The 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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- 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
- Tromey, E. (2011, December 15). The silent treatment vs. stonewalling. ElynTromey.com. Retrieved from http://elyntromey.com/therapyblog/?p=309
- 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
- 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
- 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
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Shut OutMarch 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.
ShineadMay 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.
NatJune 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?
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