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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286 Comments

Summer

Hi! I’m sorry you are all going through hard situations! I have been dating a man for almost a year long distance and we are both in our mid 40s. We both volunteer for the same organization and met several months prior to dating and have a lot of mutual friends. He has visited me twice for a week and asked me to come see him over Christmas. The problem is that he lives with with his parents and has lived there for 15 years. He has full custody of his son and says that he lives there because his parents help with his son (who is 15) and he’s also had five surgeries over that time. He is going through some health issues right now. His mother is very controlling and calls the home he lives in “her house” (she does have a husband) and has a lot of rules in her house – which include her cooking every dinner and not allowing him to cook for his own son.

He would like me to come over Christmas but said that we would be eating every dinner as a family because his mother would like to get to know me. Basically, the same rules apply when I visit. I told him that I have only seen him for two weeks total and would want to spend all my time with him and his son, although I can acknowledge that we to have Christmas Eve/day dinner with his family. And to be honest, I don’t care for his mother based on all the stories he used to tell me (he stopped a few months ago) and I don’t think we have a thing in common. I am going to see him and his son, not get his parents approval. I would like his son’s approval however and would really like to get to know him and see what it may be like if we became our own family. He was getting very frustrated with me and seems to be on the same page as his mother and said he had to go and has since stopped talking to me. He will not return my calls or read my messages that I sent him. I reached out 5 different times and quit. He has given me the silent treatment in the past and it’s even more difficult because he doesn’t live in the same state and I cant just drive over there to talk to him. I feel very hurt and ignored. He gets upset if I don’t answer when he calls but the same rules don’t apply to him. It’s the holiday season and I am very sad over this. I had hoped to go visit and spend time with him in his home state.

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Gina

I’m sorry you’re going through this, but it’s soon enough for you not to get caught up in this pattern. He will not change and if you live with him it will get worse. I’m living it now

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Jennifer

I recently broke up with a man whom I was dating for three months. We were both working full time/ going to school full time/ and I was raising a son full time too. I recently was rushed to the ER with a massive build up of stress hormones in my brain…..he never came to check on me and sent me two text messages and an email the next day. He lives less than two miles from my home. I broke up with him because I felt completely abandoned by him and didn’t know what else to do. Since then he has blocked me on social media, won’t speak to me although he still keeps in contact with my parents. I thoroughly enjoyed your article, because while I still want to be with someone one day, I am having a very difficult time moving past the hurt his avoidance has caused me. I am learning that he wasn’t the one for me and I need to move past it. Thank you for the insight and I will take it with me on my journey towards healing.

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joan j baczek

i get silent treatment in cycles and i don’t make demands or criticism,he will suddenly ignore me just cuz someone else pissed him off. but i don’t get to know this fact until suffering weeks of silent treatment with no clue as to if i was dumped or not, then he comes back, as soon as everything seems fine bam another silent treatment.

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Crystal

Oh, I’m sorry,, sounds like my situation, but I came up to feel deeply pain cannot talk to him no more not even one word, I suffered the silent treatment in cycles also for three years and I got extremely tired can’t go further the last time was last month seeing him on October 28 and he disappeared all month till November 28 and that’s bcus he called and found out I wasn’t talking to him no more but during that month I tried to reach him many times and I was in the hospital for pneumonia and told him in messeges ,he was busy with friends, he never called I got so hurt even physically after pneumonia bcus I was emotionally destroyed inside torn apart could hardly eat and sleep I could feel like I wanted to scratch my hands and my neck in desperation of the agony I felt in my spirit even had throat tightness and sometimes I suffered anxiety attacks and also experimented panic attacks tachycardia and more, and all just bcus I was left ignored badly when he was with me the last time he told me baby I’m coming tonight to be together,, oh I was excited and happy,, well he never came and he had put me to wash his clothes that day…. I suffered way too much for three years and he lives like a mile away from me that hurts more… I gave up told him in a message to not force me to talk again to him, bcus he did like almost Week ago coming to force me to be with him and I felt extremely humiliated he didn’t apologize,, I asked why and he blamed all on me saying I text alot,, which I know I didn’t, and he seemed very rebellious towards me after using me for a moment, ,now he is doing same thing so I’m over and in peace I have left,, had to pay for someone to fix the gate so he won’t come next day nokin my door bcus I ignore him a day before ,,, I never went to nok his door bcus he ignored,,, after all the one who ignores really shows how to live without them, if I ever reply to him again just to say who is this or ssh don’t interrupt your silence I’m almost forgetting you,, ..people who ignore other people are in risk to be forgotten….

