What Couples Should Know About the Silent Treatment

How to Know When Silence Is Abusive

If you're like most people, you've probably heard the old adage, "silence is golden." But when it comes to marriage, is that really the case? Most psychologists indicate that it depends on the situation.

When silence, or, rather, the refusal to engage in a conversation, is used as a control tactic to exert power in a relationship, then it becomes "the silent treatment," which is toxic, unhealthy, and abusive. But, if being silent means simply taking a timeout to think things through and then address the issue again later, that is not at all the same thing.

Woman giving her girlfriend the silent treatment
Mixmike / Getty Images

Silence vs. Silent Treatment

There are times in relationships when being silent is acceptable and even productive. For instance, a couple, or even just one partner, may take a thoughtful timeout from a heated argument to cool off or gather their thoughts. What distinguishes this silence from the silent treatment is that the timeout is mindful and there is an assumption or agreement that they will revisit the topic again later.

There are also instances when a victim of abuse is silent as a way to stay safe and keep an already abusive situation from escalating. In these situations, the victim knows that saying something—even if their partner demands it—will only escalate the situation and lead to more abuse.

When one partner is engaging in name-calling or other forms of verbal abuse, the person on the receiving end is not required to engage with that person. In fact, it is completely reasonable and healthy to erect a boundary or remove themselves from an abusive situation.

Staying silent during an abusive situation is not an example of the silent treatment. It may very well be self-preservation.

The key, then, is knowing how to differentiate between the silent treatment—a tactic used by abusive and controlling people—and other forms of silence in a partnership.

Identifying Silent Treatment

In general, the silent treatment is a manipulation tactic that can leave important issues in a relationship unresolved. It also can leave the partner on the receiving end feeling worthless, unloved, hurt, confused, frustrated, angry, and unimportant.

When one or both partners sulk, pout, or refuse to talk, they are exerting a cruel type of power in the relationship that not only shuts out their partner but also communicates that they do not care enough to try to communicate or collaborate.

People use the silent treatment to control the situation or conversation. They also use it as a tool to avoid taking responsibility or to admit wrongdoing.

For instance, if you are upset that your partner comes home late most nights, you may start a conversation where you express your feelings and try to determine why your partner is habitually late.

A partner who doesn't want to accept responsibility for hurting you, or simply doesn't want to acknowledge or change their behavior, might respond by saying, "I'm not talking about this," or they may simply say nothing at all and ignore you altogether.

This refusal to talk is different than asking to postpone the conversation and pick it up later, which indicates the issue will be discussed at a time that is more convenient for both partners and can be a healthy choice.

Silent treatment is a flat-out refusal to ever discuss the issue—now or later.

In other words, their silence deflects the conversation and communicates that the issue is off-limits. When this happens, the person on the receiving end of the silent treatment must continue to wrestle with their pain and disappointment alone. There is no opportunity to resolve the issue, to compromise, or to understand their partner's position.

Consequently, they are often left feeling hurt, unloved, dissatisfied, and confused. What's more, this issue will not go away simply because one partner refuses to discuss it. It will continue to fester and eat away at the relationship. Eventually, these festering issues can become too much and may even lead to divorce.

When Silence Is Abusive

If you have ever found yourself in a situation where someone is giving you the silent treatment, it can be a little unnerving. They may refuse to talk to you or even acknowledge your presence.

Sometimes remaining silent can be a positive thing, especially if it keeps people from saying things they might later regret. Other times, silence is an unhealthy reaction to something upsetting, but, with time, the silence subsides and the couple is able to work out some sort of resolution.

Sometimes though, silence evolves into the silent treatment and becomes a pattern of destructive behavior. When this happens, it becomes a control tactic that is emotionally abusive.

