Talk to the hand because the ears aren’t listening… It can be gratifying to watch a friend or partner squirm under the silent treatment, but is it really doing your relationship any favours? Elisabeth Shaw investigates.
For many of us, particularly those of us who lead busy lives or are parents, silence can well and truly be golden.
But like most things in life, 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 most people have been at both ends of the silent treatment – either zipping the lip or hearing the crickets, from a psychological standpoint, is it ever actually okay to do?
Is the silent treatment a form of abuse?
One of the main issues with the silent treatment is that to the receiver, it can feel like a punishment or control.
They are shut out and left to wait until the person recovers. Sometimes they can talk them round, and sometimes not, so it can feel like the listener is 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 aspect of abusive relationships, and a form of domestic violence.
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 at the receiving end of it.
It can be extremely painful, as it involves the loss of the relationship as you know it. It involves the loss of connection, love, intimacy, and maybe even family participation, so can create real suffering around the silent person. It can also feel unfair and unkind, leading to anger and further fighting.
When someone goes silent because of emotional flooding
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 a sort of emotional flooding, where they know they are retreating and can’t get themselves back. They shut down while they are in recovery, and retreating to lick their wounds.
However, this can go 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. That will extend the period of silence.
And worryingly, it can also create a major power imbalance within the relationship.
If the only way for the silence to end is for the person on the receiving end to do all the work to repair, to apologise, make promises, offer sex or whatever it takes, then this can also lead to resentment.
While sometimes the silent treatment is just a short-term way to cool down, it’s when it’s used as a deliberate strategy to inflict pain and control that it’s a problem. That treatment is never okay to use. In fact, it is unhelpful for anything other than a very brief period.
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 it is a coping and recovery strategy that needs to be worked on, and work on it.
2. Know your trigger and name it
Say, “I feel triggered or overwhelmed and need some time to recover.” This way the receiver knows what has happened. Agree how long you will take to recover. Ideally no more than 1 hour, hopefully less.
Say “I will be back in *** (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, so as to foster trust and certainty, and so the receiver is not left dangling.
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…” “I got triggered but am calm now and have worked out…”
4. Seek professional help
If you have identified a repetitive pattern of this happening, then seek professional assistance for more strategies.
Relationships Australia NSW offers Couples Communications group programs throughout the year to help you learn the skills to talk through issues with your partner more effectively. Find out more about a course near you here. A version of this article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.