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Silent Treatment is Emotional Abuse – How to Cope and Start Feeling Better
On this page, you will find solid, practical advice on how to cope with passive aggressive silent treatment and how to stop letting it overwhelm and intimidate you.
This article also contains observations and advice about what to do when you're not speaking on special occasions and points to what can be done to strengthen the relationship during good times.
Year in, year out, I just could not understand or work out the reason why my husband and I could not seem to go more than a few months without an extended episode of not speaking (almost always over some trivial, inconsequential matter). During much of our marriage, his silent treatment left me feeling depressed, bewildered, and tearful to say the least. Finally, I found a way to turn things around and diminish this pattern, and I am so much happier for it. The changes I made to handle this issue, and my current reflections, are presented in this series of articles for the consideration of anyone who can relate.
What is the Silent Treatment?
The term "silent treatment" refers to when a person uses silence to convey their anger or grievance by ignoring or not speaking to the victim. Here's an introduction to this topic. Often used by narcissists, silence can be a form of emotional abuse and as such, it is unacceptable. Often, the person giving the silent treatment does so because they want (consciously or unconsciously) their victim to feel unworthy, to appease them, or to feel guilty about something. Alternatively, they may want their victim to apologise for something, even though often they choose not to clarify what is wrong!
A person who is repeatedly on the receiving end of cold-shouldering can wind up feeling resigned to being isolated, intimidated, insignificant, and/or despondent. Other times, the victim may feel angry, defiant, resentful, and/or vengeful. Over time, they can become totally worn down; no one should have to endure such conduct. In a family situation, the uncomfortable atmosphere created when parents are intermittently but persistently not speaking (which may ultimately lead to separation or divorce) can negatively affect children. Additionally, emotional stress brought about by persistent silent treatment can affect physical health.
If you are now in the initial stages of a relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend who engages in the silent treatment, the best thing you can do is to nip this negative behavior in the bud before it becomes a pattern of your union. It is true that the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to deal with and eradicate, but it is never too late to do something about it. Dealing with a significant other who refuses to talk and interact can be extremely challenging and daunting, but there is hope.
Are You (Unintentionally) Making It Worth Your Partner's While to Keep Giving You the Silent Treatment?
On this page, you'll find out how you can stop yourself from feeling so weary, depressed, confused, angry, and/or overwhelmed in the face of silence, and make a huge dent in the "pay off" for your partner.
If silent treatment is ongoing in your relationship, do bookmark this page for future reference as you will need to be persistent in your efforts to rise above it (and it's well worth the effort)!
Difference between a Cooling-Off Period and the Silent Treatment
Following a disagreement or awkward episode, silence can be a good thing as it allows both parties to calm down. A cooling-off period works best if both parties can agree to a time when they will come together to resolve the issue.
However, do note that the silent treatment differs from a cooling-off period in that its duration is extended and unknown. It is not recommended that the victim approach the perpetrator of the silent treatment with a suggested time and date to sit down and discuss matters. This might seem like a good idea, but it is my belief that this tactic does not work when dealing with a habitual abuser of the silent treatment, since they see it as a capitulation, and it only serves to feed their desire to control and manipulate.
How to Deal with the Emotional Abuse of the Silent Treatment
Some victims have noted that the more worn down and miserable they get, the happier their abuser becomes. The victim must know that a silent treatment abuser thrives on observing the negative effect they have on their target. Therefore, it is necessary to stop “feeding” that desire for control and power.
This means NOT giving them the satisfaction of seeing the negative emotional effects of their immature behavior. They can derive a great sense of self-importance and triumph if you get irate, annoyed, upset, capitulate/apologise, weep, or plead with them to talk to you. Starve them of these rewards for their unjust behavior and they will likely eventually tire of engaging in the silent treatment.
Whether or not the reason for the cessation of communication is known, here are some strategies to help with “starving” them out and breaking a silent treatment:
- Don’t appear upset. The best way to do this is not to allow the abuser’s actions to get you upset in the first place. Stop yourself from getting stressed by having on hand a previously prepared list of positive things you will do to distract yourself from feeling overwhelmed by the silent treatment. Your list could include listening to uplifting music, exercising, watching your favourite comedy shows, and engaging in hobbies such as painting, reading, or the like.
- Appear to be upbeat. Essentially go about your normal day-to-day activities and be seen to be positively and contentedly getting on with your life in spite of their efforts to unsettle you.
- Refrain from engaging in tit-for-tat silence. This is easier said than done but it pays to make a superhuman effort to speak to the other person whenever the need arises about everyday matters. When you talk to them, be sure to use your normal delivery and tone of voice. Do not be tempted into trying to beat them at their own game, for they are experts at it and it will ultimately get you nowhere in terms of eradicating such behavior. Do not allow them to drag you down to their level of immaturity: Two wrongs don’t make a right!
- Do not try to coax your partner into conversing with you. Just be secure in the knowledge that if they don’t answer you, you will survive. You’ve survived in the past and you will survive now, only this time you will be surviving much more contentedly. When they don’t respond to you or don’t respond well, simply move on with your day and refuse to dwell on their rudeness.
