If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you couldn’t get someone to talk to you, or even acknowledge you, you’ve experienced the silent treatment. You may even have given it yourself at some point.
The silent treatment can happen in romantic relationships or any type of relationship, including between parents and children, friends, and co-workers.
It can be a fleeting reaction to a situation in which one person feels angry, frustrated, or too overwhelmed to deal with a problem. In these cases, once the heat of the moment passes, so does the silence.
The silent treatment can also be part of a broader pattern of control or emotional abuse. When it’s used regularly as a power play, it can make you feel rejected or excluded. This can have a huge effect on your self-esteem.
Before diving into ways to respond to the silent treatment, it’s important to know how to recognize when it becomes abusive.
Sometimes, going silent may be the best thing to avoid saying things you would later regret. People might also use it in moments where they don’t know how to express themselves or feel overwhelmed.
But some people use the silent treatment as a tool for exerting power over someone or creating emotional distance. If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of treatment, you might feel completely ostracized.
People who use the silent treatment as a means of control want to put you in your place. They’ll give you the cold shoulder for days or weeks on end to achieve those goals. This is emotional abuse.
It’s difficult to live that way, so you might be tempted to do everything you can to get back in their good graces, which perpetuates the cycle.
Research shows that frequently feeling ostracized can reduce your self-esteem and sense of belonging. It can leave you feeling like you’re without control. This effect may be more intense when it’s done by someone close to you as a form of punishment.
know the signs
Here are a few signs that suggest the silent treatment is crossing the line into emotional abuse territory:
- 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 apologize, plead, or give in to demands.
- You’ve changed your behavior to avoid getting the silent treatment.
If this isn’t something the other person regularly does to you, a gentle approach might be a good way to get the conversation started. They may be hurting and looking for a way out.
Calmly tell the person that you’ve noticed they’re not responding and you want to understand why. Emphasize that you want to resolve things.
While it’s not your fault that someone else decides to give you the silent treatment, you do have a responsibility to apologize if you’ve done something wrong.
If they don’t seem receptive, tell them you understand they may need some time alone. But state that you’d like to arrange a time to get together and resolve the problem.
Tell the person how the silent treatment hurts and leaves you feeling frustrated and alone. That’s not what you want or need in a relationship.
Explain that you can’t resolve issues this way, then be specific about those issues. If this sort of behavior is a relationship deal-breaker for you, state it plainly.
The silent treatment isn’t always meant to inflict wounds. Sometimes, it’s an isolated incident that gets out of hand. You can let it slide until they come around and move on.
Or, it can be a passive-aggressive approach to keeping you under control. In these cases, what they want is for you to feel bad enough to make the first move. They’re biding their time, waiting for you to grovel and give in to demands.
Instead, go about your business as if it doesn’t bother you. This is easier said than done, but try to distract yourself by heading outdoors or getting absorbed in a good book.
Deprive them of the reaction they seek. Show that the silent treatment is no way to get what they want from you.
Suggest a face-to-face meeting to hammer out some rules for better communication in the future. Make a plan for how you’ll talk to each other when things get heated and how you’ll avoid the silent treatment moving forward.
Take turns listening and repeating what the other person says so you’re clear on what you expect of each other. If you’re in a romantic relationship, offer to go to couples counseling to learn some new tools.
When things escalate to emotional abuse, you’re not in a healthy relationship. It’s time to put yourself first.
If you believe the relationship is worth salvaging:
- Set firm boundaries about what acceptable behavior is and how you expect to be treated.
- Suggest individual or couples counseling to work on the relationship and communication issues.
- State exactly what’ll happen when boundaries are crossed, and follow through when yours are crossed.
If there’s no hope that the other person will change, consider leaving the relationship.
When it comes to responding to silent treatment, there are also a few things you’ll want to avoid doing. These include:
- responding in anger, which can just escalate things
- begging or pleading, which only encourages the behavior
- apologizing just to put an end to it, even though you did nothing wrong
- continuing to try reasoning with the other person after you’ve already given it a shot
- taking it personally, as you’re not to blame for how others choose to treat you
- threatening to end the relationship unless you’re prepared to do so
The silent treatment doesn’t always relate to emotional abuse. Some people lack effective communication skills or need to retreat into themselves to work things out.
To emotional abusers, though, the silent treatment is a weapon of control. At first, it might be difficult to know for certain if you’re dealing with a bigger problem.
So, here are some other warning signs of mental abuse:
- frequent yelling
- insults and name-calling
- bouts of anger, fist-pounding, and throwing things
- attempts to humiliate or embarrass you, particularly in front of others
- jealousy and accusations
- making decisions for you without your permission
- spying on you
- attempting to isolate you from family and friends
- exerting financial control
- blaming you for all that goes wrong and never apologizing
- threatening self-harm if you don’t do what they want
- making threats against you, people you care about, pets, or possessions
Have some of these things become all too familiar? Even if it’s never gotten physical,
- low self-esteem
It may even be a contributing factor in certain illnesses, including
If you believe you’re experiencing emotional abuse, you don’t have to put up with it. Consider whether or not you want to maintain a relationship with that person.
If it’s your spouse or partner, you both may benefit from couples counseling or individual therapy to learn better ways to manage conflicts.
When the silent treatment is part of the larger issue of emotional abuse, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. You’re not responsible for their behavior, no matter what they tell you. If that person genuinely wants to change, they’ll get themselves into counseling.
You need to take care of your own emotional needs, which may include breaking off the relationship. It’s important not to isolate yourself at this time. Maintain your social contacts. Reach out to family and friends for support.
Here are some helpful resources:
- Break the Cycle supports people between the ages of 12 and 24 to have healthy, abuse-free relationships.
- Love Is Respect (National Dating Abuse Hotline) allows teens and young adults to call, text, or chat online with advocates.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides an online chat system that’s available 24/7. You can also call them at 1-800-799-7233.
You might also benefit from individual or group counseling. Ask your primary healthcare provider to refer you to a qualified therapist.
While it’s not always malicious, the silent treatment certainly isn’t a healthy way to communicate. If the silent treatment looms large in your life, there are steps you can take to improve your relationship or remove yourself from an abusive situation.