There are few things more alienating than being in a relationship with someone who won’t speak to you. The constant stonewalling can feel maddening; when someone gives you the silent treatment, it’s easy for your mind to run amok, racing through frantic thoughts about what you did wrong.
If it’s done with ill intention, then the silent treatment is a genuinely abusive behavioural tactic, often employed to get someone to feel bad or change their behaviour for the abuser’s benefit. Fortunately, though, the silence can be broken. There are ways to navigate this kind of passive-aggresssive behaviour with targeted communication.
What is the silent treatment?
You’re probably familiar with the term. It boils down to one person in a relationship ignoring a significant other, friend, child, or family member for significant periods of time. On occasion, the person doing it might not even indicate why they’ve gone silent.
As Joel Cooper, a psychology professor at Princeton told The Atlantic earlier this year, the silent treatment deprives human beings of one of their most basic, instinctual needs.
Because we humans require social contact for our mental health, the ramifications of isolation can be severe…In the short term, the silent treatment causes stress. In the long term, the stress can be considered abuse.
There’s no universal reason why someone might cease all verbal communication, but an underlying facet of the silent treatment is that when it occurs, it’s more due to the silent person’s own issues than anything else. Daryl Austin writes in The Atlantic that different personality types use the silent treatment for different reasons:
The silent treatment might be employed by passive personality types to avoid conflict and confrontation, while strong personality types use it to punish or control. Some people may not even consciously choose it at all.
Essentially, the silent treatment is a noxious (non)communication tactic that is often meant to exert emotion control over someone else through sowing doubt, confusion, and anxiety. Occasionally, it ensues because the silent person is emotionally overwhelmed and doesn’t know how to put their feelings into words. Even though it’s not as diabolical, the latter reason can still portend dire consequences: One study, authored by the Texas Christian University professor Paul Schrodt in 2014, found it to be a harbinger of divorce for married couples.
How to know if it’s abusive
If you’re in a committed relationship and experiencing the cold shoulder for the first time, it’s best to assess the signs indicative of abuse. As Healthline points out, there are several that hint at the silent treatment spreading into abusive territory.
Some of the hallmarks of abuse end with the victim apologizing or changing their ways just to break the wall of silence. Healthline explains:
It’s a frequent occurrence and is lasting for longer periods.
It’s coming from a place of punishment, not a need to cool off or regroup.
It only ends when you apologise, plead, or give in to demands.
You’ve changed your behaviour to avoid getting the silent treatment.
What to do about the silent treatment
One way of addressing the issue is by calling it out directly, but never in an accusatory or hostile way. The psychiatrist Elizabeth Gordon recently told Fatherly that someone on the receiving-end should use I-statements, which clarify how the speaker feels. You can do this by saying “I’ve noticed you’ve been very quiet lately,” or “It feels like you’re shutting me out,” for example.
One rather iffy way to address the problem might be to wait it out, in the hopes that it blows over. This could theoretically work, if your partner is just working through something on their own that they’ll eventually put behind them.
If it doesn’t, however, you might need to resort to raw, emotional honesty. Expressing that this hurts you will probably be just as effective as hoping the issue will resolve itself on its own, if not more so. And as the psychologist Andrea F. Pollard wrote in Psychology Today, it might help you to think of the silent person on compassionate terms.
Consider that the one who uses the silent treatment cannot think of any other remedy. This, too, is suffering. As one realises the other’s suffering, one feels less victimized and more inclined to offer empathy, a hug, or guidance.
Or course, if this is a consistent pattern in your relationship, it’s recommended to seek proper help to wade into the causes of the issue. If everything else fails and the wall of silence can’t be broken down, it might be time to end the relationship.