People use the silent treatment in many types of relationships, including romantic relationships.
It can sometimes be a form of emotional abuse. This is the case when one person uses it to control and manipulate the other.
People use the silent treatment for a number of reasons. These include:
- Avoidance: In some cases, people stay silent in a conversation because they do not know what to say or want to avoid conflict.
- Communication: A person may use the silent treatment if they do not know how to express their feelings but want their partner to know that they are upset.
- Punishment: If a person uses silence to punish someone or to exert control or power over them, this is a form of emotional abuse.
HOW IT AFFECTS RELATIONSHIPS?
In most cases, using the silent treatment is not a productive way to deal with a disagreement.
Research indicates that both men and women use the silent treatment in relationships. However, clear and direct communication is essential for healthy relationships. Using the silent treatment prevents people from resolving their conflicts in a helpful way.
When one partner wants to talk about a problem but the other withdraws, it can cause negative emotions such as anger and distress. According to a 2012 study, people who regularly feel ignored also report lower levels of self-esteem, belonging, and meaning in their lives.
Because of this, the silent treatment can have an impact on the health of a relationship, even if the person who is silent is trying to avoid conflict.
A person with a partner who avoids conflict is more likely to continue a dispute because they have not had an opportunity to discuss their grievances.
IS IT ABUSE?
A person may be using silence in an abusive way if:
- they intend to hurt another person with their silence
- the silence lasts for extended periods of time
- the silence only ends when they decide it does
- they talk to other people but not to their partner
- they seek alliances from others
- they use silence to blame their partner and make them feel guilty
- they use silence to manipulate or “improve” their partner, or to pressure them to change their behavior
HOW TO RESPOND?
1) Name the situation
Acknowledge that someone is using the silent treatment. For example, a person can say, “I notice that you are not responding to me.” This lays the foundation for two people to engage with each other more effectively.
2) Use ‘I’ statements
A person can let the other person know how they feel by using “I” statements. For example, the person on the receiving end may say: “I’m feeling hurt and frustrated that you aren’t speaking to me. I would like to find a way to resolve this.”
This type of statement focuses on the feelings and beliefs of the speaker rather than any characteristics they attribute to the other person.
3) Acknowledge the other person’s feelings
Ask the other person to share their feelings. This lets them know that their feelings are important and valid, and it paves the way for an open conversation. Avoid becoming defensive or going into problem-solving mode. Try to stay present and listen empathically.
If the person responds in a threatening or abusive way, it is important to remove oneself from the situation until they calm down. Talk to a doctor, therapist, or trusted friend for help.
4) Apologize for words or actions
A person should not apologize or blame themselves for another person’s use of the silent treatment, as the silence is how their partner chooses to respond.
However, they may need to apologize if they have said or done something that may have hurt the other person’s feelings.
5) Cool off and arrange a time to resolve the issue
Sometimes, a person may give someone the silent treatment because they are too angry, hurt, or overwhelmed to speak. They may be afraid of saying something that makes the situation worse.
In these cases, it can be helpful for each person to take some time to cool off before getting together to discuss the issue calmly. Counselors call this “taking a time-out.”
6) Avoid unhelpful responses
Try to avoid escalating the situation or provoking the person who is silent into speaking. This can create more conflict.
COULD COUNSELLING HELP?
Couples who have difficulty communicating effectively may benefit from counseling. A therapist can help the partners express their feelings so that they can resolve conflicts in a healthy way.
Author: Jayne Leonard, Medically reviewed by Alex Klein, PsyD
Title: Is the silent treatment a form of abuse?