silent treatment, when used again and again, eventually breaks the spirit of the other person until they no longer have the strength to fight it.
They simply cave in as soon as the silence begins, begging, pleading not to be subjected to it any more.
Of course, the person doing the silencing sees this as justification for their actions. Silence works to make the other person back down, to admit fault, to feel diminished, and so they continue to use it, much to the dismay of the other person.
How To Deal With The Silent Treatment
If you’re on the receiving end of the silent treatment and you want to handle things with dignity, what’s to be done?
Reacting to the silent treatment requires sensitivity, openness, understanding, and a good dose of humility.
Here is the approach to take.
1. Look for solutions.
Most people who give the silent treatment don’t feel great about it at the time. It’s just a mechanism for dealing with conflict that they know.
Chances are, provided with a meaningful solution to whatever came between you, they’d engage with the process of reconciliation. Maybe not straight away, of course, but sooner or later.
If you can think of solutions yourself, offer these up in a gentle way. Don’t ram them down the other person’s throat as the ‘right’ thing to do or as the action you think needs to be taken.
Merely suggest them and ask for feedback. For example:
“I think some regular, scheduled time together as a couple might help you feel more loved and less neglected. What do you think?”
“Perhaps, when we fight about something, we could agree to go away, write our thoughts and feelings down on paper, and give those letters to each other, rather than going round in circles and letting our tempers get the better of us. Do you like that idea?”
“I’m willing to reign in my spending and put more money aside into savings each month as I know this is important to you.”
Of course, you won’t always have solutions in mind. Sometimes you just need to work through things together. In which case, you can simply say:
“I wish we could figure out what’s wrong.”
“I’m sure, if we put our heads together and talk about this, we can come up with a solution that makes us both happy.”
When you make your own suggestions or ask to talk about it, you might not always get the response you want.
But, know that by offering this olive branch, you are likely to shorten the time they feel willing and able to maintain the silent treatment, and this in itself is a win of sorts.
2. Validate their feelings, and yours too.
There’s no point hiding away from the emotions that you’re both feeling after a bust-up.
That’s why the solution approach above should be coupled with a clear message that you accept their feelings for what they are, but that your feelings are just as valid.
This works a lot better than suggesting they are blowing things out of proportion. They may be in your opinion, but not in theirs.
So rather than, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” opt for something more conciliatory such as:
“I see that you are feeling hurt and that you’ve pulled away. I understand that you may need some time to cool off and process what happened, but I’m here to talk about it as soon as you’re ready.”
If they come back to the table and open up a dialogue within a reasonable time, then the message got through and they feel appeased by your gesture.
But if they continue giving you the silent treatment for a prolonged period of days or more, it’s right that you express how that makes you feel. You must communicate your own hurt or you risk rejecting it’s validity.
“Listen, I have tried to give you some space to allow you to work through what it is you are feeling, but I really want to resolve the situation before it drags on much longer. When you pull away like this, I feel alone and unsure of what else I can do, and this isn’t how I want to feel.”
3. Keep calm and carry on.
Remember, a big part of the silent treatment is the power it gives the person who wields it.
But that power is largely something that your actions give them.
When you grovel, beg for forgiveness, or make grand gestures designed to win them round, you are only reinforcing their belief that silence works.
If, once you have said what needs to be said from steps 1 and 2 above, you go about your life in an emotionally level way, not reacting to their silence, you teach them that their approach is not going to give them the results they seek.
Of course, if you have said or done something to upset them, you should apologize sincerely, but you should only do so once. Repeated apologies just hand the power to the other person.
When they see that you are not playing their game, one would hope that they will stop playing it too.
Of course, if they don’t…
4. Decide where to draw the line.
The silent treatment cannot go on forever or rear its head every time you have even the smallest disagreement. That’s no way for a relationship to be.
Eventually, there must come a point where you say enough is enough. We’ve already discussed how prolonged or repeated use of the silent treatment is tantamount to abuse, and you do not deserve it.
Know what your limits are, keep trying to engage the other person to improve the situation for as long as you think is healthy, but be willing to let the relationship go if things show no sign of improvement.
This is not meant as a threat or ultimatum. It isn’t designed to finally jolt them into change (though it might). Just be clear with them that you will not accept this kind of treatment much longer, and then follow through when you feel you’ve done all you can.
It will hurt – both you and them – but it is for the best in the long run.
When The Silent Treatment IS The Right Approach
There is a time and a place for silence. In fact, in some circumstances, silence is actually recommended.
In a toxic relationship where one party meets any attempt at conflict resolution with an escalation of aggression – and does so on a persistent basis – silence is perfectly acceptable.
In this case, remaining quiet is a way to cope with the situation and the person. Silence is a form of protection and is often the only way to calm things down following an altercation.
The silent treatment is also recommended if you have escaped an abusive relationship with a narcissist or sociopath. Then, silence becomes a boundary which prevents you from being manipulated again.
How To Tell If Your Silence Is Abusive
The key is to ask yourself: am I defending myself, or am I attacking the other? That’s where the difference lies.
If you are staying silent in order to gain the upper hand and cause the other person some form of emotional suffering, that’s abuse.
If you are keeping your mouth firmly shut in order to avoid the risk of suffering abuse, that’s self-defense.
If you’re unsure, it helps to ask these questions of yourself:
1. Are you calm again now, but you want them to make the first move?
When arguments occur, it can take a little while for those heightened feelings to pass.
Silence during this time is no bad thing as it can prevent you from saying or doing things you later regret.
But if you are keeping up the silent act even after you have calmed down because you insist that they must make the first moves of reconciliation, it is a little abusive.
If you are ready to talk things out, open up a dialogue.
2. Will only a full apology do?
Will you stick with the silence for as long as they do not offer a satisfactory apology?
Perhaps they have shown remorse and tried to make amends, but it wasn’t quite what you’d imagined in your head while you were off ruminating.
If some effort has been made to extend an olive branch, it’s only right that you move a little from your position and end the silent treatment you’ve been giving them.
This doesn’t mean that you have to forgive them, but you ought to at least participate in a conversation about what happened and why it made you feel the way you felt.
By not engaging, you are opting to keep them on the back foot, which can be seen as emotional abuse of sorts.
3. Do you take responsibility for the disagreement?
Sometimes, yes, the other person is entirely in the wrong. Some things are inexcusable.
But this is not always the case.
If you are maintaining your silence despite some fault laying at your feet, you are ignoring the role you played in the argument that led to where you are now.
This is abusive in the sense that it puts all the blame onto the other person and makes them feel bad because of it.
4. Will you keep it up for a specific length of time?
When someone does something that really annoys you, do you think, “Right, I’m not speaking to them for the rest of the day”?
Or the rest of the week, even?
This can be seen as abuse because it is effectively dishing out a sentence for a crime, regardless of how you might feel at any given time in the future.
It is effectively telling the other person that they deserve this much punishment for what they did.
It leaves no room for forgiveness or the softening of feelings between you.