Is It the Silent Treatment or Estrangement?

How to tell what’s going on when someone’s not talking to you

Posted Aug 01, 2017

lzf/Shutterstock
Source: lzf/Shutterstock

Silent treatment: “Devon’s in the doghouse. He blew the month’s grocery budget fixing his motorcycle, and his wife hasn’t spoken a word to him in 3 days.”

Estrangement: “Rick doesn’t talk to his brother. They’ve been estranged for years.”

There are probably as many areas of overlap as there are distinctions between the silent treatment and estrangement, but for this post, let’s focus on some of the differences:

1. Punishment vs. Self-Protection

As its name indicates, the silent treatment is something that’s done to somebody. It’s done on purpose, and its purpose is to send the message, “I don’t like what you did.”

In contrast, while estrangement often feels punitive when you're on the receiving end, punishment is not necessarily the intent. Estrangement happens when one person pulls away from another in order to protect him or herself from experiencing harm. In the case of family estrangement, painful interpersonal dynamics can reach a breaking point at which one person says, “I can’t do this anymore.” They may not say it out loud. They may just leave. The rejected person is left to figure out what exactly went wrong.

Thus, while the silent treatment is often understood as a response to a specific behavior, estrangement may have the flavor of a mystery.

2. Hope vs. Despair

The silent treatment is an inherently optimistic tactic: If I stop talking to you because of something you did, I’m sending you a message that I hope for better behavior in the future.

If we’re estranged, it’s a sign that one (or both) of us has given up on the other, at least for the time being. We would like the other person to change in some way, but we don’t think they’re either willing or capable of it, so we resolve to keep our distance to maintain our peace of mind.

3. Temporary vs. Open-Ended

Every treatment has a goal, and the aim of the silent treatment is to shame, punish, or warn someone who has crossed a line. Once the treatment has had its intended effect, it comes to an end.

In contrast, we've seen that the purpose of estrangement is self-protection — and that purpose is ongoing as long as the target appears not to want to change the offending behavior.

4. Local vs. Distal

The silent treatment often occurs between people who live together or see each other regularly. It’s hard to administer any kind of “treatment” to someone who’s not around.

Estrangement, on the other hand, may occur under the same roof or from thousands of miles away.

5. Acute vs. Chronic

The loaded quiet of the silent treatment creates an extreme contrast with normal conversation. The pain of the experience may be intense, but it’s short-lived. There’s the conviction that “this will be over one day,” making it psychologically manageable, albeit very unpleasant.

The pain of estrangement is also intense, but it’s potentially an ache without a cure. Eventual relief is a hope, not a given. In time, estrangement may eat away at self-esteem, confidence, and quality of life.

Both the silent treatment and estrangement can leave rejectees feeling powerless and resentful. Many decide to walk away from rejection, leaving the rejecter with nothing more to do.

Both types of emotional cutoffs can destroy relationships. Those who were brought up learning to use the silent treatment as a communication tool should be aware that doing so is playing with fire. Such behavior can morph into long-term estrangement before you realize what’s happening.

The Silent Epidemic

Let’s face it: There are people in the world who are very difficult for anyone to get along with. Such people may unfortunately find themselves rejected over and over again. But as a therapist specializing in family estrangement, I can say with certainty that it’s not just those who are “difficult” who find themselves rejected. Estrangement is a silent epidemic affecting all kinds of people.

The antidote, for many, is better communication. Children should never learn what the silent treatment is, or how to apply it, or what it feels like to be on the receiving end. Better communication skills can eradicate a large portion of needless emotional cutoff and a source of deep pain for many.