7 Shocking Facts About the Silent Treatment in a Relationship and Why It's Abusive
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 or healthy.
Is the Silent Treatment Emotional Abuse?
Whether you realise it or not, you are being punished. This is because the 'silent treatment', also known as emotional withholding, 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 at 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'.
Ignoring Someone Is a Control Move
People generally resort to using the silent treatment as a means of placing them in a position of control (often because they feel helpless in the face of their situations, their feelings, etc.). A person may also use the silent treatment to avoid personal responsibility for his own actions or to suppress a partner's attempts at asserting self-worth. Additionally, he may be employing the silent treatment predominantly due to a lack of ability to properly communicate. Most likely though, it's attributable to a combination of the above factors.
Note: While the abuser is often 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.
Signs That Your Partner Is Giving You the Silent Treatment
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, with 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.
7 Disturbing Facts About the Silent Treatment That You May Not Know
This is unacceptable behaviour and not something that should be tolerated in any relationship. Listed below are the seven disturbing facts about the silent treatment that you may not be aware of, which we will explore further in this article:
- Your Partner May Be Avoiding Confrontation
- It Is Not Cooling Off
- The Silent Treatment Is Emotional Abuse
- It Is Damaging to Your Health
- It Can Lead to Physical Violence
- Your Relationship Is Dysfunctional
- Your Partner May Be a Narcissist
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 is afraid of losing you, he may not know how to communicate his feelings, or he may simply lack 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.
Moreover, as Sarah Schulman notes in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, this could also be damaging to the person enacting the silent treatment, even if they don't know it.
'In order to "protect" ourselves by keeping our lives small and shutting out intimacies, we could actually be hurting ourselves, missing out on a transformative experience of the heart, and sabotaging our small but crucial contribution to making peace'.
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 with 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 not necessarily 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're not left in limbo and know exactly why you and your partner are having some quiet time. The important aspect is that it is only temporary, and the two of you plan to talk it out soon. As Schulman notes, 'Refusing to speak to someone without terms for repair is a strange, childish act of destruction in which nothing can be won'.
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.
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 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.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
Though it may not leave easily identifiable physical evidence in the way that physical abuse does, emotional abuse is nevertheless very real and very harmful. It is defined as any attempt to control a person in an emotional or psychological way. In the larger sense, a relationship can be considered emotionally abusive when one person consistently—whether fully intentional or not—uses abusive, hurtful language and bullying, intimidating behaviors to break down a person's self-esteem and self-worth and undermine their mental and emotional health.
Lots of different actions can be considered emotional abuse. This includes things like your partner belittling your emotions so as to make them seem silly or inconsequential, forbidding you from hanging out with your friends or barring you from spending time with anyone else at all, or expecting you to drop everything and help them whenever they demand you to. It can also include impossible expectations that can never be met no matter what you do. Or the incessant invalidating of your experience, perceptions, viewpoints, feelings and needs.
The fundamental goal of emotionally abusive behavior is to control the victim by discrediting, isolating and silencing them, making them feel trapped and incapable of leaving.
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 (and triggered more often) 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.
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. It's important to remember that, as Schulman notes, it's 'unreasonable to expect other people to interpret our silences'.
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. And this constant state of defense and apologising and assumed guilt greatly diminishes a person's ability to develop and cultivate a healthy sense of self-worth. 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.
Without conversation, it is the person with the most limitations who is in control. The desirable goal for all of us is not to restrict those who can, but to bring more communication skills to those who can't. Refusal through email, texting, and other technologies keeps the person who doesn't know how to problem-solve from learning how.— Sarah Schulman, 'Conflict Is Not Abuse'
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.
Should you be looking for ways to repair the relationship, however, consider the following tips.
Reach Out and Share How You Feel
Though you've likely already tried this in some fashion, sometimes all it takes to get the repair process started is one more earnest, non-attacking attempt at reconciliation. Sometimes a simple 'Hey, I know you're not talking to me right now, but I wanted you to know how I feel' can go a long way.
Consider sharing your feelings and thoughts from your vantage point. Tell your partner how the situation has been making you feel. If you feel as though you played a part in the conflict, share that and offer your apologies. If you don't think you did anything to deserve the silent treatment or at least aren't sure about what might have sparked it, share that too.
Give Your Partner a Chance to Share Their Side of the Story
Though the silent treatment is not an acceptable response to a conflict, many people resort to the tactic when they feel like they aren't being heard in the first place. So if you give your partner an opportunity to open up and share what's upsetting them without attacking them or devaluing their experience, it can often help pave the way for resolution.
Occasionally, it can just take someone starting a dialogue with something along the lines of 'Hey, I know you're upset with me right now. If you're up to it, I'm ready to hear your side of the story and what you have to say'.
