Silent Treatment

Group of friends sit in cafe, ostracizing one person from their social groupThe silent treatment is widely regarded as a form of emotional manipulation and even psychological abuse. It is the act of ceasing to initiate or respond to communication with someone else or refusing to acknowledge them altogether. It is also referred to colloquially as the “cold shoulder,” “sulking,” or clinically as ostracism.

In relationships, the silent treatment might manifest when one partner becomes withholding in the middle of an argument and begins refusing to engage in any way to further the discussion.

What Is the Silent Treatment?

Though it may look different from one interaction to the next, the silent treatment is generally one person’s efforts to shut out another person. It can occur in any type of relationship or setting, including between:

There are many reasons someone might try this strategy. Some people who believe they have high self-control might use the silent treatment as a way of “taking the high road” or what they see as not succumbing to the level of communication happening with the other person. Others see it as a rational reaction to a problem or conversation, rather than an emotional one.

Stonewalling is another form of silence and an attempt to shut out another person. Some differences lie in the time frame, as stonewalling generally happens in the course of a conversation, while the silent treatment could last weeks, months, or even years. Stonewalling may also be an attempt at self-protection—that is, an individual is acting out of fear of the other person or fear of conflict, rather than malice.

Signs of the Silent Treatment

Most people are aware when they are on the receiving end of the silent treatment with a partner, especially in the midst of conflict or argument. Ostracism or the silent treatment can also look like:

People who have been ostracized describe feeling less than human and tend to believe the person who has ostracized them also believes they are less than human.

  • A parent ignoring a child
  • Children excluding peers during social time or games
  • Online ostracism
  • Nonverbal displays of anger
  • Collectively shutting out an individual from a friend group
  • Excluding a coworker from a collaborative project
  • Family disownment
  • Using a third party to threaten an individual
  • Other indirect aggression (such as social media posts)

How the Silent Treatment Affects Relationships

Experiencing the silent treatment denies basic human social and relationship needs. The silent treatment has been known to end romantic relationships, alienate friends, and negatively impact child development. When children experience the silent treatment from parents or caregivers, the effects can be devastating.

Some evidence suggests women may respond differently to the silent treatment than men. For example, a study of workplace collaboration shows women were more likely to compensate or attempt to become even more proactive and communicative when ostracized from a group project, whereas men were more likely to give up or “loaf.”

People who have been ostracized describe feeling less than human and tend to believe the person who has ostracized them also believes they are less than human. When a child or partner feels someone close to them challenges their humanity, it can severely threaten many aspects of mental health, such as self-esteem, belonging, control, and meaningful existence.

Is the Silent Treatment Emotional Abuse?

Ostracism and the silent treatment are often examples of emotional abuse. While some people may be more resilient to this type of abuse, others can experience it as acutely as prolonged neglect or even other physical forms of abuse. In some cases, the person using the silent treatment may believe they are sparing the other person a more harsh or emotionally-driven response. They may think they are choosing to be silent to avoid escalating arguments or to spare the other person’s feelings. Ultimately, however, the silent treatment is a method of manipulating, punishing, or gaining control over another individual.

Stonewalling may look very similar to the silent treatment; some authors and therapists use them interchangeably. Both may be forms of control or manipulation of another person, depending on the situation, and each bears similarities to other emotional abuse tactics. The silent treatment and stonewalling are sometimes associated with individuals who have narcissistic personality traits, but it cannot be said anyone who employs them is narcissistic.

Therapy for the Silent Treatment

Some research indicates in romantic relationships, partners who use the silent treatment believe it ultimately leads to conflict resolution. Targets of the silent treatment, however, rarely agreed—and in fact are more likely to feel lasting resentment toward the other partner. One of the first steps in mending a relationship that has been harmed by repeated use of the silent treatment may be for both partners to agree it is not a method conducive to problem solving.

Working with a therapist can help couples identify conflict resolution tactics that better serve both partners and do not ostracize one or more parties. Someone who has repeatedly experienced the silent treatment from partners, family members, or other individuals may benefit from individual therapy to help rebuild self-esteem. In some cases, trauma healing techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can help someone who has posttraumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms related to ostracism.

