Ah yes, the silent treatment. Sounds pretty rough, right? In fact, beyond being straight-up rude (and annoying and unhelpful), the silent treatment can be a form of manipulation—which makes learning how to deal with it that much more important, according to therapists with expertise in relationships and abuse.
- Amber Williams, LCPC, licensed clinical professional counselor with Thriveworks, in Illinois
- Amelia Kelley, PhD, LCMHC, trauma-informed relationship therapist, podcaster, researcher, and co-author of What I Wish I Knew
- Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, psychotherapist who specializes in working with survivors of family and relationship trauma
- Kristin Davin, PsyD, clinical psychologist with Choosing Therapy
- Leanna Stockard, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist with LifeStance Health
How the silent treatment can be manipulative
To be sure, the silent treatment is categorically different from just taking a break during an argument, especially after communicating about that. “Taking a break during an argument, especially if your [nervous system is] feeling dysregulated, can be a healthy coping skill for anyone in a relationship,” says Amelia Kelley, PhD, LCMHC, a trauma-informed therapist who empowers survivors of abuse and relationship trauma. “The silent treatment is not necessarily taking a break—rather, it is a form of emotional abuse that denies connection with another person.”
Someone may use the silent treatment to control how the other person responds, acts, or feels, perhaps pushing them toward guilt or shame, adds Kelley.
“By giving a person ‘the silent treatment,’ someone can dictate the [nature of] a conversation or whether that conversation takes place.” —Kristin Davin, PsyD, clinical psychologist
Using this tactic also allows the person to better control a discussion or argument. “By giving a person ‘the silent treatment,’ someone can dictate the [nature of] a conversation or whether that conversation takes place,” says clinical psychologist Kristin Davin, PsyD, who specializes in couples and marriage counseling.
In short, the impact of the silent treatment revolves largely around intention. “If someone is intending to hurt, to get their way, or to punish their partner with the use of the silent treatment, they are then using it as a manipulation tactic instead of a communication strategy,” says therapist Leanna Stockard, LMFT.
Examples of the silent treatment as manipulation
Unfortunately, the silent treatment can be employed in many hurtful ways. “It may look like prolonged silence over days or weeks, refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other person, being silent until they are done being silent, or being silent until the other person takes full responsibility [or] changes their behavior,” Stockard says.
Someone may do this because they desire a particular item or outcome, whether that’s “a gift or item that they want, or getting what they want in the form of having the other person apologize first,” says psychotherapist Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, who specializes in relationship trauma and narcissistic abuse. And they believe the silent treatment will get them that result. They may also wield the silent treatment “as a way to punish someone who behaves in a way that is displeasing to them,” Gillis adds. In the end, she says, they want to feel like they “won” the argument.
Therapist Amber Williams, LCPC, who specializes in relationships and life transitions, shares a specific scenario of the silent treatment being used as a means to control and punish: Someone doesn’t respond to their partner’s texts or calls after their partner says they aren’t ready to be physically intimate. As a result, the partner feels like they should just sleep with them, after all, in order to get them talking again.
To be clear, this manipulation tactic doesn’t happen solely in romantic relationships; it can happen in any kind of partnership. “Another harmful example is when parents withdraw from their child as a means to make their child ‘feel ashamed of themselves,’” Dr. Kelley adds.
The effects of the silent treatment
On the person receiving it
The silent treatment can have a negative snowball effect. According to Dr. Kelley, it can hurt your self-esteem and ego, make you feel ashamed or at fault, and lead to difficulty practicing self-compassion. As a result, she says, you may feel internalized anger, which can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety over time.
You may also feel less comfortable and safe in the relationship or like you’re walking on eggshells around the person. An increased fear that you’ll do something wrong and “cause” your partner to give you the silent treatment again is also common, Stockard says. “This can ultimately lead to a lack of confidence, thinking something is wrong with you, feeling like you need the other person, and perhaps even feeling stuck in the relationship,” she adds.
Additionally, your attachment style can be affected. “Long-term exposure can lead the person who is chronically ignored to begin exhibiting traits of anxious or disorganized attachment as they try to navigate the unstable relationship dynamics and their constant struggle to regain positive attention from their partner,” Dr. Kelley says.
On the relationship
To understate the obvious, unhealthy communication is never helpful. “The silent treatment leads to an inability to navigate through conflict,” Stockard says. After all, if one person is constantly refusing communication with the other when things don't go their way, there's little room for genuine conflict resolution.
At the same time, the silent treatment can cause an imbalanced power dynamic, adds Stockard. One person is threatening to wield this manipulative tool for control or as a punishment, while the other feels like they must submit to their partner's desires in order to avoid being shut out. This dynamic can turn into outright abuse, as the person who's being subjected to the silent treatment can no longer trust or feel entirely safe with their partner.
