How to confront someone who’s giving you the silent treatment

One of the more frustrating passive-aggressive tactics to those on the receiving end is “the silent treatment”.

The silent treatment is an abusive method of control, punishment, avoidance, or disempowerment (sometimes these four typesoverlap, sometimes not) that is a favorite tactic of narcissists, and especially thosewho have a hard time with impulse control, that is, those with more infantile tendencies.

The silent treatment can be used as anabusive tactic that is the adult narcissist’s version of a child’s ”holding my breath until you give in and give me what I want.”

It is one of the most frustrating tactics and can provokeeven the most patient person. Depending on the method used, it can make the person on the receiving end feel powerless, invisible, intimidated, insignificant, “dissed”, looked down on, disapproved of, guilty, frustrated, and even angry.

Let’s start with some four common examplesof silent treatment (there are more):

1.When theabuser (and make no mistake–the silent treatment is a form of abuse) gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you for a period of time because you refuse to acquiesce to his or her demands. This is manipulating you with silence.

An example might be your mom wants you to come for the holidays and you can’t this year, so she either refuses to take your phone calls or she speaks to you in curt, clipped sentences.

2. When the abuser gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you because you’ve said/done something that bothers them and will not accept any reasonably sincere apology. This is punishing you with silence.

An example might be if you were late to meet a friendat the theater and you missed the event because of your tardiness. Even if you have a legitimate reason, you are generally on time, and you apologize profusely your silent-treatment might include the cold-shoulder from your friend or answering you in curt, clipped sentences while refusing or barely acknowledging your apology.

3.When the abuser gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you because you’ve said/done something that bothers them and will not even tellyou what it is that you’ve said or done, leaving you powerless to make an apology. This is punishing and disempowering you with silence.

Your spouse refuses to speak to you or stomps around answering you in curt, clipped one-word answers. When you ask what’s bothering them, they say: If you cared about me/loved me, you’d know what’s bothering me. If you cared you’d apologize for what you did. Or they say nothing at all.

4. When the abuser completely ignores what you’ve said, changing the subject or just staying silent to a question or statement that generally requires a response. This is disempowering you and “one-upping” you with silence.

It’s a favorite tactic of particularly infantile narcissists. For example, your boss requests volunteers for a project that requires skills you have, perhaps even unique skills. You raise your hand and he ignores you. Or you say, “I’d like to do that,” and he pretends he hasn’t heard you and remains completely silent, as if you do not exist or as if what you said was never said.

In general, for people you aren’t close with and may not see often, telling someone that how theirsilent treatment hurts or angers you isnot be a great idea. That’s because someone who uses this tactic feeds onthe negative emotions of his victim. Not letting the perpetrator witness your negative feelings and showing him that you aren’t bothered by his behavior may be the only thing you need to get him to stop.

Another response that might get the person to stop is to tell him that his behavior appears immature, controlling, desperate, manipulative, ridiculous, etc. It’s best to do this if you truly do not feel affected by his behavior and can even laugh it off.

Obviously, if you are in a close or unavoidably close relationship with thisperson such as a spouse, your responseshould take this into consideration. Since the silent treatment is often (though not always) a sign of an immature or otherwise dysfunctional emotional life, therapy can really be a help, especially goal-oriented, behavior-oriented therapy that also works on managing the thoughts and emotions. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy might be helpful.A couples therapist who is skilled in these methods might be a good choice.

Getting your spouseto go to therapy with you may not always be possible, but if the relationships is important to them and you feel that their behavior is irreparably damaging it, you might be in a position to strongly encourage even demand it of them. If not, go to therapy on your own so you can learn how to handle their behavior in a way that is healthy for you.

If it is a parent and you are an adult who doesn’t live with them, you can learn to set healthy boundaries for yourself. If you are on the receiving end of a snippy, clipped semi-silent treatment, you can say something like: Dad/Mom, I love you so much and I want our relationship to be enjoyable and supportive. When you give me the silent-treatment, that damages my positive feelings. Therefore, I am going to end this conversation now but look forward to speaking to you when you can speak to me openly without giving me the silent treatment.

What do you do if it is someone you are “stuck” with but don’t have an intimate relationship with, such as a boss or colleague? This can be tricky but rule number one is: Don’t go swimming in shark infested waters while you have a cut on your finger. One sniff of blood in the form of any weak or emotional response to the silent treatment and the narcissist will go for the kill.

Instead, appear (and truly feel, if possible) relaxed and positive. Laughing at them will only incite or enrage them, but if they use the silent-treatment regularly or other controlling, disempowering tactics, a sigh, smile and shake of the head (with maybe a strategic eye roll) can diffuse the situation. If done in a friendly, gentle manner,these gestures sends the message that you aren’t taking them so seriously and it gives them permission to back down and not take themselves so seriously.

