Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment

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The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment

The silent treatment is a way to inflict pain without visible bruising – literally.

Research has shown that the act of ignoring or excluding activates the same area of the brain that is activated by physical pain.

The best predictor of divorce isn’t whether a couple fights – arguments are inevitable – but how a couple fights. The key to being closer in the good times lies in the way a couple treats each other during the bad.

The silent treatment can tend to present itself as a response more fitting of the ‘high road’, one of grace and dignity, but research has shown it is anything but.

Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University who has studied ostracism for twenty years, explains, ‘Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.’

The ability to detect ostracism is hardwired in us – it doesn’t matter if you’re being ignored by a group or a person you can’t stand, the pain still registers.

The silent treatment, even if it’s brief, activates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends or enemies.

The silent treatment happens when one partner pressures the other with requests, criticism or complaints and the other responds with silence and emotional distance.

Paul Schrodt, PhD, Professor of Communication Studies reviewed 74 relationship studies which involved more than 14,000 participants.

Findings from his in-depth analysis revealed that the silent treatment is ‘tremendously’ damaging to a relationship. It decreases relationship satisfaction for both partners, diminishes feelings of intimacy, and reduces the capacity to communicate in a way that’s healthy and meaningful.

‘It’s the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,’ says Schrodt. ‘And it does tremendous damage.’

It’s an incredibly hard pattern to break because both partners lay the blame at the feet of the other.

‘Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,’ explains Schrodt. ‘Both partners see the other as the problem.’ One partner will typically complain that the other is emotionally unavailable. The other will accuse his or her partner of being too demanding or critical.

When couples become locked in this ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern, the damage can be both emotional and physiological include anxiety and aggression as well as erectile dysfunction and urinary and bowel problems.

It doesn’t matter which partner demands or which one withdraws, the damage to the relationship is the same. It’s the pattern itself that’s the problem, not the specific partner. 

The silent treatment should not be confused with taking time to cool down after heated or difficult exchange. Williams suggests that instead of reverting to the silent treatment, try ‘I can’t talk to you right now, but we can talk about it later.’

Nobody engages the silent treatment expecting it to damage the relationship, and that’s the danger.

Generally, it’s called on as the weapon of choice because it’s powerful and it’s easy to get away with. There is nothing subtle about a physical or verbal lashing, but an accusation of the silent treatment, ‘Are you ignoring me?’ can easily be denied.

Silence can feel like a dignified, high road response but it’s not. It’s a way to inflict pain but without the physical marks. 

Being noticed is so close to being loved, that sometimes they feel the same.

Being ignored is just as powerful.

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190 Comments

Sheneque Alexander

Hello! Please help… my boyfriend of 4 months cancelled on my birthday weekend. I have been talking about my birthday for 2 months and had a whole weekend planned. He came to my birthday party and we hung out with my nice the next day… but the day before and the day off my birthday he cancelled our plans. The morning before he said his sister texted him his mom fell in the snow… he said he was just going to check in her and be back. He then texted me 2 hits later canceling the trip to stay with her at home and we could do dinner for my birthday. Then says he needs to come by and get his bag from my house. Wait….. so I’m tooooo upset at the whole thing. I didn’t like he just casually cancelled. All in all I felt he could of handled the mother / birthday thing better. I did not go to dinner with him and have not spoken to him since. He calls once a day and texts me about us talking but I’m just too mad to reply. Now he asking for this bag…. how long is too long not to speak to him. To me I’m not sure how he can fix this at this point.

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Sam

Give him the bag. Say goodbye. And get on with your life. He is not available to you, and you will cause yourself hurt until you accept this.

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Kelly

You are hurt, you are angry, but please reply to him. Avoiding someone is a pattern that will continue in a lot of other conflicts if you get comfortable with it. You have nothing to feel bad about, these are your feelings…Be angry!! That’s perfectly fine, please communicate your feelings and don’t pretend he doesn’t exist though.

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Katie

Yes, let him have his bag and stop giving him the silent treatment. Apologize for punishing him with the silent treatment. And take your equal share of blame while you are at it, because you seem way out of proportion mad, for the circumstances. So he should have called rather than texted, but who knows what was going on with his mother’s injury; you haven’t given him the chance to talk and explain his concerns for his mother’s fall. You could have used your words to tell him you would like to cool off before talking with him, but by not replying, you punish him with the silent treatment by ignoring his frequent texts and calls. It’s sulking.

Red flags: You knew him two months when you started planning your birthday for the last two months? His mother fell in the snow, presumably she could be seriously injured, but have you called and asked how she is? (* For example, a head injury would be more important than your birthday). Google silent treatment psychology, and narcissism pops up. So in your paragraph, you have exhibited three, possibly four, signs of narcissist behavior. Birthday focus, lack of empathy, silent treatment, possibly blaming. Narcissists are on a spectrum, meaning it’s not a “are you or are you not” a narcissist, but you have narcissistic behaviors.

