Are you being subjected to the silent treatment?
Do you wonder why your partner would want to do that to you?
Are you at a loss as to how to respond to it?
I have no doubt that it's really hurt you. I suspect that you've been desperately trying to get him or her to talk to you. You've perhaps tried absolutely everything you can think of, simply to get them to acknowledge you again. It’s no wonder if these episodes leave you feeling rejected - the silent treatment is so painful!
So stick with me - I’ll explain it all, and give you some advice on how to handle it. My aim is to help you learn how to deal with the silent treatment effectively, and how to prevent it from happening again.
We’ll be exploring the silent treatment in the context of a close couple relationship - but the theory can be applied to any other personal relationship too.
You'll sure know what it feels like when someone gives you the silent treatment. They simply stop talking to you - for hours, days or even weeks.
Your partner will ignore you, deliberately avoid and cold-shoulder you. It’s a passive-aggressive way to show that they're miffed by something you've said or done.
So what's going on - is it the silent treatment, or a poor version of the time-out technique called stonewalling?
If your partner seems to have stopped talking to you out of the blue or after a fight, clearly the two of you are having a conflict - even if you weren't aware that you’d done something 'wrong'.
By giving you the silent treatment, your partner wants you to know that he or she is displeased and is intent on punishing you.
Stonewalling will have started when your partner cut you off in the middle of an argument. S/he will have refused to talk further and may even have abruptly left the room or the house. In this instance, they're likely to feel overwhelmed - by hurt, frustration or anger.
Stonewalling is a defensive move away from danger towards safety. It’s an attempt to prevent themselves or the situation from getting out of control.
Here's how that works:
Stonewalling is used to shut down the conversation when other strategies (e.g. criticism, contempt and defensiveness) haven't worked.
It is without a doubt detrimental to the relationship, particularly when it becomes a habit. It totally removes the ability for both partners to process the conflict, negotiate, compromise, forgive (even if not forget) and move on.
Whether you’re on the receiving end of the silent treatment or stonewalling, take a moment to think about what might have caused your partner to behave like this.
Be totally honest with yourself: is it possible that you've done something that’s hurt your partner terribly? Or does your partner treat you this way regularly?
If you’re often totally ignored and/or stonewalled and you genuinely can’t see a reason why, it’s likely that your partner is using the silent treatment to manipulate you. In which case, it’s a tactic designed to control your behaviour and is a sign of an abusive relationship. If that feels a little too familiar, then I’d like you to go straight to this article for the help you need right now: Signs of an abusive Relationship.
If you can identify some wrongdoing on your part, then it's likely that your partner could be feeling overwhelmed by hurt and anger. In which case, they may well want you to feel punished for what you’ve done. But refusing to talk to you until they decide when you’ve been punished enough is far from a helpful strategy in a loving relationship!
You don’t have to wait for them to make the first move, though. Here’s what you can do when you know you’re in the wrong...
I’d also recommend that you talk it over with a counsellor beforehand (it's easy to connect with professional help these days). That way, you can work out the best approach and identify anything that could stand in the way of a reconciliation.
Conflicts are inevitable in intimate relationships. But it’s sooo important for the survival of your relationship or marriage that you both learn to deal with and bounce back from the challenges you encounter along the way.
How might this ever so unhelpful tactic have come about?
Here are a couple of possible explanations...
It may be that your partner learnt about the silent treatment when they were a child. They may have been subjected to it themselves… which will have given them first hand experience of its effectiveness! They’ll know from personal experience that it can cause you to feel:
A child whose parent used the silent treatment may well have been raised with other equally unhelpful parenting techniques. So they’re unlikely to have any experience of effective conflict management.
As a child, they might have learnt that the way to be forgiven for doing wrong (and to be loved again) was first to be punished by the silent treatment. Then they’d have bent over backwards in a desperate effort to please the displeased parent and be forgiven for their wrongdoing (perceived or real). In which case, that’s exactly the behaviour they’ll use in their adult life too - and they’ll expect you to bend over backwards to earn their forgiveness.
The silent treatment might also cause a child to become wary of anyone who claims to love them… because being ignored doesn’t exactly feel very loving!
So, as an adult, they may have a hard time getting too close to anyone because it can feel too risky. They may never fully able to trust the other’s professions of love, simply because of the mixed messages they got as a child.
Since you're one half of this relationship, I wonder whether you recognise some of these patterns in yourself too?
Does your partner generally find it difficult to talk about their feelings?
This is a somewhat less damaging scenario if it occurs in an essentially healthy relationship.
While I hesitate to generalise, it's well known that men on the whole find it more difficult to talk about their feelings.
They tend to withdraw, preferring to just to move on (or sweep it under the rug!) and focus on the future rather than talk about how they feel. They can also become overwhelmed by emotions and cut themselves off from others as a coping strategy.
These are just two examples of potential reasons why someone might use the silent treatment. But they are by no means an excuse for the way your partner is behaving.
Ultimately, the silent treatment is a form of emotional blackmail and manipulation, and is not a healthy way to deal with problems in a relationship.
With that in mind, I’d really like you to take a look at my articles: Signs of emotional abuse, Signs of a toxic relationship and How to deal with a narcissistic husband, wife or partner. I just want you to be sure there’s nothing more sinister going on.
Now that you know a little more about the silent treatment in general, it’s also important for you to know that…
Being on the receiving end of this kind of toxic behaviour can be pretty upsetting and frustrating.
It can make you feel pretty powerless too - but there are ways you can help to resolve the situation. You don’t have to (and indeed you shouldn’t just) wait for things to get better on their own.
Here’s what you can do when you're getting the silent treatment...
1. Learn how to argue effectively
Read my article on how to stop the constant arguing in a relationship. It has a ton of tips and advice to help you acquire good communication skills, so that you no longer have to resort to trying to win the silent treatment.
2. Take a break
Familiarise yourself with time-out⧉.
It’s a really useful strategy when you're feeling too overwhelmed to think straight. And you may be able to agree with your partner that you can both use this approach in the future.
3. Implement something positive immediately
Familiarise yourself with three healthy relationship tips or strategies which you can implement immediately.
It will focus your attention on something positive to contribute to the relationship instead of trying to contain the negatives. This is a potential antidote against being ignored completely.
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Being given the silent treatment is never a pleasant experience. And it’s never a helpful approach, either!
At worst, it can be a sign of a toxic relationship.
At best, it’s an unhealthy attempt to make upset and displeasure clear, and to provoke guilt and atonement.
The steps above will help you to address this issue with your partner. I hope that you now have some ideas on how to respond to the silent treatment.
It may be that he or she has no idea of how much damage they're doing to your relationship by ignoring you completely. And when they understand the consequences of their stone-walling, they may be willing to work hard at ending that particular approach.
Is your partner is totally unwilling to accept that their behaviour isn’t appropriate?
Then, I'm really sorry, you’ll need to think long and hard about the future of this relationship.
Effective communication is key to any healthy relationship. If there’s no sign of that on the horizon, then this probably isn’t the right relationship for you.
Remember: we’re all human and we all make mistakes. That includes your partner too! But deliberately giving someone the silent treatment isn’t a mistake - and it’s definitely not something you should have to put up with anymore.