- Do not rise to the bait. When they use sarcasm or will only speak to you in a patronizing manner, instead of getting upset or responding in kind, simply get on with enjoying something on your previously-prepared silent treatment survival list of things to do! Let them see that their attempt to rile you is a waste of their time and yours! Remember: Do not “feed” their habit.
Acting on the above guidance is not easy, and you may falter at times. When this happens, just forgive yourself and press on with the suggestions, for you know you deserve better treatment. Make it a conscious choice to be responsible for your own happiness and soar above the silent treatment.
Please be aware that if you tell your partner your plans to put the above strategies into action and then, for some reason, you do not follow through, it will likely lead to your partner feeling triumphant and encourage them to engage in silent treatment emotional abuse even more! Therefore, it is not recommended, at any stage, that you tell your partner about these strategies. Just do what you need to do without explanation or prior warning.
Important: If the silent treatment is from a partner who is verbally or physically abusive, rather than acting on the suggestions given here, get help from a professional experienced in such matters. Also get professional advice before acting on these strategies if you believe your partner may gravitate from silence to physical or verbal abuse, even if they have not done this in the past.
Physical, Emotional, or Verbal Abuse?
Some people who give their partner the silent treatment feel they are justified in doing so because their partner has been physically, emotionally, and/or verbally abusive towards them.
In the long term, silence is unlikely to enhance the relationship, and it is no guarantee the abuse will stop. Thus, the root cause for why someone feels they have no alternative but to become silent must be addressed, and it is wise to seek the help of a competent professional to deal with such issues when personal safety is an issue.
Not Speaking on Special Days
It's sad and awkward when there is a special occasion (e.g. Christmas, Thanksgiving or a wedding) but you and your partner are not speaking. You may feel stressed and obligated to keep the not-speaking a secret lest you mar the day for others. My advice is to continue with the above strategies and to re-double your efforts at being positive. Do not allow yourself to wallow in feeling sorry for yourself or get indignant at the insanity of it all (especially when it's over a petty matter).
Past experience may have taught you that your partner is not just magically going to start treating you right just because it is a special day. Therefore, instead of merely dreading the occasion, actually plan ahead how you will keep yourself busy and buoyant. Be absolutely resolute within yourself that you are going to have a good day, despite their best efforts to thwart you. You can rise above the silent treatment so that the day will not be a total washout.
You Cannot Force your Partner to Stop the Silent Treatment!
Most people find that no amount of pleading or apologising will make their partner stop this behavior. Bear in mind that the only person you can change is yourself, so the only way forward is to change the way you respond when he/she gives you the silent treatment.
You Can Stop Yourself Becoming Overwhelmed with Negative Feelings
By executing the methods suggested above, taking good care of yourself, and positively investing time and energy in choosing to be happier, you can limit negative feelings such as misery and isolation.
Further, when you stop “feeding” their unhealthy, destructive, relationship-killing habit, this can lead your partner to re-evaluate and decrease such behavior, since the silent treatment is no longer getting them their desired result— i.e. controlling the way you feel or making you feel bad.
By conscientiously carrying out the above strategies, you can stop walking on eggshells because you're no longer so anxious of your partner's silence. Moreover, you can stop unintentionally making silent treatment worthwhile for your significant other and become stronger, wiser, and happier in the process.
Emotional Abuse Awareness
Emotional abuse does not get talked about as much as verbal and physical abuse, but it can be just as devastating and damaging. With a better understanding of the issue, we can help ourselves and also arm our friends and loved ones so that they too can recognise abuse should it present.
When the Silence Ends . . .
When you and your partner are back on speaking terms, it is worthwhile endeavouring to fortify the relationship. Speaking your partner's love language could help in this regard.
Thinking of Leaving the Relationship
Emotional abuse does not get talked about as much as verbal and physical abuse, but it can be just as devastating and damaging. Thus for some, the only solution to recurring silent abuse is to end the relationship. This takes courage, but many who do so only wish they had done it earlier.
It's natural to feel extremely apprehensive at the thought of breaking up. For those who find they cannot leave immediately and those who have reason to choose to stay for the duration, the strategies here can empower them to rise above silent abuse.
It may be that a partner will tire of their control tactic if it no longer “works” for them, but there is no guarantee that a person who employs silent abuse will change at all, particularly if that person has a host of other passive-aggressive or narcissistic traits. For those who are contemplating leaving their marriage this article, Passive Aggressive Partners —Why Do They Act That Way and What Are Your Options? will be of interest.
Balance in Relationships
Communication is a vital component of a successful relationship. As well as taking on board these suggestions for how to handle and cope with silent abuse, it is important to look at yourself to ensure you are approachable, assertive, a good listener, and open to negotiation, reason, and compromise. That way, your partner cannot legitimately claim they have no alternative to deal with you but to resort to silence.
Further Strategies: From the link immediately above, you can learn how self-awareness can stop you from inadvertently making it worthwhile for your partner to continue giving you the cold shoulder and how keeping things in perspective helps you become stronger, wiser, and happier even though you are being "ignored".
N.B.: There are interesting experiences from male and female contributors from both sides of the silent treatment fence in the comments section below. Topics raised include illness and feeling desperate as a result of the silent treatment and other insights and ways of coping, so do check back periodically for new comments and responses. Thanks to all who have commented.
© 2012 Ebonny