If you recognize this, there may be hope for you learning, through a counselor, how to show fair and equal treatment of others. It could make a huge positive impact in your life. I say this with kindness, because I think those skills would make you and the people around you alot happier. Good luck.

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Rich

Long story short, my ex wife and I after being together for 8 years 6 of those years married we ended up long distance because of her having to work overseas. We were more than great together but the distance put a big wedge in our communication. We argued about nothing, told her she needed to come home. She refused because she said we needed more money. Soon after she went silent. Didn’t call me or pick up when I called her. Said she wanted to separate which turned into a divorce. To this day she ignores me when I only talk business with her as far as small details that need to be squared away for all the things we accumulated together over the years. Left me with a mortgage, bills, and everything in between to handle by myself. I know its another man but why ignore me like we I meant nothing to her? Three years later Im just starting to get over the pain. Made no sense to just disappear with no explanation.

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Rich

Long story short, my wife of 6 years together 9 of those years divorced me because of a break down in communication. She got hired to work overseas which at the time we needed I
the money. The distance destroyed my marriage we argued about nothing which now looking back she resented me for having to be the bread winner. Yes I worked and still do. Have a great job but was laid off before she was hired. Any way, She soon started ignoring me, not helping me with bills, and became very distant. Said she wanted a separation that lead to a divorce. To this day she ignores me when talking business when it comes to small details of splitting our assets up. Makes no sense…. Before she left our relationship was better than ok. Once I was laid off and she left to go work things changed. Thought we were in this together….a few arguments? Was blind sided hard. I even stepped up and paid all the bills sacrificed not eating to do so just to receive the silent no contact treatment because she felt she was in a place of control and power. That shut hurts. I’m a very good man….she was a good wife. Didn’t realize once the down sides of marriage hit she would act like this.

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Silvia

Rich, I’m sorry you’re going through this. I know how that hurts cause I’m going through the same.

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Neicey

My guy friend shutdown on me and won’t return my texts or calls.I didnt get no closure.I have other guy friends.I think thats why.He went from nice too mean.Also sending me mixed signals.I miss him so much.I know i need to let go but sumn inside of me needs closure.Is he hurt or he just doesnt care no more.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Neicey you are allowed to have other friends. If there was a problem, it was up to him to talk to you about this so you could reassure him or hear what he needed from you. In any relationship we will do things that hurt the people we love, but the difference with healthy relationships is the way these are worked through. I can hear how much you miss him, but you deserve clarity and the opportunity to put things right if you have done something to upset him. The way he has shut you down without explanation is hurtful and not the way to be in a healthy, nurturing, loving relationship. Keep moving forward.

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Sheri

The silent treatment is a form of AVOIDANT ABUSE. You can read more on it on google search or even facebook. Hope it helps because the ino helped me tremendously.

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Kelly

I think he is hurt. I don’t think that extreme of an action would indicate “Not caring”

It would be a heck of a lot easier if he didn’t care to answer you in trite words or messages. Something is up.

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Elaine

Our son who is a lovely lad, he’s thoughtful, careing, & loving boy, he met this girl in 2012, she has 2 children from 2 different partners, she has alialanated the grandparents of these children, & has done the same to us, she’s controlling & because our son has got to know & love these children he won’t turn his back on them, which we understand, but our son had such a great relationship with his dad it was untrue, he idolised his dad.
We have tried every way possible to keep in touch with him for over 2 years now, but it’s finally come to a stop, we-understand he’s got his own life & as he’s in the forces were very proud of him. But what we carnt understand is why the no contact, they have a son now which was born in Dec. & he didn’t even tell us. He’s also cut himself off from his best friend of 15 years & they went everywhere together. She reads all his text & emails. We just don’t know where to turn. If she carnt have her own way she stops all contact, even her own family & mother. But she says she’s sorry even if she’s got nothing to say sorry about. His dad has been down to see him twice, & he hugged his dad & told him he loved him, but she wasn’t there at the time, he lives in Norfolk we live in Manchester, if they come to Manchester he doesn’t even call. We just don’t know, we met Michelle & her children after they had been going out for a while & we grew to love those children. We did everything for them, & they loved us to. Could you please give us some advice

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I so wish I could give you some answers. The capacity of toxic people to manipulate and control is vast. It sounds as though you are doing everything you can, but it is your son’s growth now and his lessons to learn. Keep loving him and keep the door open to him.

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Katie

This is so sad. I feel for you. Your son sounds like a victim of abuse, so google words to say to a victim of abuse, etc. Abusers brainwash their victims over time, so their judgement is warped. Basically, your son needs to feel empowered and that he has your unconditional love and support if he ever needs you, you are there for him. You can’t say anything against Michelle, just try to be in his life as much as possible.

Keep a memo of record of any abuse, in the event he leaves, as it could help with his custody of his child.,

So whatever you say or do has to let him feel like he is empowered, so you can’t tell him what to do. If he expresses sadness, or anything like that, do encourage him to seek counseling for it (don’t tell him he is being abused, unless he says it himself. You don’t want to make him feel defensive of Michelle.

