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Why the Silent Treatment Is Such a Destructive Form of Passive-Aggression

It's not the same as healthy disengagement.

Key points

  • Silent treatment is destructive, especially in intimate relationships.
  • Silent treatment creates an atmosphere of anxiety, fear, and sadness that preclude an underlying sense of safety.
  • Numerous factors may contribute to silent treatment.
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Source: 123rf Stock Photo/stylephotographs

“Ever since I told her about a failed investment, she won’t speak to me. She said that it was the ‘last straw’ and now she’s been silent for three months.”

“My son stopped talking to me nine months ago after I criticized his girlfriend. I’ve called, sent emails, and even showed up at his door, but he refuses to speak with me. I feel like I need to mourn our relationship.”

These are just two examples of the many stories shared by my clients regarding their experiences with silent treatment—the refusal to talk to another person. It may entail a complete refusal to acknowledge the other’s presence and include averting eye contact. While such treatment may occur with family members, friends, or others in the workplace, it can be especially devastating in a romantic relationship.

Being human, we crave connections that offer us support, care, and recognition. Especially in an intimate relationship, we expect a partner to be there for us in ways that help meet these needs. Silent treatment fails to satisfy these longings and also reflects withholding and emotional abandonment. It is a cutting form of passive aggression.

Additionally, engaging in silent treatment as an adult has been found to be associated with experiencing parental silent treatment (Rittenour, et. al., 2019). It was also found to be associated with lower self-esteem.

The impact of silent treatment

Clearly, silent treatment creates an atmosphere of anxiety, fear, and sadness that preclude an underlying sense of safety. As such, it causes unhappiness and psychological harm that most often heightens conflict in a relationship. It can lead one to feel anger, abandonment, rejection, and overall distress. In one study of 581 couples, partners reported significantly less satisfaction when their partner used detached emotional communication (Guerrero, et. al., 2009). Such aversion has also been found to be a powerful trigger for feeling ostracized, reduced self-esteem, lowered relational value, and—highly important—an increased temptation to act aggressively toward the partner (Wirth, et. al., 2010).

It can also lead the target of such treatment to feel self-doubt and self-blame, which fuel negative self-criticism. Additionally, those targeted by silent treatment may become obsessed in their thinking about what they need to do in order to end the silence.

Being the target of silent treatment is a challenge for anyone, but it is especially difficult for individuals who already have low self-esteem as well as individuals who have anxious attachment. A part of this pattern includes fear regarding the stability and dependability of relationships—anxiety that is only provoked by silent treatment. Subsequently, more than others, they may be quick to feel intense rejection and fear of loss.

Such silence is experienced as betrayal and abandonment. As reflected in one study, targets who could not attribute the ostracism to a specific cause were more likely to experience a threat to their belongingness and self-esteem than those who could identify a specific cause (Sommer, et. al., 2010).

Reasons behind silent treatment

People might use silent treatment for a variety of reasons.

  1. Lack of self-awareness: People may be confused or overwhelmed by their feelings and just want to show they are upset.
  2. Conflict avoidance: An individual may not feel sufficiently safe to express what they feel—perhaps due to fear of their own feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, or those of the individual with whom they experience conflict.
  3. Lack of communication skills: Some people feel they lack the skills to express themselves.
  4. Punishment: Silent treatment becomes abuse when it is intended to punish, control, or gain power over someone.
  5. To make the other person feel bad.
  6. To not appear abusive to others.
  7. To avoid taking responsibility.

Healthy disengagement vs. silent treatment

There are times when it might be best to disengage from discussing a conflict. For example, one partner recognizes that he is too agitated and that continuing the conversation would only escalate his tension and frustration. Or, one partner might need time for self-reflection to better identify their feelings or thoughts about a situation. Additionally, one partner may feel unsafe in continuing the discussion.

These situations call for assertive communication that emphasizes respect and compassion for the partner and oneself. Such communication entails “I” statements that include how one feels and as well as clarification of the specific need for silence and, ideally, some mention of when the conversation might be resumed.

When silent treatment is abuse

Silent treatment becomes abuse when it is used to control, punish, or manipulate someone. It is never a positive sign for the success of a relationship. It is also abusive when it is part of a general passive-aggressive tendency in a relationship.

Silent treatment is also abusive when it reflects a form of “gaslighting.” This involves purposely behaving in a way to cause intense self-doubt, lowered self-esteem, and internal confusion. It can be employed as just another form of partner abuse that may include domestic violence or threats of such violence.

In these situations, it is most important that a targeted partner be attentive to their safety rather than succumb to self-doubt and self-blame. It is no surprise, then, that studies of those who engage in silent treatment to control or punish a partner more frequently exhibit narcissistic tendencies.

Some individuals may engage in silent treatment to exert control, while internally feeling paralyzed in deciding whether to commit to the relationship or end it. And, with or without awareness, some individuals may resort to silent treatment in an effort to have a partner be the one to initiate the break.

Ways to react to silent treatment

  1. Acceptance with inquiry: It’s important to remember that whatever the other person is feeling, their reaction is about them. You may want to let them know that you recognize they are upset, that you can’t read their mind, and that you really wish to work on the conflict. Emphasize your interest to hear how they feel: “I could tell you’re upset and I would like to hear what is upsetting you.”
  2. Be aware of any tendency to blame yourself, respond with anger, or plead. Even if you contributed to hurting your partner’s feelings, how they respond is their choice.
  3. Determine if this is a pattern. If it rarely occurs, you may want to ignore it. However, if silent treatment is often used and intended to control you, behave in ways that reflect your autonomy rather than doting on their reaction.
  4. However, when silent treatment is extensive and accompanies other forms of abuse such as yelling, threatening you, jealous accusations, attempts to isolate you from family or others, exerting financial control, or blaming you, you may want to ask yourself if this relationship is truly in your best interest.
  5. Be mindful of any tendency you have to believe that you are responsible for the relationship. Silent treatment is a message that communicates an unwillingness to engage in the hard work it takes to deal with conflict when it arises in a relationship.
  6. Avoid becoming isolated. Maintain your relationships with family and friends.
  7. Remember to practice self-compassion, honoring your feelings and who you are. Strive to remain connected to your core values.
  8. Seek professional services that offer help for those in abusive relationships. Seek counseling.

Silent treatment undermines the sense of safety essential for intimate sharing and connection. It’s important for the targeted partner to recognize when it could be ignored or when it is abusive. It’s especially important for the targeted individual to remember that they are not responsible for how a partner reacts. Being the victim of silent treatment calls for self-compassion rather than self-doubt or criticism. It calls for evoking the voice of compassion that asks, “What is in my best interest for my well-being?”

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Rittenour, C., Kromka, S., Saunders, R., et. al., (2019) Socializing the Silent Treatment: Parent and Adult Child Communicated Displeasure, Identification, and Satisfaction. Journal of Family Communication, Vol. 19, (1).

Guerrero, L. Farinelli, L., & McEwan, B. (2009) Attachment and Relational Satisfaction: The Mediating Effect of Emotional Communication. Communication Monographs, Vol. 76, (4)

Wirth, J., Sacco, D., Hugenberg, K., & Williams, D., (2010) Eye gaze as relational evaluation: Averted eye gaze leads to feelings of ostracism and relational devaluation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulleting, Vol. 36, (7) 869-882.

Sommer, K., Williams, K., Ciarocco, N., & Baumeister, R., (2001). When silence speaks louder than words: Exploration into the intrapsychic and interpersonal consequences of social ostracism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 23 (4).

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