References:

  1. Abrams, D., Weick, M., Thomas, D., Colbe, H., & Franklin, K. M. (2011). On‐line ostracism affects children differently from adolescents and adults. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 29(1), 110-123. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1348/026151010X494089
  2. Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (2010). Excluded from humanity: The dehumanizing effects of social ostracism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 107-113. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002210310900208X
  3. Carbone, D. J. (2008). Treatment of gay men for post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from social ostracism and ridicule: cognitive behavior therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing approaches. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(2), 305-316. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-007-9239-3
  4. Crick, N. R., Casas, J. F., & Nelson, D. A. (2002). Toward a more comprehensive understanding of peer maltreatment: Studies of relational victimization. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(3), 98-101. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8721.00177
  5. Nezlek, J. B., Wesselmann, E. D., Wheeler, L., & Williams, K. D. (2012). Ostracism in everyday life. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 16(2), 91. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-12087-001
  6. Paul, M. (2009, October 14). The silent treatment. Mental Health Matters. Retrieved from https://mental-health-matters.com/the-silent-treatment/
  7. Sommer, K. L., Williams, K. D., Ciarocco, N. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2001). When silence speaks louder than words: Explorations into the intrapsychic and interpersonal consequences of social ostracism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23(4), 225-243. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15324834BASP2304_1
  8. Tromey, E. (2011, December 15). The silent treatment vs. stonewalling. ElynTromey.com. Retrieved from http://elyntromey.com/therapyblog/?p=309
  9. Williams, K. D. (1997).Social ostracism. Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors (pp. 133-170). Springer, Boston, MA. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4757-9354-3_7
  10. Williams, K. D., Cheung, C. K., & Choi, W. (2000). Cyberostracism: effects of being ignored over the internet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 748. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2000-00920-006
  11. Williams, K. D., & Sommer, K. L. (1997). Social ostracism by coworkers: Does rejection lead to loafing or compensation?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(7), 693-706. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167297237003

Last Updated: 11-27-2018

  • 11 comments
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  • Shut Out

    March 29th, 2020 at 4:27 AM

    If you try to tell someone giving you the silent treatment that they are acting childish, like a spoiled brat, running from their problems, or being abusive… You will make absolutely no progress towards a resolution. They may end the silent treatment you’re being given. But only because they’re going to be completely obstinate after that point and very verbal about it.

  • Shinead

    May 10th, 2020 at 1:54 PM

    I work with a colleague who takes the silent treatment to extremes if either I’ve had to take a
    Couple of days off work sick and she’s had to work with a colleague I usually work with. Then when I come back I know for definite that it will be several months of solid silent treatment, with piercing stares, sulks, running out of a room once I approach or barging me out of the way when ever she came across me in a corridor.
    Whenever she spoke to me it was to tell me off. She always ensured I was alone in the room with her, no other colleagues about. Then she would shout at me.
    Then the next time I saw her she could be holding a door open for me, the time after that shut the door in my face.
    So a Dr Jyckell and Mr Hyde personality.
    This lasted for a year and a half. I’m unsure whether it’s completely resolved.
    I’ve been treated unfairly at work as the manager accuses me of being difficult. I’ve been told by the manager it’s best for everyone if I left because I’m ruining the morale of the team. I’m currently looking for another job.
    I’m hoping that there will be a day when this lady gets caught by her nasty ways and it won’t be my problem to sort out. It will be their problem.

  • Nat

    June 18th, 2020 at 11:42 PM

    Thank you for that article!
    It helps me understand my father’s behavior from a more clinical, objective perspective.
    Sadly, to some degree I inherited these traits and did a silent treatment before to those who hurt me.
    For me it was a defense mechanism – I acted this way so that they couldn’t hurt me anymore. I also thought that if they cared about me, they would have come and address the issue – even though my behavior was far from inviting! Moreover, this wasn’t completely intentional on my side. I simply didn’t know how else to act. It felt terrible to be around these people or even talk about them with other friends.
    It makes me wonder what are common motives of the abusers? What are their intentions? How do they feel about the situation?
    Most importantly, how can they change?

