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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172 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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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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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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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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