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Silent Treatment

Overview

Silent treatment is the refusal to communicate verbally and electronically with someone who is willing to communicate. It may range from just sulking to malevolent abusive controlling behaviour. It may be a passive- aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval and contempt is exhibited through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence. Clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker identifies it as a form of manipulative punishment. It may be used as a form of social rejection.

In a relationship, the silent treatment can be a difficult pattern to break because if it is ingrained, relationships may then ultimately fail. Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger and frustration. The consequences of this behaviour on the person isolated by silence are feelings of incompetence and worthlessness.

The silent treatment is sometimes used as a control mechanism. The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive action where a person feels bad but is unable to express themselves. Their being ‘silent’ still communicates a message. It can generate what the sulker wants, such as attention and the knowledge others are hurt, plus a feeling of power from creating uncertainty over how long the ‘silence’ will last. Sometimes the goal of the silent treatment is simply to communicate displeasure and once the message has been received and understood the silent treatment ends.

The Details

When someone gives you the silent treatment.

 If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you couldn’t get someone to talk to you, or even acknowledge you, you’ve experienced the silent treatment. You may even have given it yourself at some point.

The silent treatment can happen in romantic relationships or any type of relationship, including between parents and children, friends, and co-workers.

It can be a fleeting reaction to a situation in which one person feels angry, frustrated, or too overwhelmed to deal with a problem. In these cases, once the heat of the moment passes, so does the silence.

The silent treatment can also be part of a broader pattern of control or emotional abuse.

When it’s used regularly as a power play, it can make you feel rejected or excluded. This can have a huge effect on your self-esteem.

How to know when it’s abusive: 

Before diving into ways to respond to the silent treatment, it’s important to know how to recognise when it becomes abusive.

Sometimes, going silent may be the best thing to avoid saying things you would later regret. People might also use it in moments where they don’t know how to express themselves or feel overwhelmed. 

But some people use the silent treatment as a tool for exerting power over someone or creating emotional distance. If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of treatment, you might feel completely ostracised.

People who use the silent treatment as a means of control want to put you in your place. They’ll give you the cold shoulder for days or weeks on end to achieve those goals. This is emotional abuse.

It’s difficult to live that way, so you might be tempted to do everything you can to get back in their good graces, which perpetuates the cycle. 

Research shows that frequently feeling ostracised can reduce your self-esteem and sense of belonging. It can leave you feeling like you’re without control. This effect may be more intense when it’s done by someone close to you as a form of punishment. 

KNOW THE SIGNS

Here are a few signs that suggest the silent treatment is crossing the line into emotional abuse territory:

  • It’s a frequent occurrence and is lasting for longer periods.
  • It’s coming from a place of punishment, not a need to cool off or regroup. 
  • It only ends when you apologize, plead, or give in to demands.
  • You’ve changed your behavior to avoid getting the silent treatment.

1. Take a gentle approach: 

Make it about them.

If this isn’t something the other person regularly does to you, a gentle approach might be a good way to get the conversation started. They may be hurting and looking for a way out. 

Calmly tell the person that you’ve noticed they’re not responding and you want to understand why. Emphasise that you want to resolve things.

While it’s not your fault that someone else decides to give you the silent treatment, you do have a responsibility to apologise if you’ve done something wrong.

If they don’t seem receptive, tell them you understand they may need some time alone. But state that you’d like to arrange a time to get together and resolve the problem. 

2. Or make it about you.

Tell the person how the silent treatment hurts and leaves you feeling frustrated and alone. That’s not what you want or need in a relationship. 

Explain that you can’t resolve issues this way, then be specific about those issues. If this sort of behavior is a relationship deal-breaker for you, state it plainly.

3. Ignore it until it blows over.

The silent treatment isn’t always meant to inflict wounds. Sometimes, it’s an isolated incident that gets out of hand. You can let it slide until they come around and move on. 

Or, it can be a passive/ aggressive approach to keeping you under control. In these cases, what they want is for you to feel bad enough to make the first move. They’re biding their time, waiting for you to grovel and give in to demands. 

Instead, go about your business as if it doesn’t bother you. This is easier said than done, but try to distract yourself by heading outdoors or getting absorbed in a good book.

Deprive them of the reaction they seek. Show that the silent treatment is no way to get what they want from you.

4. Offer solutions 

Suggest a face-to-face meeting to hammer out some rules for better communication in the future. Make a plan for how you’ll talk to each other when things get heated and how you’ll avoid the silent treatment moving forward.

Take turns listening and repeating what the other person says so you’re clear on what you expect of each other. If you’re in a romantic relationship, offer to go to couples counseling to learn some new tools. 

5. Stand up for yourself 

When things escalate to emotional abuse, you’re not in a healthy relationship. It’s time to put yourself first. 

If you believe the relationship is worth salvaging:

  • Set firm boundaries  about what acceptable behavior is and how you expect to be treated.
  • Suggest individual or couples counseling to work on the relationship and communication issues.
  • State exactly what’ll happen when boundaries are crossed, and follow through when yours are crossed.

If there’s no hope that the other person will change, consider leaving the relationship. 

(Medically reviewed by Timothy J . Legg,Ph.D CRNP- written by Ann Pietrangelo on April 30 2019)

 

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