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.

[irp posts=”810″ name=”Fighting Fair in A Relationship: How to Get What You Need and Stay Close While You Do It”]

555 Comments

Rebecca B

It’s over. Move on! This guy is really cruel. Never contact him again and don’t take his calls or reply to his pleas for sympathy. He doesn’t care about you or your heart. You dodged a bullet.

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Osy

I hate it when men do that.

I had the father of my son, silent-treated me, i left him.
The next boyfriend did the same, i left too.
my recent ex-husband was doing the same, i left.
Then i have a boyfriend who is now doing the same, not texting me or texting me back withno words but this, ????.
I left him today.
I love these men, with all my heart, but i will never allow silent treatment, i am not Charlie Chaplin, i don’t bark, so i want someone to talk to me if they have a problem with me, if they don’t, then bye.
Next!

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Gracie

Leave him. It is not your fault. This behavior won’t go away without tons of work and you will become exhausted and possibly physically ill. If you stay and have children it will become even worse trying to maintain a house of harmony. All your energy will be put into making it up to the kids that dad is sulking and not talking. He will even use the kids against you during his silent treatment days to make you and the kids think that the problem is you. Worse yet when he decides he wants to be back to being a “good” family he will be very cooperative and sweet and then you will really be confused, angry, and have false hope will set in only for a huge disappointment to follow. It will hurt a lot less to get out now. If might think about seeing a professional about this on your own. This is your life, you are the only one that can save yourself. You did great by reaching out with this question.

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Tina

I’ve been married for 41 years. My husband has ignored me the majority of the time. He’s also silent and in his own world of cattle and our farm. I only stayed because I didn’t want to hurt our son and I kept hoping he would change. He has improved some, but it will never be what I want. I’m so alone in this marriage. I’m only staying with him for his life insurance. Sad…. isn’t it?

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Cathy

Yes, that is sad. Reminds me of The Bridges of Madison County. Ever see it? There’s a difference in ignoring someone during a fight, and someone who just isn’t a chatty person. Hopefully you have the latter and perhaps have some aspects you can enjoy about each other.

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Cathy

Jay – can this be a safe place where people come for support or do you have to get your back up and try to defend an entire gender? You know nothing about this woman or her life so if you don’t have anything nice to say – say nothing!

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Linda

Tina,
I totally understand. I spent 20 years in one long silent treatment. The longer you are with them the more like them you become because it is the only way to survive. Don’t pay attention to the negative comments from people who have no idea of your experience. If you feel you still have the spark of life in you, maybe consider leaving him and finding yourself, and maybe a bit of happiness. You don’t have to lose financial security either. 41 years is a long time. You could get a lawyer and look at your options.

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AJ w

In a 21 year old marriage with a sulker who goes silent for days. A few times it’s been weeks. A very lonely life. Zero sex or intimacy for years. I stay because my kids are grown, I’m 66 and have health problems. I’m retired and he has 5 more years til he retires. He works hard at work but isolates himself from 6pm until 9pm when he goes to sleep. He is self serving and self absorbed. Totally uninterested in me. But, I can go wherever I want, whenever. I often go to our vacation home to get away from him. I dread when he retires.

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Sue

@Jay – I guess that I’m the woman with the gold and my efforts to get his attention for long failed because I didn’t flash the gold. With that remark of yours (above), I can say that you’re a misogynist.

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Jo

I had this boy best friend before. We only had 6 months of being a bestfriend. We had an argument or a conflict, I think, that I don’t even know what’s my exact fault back then. One thing is for sure, he express his feelings through text that if he courted me, would I say, Yes to him? Though I really like him but I really wanted to be like the way we are at that time. I feel so confident that our relationship as bff lasts long because we’re happy, I think so or maybe I’m the one thinking it only. I’m contented on our relationship at that time that’s why I composed another answer to addressed his questions. It was 1 week after my debut and almost New Year of 2011 at that time, he was admitted to hospital because of dehydration. He texted me that he wanted to die and don’t want to feel the pain anymore. I replied that he should not say those words because there are still people who needs him and loves him including myself. It was already 10 years but his reply still fresh on me up to this moment. I admit I’m too insensitive to him that I can’t understand his feelings or behavior towards me. His reply leaves me standing paralyzed that says, please give your love to others because you never loved me..Never! I loved him more than anyone, maybe not in the way he thinks but I do loved him in my own way. That was the start of the silent treatment. I think I deserve that, but it’s already 10 years of silent treatment. Do I still deserved that? I even contacted him via mobile phone, friend requests on FB but I think I was ignored. He never replied. I still have this feeling incomplete of mine until now. What should I do?

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Jacob

JO…. seriously I’m a man and I’m telling you he’s a manipulator. Don’t fall in to the feeling guilty trap! He’s not a good person using emotional blackmail to get you to behave like that after 11 years! That’s not a friend, that’s some sort of narcissistic behaviour.

Move on in life and stop punishing yourself for his weak, self centred righteous attitude.

Do not feel sorry for people like that! Simple

Jacob

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Kathy

My fiancée is currently giving me the silent treatment. This argument started because he had excluded me when his family came down for an overnight visit and I was upset. He then was, in my opinion, rude to me. He has since gone away and has been silent overnight. This is not the first time. How do I handle it?

