What Is the Silent Treatment?
The silent treatment is when one person in a relationship ignores the other person, refusing to acknowledge them verbally or through any other method. This usually happens after an argument, but it can also happen when the silent partner is angry and the other person doesn't know why. The silent treatment is a way to inflict pain without visible bruising. It’s a method of psychological punishment and manipulation that most people use. This applies to any relationship—romantic, friendships, familial, and co-worker relationships. It is also classified as emotional abuse. Research has shown that the act of ignoring or silent treatment activates the same area of the brain that is activated by physical pain. Research also indicates that it is mostly men who resort to silent treatment compared to women.
Being on the receiving end is painful and frustrating. It's a form of ostracism, and it can feel like a punishment and even a form of pressure to get a response to criticism or submission to a request. Ignoring a person by using silent treatment is used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.
Findings from relationship studies by Dr Paul Schrodt (Professor of Communication Studies) revealed that the silent treatment is ‘tremendously’ damaging to a relationship. It decreases relationship satisfaction for both partners, diminishes feelings of intimacy, and reduces the capacity to communicate in a way that’s healthy and meaningful.
Effects of silent treatment
Below are the five effects of silent treatment:
- It causes emotional trauma or stress.
Silent treatment causes stress. There is a wide variety of overwhelming emotions that come with being ignored. Victims may experience depression, anger, and frustration, as well as feelings of restlessness, isolation and rejection, guilt, loneliness, and despair ― maybe even a sense of betrayal or bitterness. When someone’s existence and feelings are dismissed and disrespected, they feel devalued, unloved, unworthy, and insignificant. Like an old couch you toss out because you don’t have room for it.
- It causes psychological stress.
The word for this is ostracism (exclusion, banishment). The silent treatment can be a mind game for some people and in some cases can be used as a form of psychological manipulation. Along with the emotional roller-coaster, it tears down your self-esteem and sense of self-worth. It also increases stress levels, leading to more feelings of grief, loss, misplacement, and abandonment; the victim may feel they have no control. The longer and more intense the ostracism continues, the more permanent the psychological effects, especially in children.
- It may have serious physical side-effects.
As indicated above there’s a part of our brains specifically designed to detect different levels of pain. It’s called the anterior cingulate cortex, and it activates when someone receives the silent treatment. You heard that right: When someone is ignored, their brain tells them they are in physical pain. Symptoms could include anything from headaches to diarrhea or constipation to stomach pains, as well as insomnia, anxiety, and fatigue. Different states of emotional stress could lead to more serious health risks, such as eating disorders, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
- It can cause behavioural changes.
What am I doing wrong? Is something wrong with me? Are you there? Was it something I said? Am I too annoying?
Being ignored could cause you to behave in ways you might not normally. You might start questioning and second-guessing yourself and others, lashing out, or doubting yourself and situations where you normally don’t. You might start to feel like you’re bothering the other person, or being too needy. All the questions and doubt might cause you to act like someone who isn’t really you. Realizing you aren’t quite acting like yourself could further feelings of guilt, loss of control, and uncertainty; since these feelings initiate a sense of threat to your survival, this may heighten any fight-or-flight reaction you may have which also increases physical illnesses.
- It can destroy relationships.
Often the issue here is with communication. For any reason, one partner might ignore or distance themselves from the other. No matter the reaction of the other partner, this action causes a rift. Each partner might feel the problem is with the other, and instead of communicating with each other, they wait around for the other to admit they’re wrong and apologize.
Silent treatment decreases intimacy and trust between partners, and can cause anxiety and aggressive behaviour. The silent treatment may become a pattern in a relationship, which hinders the ability to communicate effectively
The silent treatment is a common pattern of conflict for committed, romantic couples, and it can be damaging if left unaddressed. It is important to break this communication pattern, and there are constructive ways to respond and, hopefully, find a way to move forward that both of you can agree on.
How to respond to silent treatment.
- Take time to cool off
During a time of silence both partners should pause to reflect on what led up to the silent treatment episode, especially if it was preceded by an argument, fight, or emotional outburst. If you're on the receiving end you may feel frustrated and angry, so take a cooling-off period to get a breath and calm down.
- Give your partner space to think
Avoid trying to figure out what your silent partner or spouse is thinking. You're not a mind-reader. The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive form of communication. If you do their thinking for them, they won't learn how to be direct when sharing their thoughts and feelings.
- Don't apologize unless you are truly sorry
Never apologize for something when you don't believe you did. How can you have an authentic, connected relationship by being false? Instead, try to empathize with your partner by saying you understand that they're upset or angry and that you would like to bridge the gap that has come between you.
- Apologize if you are truly sorry
Think about whether you really may have done or said something to hurt your partner or make them angry. Admit and acknowledge any wrongs that may have caused offense and apologize sincerely.
- Ask yourself whether it's just a personality difference
Is your partner an introvert while you are more of an extrovert? Introverts need more time to process their emotions, especially when things get intense or they feel that they've been attacked or insulted in some way.
If this is the case for you, tell your partner that you'll give them a certain amount of time to themselves and that you'll be back after the time is up to talk. Of course it's best if they agree to this plan.
- Set Rules for Healthy Communication
When communication is difficult it can help to create some rules. Give your partner (and yourself) permission to calm down.
Sometimes when we feel waves of anxiety, panic, or rage, our bodies become saturated with adrenaline. This is called "flooding," and it happens when intense feelings, thoughts, or sensations are just too much to integrate in the moment.
"In a conflict, when one person gets flooded, they usually choose either fight of flight," says Dr. Wyatt Fisher (a marriage counsellor). "In this case, “flight” would the silent treatment. Regular silent treatment is toxic to a healthy relationship."
Dr Fisher recommends that couples recognize that one or both partner is flooded and then separate for a period of time to calm down. Then they should come back together at an agreed-upon time when they are relaxed to talk through the conflict.
It is often part of a pattern of poor communication. But the silent treatment, when structured, is a part of research-supported Behavioural Couples Therapy.
Changing Your Approach to the Relationship
Since the silent treatment is a way for your partner to gain control, you need to take care of yourself so their behaviour doesn't leave you feeling humiliated and rejected.
- Remind yourself that your partner feels uncertain and out of control.
- Do not resort to sulking, pouting, or badgering. Try to maintain a calm attitude if you can. Take a walk to get a breath of air.
- Consider whether you too might be trying to control the relationship more than your partner is comfortable with.
Other Ways to Address the Problem
The majority of arguments don't start because of what is said. They start over how something was said. If this is the case, find other ways of communicating about your problems. If you do not know how else to communicate with your partner, find a marriage/relationship counsellor to assist.
The Victim's Role
In some cases, the silent partner is attempting to escape another toxic dynamic. If you are trying to force them to change or do things your way, you're giving them a reason to withdraw. If you criticize them as a person or assigning blame instead of focusing on finding solutions, you're contributing to the dynamic. If you let yourself feel like a victim, get depressed, or pout, you must recognize that you've been engaging in control tactics, too, and commit to stop.
The silent treatment is part of a "demand-withdraw" pattern that is deadly to relationships!
A Special Note about Abuse
When people feel out of control, they seek ways to regain control, as we already discussed.
If your partner is physically abusive, any change you make to how you respond to the silent treatment might escalate their behaviour. Be prepared for this by having a plan to leave the environment if there appears to be a threat. Find a therapist who specializes in abuse. Know who you can call upon, where you can stay, and save enough money to give you a cushion if you need one.
You are welcome to contact us for assistance if you are going through a difficult period in your relationship. We are in Room 926, Louis Pasture Hospital in Pretoria Central.
Street Smart Women: Silent Treatment