How To Deal With The Silent Treatment & Why It's So Harmful
Whether someone is giving you the silent treatment or you keep finding yourself doing it to others, the truth is, it's almost never a healthy communication pattern.
Here's what to know about the silent treatment—from why people do it to how to handle it when it's happening to you—according to relationship experts.
What is the silent treatment?
The silent treatment encompasses any number of behaviors that involve intentionally ignoring and/or not speaking to someone. This can look like a lot of different things, but you can likely imagine a few examples—someone straight up ignores something you've said, texts go unanswered, you're being stonewalled, or something similar.
As relationship therapist Ken Page, LCSW, explains to mbg, the silent treatment spectrum can range from a complete lack of contact to subtler behaviors like ignoring someone's bids for attention. You could even consider ghosting a form of the silent treatment, according to licensed therapist De-Andrea Blaylock-Solar, MSW, LCSW-S, CST.
People's reasons for using the silent treatment will vary (which we'll get into shortly), but in terms of whether the silent treatment is ever OK, Page says the answer is virtually always no. The only exception, according to Blaylock-Solar, would be if your emotional or physical safety is in danger—which would warrant shutting out an abuser and, subsequently, giving them the silent treatment.
Why people use the silent treatment.
If you're wondering what kind of person uses the silent treatment, there's really no black-and-white answer because so many people will lean on this behavior for a variety of reasons.
For example, as both Blaylock-Solar and Page explain, someone who grew up feeling like their needs were ignored or unimportant may grow up to have a hard time expressing themselves. "It may be challenging for them as adults to share—or even feel they have the right to share—their thoughts or feelings, and so they keep them to themselves and shut down," Blaylock-Solar explains.
Additionally, she notes, some people have delayed processing disorders at play that simply make it difficult to gather themselves or respond quickly, and so they go silent. Or, in the face of conflict (processing disorder or not), sometimes people "may need to collect their thoughts and figure out how do they feel about a situation," before responding, she explains—and this can certainly be interpreted as the silent treatment to the person on the receiving end.
In other more extreme cases, Page says that people can intentionally use the silent treatment in a passive-aggressive, hostile, and/or sadistic way. "If you feel like you don't have the power to communicate your needs, your pain, or your desire, the silent treatment is effectively a way to gain back power when you feel powerless," he explains.
- Avoidant attachment style
- Delayed mental processing
- Difficulty expressing big emotions
- Emotional immaturity
- Attempting to maintain power or control
- Emotional manipulation
- Sadistic personality
Effects on the relationship.
To the person on the receiving end of the silent treatment, the effects can absolutely be hurtful and even detrimental to the relationship, depending on how severe the treatment.
Page cites research called the "still-face experiment1," for example, in which mothers gave toddlers emotionless reactions and silence for an extended period of time. In this experiment, he says, the babies make constant bids for connection. They try, it doesn't work, and the babies freak out and start crying. And eventually, they withdraw and pull into themselves.
"If you want to understand the effects of the deep silence, that's kind of what we create with it," Page explains, adding that there's a reason solitary confinement is considered the worst punishment in prison.
In relationships between adults, he says, no matter the reason behind the behavior, the person on the receiving end is going to feel dejected, isolated, angry, and/or confused. "Extreme silent treatment is unequivocally a form of abuse," he says, noting that even subtler forms can still be harmful to the relationship.
And for what it's worth, Page adds, couples who have a "low threshold for allowing conflict" (aka they would rather talk things out than let things fester) are actually happier in their relationships than couples with a higher threshold for conflict (aka they "let things go" and ignore problems).
"We often defer to silence and avoidance as a strategy to preserve the relationship—but it actually does exactly the opposite—and the other person experiences your silence as absence and avoidance," Page explains.
How to handle someone giving you the silent treatment:
Call out the behavior.
The first step to dealing with receiving the silent treatment from someone is to face it head-on and start a conversation. In the case of missed bids, for example, Page notes you could also say something like, "I'm feeling down because I just said something really important to me, and you kind of missed it or didn't seem like you cared."
And according to Blaylock-Solar, if the silent treatment has been persistent, you could also say things like, "I've noticed the air between us is a little different," or "I'm wondering if you're having some thoughts you're having a hard time expressing to me."
Avoid coming at them in a critical or contemptuous manner, and instead, open up by letting them know you're here to listen without judgment and want to get to the bottom of the behavior, she suggests.
Find your match today with eHarmony. Free to join.
Set a boundary or ground rule.
Once you've expressed that you feel like you've been given the silent treatment, Page says you can start setting a boundary around that. He suggests telling the person that their treatment has been hurting you, and you need them to be more responsive. "Explain what you're upset by, if you can, and ask if they can make a commitment to be able to talk through things," he says.
Assess whether the behavior improves.
From there, the ball is really in the other person's court in terms of how they move forward. Ideally, they'll hear your concerns and try to avoid giving you the silent treatment in the future, but as Page notes, this can be a process.
"And if the amount of time it's going to take for it to stop is too long and too painful, you have a right to say that and negotiate it," he says, adding that it can be helpful to get the support of a therapist here as well (individual or couples').
How to stop giving the silent treatment.
Now, if you're the one giving the silent treatment, and you're ready to turn a new, more communicative leaf, the good news is you can change this behavior for the better.
According to Blaylock-Solar, if you're someone who has a hard time in conflict and winds up shutting down, you can have a script of sorts ready. Think something along the lines of, "I'm having some thoughts, but I'm not exactly sure how to share them, or even how to feel right now. I'm not shutting you out—just give me some time."
In this way, she adds, you're letting the other person know you just need time and space to process at your own speed. "That, along with planning a time to come back together to discuss further, can help the relationship in the long run," she notes.
And as Page adds, it's important to keep in mind the way our behavior affects our relationships, romantic or otherwise. "It's so much easier to be tough and just kind of torture someone with the silent treatment—but stepping into your vulnerability and sharing it is actually a brave intimacy tool," he explains.
It can also be a good idea to do some personal work (either with a therapist or on your own) to reflect on the reasons you use the silent treatment, and how you can get better about open and honest communication, Page adds.
The bottom line is, it never feels good to be on the receiving end of the silent treatment, and it can have terrible effects on friendships, family dynamics, and romantic relationships. At the end of the day, staying open to difficult and vulnerable conversations is how relationships deepen and improve, and while it's not always an easy habit to kick, the silent treatment never has a place in a healthy relationship.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.