How can I deal with the silent treatment?
Ah the silent treatment, that common game of emotional chicken that makes you search every inch of your brain trying to work out what you did wrong.
Getting given the cold shoulder is probably the best way to know that you have done something wrong. It is far more effective than a heated argument and the mind games can go on for weeks!
The silent treatment can happen in romantic relationships, in family situations between parents and children or even between friends, and co-workers.
The silent treatment can also be a form of emotional abuse as an unhealthy way for one person to control another.
When this pattern of behaviour is used regularly as a means of control, it can make you feel rejected or excluded. This can have a huge effect on your self-esteem and self-worth.
But how can we make this form of emotional abuse a thing of the past, break through the invisible wall and improve our lines of communication?
First let’s take a look at why some people use the silent treatment tactic and why being on the receiving end of the silent treatment hurts so much.
Why do people use the silent treatment?
The silent treatment, according to sexual health psychiatrist Elisabeth Gordon is when (talking about a partner):
“They refuse to interact and become non-communicative and non-responsive.”
It is generally used for two differing reasons depending on the person who is dishing it out.
Some people may use the silent treatment if they are angry or overwhelmed and don’t know how to communicate in a healthy manner.
They might turn to the silent treatment because they want to avoid a heated argument or any escalation in conflict.
This is the excusable way of using the silent treatment and the people who do so are usually very upset or emotional.
The second way that the silent treatment is used is much more calculated.
It may be delivered as a tactic used to gain the upper hand by forcing another person to try and make things right.
It could be a learned behavior from a parent or previously abusive partner or just something that they know is effective.
Narcissistic individuals tend to use this form of psychological abuse as part of a manipulative pattern and a control tactic to make sure that their partner (or other) does what they are told.
Regardless of how it is used, the silent treatment is a passive-aggressive way to get inside a person’s head.
It breaks every rule of healthy communication and is a sure fire way of spotting an unhealthy or abusive relationship.
Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that ‘stonewalling’ as it’s referred to, is one of a quartet of traits that often spell doom for a healthy relationship.
Why does the silent treatment hurt so much?
Being on the receiving end of this kind of treatment can be an emotional rollercoaster, you may feel isolated, angry, upset and confused. Essentially your brain is trying to solve a puzzle that it doesn’t have the answer to.
According to Dr. Gordon:
“(The silent treatment) doesn’t create a situation where you can discuss and resolve the issue that started” And any lack of communication is never positive since it’s essential in every relationship to be able to openly and honestly express your feelings.
Being a recipient of the silent treatment feels alien because it goes against our basic social needs as human beings.
“Our brains are structured to recognize social inclusions because those signal safety and the ability to keep going.”
Being subjected to stonewalling, especially by a loved one directly contradicts our emotional needs and can actually have an affect on the brain too.
A part of the brain called the “anterior cingulate cortex” is responsible for detecting different levels of pain.
Scientists have proven that this zone is activated when someone receives the silent treatment. Activation in this zone means that physical symptoms also start to appear.
It is quite easy to see then how sustained narcissistic silent treatment can promote negative feelings, poor mental health and even physical pain.
The emotional pain felt when you’re given the silent treatment is very real and getting yourself away from that situation is of paramount importance.
So how can you respond to the silent treatment?
5 effective ways to respond to the silent treatment
1. Close the emotional distance. Offer the olive branch
Taking the silent treatment at face value, the first move is to opt for the softer approach and try to broach the subject of dispute.
They may be genuinely upset so approaching them with open, relaxed body language and a calm tone of voice is the smart move.
Calmly tell the person that you’ve noticed they’re not responding and you want to understand why. Emphasize that you want to understand the real issue and resolve things as adults.
This may feel slightly submissive with you being on the receiving end but the longer the lack of communication occurs, the worse the problem will get.
If they don’t seem receptive, tell them you understand they may need some alone time. Be sure to try this multiple times and make sure that you’re happy that you’ve done as much as you can to resolve the dispute.
2. Stand up for yourself
If the first option isn’t the right thing for you or doesn’t fit with the situation then tell the person how the silent treatment hurts and leaves you feeling frustrated and alone.
Narcissists want to feel in control and for you to doubt yourself so make sure you’re explaining to them that silent treatment manipulation isn’t fair and that’s not what you want or need in a relationship.
Be quite explicit that the only way the issue is going to be resolved in a healthy manner is through strong verbal communication. And that a healthy relationship doesn’t involve narcissistic abuse.
Now this might not exactly pave the way for a relaxed and productive conversation but it will certainly get them talking!
3. Wait for the storm to pass
Ok so not exactly a groundbreaking solution!
The silent treatment isn’t always meant as a form of abuse. Sometimes, it’s an isolated incident that gets out of hand.
In your heart of hearts you will probably know the difference depending on your situation.
If you’ve genuinely done something wrong and apologised but are still being kept in the dark then maybe the other person just needs some time.
The flip side to this is that if you are dealing with a narcissist and they’re looking for you to apologise and grovel then avoiding a conversation could be the best thing to do.
Ignoring this kind of behavior may send a clear message that you aren’t going to be manipulated. This is easier said than done, but try to distract yourself by socialising with others or going for a walk.
Do not give in to partner demands and show them how being on the receiving end feels.
4. Offer solutions and plan ahead
Take the bull by the horns and suggest a face-to-face meeting to iron out some rules for better communication.
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.
Maybe even go down the route of using a code word for when things are getting heated and you need a time out.
Build on your communication skills and 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 seek professional help as a couple to stop the blame game and make sure that such situations are avoided in the future.
5. Set rules for yourself
If you feel like you’re sliding into an abusive situation then it’s time to put yourself first.
If for the most part you have a close relationship and you believe it’s worth saving then:
- Set firm boundaries about what acceptable behavior is and how you expect to be treated.
- Have a solution focussed approach and suggest professional help for one or both of you
- Put consequences in place for when your partner over steps the mark. Be firm with these and make sure your partner knows that you will not give in to their demands.
If you think the person’s behavior is beyond change or the silent treatment repeats itself on a regular basis then you should consider leaving the relationship.
Why the silent treatment needs to be banned
Professor Paul Schrodt is a leading figure in the research around why the silent treatment is bad for relationships.
An article published by the Texas Christian University tells us that: Schrodt and colleagues conducted an analysis of 74 studies involving more than 14,000 participants.
The findings, which were published in the March 2014 Communication Monographs, showed that the demand-withdraw pattern is one of the most damaging types of relationship conflict. It’s also one of the hardest patterns to break.
According to Schrodt, who was lead researcher in the analysis, both partners have a hand in the silent treatment — yet each blames the other. The person making the demands feels shut out and that his or her emotional needs are being neglected; conversely, the person withdrawing feels nagged.
But there is hope. Schrodt advises that becoming aware of the pattern is the first step in breaking the demand-withdrawal cycle. Each partner should consider his or her role in the cycle and the other person’s viewpoint, then talk it out.
After reading the article you should now know that unless there is a really good reason, the silent treatment should be avoided at all costs.
It is essentially a form of punishment used by narcissists to harm the mental state of the person that they’re in conflict with.
If you’re in the type of relationship where you find yourself in a common pattern of conflict with a silent person, then our best advice is to get away as quickly as you can!
If your relationship is one worth salvaging then next time that you’re confronted with the silent treatment then make sure you have your top 5 options laid out in front of you:
- Close the distance. Offer up an olive branch
- Stand up for yourself
- Wait for the storm to pass
- Offer solutions and plan ahead
- Set rules for yourself