It can be gratifying to watch a friend or partner squirm under the silent treatment, but is it doing your relationship any favours? Let’s explore the psychology behind the silent treatment.
For many people, the prospect of sitting in peaceful silence can well and truly be golden.
But not all silence is created equal and not all silence is the stuff of dreams. In fact, when it comes to the silent treatment, it can be an absolute nightmare.
What is the silent treatment?
The silent treatment can be defined as a shift from regular relationship conversation and engagement, to minimal or no engagement that lasts for longer than a reasonable ‘cooling down period’ after an argument or issue.
It can take the shape of someone literally saying, “I’m not speaking to you,” through to a really ‘whatever’ attitude when they’re around you. It can even be executed via technology, where your texts or messages are left without reply.
While some people might think that being silent is taking the high road, it can actually be the worst thing you can do. It can leave significant psychological and emotional repercussions on the person on the receiving end.
Being left in silence can be extremely painful, as it involves the loss of connection, love, intimacy, and sometimes even family participation. It can also feel unfair and unkind, leading to anger and further fighting.
Is the silent treatment a form of emotional abuse?
One of the main issues with the silent treatment is that to the receiver, it can feel like a punishment or control.
The receiver is shut out and left to wait until the person recovers. Sometimes they can talk them round, and sometimes not, so it can feel like they are at the silent person’s mercy.
The silent treatment can be deliberate and enacted with some pleasure and cruelty, which is why it is named as an indicator or aspect of abusive relationships, and can be a form of domestic violence.
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When someone goes silent because they’re overwhelmed
Giving the silent treatment is also not of benefit to the person who is silent.
The person who is silent may not actually feel like they want to punish their partner. They may internally be experiencing emotionally overwhelmed, where they know they are retreating and can’t get themselves back. They shut down while they are in recovery and retreat to lick their wounds.
When does silence become damaging to relationships?
While it’s understandable for a person to use brief silences to gather their thoughts before responding in an argument, conflicts can continue for longer than necessary if, instead of using the time to recover, they use the time to nurse their hurts and ruminate over what has happened.
And worryingly, it can also create a major power imbalance within the relationship.
If the only way for the silence to be broken is for the person on the receiving end to do all the work to repair, apologise, make promises, possibly offer sex or whatever it takes, resentment may then follow.
While using silence sometimes is just a short-term way to cool down, the silent treatment becomes a problem when it’s used as a deliberate strategy to inflict pain and establish control. That treatment is never okay.
How to address silent treatment behaviour in your relationship
So, what do you do if you or your partner uses the silent treatment in a not-so-acceptable way?
1. Identify it as an issue
Talk about how the silent treatment is a coping and recovery strategy that needs to be worked on, and then work on it.
2. Know your trigger and name it
Before you ‘go silent,’ tell your partner, “I feel overwhelmed and need some time to recover.” This way the receiver knows what has happened. Agree how long you will take to recover – ideally less than 1 hour.
Communicate that you will be back in a specified amount of time to continue the discussion, even if you can only manage to come back to agree to close it down for the time being or take the matter to counselling. Make sure you do come back when you say you will, to foster trust and certainty and so the receiver is not left in the lurch.
3. Use the time apart to both calm down
Don’t recite what has happened and spend the time plotting how you’re going to start the argument back up again. Instead cool off and work out what you can say when you come back that is useful to the relationship.
For example, “what happened for me then was…” or “I reacted but am calm now and have worked out…”
4. Seek professional help
If you have identified a repetitive pattern of this happening, then it might be time to seek professional assistance for more strategies around conflict resolution.