Almost all of us have experienced it in our lives. A situation when emotions are so intense that we cannot find words, or when we ourselves decide that it would be best to be silent. But when one remains silent and ignores his counterpart’s pleas to end the argument, mere silence turns into much more. According to relationship therapists, the silent treatment can be not only rude, annoying and unhelpful, but also manipulative. That’s why it’s important to learn to spot it and know how to deal with it.
What is the silent treatment
Silent treatment is a situation where one person refuses to communicate with another. At the same time, it can manifest itself in different ways, for example simply ignoring the effort for attention, not responding to text messages, but also completely ignoring it. Silent treatment often serves as a means of punishment, but it can also be used as a form of emotional manipulation or control. It is not only a phenomenon of love relationships (although it occurs most often between partners), it also appears when communicating with parents, friends or co-workers.
There is no silence like silence
In every relationship, there are times when silence is acceptable and very often even productive. Take, for example, a situation where you have an argument with your partner and in the heat of anger you are able to throw insults in all directions. At such a moment, a conscious break from talking to cool down and collect your thoughts is the best solution.
If you both agree on this silence to come back to the issue later, it is a completely different form of silence than the silent treatment. This is much more passive-aggressive and hostile. His intention is nothing but to achieve his goal, regardless of the feelings of the other person. Moreover, it is not just a simple break in communication, but a denial of connection, which in certain situations is considered a form of emotional abuse.
How to recognize the silent treatment
Differentiating innocent silence from hurtful silence can be – especially for people who are used to this behavior – difficult. However, there are a few telltale signs that you may be getting the silent treatment from your partner:
- He clearly and often ignores you. He doesn’t respond to your attempts to break the silence.
- He is silent for a long time and you never know when he will stop.
- They talk to other people, just not you.
- Silence for him is not a time to “cool off”, but a way to punish you (and you really feel guilty).
- He doesn’t confide in you about his feelings.
- You change your behavior to avoid further silence.
Silence can hurt
While silence can sometimes save you from saying words you’ll later regret, other times it’s used as a tool to gain power or create emotional distance. It is difficult for the other person to accept the silent treatment, so they try to “iron out” the situation as much as possible. But this often only leads to aggravation of the problem.
People who experience the silent treatment may suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of shame or guilt, and an inability to empathize with themselves. As a result, they build up anger, which can eventually lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. There is also usually a fear that they will do something wrong, and the partner will again “reward” them with silence. “This can ultimately lead to a lack of confidence, a feeling that something is wrong with you, a feeling that you need the other person, and maybe even feeling stuck in the relationship,” Leanna Stockard, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at LifeStance Health.
How to deal with the silent treatment
People who are victims of the silent treatment may feel the need to beg for attention, but in reality it is the last thing that will help them. It is important to realize that in most cases the silent partner feels fear and the silence is just a way of trying to protect themselves from further pain. According to Leanna Stockard, you should therefore give the person in question space and not try to escalate the situation further. “Don’t take responsibility for the other person’s actions, assert your boundaries, consider their reasons for doing so, and seek support from a friend or family member,” she advises.
Therefore, it is important not only to look into your partner’s feelings, but also to find more effective ways to deal with similar situations. For example, don’t start a sentence with the word “you”, which immediately puts the other person on the defensive, and instead formulate your thoughts using the more effective and less threatening “I”. Emphasize your interest in hearing how the other person feels and make it clear that you really want to work on the conflict.
In any case, don’t let yourself be forced to think that you should blame yourself, react with anger, or beg for forgiveness. It is possible that you have hurt your partner’s feelings in some way, but do not take responsibility for his behavior. By remaining silent, he is communicating his unwillingness to engage in the hard work that conflict resolution requires. In this case, couple and individual therapy can be very beneficial, helping you manage stressful situations better and reach a satisfactory outcome for both parties.
If your efforts bear no fruit, or even the silent treatment is accompanied by forms of abuse such as threats, yelling, jealous accusations, or attempts to isolate you from family and friends, it is time to consider whether it is in your best interest to continue the relationship.