7 Shocking Facts About the Silent Treatment in a Relationship

Updated on June 14, 2017
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C L Grant is the author of several relationship books including: 30 Day No Contact Rule, The Reality of Being the Other Woman and Ex Addict

The psychological effects of the silent treatment can be far-reaching.
The psychological effects of the silent treatment can be far-reaching.

What Is the Meaning of the Silent Treatment?

If you think that your partner not speaking to you for days on end is normal, then think again. Whilst silence can be used in a productive manner: such as following a breakup or during a period of cooling off, prolonged periods of unresponsiveness within intimate relationships are not normal.

Whether you realise it or not, you are being punished. This is because the 'silent treatment' is actually a form of passive-aggressive abuse. This happens when your partner refuses to enter into any form of meaningful dialogue with you, regardless of the situation in hand. He becomes emotionally detached and distances himself from you by ignoring your very existence. You are excluded from his life and information is withheld from you, making you feel like an outsider. This type of behaviour is also referred to as, 'stonewalling,' or 'ostracising.'

While the abuser is referred to as 'he' in this article, this is simply for ease of reading. It should be stressed that both men and women are equally as capable of withdrawing from their partners in this manner. Thus, the terms 'he' and 'she' should be considered interchangeable.

Silent Treatment Signs

Although silence is the primary method of chastisement, your partner may also adopt other subtle tactics, that are designed to frustrate you. Hence, you may find that he delays or refuses to complete chores, knowing that this will upset or irritate you. Alternatively, he may refuse to attend joint social events, in the full knowledge that this will cause you great inconvenience or embarrassment.

Should you attempt to initiate any form of physical contact, with a view to breaking the deadlock, he will reject you. Even superficial actions, such as avoiding eye contact or staring straight through you, are enough to make you feel invisible and insignificant. By resorting to silence and withdrawing from your life, your partner is demonstrating his utmost contempt for you.

This is unacceptable behaviour and not something that should be tolerated in any relationship. Below are several disturbing facts about the silent treatment, that you may not be aware of.

Is your partner avoiding confrontation?
Is your partner avoiding confrontation? | Source

1. Your Partner May Be Avoiding Confrontation

Some people genuinely have a fear of confrontation and prefer to avoid it at all costs, as it makes them feel uncomfortable. This can arise for several reasons such as: your partner being afraid of losing you or simply lacking the confidence to stand up to you.

While this may be their preferred option of problem solving, it does not suit every relationship, especially if you are the type of person who likes to talk problems through. Additionally, by burying his head in the sand, your partner is not resolving any problems and may be building up feelings of resentment towards you.

Problem avoidance is their way of living a peaceful life. Unfortunately, while this may work for a limited period of time, a point will be reached when an issue is so big, it must be discussed. Not having developed the necessary skills to deal with this in a constructive manner, will make this process totally alien and uncomfortable for them.

2. It is Not Cooling Off

From time to time, everyone needs to take some time-out of their relationship. This is perfectly normal and often used to resolve conflict in healthy relationships. Nonetheless, this should not be confused with being given the silent treatment. Cooling off is usually implemented as a constructive means of finding a solution to problems that you and your partner may be having.

Perhaps you have had an argument and your partner and he may be too angry or upset to speak to you. He may need some time to reflect and gather his thoughts. This is perfectly normal and is no being undertaken to punish you. It is used to give you both time to calm down and to think rationally about what you want and if the disagreement is worth sacrificing your relationships for.

Typically, cooling off is time-bound and you know why it is being done. You will both know what the problem is and when you are going to discuss this matter further. You not left in limbo and know exactly why you and your partner are having some quiet time.

Taking time-out of a relationship can be a healthy activity, if done in the correct way and with the correct intent. You do it to save the relationship and not jeopardise it. You don't do it to punish or hurt your partner.

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3. The Silent Treatment is Emotional Abuse

The silent treatment is your partner's way of telling you that you have done something wrong. As a consequence of this, he refuses to acknowledge or communicate with you. This is passive-aggressive emotional abuse.

In addition to causing distress, being ignored and excluded causes distress and threatens your basic psychological needs of belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence. In doing so, your partner is attempting to induce feelings of powerlessness and shame. This is known as psychological or emotional abuse.

The abuser is letting you know that you have done something wrong and as a consequence, are being punished. He is repudiating your very existence and denying your feelings and needs.

When you are given the silent treatment, you are either unaware of what you are supposed to have done or the matter is so trivial, that you are left feeling dumbfounded by the consequences.

Emotional abuse is any type of abuse that is not physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse to the silent treatment, domination to subtle manipulation.

— Beverly Engel

4. It Is Damaging to Your Health

The effects of emotional abuse are frequently underestimated. Just because you cannot see the damage being done, does not mean that it does not exist. In fact, victims of psychological abuse are more likely to suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), than victims of physical abuse. This is because the pain of social-exclusion, such as being ignored and ostracised, can be relived far more easily than the pain suffered by a physical injury.

Psychologically abused women, in particular, are likely to encounter poor mental health, with 70% experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Furthermore, sufferers of emotional abuse are more likely to go on and form other unhealthy relationships. They also have greater difficulty trusting a new partner.

Moral wounds have this peculiarity - they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.

— Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

5. It Can Lead to Physical Violence

Domestic abuse or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is any form of physical or sexual assault; stalking or psychological harm, inflicted by a current or former partner. As with most types of relationship abuse, the silent treatment usually begins rather innocuously. However, over a period of time, it escalates until it becomes a normal part of your relationship. While emotional abuse can be undertaken in isolation, statistics indicate that 95% of men who physically abuse their partners, also use psychological abuse.