If your colleague or boss has no sense of humor, or is truly a narcissist, this will backfire, so be careful! The main thing is to develop a strong sense of self and not let it get to you. Remember, you can only change your behavior, not anyone else’s.

When your partner gives you the silent treatment, what it means and what to do.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

Your partner, once again, forgot to do the dishes in the morning, and when you get home that night, there’s a sink full of dirty coffee cups, glasses, and plates. This violation of the arrangement you have with your partner to share the household chores makes you furious because it seems to be part of a pattern. You let out your feelings in a slight fit of rage, and it seems to you that your wrath is well-justified. What happens next, though, is something you wouldn’t have expected. On previous occasions, your partner apologized and vowed never to do this again, and you kissed and made up. In this instance, your partner turns and walks out of the room, shuts the door, and doesn’t come back out until it’s time to go to sleep. Not a word is said, and the silent treatment goes on until well into the next day. Your texts go unanswered, and it isn’t until dinner that your partner finally starts to speak again.

Silence can sometimes be better than conversation, especially if you and your partner need to take a break from an argument and just cool off. When one partner refuses to speak, however, the silence can seem unbearable, especially if it continues. In the dirty dishes scenario, it would seem like your partner is resorting to silence as a way of getting back at you. Perhaps you’ve been unreasonably making demands or failing to fulfill your end of the housekeeping bargain without realizing it. Or it’s possible that your partner feels resentful over some more deep-seated issue. New research on silence in the workplace can help shed light on what causes people to use this communication strategy as a coping mechanism when things aren’t going well. Using this research as a base, you can gain some insight into how to handle the silence that occurs in close relationships.

Karim Mignonac and colleagues (2018), of the University of Toulouse (France), examined the process of “navigating ambivalence” in the workplace. Their study focused on the ways that employees use cynicism and silence as stress-busting strategies when they believe their organization doesn’t support them. Their study is based on social identity theory, which proposes that “individuals are generally motivated to maintain or enhance perceptions of their self-worth.” In the workplace, social identity theory implies that you want to feel cared about by your employer. You also feel pride in your organization, if you feel that it is a well-respected one (think 5 stars on Yelp). When you feel valued, and feel that your organization is valued as well, you can hold your head up higher, and from a practical standpoint, you’ll work harder and be more productive.

When you feel, instead, that the outward image your company projects conflicts with the way they treat their employees, this will create a state of ambivalence. For example, imagine that you work at a company that advertises itself as being socially responsible, but when it comes to protecting their employees from harassment or unsafe working conditions, they fall far short of this idealized image. It’s also possible that your company treats you extremely well, but it has a far from perfect reputation in the community (think 2 stars on Yelp). In a relationship, you can feel a similar type of ambivalence if everyone thinks you’re a happy couple, but you feel constantly berated by your partner. Alternatively, you may feel loved and valued by your partner, but to the world, you seem to be a 2-star couple, because no one ever invites the two of you out for dinner or to parties. The conflict between outer and inner regard creates problems for your social identity, as you don’t feel that your relationship is one that confirms your sense of self-worth.

The result of ambivalence created by such conflict is, according to the French research team, cynicism. They define cynicism as a state marked not by any particular emotions, but by “beliefs that their organization lacks integrity and, even more specifically, their beliefs that organizational choices are inconsistent, unreliable, and based on (concealed) self-interest.” Again returning to your relationship, you’ll feel cynical about it if you believe your partner doesn’t really care about you. This cynicism, in turn, is what prompts the silent treatment. You will withhold “your ideas, information, and opinions” as a way of reducing your state of dissonance. In relationships, as in the workplace, this means that if you’re treated unfairly, you’ll use the passive-aggressive state of silence in an effort to defend your sense of self in a way that is less risky than speaking out about the unfairness. You can’t get in trouble, so this reasoning goes, for what you don’t say.

Across a set of three studies involving part-time students in management degree programs, Mignonac and his co-authors established a relationship between organization ambivalence and the use of silence by employees. The situation was far worse when the external prestige of the organization was high, but the support of employees was low than vice versa. Silence, assessed by items such as the frequency of withholding ideas and thoughts, was similarly predicted by a combination of these two organizational factors.