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Elisa

My boss has been giving a silent treatment after I didn’t agree to start a new project. I have been trying to ignore his cold shoulder, but I am very concerned about my future in the company. I am glad I found your article! I now realized that I can’t go on like this. This silent treatment has to stop. I will explain to him that I am feeling disengaged at work because he is now excluding me from other projects and won’t say a word. Wish me luck.

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Mark

I delt with it for 25 years, it sucks, the one being silent sees nothing wrong, apologies are not taken , the more you fight it, they put the blame on you, l left the relationship , the effects of it are still there and you can never change their actions, they can be the only one.no matter the amount of love you have for the person , leave and do not spend the time i did expectingit it to be different.the hurt will now end.

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Me

Mark, this sounds so much like my situation. I’m knee deep in it now. Just wishing he would just reply. 9 years almost, this has happened multiple times. I’m just so sad

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Joe

I lie here awake at night. Feeling as though someone has cut a whole in my chest.

My wife (together for 7, married for less than 1) hasn’t spoken to me for a month. Despite my best efforts.

I moved to New Zealand from the uk, I made it happen because of her dream (we even shipped out the dog) It didn’t work as planned and was difficult, but we were turning a corner, or so I thought. I came home one night after work and she had packed her bags and left. No note, no email, no explanation.

I’ve come back to the uk over Christmas to try and make contact, to salvage something. I have only been able to speak to her mother who said I was not welcome and hung up.

I know the relationship is over. And I need to move on with my life.

The silent treatment is an awful, pathetic, cowardly way to deal with difficult issues in your life. It caused so much pain I am besides myself, second guessing everymove. No one deserves this. It guts you of your power and maximises suffering.

I realise that I may be mourning a relationship that never really existed. But it sucks. Big time.

I hope to be able to move on. Until then I am shouting into the wind.

I love you Sarah, dam you.

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G

You will be thankful one day that she made it easier by leaving. I wish my husband would leave as I’ve endured on and off silent treatment for 2 years now. I lie here in bed awake hoping he would just leave and end this torment for me as I’m too afraid to make the move

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Michelle

There’s a guy ive been messaging on line. He had ago at me as I rung him by accident his messages have been nasty..ive ignored him . he hasn’t apologise

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Mike

My soon to be ex-wife is Queen of the silent treatment…I googled it and it led me to the term Narcissism….I googled that and emotional availability…she absolutely is not available emotionally
There is some relationship with narcissism and emotional unavailability…She had childhood trauma so I excused much of her negative treatment of me for 2 years…Learned that I have some codependency issues as well..
I hope she gets help..I have some soul searching to do as well…Bottom line is people have to change themselves..Its a huge waste of time to attempt to change them..I have known this for years..
So to anyone suffering from the silent treatment….Its not a healthy way to solve problems…Your partner was “damaged” years before you met him(her)..Pray for them and move on

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Darlene

If I had somewhere to go I would leave for sure. There is no reason a man should treat a woman like this that he cares about! All he care about is eating, taking care of himself. He had an osteomy bag put on and it is temporary, he is too dependent on others. Then he is silent! I am at a point where I see him being so f——— ungrateful. Like it’s my job to care for him. He wouldn’t take care of me! But Silent Treatment Everyday! Not my husband, just a boyfriend I live with. He’s been through a lot, not my fault! I am 6 years older. Not grateful for all I’ve done or will continue to do?

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