Suggest Some Next Steps to Take
If the two of you manage to openly share your experiences and feelings, then it's a good idea to then discuss how you can both handle similar situations better in the future. That can include things like admitting that if someone is upset that they might just need some time to cool off first before talking it out. You can even come up with agreed-upon terms for those situations, such as 'red light for an hour'. These can work wonders when it comes to both parties feeling respected in their wishes and needs.
Remember that much of what makes the silent treatment abusive is a lack of terms for re-opening dialogue. It's not necessarily abusive to want some space sometimes. It is abusive, however, to never set terms for when discussion can be opened again or to use silence as a weapon to hurt another person.
This is an extremely important step, especially if your partner is not as responsive and respectful as they should be. Boundaries are important in just about every aspect of your life, but particularly so when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
Telling your partner that they may no longer insult you, call you harmful names, yell at you, or do anything similarly disrespectful is very healthy and necessary to a mutually loving and respectful relationship. You can also communicate that extended periods of silence—without terms for when they will end—are hurtful to you, and you won't stand for it. Furthermore, it's important to set terms about what will happen if they violate these boundaries. For instance, if they do any of the above, the conversation will be over and you will leave the room.
Just make sure that when you form these boundaries and stipulations that you plan to follow through with them should the time come. Failing to do so will undermine your word and make it that much harder to develop self-worth.
Build a Support Network
Having a circle of trusted friends, family members and professionals trained in the field of interpersonal relationships is extremely crucial. This helps you feel more supported and less lonely. More importantly, however, this gives you an outlet to communicate your experience to third parties who care about your wellbeing and will help you get an outside perspective on what is happening in your relationship.
This in turn also gives you witnesses to your experience—so that your partner is less able to discredit your side of the story. Moreover, it helps you notice further abusive behavior in the future and helps give you the strength to leave should it be necessary.
Does your partner give you the silent treatment?
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- Wesselmann ED, Williams KD, Hales AH. Vicarious ostracism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013;7:153. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- 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. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. National Statistics. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
- Schulman, Sarah. (2016). Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
- Gordon, Sherri. (2018, September 20). How to Identify and Cope With Emotional Abuse. VeryWellMind. Retrieved February 12, 2019.
- Koza, Jenny. (2018). How to Deal with the Silent Treatment. OneLove. Retrieved February 12, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Who gives a week of silent treatment after a big or petty fight? It's always the case and I think am losing my mind. If I start crying and screaming he will call me a psychopath or schizophrenic.
You need to seek professional help so that you can discuss your circumstances in greater detail. You are the victim of emotional abuse and it is clearly affecting your mental health. Do it now, before he destroys you completely.Helpful 58
How long is considered normal to put up with the silent treatment in a relationship?
It is never normal to be subjected to the silent treatment, which is a form of emotional abuse.
However, don't confuse this with periods of 'cooling off' or taking 'time out.' It is perfectly natural for couples to disagree and need some time alone to reflect and gather their thoughts. This is used to resolve problems in a relationship, whereas the silent treatment is used as a form of punishment.Helpful 34
My husband has given me the silent treatment throughout our 25-year marriage. He doesn't think he is doing anything wrong and refuses to go to couples counseling. I am afraid of losing 25 years of my life. Where do I go from here?
Without wishing to appear harsh, you have already lost 25 years of your life. There is nothing you can do to change that, or get those years back. The only thing you can change, is your future. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life with someone who doesn't appear to fulfill your emotional needs?
If your husband won't go to counselling with you, then you should go on your own. This will help you evaluate your relationship for what it truly is, and hopefully, guide you through any difficult decisions you may face.Helpful 31
My husband has been giving me the silent treatment for about one month because I got myself a job. What should I do in this situation?
You should re-evaluate your relationship as soon as possible. In securing employment, you have increased your independence both on a personal and financial level. This means that your husband has less control over what you do and who you meet.
It may also be possible that he has genuine concerns about your wellbeing or for the welfare of your family. Without knowing your background, it is difficult to provide a definitive reply. Nonetheless, giving you the silent treatment for one month, especially for a positive achievement, is an extreme measure and should not be taken lightly.Helpful 24
I calmly told my husband I am upset because he called me a "bitch" in public and hadn't apologized. I also raised the issue of him refusing to discuss any major issues with me. He is now giving me the silent treatment, which is so typical of him. I used to get so upset with him I would start yelling. However, that only led him to say I was "mentally ill." So now I just don't engage. Last time, it took three days for his "silent retreat" to end. Is this abusive?
Yes, the silent treatment is a type of emotional abuse. Also, him referring to you as being, 'mentally ill,' is another form of abuse, commonly referred to as 'gaslighting.' The latter can have serious implications for your emotional well-being.
Remember, it is perfectly natural for couples to argue. However, you both need to establish boundaries. Not insulting each other in public should be top of that list.Helpful 13
© 2017 C L Grant