The silent treatment is a refusal to communicate verbally with another person. People who use the silent treatment may even refuse to acknowledge the presence of the other person.
People use the silent treatment in many types of relationship, including romantic relationships.
It can sometimes be a form of emotional abuse. This is the case when one person uses it to control and manipulate the other.
This article will discuss the silent treatment, why people use it, and how individuals can respond to it. It also looks at how the silent treatment relates to abuse.
People use the silent treatment for a number of reasons. These include:
- Avoidance: In some cases, people stay silent in a conversation because they do not know what to say or want to avoid conflict.
- Communication: A person may use the silent treatment if they do not know how to express their feelings but want their partner to know that they are upset.
- Punishment: If a person uses silence to punish someone or to exert control or power over them, this is a form of emotional abuse.
In most cases, using the silent treatment is not a productive way to deal with a disagreement.
Research indicates that both men and women use the silent treatment in relationships. However, clear and direct communication is essential for healthy relationships. Using the silent treatment prevents people from resolving their conflicts in a helpful way.
When one partner wants to talk about a problem but the other withdraws, it can cause negative emotions such as anger and distress. According to a 2012 study, people who regularly feel ignored also report lower levels of self-esteem, belonging, and meaning in their lives.
Because of this, the silent treatment can have an impact on the health of a relationship, even if the person who is silent is trying to avoid conflict.
A person with a partner who avoids conflict is more likely to continue a dispute because they have not had an opportunity to discuss their grievances.
A person may be using silence in an abusive way if:
- they intend to hurt another person with their silence
- the silence lasts for extended periods of time
- the silence only ends when they decide it does
- they talk to other people but not to their partner
- they seek alliances from others
- they use silence to blame their partner and make them feel guilty
- they use silence to manipulate or “improve” their partner, or to pressure them to change their behavior
Other types of emotional abuse
In addition to the silent treatment, a person might use other types of emotional abuse to control their partner, such as:
- monitoring their activities
- demanding access to their phone, email account, and other digital information
- deciding what they wear, eat, or drink
- isolating them from their family and friends
- controlling all their finances and spending
- controlling whether or not they go to work or school
- humiliating them in front of others or on social media
- using intimidating behavior, threatening them, or giving them ultimatums
- threatening to harm themselves, pets, or loved ones
- gaslighting them
- withholding affection, such as sexual activity
- guilt-tripping them
Over time, emotional abuse often escalates to physical violence.
How a person responds to the silent treatment depends on whether or not their partner is being abusive.
If the silent treatment does not appear to be part of a larger pattern of abuse, a person can try the following approaches:
Name the situation
Acknowledge that someone is using the silent treatment. For example, a person can say, “I notice that you are not responding to me.” This lays the foundation for two people to engage with each other more effectively.
Use ‘I’ statements
A person can let the other person know how they feel by using “I” statements. For example, the person on the receiving end may say: “I’m feeling hurt and frustrated that you aren’t speaking to me. I would like to find a way to resolve this.”
This type of statement focuses on the feelings and beliefs of the speaker rather than any characteristics they attribute to the other person.
Acknowledge the other person’s feelings
Ask the other person to share their feelings. This lets them know that their feelings are important and valid, and it paves the way for an open conversation. Avoid becoming defensive or going into problem-solving mode. Try to stay present and listen empathically.
If the person responds in a threatening or abusive way, it is important to remove oneself from the situation until they calm down. Talk to a doctor, therapist, or trusted friend for help.
Apologize for words or actions
A person should not apologize or blame themselves for another person’s use of the silent treatment, as the silence is how their partner chooses to respond.
However, they may need to apologize if they have said or done something that may have hurt the other person’s feelings.
Cool off and arrange a time to resolve the issue
Sometimes, a person may give someone the silent treatment because they are too angry, hurt, or overwhelmed to speak. They may be afraid of saying something that makes the situation worse.
In these cases, it can be helpful for each person to take some time to cool off before getting together to discuss the issue calmly. Counselors call this “taking a time-out.”
Avoid unhelpful responses
Try to avoid escalating the situation or provoking the person who is silent into speaking. This can create more conflict.
Trying the above steps can help those in an otherwise healthy relationship. However, people in abusive relationships will need to take different steps.
If a person feels that they or their family are in immediate danger, they must call 911. If they are not in immediate danger, a person who believes that their partner is abusive should consider whether or not they wish to stay in the relationship.
It will help someone in an abusive relationship to:
- stay in contact with their family and friends
- talk privately with a trusted professional, such as a counselor or domestic violence advocate, who can discuss the person’s options in a safe space
- seek advice and support from a domestic abuse organization, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline or Love is Respect
Couples who have difficulty communicating effectively may benefit from counseling. A therapist can help the partners express their feelings so that they can resolve conflicts in a healthy way.
However, therapists and organizations including the National Domestic Violence Hotline do not recommend couples counseling for those in abusive relationships.
This is because domestic abuse is not a product of an unhealthy relationship. The issue lies only with the abusive person. In some cases, focusing on relationship issues in therapy may reinforce their abusive behaviors.
People on the receiving end of a partner’s abuse may benefit from individual therapy if they safely engage in appointments. A therapist can help them recover their self-esteem and understand that they are not responsible for their partner’s behavior.
Abusive people who wish to change can enroll in programs to help alter their behaviors.
Using the silent treatment is an unproductive way of communicating within a relationship. It can sometimes be a form of self-protection, but at other times, it indicates emotional abuse.
People who regularly use or experience the silent treatment should take steps to address it.
If there are other signs of abuse, it may be necessary to seek outside support to stay safe.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- phone, at 800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for people of color, here: