Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment


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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I wad friends with this girl for over 25 years. For the first 10 years we was just friends very good friends. Then things got sexual and towards these last 5 years it all went to hell. And just like a snap of the fingers she started all the clasic things that is done to ruin the relationship. All of a sudden she had to work so much, and then cant get a hold of her by text and she stop calling and would only communicate through text, ignoring me for days or weeks , and if i were to ask her whats up with all this distance should started saying to me that i am the one with the problem she doesnt think there is anything wrong. It went from her saying yes i would marry you to this. And here is why , she met one of my friends and started having an affair with him. So 9 times out of 10 unless your a jerk in the first place it all stems from them cheating. So dont rack your head wondering what the hells going on because that is the last thing that your going to be dealing with. The hurt is hell someone that has always had your back is now stabbing it. I rather her just tell me she was sleeping with someone else , dont even need to tell me who rather than put me through hell. I am still heart broken and lost. Good luck to all who also had this happened.


I’ve been in a relationship for 10 years, out of which 6 we lived together – I never felt love like this, we fit great in all possible ways, he made me laugh, I felt safe and protected. And then life hit. He is a freelancer and he started lacking work, so all the financial pressure was on me. Plus the house stuff – which, honestly, he didn’t touch much, also him being a foreigner he kind of used it as an excuse of letting more for me to sort out. I never minded that – but now I see it was a mistake. We used to attend these expats meetups and made new friends. Including a girl who loves hockey (he’s Canadian). He met her only two or three times last year. Then, in the beginning of this year, while I was having weekly business trips, he started going out with her for a coffee. I am not a jealous person, I trusted him – besides, I was certain there mare more important things keeping us together, so I didn’t mind. But then, the |Thursday coffee became also a Sunday coffee, which bothered me. But hey, 2 or 3 hours didn’t mean much. Then I noticed small chats on FB – which grew longer, and I started to be annoyed. I said that out loud – to no avail though, and besides, I kept on being busy and I admit my attention to him got reduced, because I was so occupied with so many things and in the evening I honestly wanted an hour or so for myself. In the beginning of April she had an operation and my partner went ballistic with worry. Hey, is a friend, is normal to worry – and I held his hand and morale… Long story sort – the last week of April was madness. I was so furious and every time I tried to speak to him (with or without fury), I got nothing. Well… I did get something… on the 30th of April, when he moved out. Just like this. Only a “I can’t deal with you when you’re like that and I am going away for a couple of days”. Still, a week later he took all his stuff. He said he didn’t sleep with her while being with me – and I kind of believe it (or so I am telling myself). Still, the emotional betrayal is worse. However, in 10 years we never fought – not once. There was this rule of never going to sleep upset on eachother. There was also the rule of if there is a problem, we’ll discuss it. This one was broken – by him, who made me promise it over and over again. Since then – we have a pet (a rabbit) that he visits every week. There are a million little things that puzzle me: when you get a new “toy” you should be glowing and do whatever you can to be with that person as much as possible. Still, the few times I saw him, he looks worse than the last. When he visits the bunny, he spends long hours with him. I went out on a Sunday trip – he came at 8.00 AM (??) and left around 22.30. I don’t get it! I tried to discuss it with him – well, in the first weeks it was kind of impossible, because I was sick to the core, having panic attacks several times a day and being pretty much completely nonfunctional. Oh, I forgot to say he left 2 weeks before my 50th birthday! He wanted several times to go out for coffee or lunch, he came to help me set up the new washing machine… Now I see that he can actually do the dished (which he never did before) and buy groceries for the bunny without complaining. It all hurts – I see it was my big mistake to pamper him endlessly and forget about myself. But no matter what I do, he doesn’t speak – because he hates any type of confrontation. I need a reason, an explanation, something… I want him back, but I honestly don’t know what to do. There were moments when I was calm and able to explain my side – and other moments when I was pretty much “bitchy”. And I hate it! I don’t understand how at 53 y.o you can throw yourself into a relation with someone you can’t know properly in a month… is it a proper base for a lasting thing? With someone 13 y.o – and honestly, the “clingy” type? For the past few days I am giving him the silence treatment – no reply to FB messages, no posts on FB (that’s how he found out I threw up my back once and the next day he ran to me with a brace and painkillers), no reply to phone message (he announced a visit to the bunny on Monday, if it’s ok with me and I didn’t reply). I know how hurtful it is – and I am aware I push him further away, but I really don’t know what else to do. I still want him back – and on the other hand. I don’t know how to move forward.


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