Now let’s look at what happens when you face the silent treatment in your home life. The University of Toulouse study suggests that people will react with silence when they believe they’re being treated unfairly, a treatment that conflicts with how the relationship is perceived by outsiders. Your partner may feel not just resentful to you for being overly demanding, but also cynical about the outward image you project to friends and family about what a great partner you are, when in fact, there are real problems in terms of the support you provide when your partner needs you. The situation with the dishes isn’t just about who does what in the house, but about how much you allow your partner to feel a sense of self-worth and pride as a person. The underlying issue of self-esteem, and how much you allow your partner to have that positive identity, is what creates the sounds of silence when something goes wrong.

To sum up, if your partner gives you the silent treatment more than you feel is reasonable, look inward at how much support you provide for your partner’s self-worth. Both you and your partner need to feel this deep sense of value to have a fulfilling relationship that lasts over time.

Mignonac, K., Herrbach, O., Serrano Archimi, C., & Manville, C. (2018). Navigating ambivalence: Perceived organizational prestige–support discrepancy and its relation to employee cynicism and silence. Journal of Management Studies, doi:10.1111/joms.12330

We can all agree that there are definitely things you shouldn’t say to your partner during a heated argument. But have you ever given your partner the cold shoulder instead? Uh-oh. Red flag. The silent treatment might seem like a convenient way to opt out of a conversation that is bothering you but it’s also super unhealthy. What most people don’t know, is that the cold shoulder is a subtle form of manipulation. Sounds extreme but let me explain. The silent treatment (also known as withholding) is used to punish and regain control of a person. It may feel good to ignore your partner when you feel slighted but, it keeps you from finding real solutions to the problems that are bugging you the most.

I’ve been on both sides of the silent treatment. I’ve been the person that uses silence as a weapon and the person being stonewalled with it. I had no idea that responding to the silent treatment gives the person doing it a false sense of control. That’s definitely not OK. Left unchecked, the silent treatment becomes a pattern of behavior and emotional abuse that is used to manipulate over time. Fear not! There are a few things you can do to deal with the silent treatment in a relationship. Let’s break it down.

When Silence Rules

If the silent treatment is such an awful experience, why do we do it in the first place?

1. Silent Treatment = Self-Protection

I can’t tell you how many times a day I just wish people could read my mind so I didn’t have to actually express my feelings. Why do I have to use my words when people should just know when they’ve done something to hurt me?

But the reality is, as much as I wish it were true, human beings are not mind readers. Most of the time, you actually have to say the words “Hey, what you did hurt me,” even when you would rather keep your mouth shut and protect yourself from all of the feels. Even when your partner means well, it pays off to speak up when they say or do something to upset you. We’re human and sometimes putting our foot in our mouth is part of the deal.

When healthy communication habits aren’t modeled by our parents, speaking up can feel like a chore. We either grow up with parents that yell at the top of their lunges or parents that refuse to address disagreements at all. Neither provides a good foundation for handling conflict in a healthy relationship. The bottom line is the silent treatment is not a healthy coping technique for you or your partner.

2. It’s an Unhealthy Way to Regain Power and Control

A part of what makes vulnerability so hard, scary, and uncomfortable, at least for me, is my inability to predict and control what is going to happen once I share my what’s bothering me. That usually makes me pretty angry. I particularly struggle with this when:

  • A) I know the person didn’t hurt my feelings on purpose, or…
  • B) I’m scared that saying something and opening up about my feelings will make that person want to leave or negatively change the relationship.

On top of that, I feel out of sorts when I’m trying to balance knowing that I am upset and being mad at myself for feeling the way that I do. It’s during these moments that I have like I’ve lost some of my power and control over my own feelings. When this happens, I do what feels natural and try to take it back: enter the silent treatment.

Other times, my silence is merely a way for me to create the space I need to process my feelings. But again, the other person is not a mind reader, so neither reason is truly a healthy way to deal with the situation.

How to Deal With The Silent TreatmentHow to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

So how can you deal with the silent treatment? The answer is deceivingly simple. You’re going to have to use your words(I know, ugh). Whether you are the person receiving or giving the silent treatment, there are actions you can take to start a conversation:

1. Name The Experience

You can avoid the silent treatment by compassionately acknowledging what you’re feeling. Avoid accusations or hostile language and try not to overthink it. I know for me, a simple “I know I’ve been quiet lately” or “Hey, I noticed you’re not responding to me” opens the door to healthier communication.

2. Acknowledge The Other Person’s Feelings and Share Your Own.

Being heard and seen is one of our basic needs as humans. Acknowledging your partner’s feelings not only validates their experience, it creates space for a larger conversation. Through larger conversations, you can lay the foundation for trust and signal that you’re interested in understanding their point of view while being honest about how the silent treatment makes you feel.

To put this into practice, you might say:

Bae, I care about you and I really want this relationship to work, that’s why it hurts when you choose to ignore me instead of telling me what’s bothering you. When you ignore me because you’re upset, it makes me feel like you don’t care. I’m always here to listen but I need you to tell me what’s going on.

