Blog Short #122: The Silent Treatment
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Have you ever given someone the “silent treatment?” Or been on the receiving end of it? I confess that I can say yes to both questions, and based on statistics, most of us can say the same.
According to a study done in 1997, 70% of US citizens admitted to having received the silent treatment from their partners, and slightly less admitted to using it (Faulker et al., 1997).
You might think it’s not a big deal, but the effects are painful and long-lasting depending on how much and for what purposes it’s used.
That’s what we’re focusing on today. I’ll start with a definition and description.
What is the “silent treatment”?
All the definitions have the same essential elements:
The “silent treatment” is the intentional refusal to communicate, interact, connect, or acknowledge someone who’s attempting to make contact with you.
The most common behaviors used when giving the silent treatment are:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Not speaking except in monosyllables
- Engaging in other activities as though you don’t exist
- Being friendly and welcoming with other people in your presence
- Walking behind or in front of you
- Avoiding touching of any kind
- Retreating to other rooms in the house if you’re home together
- Opting out of regular activities such as eating together, watching TV, doing chores
- Avoiding any attempt on your part to communicate about what’s happening (stonewalling)
The silent treatment can make you feel:
- Invisible, unimportant, or scorned.
- Like you need to walk on eggshells.
- That you’re being punished.
- In limbo because you have no idea when it will end.
It sounds awful, doesn’t it? It is, but there are some distinctions that can help you navigate it when it happens. It boils down to why someone withdraws and becomes silent. What’s the intended purpose? Some intentions are rather devastating, and some aren’t.
The Not So Bad – A Defensive Tactic
Overwhelm. If you’re in a situation or discussion that’s emotional, heated, confusing or all of the above, you could become overwhelmed to the point that you can’t make sense of what’s happening. You might shut down or become quiet in those cases because continued interaction will go nowhere or worsen things.
At those times, becoming silent isn’t an act of maliciousness or manipulation. It’s more an act of survival.
Anger. You feel triggered by something that leads to anger or rage. If you keep talking, things will get out of hand, so you retreat and avoid conversation and interaction until your anger subsides and you have a cool head.
Protect yourself from abuse. You sense that you’re treading into dangerous territory, so you become quiet to avoid being abused or hurt.
Avoidance of emotional issues. You aren’t recognizing or dealing with long-term emotional or psychological problems that push you to shut down, seek seclusion, and avoid contact.
In all of these cases, the purpose is to manage emotions – either your own or the other person’s.
The Bad – A Power Play
The harmful aspects of using silent treatment involve the intent to exercise power. By withdrawing, ignoring, disconnecting, and disdaining, silent treatment becomes a means of:
This type of silent treatment leaves you feeling cut off and helpless. Worse, you don’t always know what set the other person off.
Kipling Williams, who has studied “ostracism,” found in his many interviews that people receiving silent treatment from their partners or parents often didn’t know what had caused it. Those who did know said that, in many cases, it was something relatively trivial and had no real negative consequences.
Sometimes the silent treatment went on for days and ended as if nothing had happened, and everyone returned to their everyday interactions.
For others, it ended when the targeted person apologized, usually without knowing what they were apologizing for.
In other cases, silent treatment was a clear act of manipulation to get someone to do something and ended when the victim consented.
Some of the most notable effects of receiving the silent treatment are:
- Reduced self-esteem
- Isolation and loneliness
- Depression and sadness
- Physiological distress (digestive problems, eating disturbances, migraines, lowered immunity, sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbances)
Research has shown that in addition to the above, one of the things that makes silent treatment so hard to deal with is its ambiguity.
You may not know why it’s happening, you don’t know when it will end, and you have no avenue to take action to move it along.
Many victims of long-term silent treatment said they preferred being beaten rather than ignored. At least that’s contact!
You’ve heard people say, “I’d rather you yell at me than get quiet and ignore me.”
The effects are powerful.
