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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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484 Comments

Al

my ex and i had a disagreement over a month because i was at my house celebrating my sons 25th birthday, things were going good until i told her the milk i bought for her to take it home when she goes home, she took that as me telling her to leave. i explained to her i a very calm way that that is not at all what i meant, things did get better that day but then later all she did was sit on the corner of the couch and ignored all of us, i tried to ask her what was wrong several times and i got ignored finally i stood up after 3 hrs and confronted her she got very upset and left, now she is giving me the silent treatment i have apoligized for my mistake and didnt mean to embarrass her and i have reached out every few days asking how she is and if we can discuss her feelings about what happened but no response since the breakup. what more can i do?

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Zoey

Well mine is a lil bit different. See, i’m in a relationship of a year and things aren’t working out. Don’t get me wrong I love my boyfriend and he says he loves me too. Lately, i’ve been complaining about commitment and how distance he is. He only see me when he’s the one who needs me. So i came to a point where i asked him to give me space, because i never knew who is the problem between us; whether i was giving too much or maybe he doesn’t want to be with me but just pretending not to hurt my feelings. Then he said he’ll give me space but i shouldn’t hurt his feelings because he loves me. So i tried to distance myself but he didn’t want that to happen. He would text me just to check if i’m okay. And i ain’t gonna lie. The space thingie didn’t work out. Now I’m giving him a silence treatment i don’t call and i don’t text back. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do because we had a lil chat 3 days ago when he asked me to tell him about how do i really feel actually because he doesn’t understand. So i did just that and he didn’t give me a reason that would make me feel sympathy for him or something like that. So i don’t know if i should call him or he will, but i doubt because he never calls i’m actually the one who does that , see now i’m owning my ground. But i don’t know if it’s the right thing.

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Yuliana

Hi everone, My boyfriend and I have been in a long distance relationship fora year. We barely ever fight and when we do we get over it within a day or two. He usually ignores me and talks to me as little as possible when he is angry. This week we had a fight because him and our mutual friend haven’t been getting along because our friend is going through a difficult time in his relationship and my boyfriend finds that hilarious so he keeps picking at him. My boyfriend likes to brag about how has the best girlfriend ( which i find super adorable sometimes). This time our mutual friend had and my boyfriend were arguing, our friend said he was going to ” expose me” and said that I wasnt as innocent as my boyfriend claims I am. He then proceeds to tell my boyfriend some warped out version of the truth about how me and him wanted to meet up and basically saying i was trying to go behind my boyfriends back to meet and have sex with him. Yes me and our mutual friend did want to meet BUT it has always been as friends and in the end we never officially planned anything and we never ended up meeting. I didn’t mention it to my boyfriend because at the time it didnt seem like a big deal, we didnt meet each other and didnt secure any plans to meet. Anyways my boyfriend got furious and called me all types of names and said i was sneaky, disloyal and ungrateful (because he takes care of me financially). I apologized several times for making him feel this way and he said he needs time to himself and that he would talk to me when he feels like it. Its been 5 days and we haven’t spoken except for a couple times through text ( even in the text message he kept bringing up our mutual friend saying i should be with them) and today its even worse. I went to the store to buy something and the card declined. When i went to check the balance online , he had transferred all of the money off it as if to punish me. I don’t understand why hes being this way if he knows that I wouldn’t betray him. I checked his status on facebook and he changed it to single but he told me if I change mine then we are finished. Should I wait for him to stop being mad at me or should I leave and move on with my life?

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Margaret

I am depressed my boyfriend got me pregnant its now 4 months but he doesn’t communicate ,I try to talk to him but he Doesn’t pick my calls or even reply some messages ,I love him and its so hard for me at this time ,,,I have not told my dad that am pregnant because he has anger issues and he can throw me out of the house yet I have no one to turn to because am not sure if my guy will accept me ever ,what can I do

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Leslie

I’ve been talking to a guy I met from online for 5 months now. I’m a single mom of 2 going out of my way to find a sitter for dates. I am always the one commuting the distance to see him. I enjoy spending time with him and don’t mind. He’s currently finishing his masters and tells me he’s on a budget and doesn’t want to do things that cost money all the time. In my culture it seemed offensive at first I felt like am I just a f**** because clearly I’m the one that forking the money most of the time. I noticed he doesn’t even try to impress me with his appearance but when he goes out on outing and sends me pictures he has a fresh cut and is dressed nice (never on our dates). I feel like my past relationships have made me insecure and a person who finds it hard to trust. He makes plans with his friends and coworkers (again he’s supposed to be on a budget) that really sets me off. Long story short I have him the silent treatment, and he text me he noticed I haven’t communicated with him, I couldn’t hold back and told him I see he has his priorities and I’m only being seen when it’s a convenience to him. He pulls his reverse psychology on me all the time and says sorry he made me feel that way that it’s not his intentions. I didn’t text him back after that because I need to cool off, and he hasn’t either. Is this relationship worth keeping.