3. Suggest Next Steps

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

When I have to bring up any type of problem or issue in a situation, I try to always have next steps to bring to the table. This helps me keep the conversation focused and away from getting caught in the blame game.

Communicating after the silent treatment is sensitive ground to cover, so keep it simple and state your boundaries and avoid emotional minefields. Often, the silent treatment is an indication that one or both people need a little bit of space to sort things out.

Putting this all together could look like this:

“Hey, I noticed you’re not responding to me. I’m not sure why, but I’d like to understand. I know when I stop talking to someone it means, I’m angry, or upset, or sad. If you’re not ready to talk, or need space- I get it. The silence is hard for me- could you let me know? Maybe we can find a time to talk next week? But, I can’t continue with this relationship if you keep shutting me out.”

If you’re the person giving the cold shoulder, you can start a conversation like this:

“I know I’ve been quiet lately- and I know that’s not really fair to you. The truth is I’m hurt and confused and trying to sort some things out. I need some space. Not sure when I’ll be ready to talk, but I’ll be in touch when I am.”

Getting over the silent treatment isn’t particularly easy or pleasant. And yet, it’s work worth doing. Not only will it help you become a better communicator, it also helps you build a relationship based on trust and healthy communication.

Not to Burst Your Bubble, But…

Keep in mind that these communication strategies may not work on your partner if they are already aware that the silent treatment is an unhealthy behavior. We all do unhealthy things sometimes and it doesn’t make you or your partner a monster. If you’ve had a conversation about the silent treatment with your partner and the behavior continues, it may be time to consider leaving the relationship–because we all deserve healthy relationships.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

Having to endure the silent treatment isn’t fun for anyone. It makes you feel invisible, unworthy, and maybe a little bit sad or angry. Nothing but negative feelings arise from using the silent treatment. Using words (or lack thereof) as a weapon against others is unfair. Here are a few reasons why narcissistic people use silent treatment and a few ways for you to respond:

It Puts Them in “Control”

When you have problems with a self-centered person, it’s no surprise that they like to be in control. Social Worker and Psychotherapist Andrea Schneider says that narcissists will often demand that you apologize for your actions before they’ll speak to you again. “Because no further communication can ensue unless and until the narcissistic person decides to give the target another chance, a false sense of control is nurtured,” Schneider says.

It Makes You Feel Wrong

“The point of the silent treatment is to make the victim feel confused, stressed, guilty, ashamed or not good enough,” Mental Health Coach Darius Cikanavicius says. It makes you want to meet the needs of the abuser in the hopes that they may speak to you again. According to Cikanavicius, the result of the silent treatment is exactly what the person with narcissism wishes to create: a reaction from the target and a sense of control.

It Helps Them Avoid Compromise

Cikanavicius also says that enduring the silent treatment from someone makes you want to avoid all future conflicts with them. It makes you lower your boundaries and shows them that they do not have to compromise anything to get your attention. Schneider says that sometimes, a person with narcissistic qualities will decide to abandon the relationship when his or her partner presents an ultimatum or attempts a resolution that requires compromise.

How to Respond

Schneider, Cikanavicius, and Health Writer Ann Pietrangelo all share keys ways to respond to a situation where a person thinks they are controlling you with the silent treatment:

  • Ignore it until it’s blown over.
  • Offer solutions.
  • Don’t accept emotional abuse.
  • Remember that you are not alone.
  • Understand that this person has not developed the ability to express a high level of empathy, reciprocity, or compromise.
  • Stand up for yourself.

What Not to Do

Along with some tips on how to handle the situation, Pietrangelo provides a list of things you shouldn’t do when faced with the silent treatment:

  • respond in anger, which can just escalate things
  • beg or plead, which only encourages the behavior
  • apologize just to put an end to it, even though you did nothing wrong
  • continue to try reasoning with the other person after you’ve already given it a shot
  • take it personally, as you’re not to blame for how others choose to treat you
  • threaten to end the relationship unless you’re prepared to do so

How often, when fighting with your spouse, do you find yourself shutting down? Going off to sulk for awhile? Avoiding all contact with them and giving in to that silly routine so commonly referred to as “giving them the silent treatment”?

We’ve participated in this routine since we were children: our siblings would poke or prod at us and we would, in response, withdraw and ignore them in a purposeful attempt to upset them in return.

As adults, it’s probably time to evolve into a better strategy for communication.

Regrouping vs. “The Silent Treatment”

Now, to be fair, one of the most helpful things any couple can do in the midst of an argument is purposefully take some time apart to calm down. As anger, frustration and adrenaline build in our systems; irrational behavior and communication build as well.