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Cathy

Sorry Kathy. I’m getting the silent treatment right now. I suggested that my husband park his truck down the block so the plow would be able to clear the front of our house. He didn’t want to bother cleaning off his truck. So I said, oh then maybe just back it up 20 feet and you won’t even have to clean it off. Well he flipped out. Oh I know everything, I don’t listen to him, I’m like talking to a brick wall. So he went and moved it and now hasn’t talked to me in three days. The quarrel was my fault I guess. His father used to do the same thing. And he’d acknowledge how it was unfair to his mother and childish of his father. Yet he can do it to me? 🙁 IDK I think I’ll suggest marriage counseling.

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Mina

OMG!! How old ARE these men? They sound so immature!! REALLY. ARE THEY CRAZY? How is this making a marriage work? DO THEY WANT TO BE MARRIED is my question. Most men are so cowardly.. they won’t even tell you WHAT THE HELL IS REALLY!!! WRONG.. CAUSE IT’S NOT THE TRUCK, THE SNOW, PANCAKES.. trust me.. it’s usually something else. When I finally realized it’s wasn’t the petty little things.. It’s bigger HE RESENTED THE FACT THAT I MADE MORE MONEY THEN HE DID!!!. This happened to me twice!! 1 was a coward.. the other I saw the signs AGAIN! Really pathetic. I had no problem.. but they castrate themselves… EGO.. man’s greatest enemy!! Would you blame me for gold digging! I’m way past that .. TREAT ME GOOD, BE HONEST, KIND TO EVERYONE, DON’T CHEAT just leave. I love myself enough to be WITHOUT you. Guys told me all guys cheat eventually..11 friends. all cheated but 1 guy. After 2 yrs .. you should KNOW FOR SURE if he’s the ONE. YOU HAVE TO KNOW BY THEN!..or you decided to tolerate and accept being SHUNNED .. and that is a form of abuse. NO THANK YOUI need m never fully trusted him BUT HE NEVER CHEATED ON ME .. SHOCKING CAUSE HE WAS GORGEOUS!! but he never thought so. CHEEKS M GEORGIA MGEIFK IT Sbad treatment and friends 35 to 60.. said EVERY MAN CHEATS..BEEN THRU KNOW

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Shinead

Leave him. Don’t marry him.
You deserve someone better.
Even if you did marry him he would drain away your happiness, you will continuously be thinking what makes him happy so he doesn’t give you the silent treatment.
By doing this you will neglect your own happiness.
Surely relationships are a two way street, not a one way street, there should be give and take on both sides. Not just giving by one partner and continuously taking by the other.
My opinion.

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Sue

1) Does he exclude you from meeting his friends and families? and if he doesn’t exclude you, you’re only around a brief moment with them before he whisks you off?
2) Does he make a lot of independent choices on you where you find out later, after he’s done it?
3) Does he go hot and cold with you?
4) Does he do the “it’s my way or the highway”?
5) Is he unable to handle conflicts? And goes off, only to come back and pretend like nothing happened?
6) Is he unable to talk about emotions/feelings?

If your answer is “yes”, don’t marry him. He needs therapy before you marry him.

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Jobie

If you can handle it ….stay. But it is probably a pattern. It is harmful to you, him and your relationship. Tell him that and see if he accepts it. If not, it may be time to break the engagement. He’ll probably continue and the episodes may last longer – speaking from experience.

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Desire

My long distance boyfriend is ignoring me for two days now and am really confuse because we don’t have any issues and we were pretty cool the last time we talked on phone ..so should i chat him up to know whats going on with him?because when ever he ignores me …I always try to start a conversation with him
buh right now ..am really confused

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Tils

Gosh. I have read so many things online recently about the silent treatment and I still cant decided whether my fiance is justified in doing it to me or not.
He has done it before when I have caught him out hiding stuff from me – like planning to have his kids extra long because his ex asked him and not even discussing with me first or finding letters in his bag for unpaid debt addressed to his ex that he then tried to lie to me about. This time though I did something. I looked at his Google search history. Found something on there that once again he’d lied to me about partaking in so I questioned him. Admitted id looked at his Google search history, apologised and explained I knew it was wrong of me but I was curious and for good reason it seems! Anyway he then gave me the silent treatment through the day in the house but acted fine on a night through text while he was working. This lasted 2 days. Last night he messaged asking about our honeymoon and where I wanted to go and to have a look etc. And today has been completely fine! I am massively confused! How can he ignore me in person yet act fine on message and then just be completely normal?! Nothing is resolved. I’ve still found something out about him that he has hidden from me. Seems to think everything should be private but I’m sorry, some stuff when you’re about to marry someone can be done in private but shouldn’t be a secret. And finances especially need transparency but I have no clue even how much he earns a month! Or how much debt he has – or who’s debt he’s paying for that matter. He’ll say he doesn’t know my business either but he does because he knows he needs to give me money as my pay only covers the mortgage. Anyway. My questions are – is he justified with this behaviour as I technically did something that clearly upset him (even though what I found upset me)? And also how do I now go about bringing it up again? He’s acting normal and we always have the kids around. It’s impossible to get time to have a proper conversation to sort anything from other unresolved issues which I believe he thinks I’ve forgotten about??

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Sara

My husband, soon to be ex, behaved in the exact same way, with me being given the silent treatment on a regular basis. Always after him hiding things from me, or lying about what he was doing. I put up with it for fourteen years, until I became so mentally exhausted by his behaviour, as above, and more, that I filed for divorce. My advice would be to end the relationship, because this type of abuse, controlling and financial, will lead onto other forms of mental manipulation, which will continue indefinitely. Such is the nature of someone with narcissistic personality. The silent treatment is one of their most used punishments, when they are caught out, or you question their behaviour.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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