People who use the silent treatment as a way to gain power or exert control in a relationship will:

  • Use the silent treatment to put you in your place
  • Give you the cold shoulder for days or weeks at a time
  • Refuse to talk, make eye contact, answer calls, or respond to texts
  • Fall back on the silent treatment when things don't go their way
  • Use it as a way to avoid taking responsibility for bad behavior
  • Punish you with the silent treatment when you upset them
  • Require you to apologize or give in to demands just so they will talk to you
  • Refuse to acknowledge you until you grovel and plead
  • Use silence as a passive-aggressive way to control your behavior (e.g., you give in to demands or you avoid certain behaviors to avoid the silent treatment)
  • Silence you when you attempt to assert yourself by refusing to talk
  • Communicate disdain or contempt in order to maintain the silence
  • Resort to anger and hostility to shut you up
  • Use it as the primary means of dealing with conflict

When the person using the silent treatment takes away the ability to communicate and collaborate with one another, the person on the receiving end often will go to great lengths to restore the verbal aspect of the relationship. This allows the silent person to feel vindicated, powerful, and in control, while the person on the receiving end feels confused and maybe even afraid of losing the relationship.

What's more, the silent person has successfully flipped the situation. The conversation is now about appeasing them and not about the issue at hand. The real issue is often lost in the struggle to regain equilibrium and communication in the relationship while the issues remain unresolved. And when this pattern of behavior happens on a regular basis, this is both toxic and abusive.

Research

Researchers have found that the silent treatment is used by both men and women to terminate a partner's behaviors or words rather than to elicit them. In abusive relationships, the silent treatment is used to manipulate the other person and to establish power over them.

Silence is used as a weapon to cut off meaningful conversations, stop the flow of information, and ultimately hurt the other person.

In fact, research shows that ignoring or excluding someone activates the same area of the brain that is activated by physical pain.

Meanwhile, in non-abusive relationships, the silent treatment is often referred to as demand-withdraw interactions. In these situations, one partner makes demands while the other partner withdraws or becomes silent. Although these interactions may appear similar to the silent treatment, the motives are different.

In demand-withdraw interactions, the demanding partner feels shut out and that their emotional needs are not being met while the withdrawing partner becomes silent due to hurt feelings and an unwillingness or inability to talk about them.

While not considered abusive, both approaches—the demanding and the withdrawing—can damage the relationship.

Additionally, research shows that couples engaged in demand-withdrawal patterns are more dissatisfied with their relationship. They also experience less intimacy and poorer communication. What's more, there is more anxiety and aggression in a relationship when this pattern of behavior is present.

How to Respond

If your relationship experiences demand-withdrawal interactions, you need to become aware of what is really taking place. In most cases, the demanding partner feels abandoned and the silent partner feels afraid—their silence is a way to protect themselves from more pain.

To resolve the issue, both partners need to take responsibility for their behavior and try to empathize with their partner.

Likewise, you both need to try to find more effective ways of dealing with difficult feelings and situations. Using "I" statements rather than saying "you" is usually more effective and less threatening. Starting a sentence with "you" almost immediately puts people on the defensive.

Couples counseling might be beneficial if you have trouble breaking this pattern of communication in your relationship. With the help of a neutral person, you both can learn more effective ways to communicate and manage conflict.

If the silent treatment is part of a larger emotional abuse issue, then it is important for the victimized person to recognize what is taking place and get help.

Avoid inventing ways to get your partner to talk with you or acknowledge you. If you can safely do so, walk away when your partner gives you the silent treatment and do something you enjoy.

If your partner is unwilling to change, it is important that you make your emotional and physical safety a priority. Emotional abuse is harmful and could escalate to physical violence—especially when the abusive partner feels like they are losing control. An experienced therapist can help you navigate the situation safely and make the decision that is right for you.

A Word From Verywell

If you're on the receiving end of the silent treatment in an abusive relationship, don't blame yourself. Your partner's silence is not your fault—no matter what you're told. If your partner is unwilling to change, you may want to consider your options including breaking off the relationship at some point.

If you need help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for guidance and support. They also provide an online chat option that is available 24 hours a day. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

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  1. Schrodt P, Witt P, Shimkowski J. A meta-analytical review of the demand/withdraw pattern of interaction and its associations with individual, relational, and communicative outcomesCommunication Monographs, 2014;81(1):28. doi:10.1080/03637751.2013.813632

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