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Jen

I feel sad that I’m looking up this topic online even. My 62 yr old boyfriend of 17 months is frequently irritable with me. His grown son told me this is how he was his whole childhood and that’s why his mom left him (for another man). Lately, whenever I am happy, cheerful, grateful, talkative, excited about something, whatever, he treats me like I’m being an annoying child. Our phone calls last less than 10 minutes, often less than 2, and this is when one or the other of us is out of town. When I ask open questions, he shuts me down. When I ask yes/no questions, he asks me why I need to know, or why I don’t just leave him alone…to play Solitaire on his phone for 2 hours while I do other things in my own house and he sits in my living room. Meanwhile, I have many happy, engaging, interesting friendships with dynamic, awake people of both genders. I think I’m getting to the end of the relationship, but then again, he’s the most loyal, helpful, reliable, solid, moral man I’ve ever dated. Maybe being bored (and snipped at!) is better than being with someone interesting and communicative. I don’t really know anymore.

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Charlotte M

I became emotional reading your comment as I find myself in the exact situation. My boyfriend can be cold and dismissive;using silent treatment as a form of punishment. I excitedly try to have an engaging conversation with him and only met with a tone meant to shut me down. The contradiction in my life is that my friends and family are very open minded,engaging and woke people who enjoy my insight yet the one person who is supposed to engage with me disregards my mere presents. Such people like him,have traits of narcissism.

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Annie

my best friend gave me silent treatment for weeks without any reason, i was miserable not knowing what my fault was always and begging her to tell me, then she acted like nothing happened i was afraid to ask why did she do so cause i didn’t wanted to hurt her or worse me again. eventually we drifted after that , and i stil have nightmares always at the end of the dream asking her why did she do so. is something wrong with me? cause i am stil kind of afraid to meet her one day.

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Luvuyo

WE HAVE FIVE YEARS WITH MY BOYFRIEND IN A RELATIONSHIP BUT HE STILL HIDES ME FROM HIS FAMILY. WHEN EVER I GO TO VISIT HIM I COME AT NIGHT AND NO ONE MUST SEE ME. HE DOESN’T BUY ME ANYTHING TO EAT SO I SLEEP WITHOUT EATING ON TOP OF THAT WE HAVING SEX EVEN THOUGH IM HUNGRY HE CAN’T EVEN FELL ME WHEN IM NOT OKAY AS LONG AS HE CLIMAX. SO I TRIED CONTACTING HIM ABOUT THAT I WROTE HIM A LONG MESSAGE TELLING HIM HOW UNHAPPY I AM AND SINCE FROM THEN HE NEVER REPLIED AND HE’S IGNORING ME AND IM QUITE I DON’T WANT TO FOLLOW HIM .

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Charlotte M

I cannot tell you what choice to make but that’s not a relationship one can flourish. You deserve better than that Luvuyo.

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Anonymous

Hi guys,I have been experiencing the silence treatment from my husband for the whole year.Initially,when brings visitors I would tell them about it in front of him,because when he is with other people he is Mr good guy but to me,there’s no communication.I used to call people and talk about him just to hear their opinions,I have spoken to his big brother about it,just for him to mentor his younger brother,I didn’t get any feedback from his brother.I had one session with a Psychologist,I expected more as I am the one who is emotionally hurt,the Psychologist promised to get hold of him and he she doesn’t she will continue with me for more sessions.Until today I have tried to call the receptionist she promised to call me back.I feel like I was not meant to be with my husband as he recently doesn’t reply my calls or texts.He is currently away to be with his family but he doesn’t check on me with the kids.I am really hurt and the only option that I have decided for tge sake of my health and the kids,is to leave him as I am dying inside.

Reply
Layla

Leave the idiot. I went through this with my abusive partner but I was oblivious to his behavior for too long. I never loved him as he continuely made me feel sorry for him. It was like having to babysit him while allowing him to parasite off me. I finally took a hike and never looked back. The silent treatment he gave to me was to make me feel like I didn’t matter.
He’s alone and unhappy now.
Leave and let him drown in his own silent head.

Reply
Ahmed

My ex wife used silent treatment our whole marriage whenever she wanted to hurt me.

We got divorced, I became alcoholic and got deported from UAE where we lived due to alcohol related problems.

One day I caught her lying about my son so she blocked me then her family blocked me then she changed address and refused to tell me anything about son then cut me off from talking to him.

3 months after complete silent treatment from her and all her family, from a country i can’t visit, I flipped out and swore at them online – because I can’t reach them
By any means and can’t afford a lawyer.

She reported me to police for harassment and I got charged.

My own family – mother sister brother and uncle all refused to intervene because I was “aggressive” and because I swore at my ex.

Now my family is doing silent treatment to me.

I’ve gone to mental hospital and keep getting arrested for anger related things and the more it happens the more my family ignore me.

My son is 6 and my best friend and I haven’t spoken to him in 3 months. And I don’t know what they’ve told him. We used to talk everyday.

I spend my whole day writing abuse emails to everyone from the rage I feel. The more i threaten to kill myself the more they ignore me. AND the more space I give them and back off for a few weeks and re-approach then politely and nicely – the more they ignore me too

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Meera

This type of silent treatment can be abusive. Recently l discovered about AVOIDANT ABUSE. It opened my eyes, l suggest anyone facing this look up online about Avoidant Abuse, read a book on it. You will finally be able to heal and understand what’s going on helped me so much xx stay strong

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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.








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Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefull Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefully they’ll make plenty - it’s one of the ways they’ll learn and grow. We won’t always be able to love them out of a bad decision, but we want to be the ones they come to when the mess unfolds. 
When they get it really wrong, they’ll know it. They’ll also know exactly what we think. Of course we’ll be tempted to remind them over and over of what they’ve done and the fallout from that, but it will be useless. There is no new wisdom in telling them ‘I told you so’, and it also runs the risk of switching them off to our influence and guidance at a time they need it most. 
There will be wisdom in the mess for sure, and the best way to foster the discovery is to make a safe space for this to happen - and there is no safer space than in their connection with you. 
When we prioritise connection above lectures, criticism, or judgement, we clear the path for self-reflection. This is where the magic happens. When they feel safe with us, and free from shame or disconnection, we have enormous power to facilitate growth - ‘Can you tell me what happened? I know you’re a great kid and I’m wondering what made this feel like a good decision? What can you do differently next time? I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but it has, and I’m wondering how you might put things right? Do you need my help with that?’ When we strip it back to bare, discipline was always meant to be about teaching, and this will never happen when there is shame or when they feel disconnected from us. You are their everything. They don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to disappoint you - but they will, lots of times. 
With every one of their bad decisions is an opportunity to guide them towards growth, but only if we keep them close and hold their hearts gently amidst the breakage. When we keep their hearts open to us, they will open their minds and their mouths too. They will talk and they will listen, and they will know that even when their behaviour is ‘questionable’, they are our everything too.

Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefully they’ll make plenty - it’s one of the ways they’ll learn and grow. We won’t always be able to love them out of a bad decision, but we want to be the ones they come to when the mess unfolds.
When they get it really wrong, they’ll know it. They’ll also know exactly what we think. Of course we’ll be tempted to remind them over and over of what they’ve done and the fallout from that, but it will be useless. There is no new wisdom in telling them ‘I told you so’, and it also runs the risk of switching them off to our influence and guidance at a time they need it most.
There will be wisdom in the mess for sure, and the best way to foster the discovery is to make a safe space for this to happen - and there is no safer space than in their connection with you.
When we prioritise connection above lectures, criticism, or judgement, we clear the path for self-reflection. This is where the magic happens. When they feel safe with us, and free from shame or disconnection, we have enormous power to facilitate growth - ‘Can you tell me what happened? I know you’re a great kid and I’m wondering what made this feel like a good decision? What can you do differently next time? I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but it has, and I’m wondering how you might put things right? Do you need my help with that?’ When we strip it back to bare, discipline was always meant to be about teaching, and this will never happen when there is shame or when they feel disconnected from us. You are their everything. They don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to disappoint you - but they will, lots of times.
With every one of their bad decisions is an opportunity to guide them towards growth, but only if we keep them close and hold their hearts gently amidst the breakage. When we keep their hearts open to us, they will open their minds and their mouths too. They will talk and they will listen, and they will know that even when their behaviour is ‘questionable’, they are our everything too.
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