The best thing you can do is continue to reach out, and not take it personally if he doesn’t respond. Try FaceTime (almost like being there) with him at times he is likely not with Michelle, and just be a positive source of comfort, there to uplift, so that if and when he is ready to leave, he will know he can turn to you.

It sounds like he had such a loving upbringing, so that gives hope for the future.

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Michael

Great article on the “Silent Treatment”…it is hurtful, and I have been guilty of it myself…but there is another thought to why some may fall into the silent treatment. Survivors of abuse can shut down as a protective mode, so the silent treatment is a ‘defense’. And yes, new ways of coping are needed when in disputes with others, but when one is unaware of why they are shutting down, it is hard to change the pattern. For myself, learning how trauma and abuse impacted my life, helps me to not default to silence with others…still a work in progress. Progress, not perfection…

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Katie

Good for you, Michael, that you recognize and are working on it, and that way you refuse to pay the emotional abuse forward. That takes great courage.

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Sarah

My 13-year-old daughter hasn’t talked to me for a year. Her teachers say she’s like that in class too. Is this ‘the silent treatment’ or ‘select mutism’ or something else?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Sarah it’s impossible to say without a proper assessment. If you are worried, or if her teachers are worried, it would be worth getting an assessment from a doctor or a psychologist. When you have a better handle on what’s going on, it will be easier to give your daughter the support she needs.

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panda

My sister ignored me for years. She deliberately decided to never discuss anything about me , not invir=te me to family get-togethers, etc. All conversation was determined by her. She would not give me her phone # for years. If I needed to contact her, I had to go thru 2 other people who then would decide if my request to speak with her was necessary.If together in public, she deliberately would humiliate me in front of others. Our parents and relatives are now gone, so I no longer have to try to assuage her anger. I completely ignore her. She is very hurt. But I cannot erase 40 years of abuse .

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Diana

Hi I have been married for 13 years my husband and I have two kids. My husband uses the silent treatment on me when ever he gets really mad at me. My husband recently reunited my sister. It felt awesome, so I wanted to return the favor and reunite him and his dad they had had an argument 2 weeks ago and had not spoken . The fight was over something dumb. My father I. Law is ill and almost 70 and my husband loves him very much. So I figured I would try to talk to my father I law which I did to help the situation. My husband got furious with me and is now giving me the silent treatment I. Front of our kids. He will talk and act like nothing is wrong with them by will not answer look or speak to me? What do I do?

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Kim

I’ve been dating a great guy for several months. He has some issues that are deal breakers for me, so I decided we need a short break so he could work on them…..he agreed. Problem is, I feel like I’m being manipulated so he can get his way. Example: he asked for assistance with something (which I was willing to help with) but when I didn’t invite him over to do that, I get the silent treatment. I’m not a mind reader!! I feel like he is using these tactics to get me to do what he wants, which is see him during this break. How do I not play into this game? So far I’ve held firm and pretended I didn’t even notice his silence or short responses.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

You are so right – you’re not a mind reader, but neither is your partner. If you are feeling manipulated by the things he is doing, it’s important to talk to him and let him know so that he can have the opportunity to change it. Describe the exact behaviour you would like to be different, perhaps by telling him that you find the way he ignores you confusng. Also let him know that you’re open to what he wants, but he needs to let you know. Communication is so important.

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Terry

My wife of 7 years has told me she wants a divorce. We have withdrawn from one another and sleep in different rooms. She has refused to acknowledge me on social media and tells me she is to busy to like or comment on posts she is tagged in yet she will like and comment on other people’s posts. She claims she is widling to work things out with me, but it feels like otherwise. What should I do? And why won’t she just tell me outright?

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Louisa

My boyfriend and I were red hot with chemistry and we were literally inseparable. He told me everything and said how lucky he was and he was the luckiest guy on the planet… we went on holiday together and on the last two days (completely out of the blue) he refused to look me in the face, ignored me, insulted my intelligence in front of others and made me look like an idiot and was generally very unpleasant and negative. He avoided me and wouldn’t come within a metre of me. It was like I wasn’t there, like I had to question my own existence. When we got home he desperately got me out of his house and that was it. I’ve texted him asking what was wrong and why he was doing this – no reply. After 2 weeks of being blatantly ignored I went to his house unannounced because he refused to answer me and got my stuff back. He said he needed to focus on work because he was too stressed and couldn’t give me what I needed blah blah blah.. all very complimentary (without me digging) but said in a backwards complimentary way… example “you’re kind, amazing, beautiful, sexy, compassionate, I hope you can fit your head out the door on the way out!” erm wtf? Anyway it’s been a month and I never heard from him again. Very weird… very very weird. I literally have no idea what happened and I’ve thought of everything I could have done to piss him off but tbh I don’t think I did anything to warrant this! Odd.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Very odd! And thoughtless on his part. Even if you did do something wrong, at the very least you dese bed an explanation. Try not to take it personally. I know that may be hard, but it sounds as though there are some confusing things that may have happened that aren’t about you the r your relationship. I hope one day you get some answers, or reach the point where the lack of answers stops hurting so much.

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