The silent treatment is a refusal to communicate verbally with another person. It can simply be because the person has poor communication skills and can in extreme instances cross over into emotional abuse if the person uses it to control and manipulate others. It may not always be malicious, but it always negatively affects the relationship.
Research shows that both men and women use silent treatment in relationships. Here are some ways in which silent treatment is damaging to the people involved and the relationship as a whole.
Reasons people use the silent treatment
Avoidance: people may stay silent because they don’t know what to say or they want to avoid conflict.
Communication: a person may use silent treatment if they don’t know how to express their feelings but want their partner to know that they’re upset.
Punishment: this is when it crosses over into emotional abuse; when a person uses their silence to punish someone or exert control over them.
Negative effects of the silent treatment
The silent treatment can make someone feel ostracized which the brain can begin to detect as pain. The intensity of the pain depends on how intensely the person is ignored. This can lead to health ailments including digestive problems, headaches, and insomnia.
Psychological and emotional effects
It can lead to loneliness and increased feelings of rejection which can impact a person’s self-esteem and mental health. Research shows that people who are regularly ignored report lower levels of self-worth, belonging, and meaning in their lives. It is especially dangerous when used on children by parents. In the case of children, it can even lead to permanent damage to the child’s psyche.
The person facing silent treatment may also have to deal with a range of confusing emotions including anger, sadness, frustration, guilt, despair, and loneliness.
Silent treatment has such an intense effect on a person’s emotional state that they may try and do everything in their power to get the attention of the person and stop being ignored. This can become part of the pattern of abuse in an abusive relationship.
Negative effect on the relationship
Conflict is a normal part of every relationship and communication is essential when handling it. Silent treatment hinders effective communication which means conflicts are not handled well and the relationship suffers as a result.
How to respond
If the silent treatment is not part of a larger pattern of abuse, you can try the following approaches to address conflict better.
- Acknowledge that the person is using the silent treatment and say something like, “I notice you are not responding to me.” Let them know you’re willing to listen if they’re willing to talk.
- Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and apologize for what you did that may have upset them and triggered this response. Most of the time you know what you did to upset another person.
- If the reason they are using the silent treatment is that they are too angry, hurt, or overwhelmed to speak, allow them some time to cool off. You can arrange a time to resolve the issue.
- Avoid unhelpful responses like provoking the person and escalating the matter.
Silent treatment hampers healthy communication in a relationship. If you’re the person who resorts to silent treatment because of conflict avoidance or you have trouble expressing your feelings, it’s important that you work on that. Start small and challenge yourself to address issues that upset you. It’s normal to need space and some cool-down period after conflict, particularly if it was intense. That’s normal and even healthy to calm down until you’re able to communicate without being hateful. If you need some space, instead of just going silent one psychologist suggests saying, “I can’t talk to your right now but we can talk about it later.” This lets the person know that it’s a brief break not the beginning of potentially endless silent treatment.
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