How to deal with the silent treatment
Try to avoid giving in
As much as you may want to beg or plead with the person giving you the silent treatment, Williams says this only encourages the situation. “Give the person some space, don’t escalate, don’t assume responsibility for the other person’s actions, assert your boundaries, consider the reasoning behind their motives, and seek out support from a friend or family member,” she encourages.
Be compassionate with yourself
When figuring out how to deal with the silent treatment, it's important to remind yourself that you aren’t a “bad” person, even if your partner is trying to make you feel like you are. “Remember that you did nothing wrong, and you are not alone,” says Williams.
Then, engage in a few self-care activities. A couple of her suggestions include exercising and reading self-help books. Dr. Kelley says journaling can also help you explore your experience. Really, it’s about whatever helps you feel better outside of your relationship with the person who's shutting you out.
Calmly start a conversation with your partner
It’s important to note upfront that this may not always feel like your safest choice, and that’s valid. If you do think it may be helpful, however, one piece to consider is when to broach the topic. “Sometimes these conversations are better done outside of a conflict, but this may be difficult for some people as they fear rocking the boat when things are going well,” Dr. Kelley says.
If and when you move forward with the conversation, acknowledge the silent treatment is taking place, Stockard says, and share how it makes you feel. “Within this conversation, make sure you are focusing on your feelings and using ‘I statements,’” she adds. (If you need a refresher, they typically go like this: “I feel _____ when you _____ because ______. Can you _____ instead?”)
Staying calm is key, “even though, in the heat of the moment, this may feel impossible,” says Dr. Davin. But reacting with anger or frustration will only escalate the situation, she explains. “So take a moment to collect your thoughts, and take a deep breath before attempting to address the issue,” she says.
Additionally, Dr. Davin encourages avoiding any accusatory or confrontational language—using "I" language instead of "you" language will help you here.
Let your partner know what, exactly, you’re not okay with. “Share that the silent treatment is not an effective way to address issues, and that open communication is a healthier approach,” Stockard says.
Then, discuss how you’d like to address conflict instead. Your boundary setting may look like compromising, talking about your values, outlining consequences, and being assertive, to start.
Reach out to loved ones and/or a therapist
While this step can always be helpful, it’s especially important if you feel like you may be in an abusive or toxic relationship.
Dr. Kelley encourages getting advice from loved ones. “Much like with other forms of emotional abuse and manipulation, when dealing with the silent treatment, speaking to a support person who has an outside perspective can help,” she says.
If steps like the above don’t work, you may want to reconsider the relationship or what your time with the person looks like, if at all possible. The bottom line: "If your partner is not interested in changing this behavior, it is imperative to prioritize your safety [over the relationship]," says Stockard.
How to communicate without using the silent treatment
Practice healthy conflict-resolution skills
Dr. Kelley suggests following the acronym “DEAR MAN” from dialectical behavior therapy when navigating conflict. It stands for describe, express, assert, reinforce, mindful, appear, negotiate. Instead of running from or avoiding a difficult discussion, you'd describe what you're experiencing, express how you feel, assert what you want or what you'd like to change, and reinforce the upsides of the outcome you're asking for. At the same time, you'd remain mindful of the topic at hand (by avoiding distractions), take care to appear confident and self-assured, and be open to negotiating.
Active listening skills come into play here, too. Dr. Davin mentions giving your full attention, avoiding interrupting, and asking clarifying questions when necessary.
Don’t think about “winning” and “losing”
It's helpful to view problems within any relationship as “us versus the problem,” not “you versus me.” Competing with your partner won’t help either of you, says Dr. Kelley.
“It’s also important to remember that whoever breaks the silence first is not 'losing,'” she adds. “In fact, it may mean that that particular person is more effectively regaining control of their thoughts and body, so it is actually quite an empowering position to be in.”
If you need a break, communicate the details first
Taking some time alone to breathe and calm down can be a healthy and smart idea—just be mindful of how you go about it. “Establishing a place you may retreat to for a break [during a discussion] and communicating the length of time you feel you need can help,” Dr. Kelley says.
For example, you could say something along the lines of: “I’m feeling frustrated right now and want to come back to this conversation when I feel calmer and we can be more productive. I'm going to take a walk for 10 minutes to cool down, then I’ll be back.”
If you end up needing more time than you’d estimated, Stockard says, give your partner an update. Let them know you’re still processing but do intend to come back to the conversation once you’re in the right headspace.
She also emphasizes the importance of not forcing your partner to check in on you constantly or to agree with you. “While it is important to come back to the conversation when you are ready, you do need to be empathic about what your partner may be feeling while you are taking space,” she says.
Whether you and your partner decide to talk it out or take a few moments to cool down, the silent treatment—especially when used to control someone—is not the way to go. And if someone is using it on you, remember your power and that you deserve better.
If you are experiencing or have experienced relationship violence and need support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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