The silent treatment is the refusal to engage in verbal communication with someone, often as a response to conflict in a relationship. Also referred to as giving the cold shoulder or stonewalling, its use is a passive-aggressive form of control and can, in many circumstances, be considered a form of emotional abuse.
Sometimes there’s really nothing to say. A disconnect can be so clear that, in the interests of prudence, each party goes off to their respective psychological corners to reflect, regroup, then resume with a mutual desire for clarity.
Arguments of this nature are never pleasant (what argument is?), but they will come and they will go, leaving perhaps a new understanding in their wake.
Except we’ve all been at that point where we simply don’t want to go back to a disagreement, and not even out of fear of escalation. We withdraw in order to punish.
The Silent Treatment.
Considered the number one weapon in the arsenal of passive-aggression, it keeps one’s “opponent” on tenterhooks while providing you a false sense of empowerment.
It makes demands of a sort of mental and emotional perfection from others that, quite honestly, exists in none of us.
Ignoring someone in this way can be extremely hurtful. The psychological effects can be lasting. And, quite frankly, it is so very unfair.
The Silent Treatment Shouts “You Should Know!”
You should know: (1) what you did wrong; (2) how I feel; (3) what you need to do to end this silence.
These three are silently beamed at the other person as the two of you go about your days in a suddenly claustrophobic home.
Let’s unpack: You should know can only operate under the assumption that you and the other person are in such absolute sync that “I don’t have to explain why I hurt” feels utterly logical and perfectly reasonable in this world made of nothing but nuance and perception.
It’s basically “How dare you shatter my comfortable illusion of total intimacy.”
You should know how I feel. You ought to know what you need to do to end this. Variations on dreams.
The silent treatment, in these cases, serves to reinforce the unspoken insecurities of the withholder and will eventually spiral, though it may take years and multiple occurrences, into the kind of distrust that dooms a relationship: a self-fulfilling prophecy of pinched glances and mental accusations.
For a more visceral illustration: the silent treatment is basically a pillow over your loved one’s face while you scream into it.
Misery Loves Company
Part of the silencer wants to make the other suffer for making them withdraw, yet they’d be sickened by anyone attempting the justification “It’s your fault you make me hit you” in any circumstance.
Yet pointed, protracted silent treatment is its own form of abuse.
If the goal was actual understanding and resolution, silencers would definitely open their mouths.
They’d deal with the uncomfortable realization that human emotions are icky and unwieldy at times.
In not dealing, they rob themselves of the wonder of just how resilient those icky emotions can be.
Understand this about life and interpersonal relations: your loved one will be supplied with a plethora of reasons to leave you over the course of your time together, both internally and externally. Believe it.
Your simply being unhappy with someone over what is likely a trifle (because, in all honesty, most silent treatments are over something microscopic that blossoms upward) is not going to show them the door.
So rather than being silent with them, be vocal with yourself. What’s got you so out of sorts? The silent treatment is almost always a tactic to avoid dealing with your own inner demons.
If you’re on the receiving end of the silent treatment and you want to handle things with dignity, what’s to be done?
Apologies? Groveling? Useless. Remember, you’re supposed to suffer.
But you don’t want to suffer. More than that, you don’t want your loved one trapped by unwanted thoughts of wanting you to suffer.
Reacting to the silent treatment requires sensitivity, openness, understanding, and a good dose of humility.
So what you do is quite simple, and it’s not about taking the high road or being the emotionally superior one. Stances of that nature are merely variations on the self-fulfilling doom theme because after a while you’ll get tired of playing fix-it.
What you do is, you be honest, because that’s what you’d want from the other, yes? You say, “I wish we could figure out what’s wrong,” because it takes two to tango.
Be sincere with it. Do not pretend to be oblivious to the silent treatment; that’s simply gasoline on an already well-fueled fire.
Acting on this honesty isn’t easy to do because, if anything, you’re confused.
You’re hurt, but you feel guilty, which is a cloudy mix. That mix is part of the silencer’s abuse tactics: to shut you out and, in a very real way, make you voiceless yourself. Which is a terrible feeling.
The silent treatment is a game of Clue, but you’re not given any of the pieces and the board’s been flipped to show nothing but its blank backing.
You instinctively want to fix things, but these instances are generally based on you not knowing what you’ve done wrong (in the other’s eyes) in the first place, or on something so small as the silencer feeling the need for a quick bit of control in the relationship.
Being on the receiving end of this emotional manipulation is a no-win scenario.
Buying into the confusion of not knowing what you did, the uncertainty of not knowing what to say, the disrespect of your own feelings being disregarded, the doubts planted on whether the relationship is viable, plus the guilt over feeling that you’ve created a fissure in something precious, is a losing game that eventually does nothing but drop anger into an already volatile cocktail.
It takes a huge amount of patience to step outside this situation and be the one to break the ice, but that’s what’s necessary if the relationship is to continue beyond lather, rinse, repeat.
The cycle of the silencer “coming around” to letting you “back in” is nothing but a blame game designed to make you overlook the damage they do.
Simplicity Is Key
Feeling as if you’ve somehow slipped a loved one a poison for which you’re scrambling to find the antidote is no way to be.
Don’t accept it, don’t internalize it, and certainly don’t accept another’s ploy for power – whether consciously or unconsciously on their part – as a sign of failing on your part.
Know this: nothing you’ve done is wrong. A legitimate grievance is one thing; sustained petulance from another is not.
Unless you’re overbearing, emotionally-abusive, or manipulative yourself – in which case there’s nothing either of you needs to say except goodbye – the silent treatment’s sole purpose is to whittle you down with weary sighs.
Granted, we’ve probably heard all kinds of advice from people – some well-meaning, some utter doofs – on the “game of love”… which is where they go wrong.
Love – even, communication itself – is not a game of sides, score-keeping, and wins.
Two simple rules serve well our time on this Earth: Be good to each other; be good for each other. It’s not an either/or, it’s an and, an unbreakable and, otherwise the balanced orbit spins out of whack.
The silent treatment doesn’t satisfy either of those. And contrary to Mick Jagger’s exasperation, satisfaction can be had with but a single spoken word: Hi.
Might be an awkward hi, might feel like it’s drowning or like a panther restrained on a chain, but someone’s said it. One of you.
You’ve acknowledged the reality that no one can read your mind, that you are not, despite how you need to think of your emotional honesty quotient, an open book, and that fear is a really crappy place from which to woo someone.
Nor is either of you excluded from the responsibility of making things work… if there’s anything “there” to work with in the first place.
Reality’s a decent place from which to start conversations. Silence? Sometimes all it does is scream.
When The Silent Treatment IS The Right Approach
Update: this section has been added to address some of the points made in the comments below.
There is a time and a place for silence. In fact, in some circumstances, silence is actually recommended.
In a toxic relationship where one party meets any attempt at conflict resolution with an escalation of aggression – and does so on a persistent basis – silence is perfectly acceptable.
In this case, remaining quiet is a way to cope with the situation and the person. Silence is a form of protection and is often the only way to calm things down following an altercation.
The key is to ask yourself: am I defending myself, or am I attacking the other? That’s where the difference lies.
If you are staying silent in order to gain the upper hand and cause the other person some form of emotional suffering, that’s abuse.
If you are keeping your mouth firmly shut in order to avoid the risk of suffering abuse, that’s self-defense.
The silent treatment is also recommended if you have escaped an abusive relationship with a narcissist or sociopath. Then, silence becomes a boundary which prevents you from being manipulated again.