Being ostracized attacks our biological and psychological need for connection, acceptance, and love. Blatant disregard and rejection create significant emotional pain, especially when expressed silently. You feel ghosted, dismissed, diminished, and vulnerable all at the same time.
Research has shown that the area of the brain that’s activated during physical pain, the anterior cingulate cortex, is also activated when enduring social pain, especially ostracism (Eisenberger, N. & Lieberman, M., 2004).
One example given by Williams in his interviews was of a woman who felt intense pain in the left side of her chest during periods of enduring the silent treatment (Williams, 2002).
Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done.
What to Do
1. Say you need space.
When you need to withdraw, say it. Let the other person know you need space and time to get your thoughts and emotional equilibrium back to normal. Let them know you’re not ignoring them on purpose, but need some time away.
2. Don’t use the silent treatment as a means of solving problems.
If you have an issue or problem with someone, approach it directly by talking about it. Withholding yourself isn’t a good management tool. It will make things worse and do permanent damage.
3. Set boundaries on unacceptable behavior.
Whether it’s your partner, parent, child, friend, or work colleague, let them know firmly that being given the silent treatment isn’t okay. Tell them how it makes you feel and how to approach you better. Don’t allow yourself to be controlled or manipulated by it.
4. Help reframe silent treatment as needed time.
If someone’s upset and needs time away from you yet doesn’t or can’t say it, say it for them. “It seems like you need time to get your thoughts and feelings together. I understand that. I’ll leave you to yourself until you say otherwise.”
5. Don’t let problems hang on indefinitely.
Many silent treatment episodes occur when you feel helpless to resolve something or are angry about something that’s happened repeatedly. Seek help if you can’t work out the issue on your own.
What if you’re in the habit of using the silent treatment?
If you know you use the silent treatment for any of the reasons described, replace it with some of the suggestions I’ve outlined above. If you can’t control it, seek therapy to help you work through the underlying issues that still impact your current behavior.
Seek therapy also if you’re in a pattern of avoiding contact with people in general and secluding yourself. We all have people we avoid and likely have good reasons for that, but avoidance across the board isn’t healthy.
Believe it or not, research has also revealed that once you get used to giving the silent treatment, it’s rather addictive (Williams, 2002). All the more reason to get some help to break the cycle.
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,
Agarwal, S. & Prakash, N. (2022). Psychological costs and benefits of using silent treatment. Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Science 10(4), 49-54. https://www.questjournals.org/jrhss/papers/vol10-issue4/Ser-3/H10044954.pdf
Eisenberger, N. I. (2012 Feb). The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 74(2), 126-135. DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182464dd1
Eisenberger, N. I. & Lieberman, M. D. (2004 Jul). What rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Science, 8(7), 294-300. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2004.05.010
Faulkner, S., Williams, K., Sherman, B., & Williams, E. (1997, May). The “silent treatment”: Its incidence and impact. Paper presented at the 69th annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.
Onoda, K., Okamoto, Y., Nakashima, K., Nittono, H., Yoshimura, S., Yamawaki, S., Yamaguchi, S., & Ura, M. (2010 Dec). Does low self-esteem enhance social pain? The relationship between trait self-esteem and anterior cingulate cortex activation induced by ostracism. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5(4), 385-391. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq002
Schrodt, P. (2014 Jan). A meta-analytical review of the demand/withdraw pattern of interaction and its associations with individual, relational, and communicative outcomes. Communication Monographs 81(1). DOI:10.1080/03637751.2013.813632
Sommer, K. L., Williams, K. D., Ciarocco, N. J., & Baumeister, R. (2001 Dec). When silence speaks louder than words: Explorations into the intrapsychic and interpersonal consequences of social ostracism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23(4), 225-243. DOI:10.1207/S15324834BASP2304_1
Stritof, S. (2022 October 31). What couples should know about the silent treatment: How to know when silence is abusive. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/married-couples-silent-treatment-2303421
Williams, K. D. (2002). Ostracism: The Power of Silence. The Guilford Press.