The silent treatment is a common response to conflict and an often overlooked form of abuse. It can include anything from ignoring texts and DMs to refusing face-to-face communications.
The silent treatment is a form of social ostracization and a common tool used during conflict within many relationship types to inflict pain. It involves refusing to communicate with someone who is willing to communicate.
Whether you call it the cold shoulder, freezing someone out, or shunning, the silent treatment can be a damaging choice of response.
In the world of conflict, no response is quite as notorious or abused as the silent treatment. In fact, a 2022 study highlights how the use of the silent treatment is evident worldwide, in all cultures and manner of relationships.
Most people think of the silent treatment in terms of personal or romantic relationships. The person who refuses to speak to their partner because they forgot their anniversary, for example. Or the person who ignores their partner because they offended them in some way.
Many of us are familiar with the idea of the silent treatment. We’ve likely either been the recipient, the perpetrator, or both at some point.
And with so many ways to communicate today, there are even more ways to wield this damaging weapon — through texts, direct messages (DMs), social media responses, or email.
These and, of course, actual interaction and conversation, are all opportunities to use the silent treatment. Any tool that can be used to communicate can also be used to ostracize.
But is ostracism and using the silent treatment a form of abuse? It’s certainly painful to the recipient, but does it rise to the level of abusive behavior?
No matter the reason for its use, the silent treatment is not your fault. This subtle form of abuse can be overwhelming to handle, but there are ways to cope and respond that may avoid making things worse.
Yes, regardless of intent, the silent treatment is a form of abuse and can have emotional, psychological, and physical effects as well.
A crucial question to consider is whether or not you’re abusing someone if you use the silent treatment.
The silent treatment rises to the level of abusive behavior for several reasons.
Intent to control another person’s behavior
A person on whom the silent treatment is used often feels forced to change their behavior.
Humans are social beings and react to positive and negative interactions. When communication is purposefully withdrawn, it can cause a person to seek ways to reinstate it.
They may apologize for things they didn’t do, perform tasks that aren’t their responsibility, or engage in behavior they otherwise wouldn’t just to get the silent treatment to end.
Manipulation of emotions
Feelings of self-worth and validation are influenced by the reactions of people around us. Approval often makes us happy, and disapproval can sometimes make us feel ashamed, or like we want to change.
When someone we care about gives us the silent treatment, it can cause emotional trauma, which is an aspect of emotional abuse.
Threat to self-esteem
Feeling ostracized, especially by someone you love, can make you doubt yourself and feel devalued and unworthy of love and respect. Being ignored and unacknowledged threatens the validity of your existence, and this can be devastating to your self-esteem.
Isolation and depression
Being ignored creates isolation which can lead to loneliness and feelings of depression.
Physical response and side effects
This means that people not only feel emotional pain when given the silent treatment but also a certain level of physical pain. This can lead to damaging physical side effects if someone is repeatedly ostracized by someone important to them.
Physical responses such as weight changes, rising blood pressure, and sleep disturbance have all been found.
The silent treatment isn’t uniformly used in the same way and for the same reasons. Although it’s leveraged by many as a response to conflict or hurt, the motivations can vary depending upon the individual employing it and the situation.
- Conflict avoidance: For those who tend to take a passive approach to potential conflict, the silent treatment can be used as a way to avoid dealing with any uncomfortable situation directly.
- Punishment: A person with a more aggressive personality may use the silent treatment to punish someone by withholding communication.
- Selective topic avoidance: Someone who’s feeling overwhelmed by feelings they can’t (or won’t) deal with may use the silent treatment to completely ignore and disregard a topic altogether.
The reasons and ways the silent treatment is used in each of these instances may be different, but the result is the same. Pain for the people involved and damage to the relationship between them.
Communication is one of the cornerstones of a healthy relationship. Refusing to engage, especially during times of conflict, is the antithesis of this.
No matter how it’s being used, the silent treatment can be perceived by the recipient as a form of rejection and ostracization. This will wound the person experiencing it and can cause irreparable damage to the relationship.
