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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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.


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


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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