  • Elizabeth

    January 24th, 2021 at 7:04 AM

    My ex husband use to do this to me, if I did something he felt was not something he approved of, or made him angry he wouldn’t talk to me no matter what. He would talk to the kids, the dog everyone else but me. It was absolute torture for me. I just want to resolve the problem and move on. Hence one of the reasons we were divorced after 26 years.

  • Giselle

    February 10th, 2021 at 2:04 AM

    My father’s been doing this to his wife and children by turns all our lives. A few years ago I spoke frankly to my sisters about some overdue issues of mutual concern (including how to look after our elderly parents) and have been getting this treatment from them for most of the time since. They have no children but manage to catch up with my adult ones while avoiding me. I had an argument with my 90-year-old father before Christmas. Two months later he still won’t answer the phone. His other children take his side out of relief that he’s not targeting them. He can keep this up for years while acting as if he isn’t doing anything at all or, if anyone does notice his behavior, hiding behind let’s call them excuses such as that he’s afraid of me. Looks like I won’t be going to his funeral.

  • Karen

    February 28th, 2021 at 10:16 AM

    My boyfriend and I have been together almost 5 years. He’s given me the silent treatment twice now when I didn’t do what he wanted. We don’t live together so that makes it a little easier. I feel he’s controlling and manipulative using the silent treatment as punishment. It’s very hurtful and hard to comprehend. The first time I gave in and called him and apologized for not sending a text the way he wanted. He told me he wasn’t going to walk on eggshells the rest of his life. We worked it out, only because I apologized several times. This time however I am not giving in. It’s been almost 2 weeks since he’s talked to me.

  • Giselle

    March 1st, 2021 at 1:19 PM

    Stay strong, Karen! I’m up to 3 months with Dad. Wonder how yours became acquainted with the eggshells metaphor – similar trouble in the past?

  • Amanda

    March 21st, 2021 at 11:04 PM

    I’m looking for some therapy because last night I made a fault and he disconnected his mobile phone and refused to talk to me. I’m very hurtful in the morning he said a simple word but affected me so bad.

  • Marlo

    July 14th, 2021 at 4:34 PM

    My husband and I are in our 50’s and have been together for about 9 years. The silent treatments have been the most traumatic for me. In the middle of an argument, he just stops talking to me, stays in bed for days, he ignores my texts (which I send from another room because I know he has to get up and go to the bathroom at some point) He ignores them. I’ve tried leaving, just to get a break. I drive around, go to my parents, I try to get a reaction out of him by phone and my communication gets more and more desperate the longer it is ignored. He will use those attempts against me later. He collects them for ammunition and to detract from anything he needs to clean up himself. I end up apologizing. I’ve tried to explain the effects it is having on me over time. He doesn’t understand.

  • Jayne

    September 5th, 2021 at 11:07 PM

    Passive-aggressive people love to give the silent treatment. My husband does this to me for weeks on end and it’s very hurtful, abusive behavior. It’s the most horrible form of treatment because basically the other person is denying your existence. And while you are trying to express emotions they are sending back signals of indifference, callousness, and lack of caring. It’s very damaging to a relationship. I have zero trust in my husband after treating me this way. A normal, loving person can’t just turn off communication. Imagine not talking to your child for a week and then the following week you claim to love them…it just doesn’t work. It’s a red flag that the person is either passive-aggressive or narcissistic.

  • Kit

    September 15th, 2021 at 10:55 PM

    Its rare for me to give this silent treatment I’m usually a woman who’s going to talk things out but when I do give the silent treatment it’s a warning that you’ve pissed me off too a point of watch talking will lead to either get the offending person gets verbally destroyed both emotionally and mentally and left in tears or your physically assaulted if you try to talk to me before I have a chance to cool down and rain in my temper

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