Some of the effects of the silent treatment in relationships are:
- Broken trust: The pain of rejection that’s experienced can damage and even destroy the emotional trust between you and your partner. A person experiencing the silent treatment may think, “I don’t trust that they won’t hurt me. In fact, I actually trust that they will hurt me again.”
- Resentment: Because the silent treatment can lead people to behave in ways they feel aren’t fair (i.e., unnecessary apologies or taking on someone else’s responsibilities), resentment can build over time and cause damage to a relationship.
- Decreased intimacy: When trust is broken, resentment builds in a relationship and walls can go up. These walls can create barriers to emotional and physical intimacy.
When these become factors in a relationship it can impact your satisfaction, happiness, and commitment — all of which can leave the relationship vulnerable to additional problems.
Falling into the category of abusive behavior certainly hasn’t stopped its use, particularly as a response to conflict is extremely common.
Because of its prevalence and the serious impact it can have, knowing how to respond when being given the silent treatment can be crucial.
To help ease the tension and get communication started again, consider using the following in your approach:
Give some space
The person who’s gone silent may need a bit of time to cool off and gain perspective. Remember that silence can have more than one motivation.
If the person you’re dealing with needs to come to terms with significant feelings or is emotionally overwhelmed, they likely need some space.
Use collaborative language
When you begin making an effort at communication again, try to use “I” and “we” statements that signal a desire for collaboration.
Try to avoid using “you” statements. Accusatory or blame statements can make things worse.
Understand why the silent treatment is being used
The silent treatment can often be used when the person doesn’t have the tools to respond differently. When faced with the triggering of strong feelings, they may not know what else to do — so they go quiet.
It can also be a passive-aggressive response to avoid directly communicating how (hurt) they feel.
Understanding why they’re using the silent treatment can help you deal with it in the future.
Have a conversation about the rules of engagement
Once on more solid footing, consider having a conversation about how to better handle conflict when it arises. Setting boundaries will help both sides understand what behavior will be accepted and what won’t.
When there’s difficulty communicating, time and space may be acceptable, while punitive or manipulative silence may be a hard limit.
While the right approach can help you make progress, the wrong one can worsen things. When responding to the silent treatment there are certain behaviors you want to try to avoid.
- Two wrongs don’t make a right: Try to avoid using the silent treatment yourself, either in an effort to retaliate or to “show them how it feels.” This will only reinforce negative behavior.
- Don’t escalate: Silence in one person can often inspire a frantic response in another. A withdraw-pursue dynamic is a common response. So, try not to allow yourself to lose control of your emotions, get overly angry, or chase after them in a desperate attempt to get the other person to reengage.
- Don’t always assume responsibility: It’s not necessary to fall on your sword every time you encounter the silent treatment. Needlessly apologizing or always making the first move toward reconciliation can sometimes reinforce its use.
If you’ve reached the point where you feel you’ve tried everything and the use of the silent treatment persists, it may be time to consider getting help.
Behavioral change can be difficult and may require the help of a mental health professional to be achieved. This could be in the form of either individual or couples counseling depending upon the level of cooperation of each partner.
Keep in mind that couples counseling may not be helpful for abusive relationships. But individual therapy can help you learn to set boundaries and strengthen your relationship.
Regardless, a continual cycle of abusive behavior of any type shouldn’t be allowed to persist.
If you’re in an abusive relationship, help is available right now. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text START to 88788 to connect with a trained advocate who can offer help and support.
If you’re unsure whether you may be experiencing abuse in your relationship, consider taking our quiz to find out.
If you are or have been experiencing the silent treatment in a relationship, remember that it’s not your fault. And while this is a common response during a conflict, that doesn’t make it acceptable.
When faced with the silent treatment, keep in mind that this behavior can have more than one motivation. Understanding this can help you learn to deal with it.
But regardless of the motivation behind it, the silent treatment is still abusive behavior.
The right approach can help, but also try to be mindful of responses that can make things worse.
If you’re having trouble navigating this behavior on your own, consider reaching out to a mental health professional with experience in abusive relationships.
You don’t have to sit quietly and listen to the silence. Some well-placed effort can restart the conversation.