Even if you decide to leave an abusive relationship, you may discover that your nightmare is only just beginning. Harassment and stalking may well continue, long after the relationship has ended. This is why it is important to recognise the signs of emotional abuse and be prepared to extricate yourself as soon as possible.

Domestic violence and emotional abuse are frequently experienced together.
Domestic violence and emotional abuse are frequently experienced together.

6. Your Relationship is Dysfunctional

It is perfectly normal for couples to argue and there is nothing wrong with debating differences in a constructive manner. Nonetheless, while this may include short spells of time-out, it does not extend to prolonged periods of social ostracism or isolation.

In dysfunctional relationships, your partner exiles you over the most frivolous of matters. So trivial, in fact, that you do not even recall what you are supposed to have done. Even when you do remember, the fallout is disproportionate to the alleged offence.

You invariably find yourself adopting the role of peacemaker. Continually reaching out and trying to make amends. Apologising repeatedly. You begin to feel so insecure in your relationship that you develop a fear of abandonment. These are all warning signs of a dysfunctional relationship.

7. Your Partner May Be a Narcissist

If you have ever had the soul-destroying experience of dating a narcissist, then you will know that it comes with its own set of unique problems. The narcissist lacks empathy and is emotionally immature. Big on empty promises, he initially sweeps you off your feet in a whirlwind romance. He is quick to tell you that he loves you and soon begins planning your future life together.

Sadly, once he has you snared, you soon discover that his fragile ego demands to be worshipped and adored constantly. He is not interested in any thoughts or opinions you may have and spends all of his time talking about himself.

At some point in your relationship, you will undoubtedly be on the receiving end of the silent treatment. Also known as emotional withholding, this is a manipulation technique favoured by those who have narcissistic temperaments. Unlike others who may withdraw because they feel hurt, are sulking, or simply wish to avoid conflict, the narcissist uses stonewalling in order to keep you in your place. He becomes enraged if he believes that you have challenged his authority or disrespected him in some way. Constructive criticism does not exist in his warped world.

Your desire to work through any conflict helps place the narcissist right back where he wants to be: in control. The more you reach out to him, the more self-righteous he becomes. Every message, telephone call or text you send, is met with utter contempt. His sense of control is derived from maintaining silence. He knows that dialogue will not recommence until he feels that you have been sufficiently punished for your misdemeanours.

Even though you may be oblivious to what you are supposed to have done, you will find yourself apologising. The narcissist never accepts responsibility for his actions. He knows that by ignoring you, he is devaluing your very existence and making you feel insignificant.

If you see any warning signs that your partner has any narcissistic tendencies, then you should do yourself a favour and get out as soon as possible. It will never end well and may prove to be an extremely costly lesson. Dating a narcissist can be both emotionally and financially draining.

How to Respond to the Silent Treatment

It is difficult to provide a definitive response as to how you should respond to the silent treatment. You first need to ask yourself why your partner is acting in this way. If he genuinely has a fear of confrontation, then you may be able to help him discover positive methods for resolving conflict.

If your relationship is dysfunctional or you think your partner is a narcissist, then you should really be looking to cut your losses, for the sake of your own sanity.

Finally, if your partner is simply having a prolonged period of sulking, then the best thing to do is to keep yourself busy. Put on some music, watch your favourite film or try out a new recipe. Just don't waste your time trying to elicit a response from him. Get yourself out of the house and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that you are not putting your life on hold because he is feeling sorry for himself.


Sources

  1. Williams KD, Shore WJ, Grahe JE. The Silent Treatment: Perceptions of its Behaviors and Associated Feelings. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 2016;1(2):117-141. [14 June 2017]
  2. Wesselmann ED, Williams KD, Hales AH. Vicarious ostracism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013;7:153. [14 June 2017]
  3. Meyer ML, Williams KD, Eisenberger NI. Why Social Pain Can Live on: Different Neural Mechanisms Are Associated with Reliving Social and Physical Pain. Urgesi C, ed. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(6):e0128294. [14 June 2017]
  4. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. National Statistics. [14 June 2017]

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 C L Grant

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      • dashingscorpio profile image

        dashingscorpio 6 months ago

        I wonder how many men have ever had to deal with the "silent treatment" from their female mate or spouse.

        My guess is if and when it does happen (men) just roll with it or go off to hang out with friends. Something tells me that men don't consider the silent treatment to be a form of abuse.

        In fact when I think about it the word "passive aggressive" is usually applied towards men by women and not vice versa.

        As you noted sometimes the "silent treatment" is a "cooling off" period where a person knows it's pointless to start talking right now unless having a major fight is the goal.

        Some men probably use the silent treatment to avoid becoming verbally or possibly physically abusive when angry. They're usually advised to "walk away" rather than explode.

        I once heard someone say that the person who is the least emotionally invested in the relationship controls it.

        If the "silent treatment " seems like a torture to one person and the other is nonchalant about it you pretty much knows who is winning the "power struggle".

        Probably the best way to handle the "silent treatment" is to step away from whomever is using it and go about having fun with friends & family while letting them continue to sulk.

        It's what parents do with a toddler in their "terrible twos"

        Over time people change their (tactics) when they don't work.

        Your (reaction) is what gives them the satisfaction they desire.

        Once in a while when my wife gets distant/silent on me I'll leave the house maybe take in a movie or do whatever.

        I refuse to give anyone the satisfaction of controlling me or making me feel miserable. I simply won't play that game.

        Ultimately if I ever had anyone do it for days I'd probably start making my own exit plans. Life is too short to deal with B.S.

        As one old song goes:

        "The greatest love of all is learning to love (yourself)."

        "Never love anyone who treats you like you're ordinary."

        - Oscar Wilde

        If someone refuses to speak to you they clearly don't think you're all that "special". Thankfully there are 7 Billion other people.