The goal of “regrouping” or taking a “timeout” is simple: respect. If both of you understand that the pause in the argument is so that you can approach each other from a better place, respectfully, then “timeouts” can be very effective.

Simply, explain that you need some time to think things through and, a very important step: reschedule a time to come back to this issue. This reassures your spouse that you’re not merely trying to escape the conversation, but that you want to have the conversation when you are in a better, more levelheaded place.

Many find that they are not coherent enough to give a detailed explanation of their need for a “time-out” in the midst of a fight. It can be very helpful to simply just plan with your partner, during a calm time between the two of you, that you will call a “timeout” when needed, and will not neglect to plan a better time to talk about the tense issue.

When considering how you want to handle the conflict when you return, it’s not necessary to let your partner off the hook, completely, for things they’ve done to upset you. Take this time to figure out a way to gently coach them into what’s right for you, rather than approach them critically or abrasively.

Addressing the Silent Treatment

When it comes to the silent treatment, both men and women are offenders. The way men and women approach their silent partner, however, is very different.

As we covered in the article, “How to Let Your Husband Be a Man”, withdrawing from a woman makes her panic. If a man is giving his woman the silent treatment, she will often pursue, question and talk him to death, trying to find the right thing to say, make an excellent point, or find some solution to the conflict at hand.

Women: Don’t do this. If your man has expressed that he needs some time to calm down, let him have some time to calm down. Maybe he hasn’t said it outright; be keen enough to give him some time, anyways.

Use this time to calm down, yourself. Be ready to hear him out when he’s ready. Any point you want to make in the moment of conflict you will remember and can be made later, if it’s important enough.

Guys: When a woman is giving us the silent treatment, we often want to wait it out. This is not always best way to go.

Do give her an hour to calm down. But, after that, say something like, “You seem upset. What did I do?” -or- “Is it because I didn’t do _________”.

You may be wrong. She could say, “You should know me by now!”.

In response, it’s okay if you say, calmly and empathically: “No. Please explain it to me simply.” Because we often don’t know what we did, or what exactly is bothering her. Tell her that she may be sick of explaining what she needs, but to try it just one more time.

Women don’t want to be checked off. “Okay, I did that. I made her happy”. Women want to feel heard. For tips on how to do that, check out: “How to Get Your Wife to Shut Up” (Ladies, you may be tempted to kick me for that title. But you’ll agree with everything I say.)

What Now?

Should you find you need some additional tips to get through the tough issues in your marriage, the staff at Stenzel Clinical Services is here to help. Relationships can be very difficult, and our experts are well-equipped to help you and your spouse weather the hardships you face and strengthen your relationship. Contact Us to learn more, for rates, or to make your first appointment.

One of the more frustrating passive-aggressive tactics to those on the receiving end is “the silent treatment”.

The silent treatment is an abusive method of control, punishment, avoidance, or disempowerment (sometimes these four typesoverlap, sometimes not) that is a favorite tactic of narcissists, and especially thosewho have a hard time with impulse control, that is, those with more infantile tendencies.

The silent treatment can be used as anabusive tactic that is the adult narcissist’s version of a child’s ”holding my breath until you give in and give me what I want.”

It is one of the most frustrating tactics and can provokeeven the most patient person. Depending on the method used, it can make the person on the receiving end feel powerless, invisible, intimidated, insignificant, “dissed”, looked down on, disapproved of, guilty, frustrated, and even angry.

Let’s start with some four common examplesof silent treatment (there are more):

1.When theabuser (and make no mistake–the silent treatment is a form of abuse) gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you for a period of time because you refuse to acquiesce to his or her demands. This is manipulating you with silence.

An example might be your mom wants you to come for the holidays and you can’t this year, so she either refuses to take your phone calls or she speaks to you in curt, clipped sentences.

2. When the abuser gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you because you’ve said/done something that bothers them and will not accept any reasonably sincere apology. This is punishing you with silence.

An example might be if you were late to meet a friendat the theater and you missed the event because of your tardiness. Even if you have a legitimate reason, you are generally on time, and you apologize profusely your silent-treatment might include the cold-shoulder from your friend or answering you in curt, clipped sentences while refusing or barely acknowledging your apology.

3.When the abuser gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you because you’ve said/done something that bothers them and will not even tellyou what it is that you’ve said or done, leaving you powerless to make an apology. This is punishing and disempowering you with silence.

Your spouse refuses to speak to you or stomps around answering you in curt, clipped one-word answers. When you ask what’s bothering them, they say: If you cared about me/loved me, you’d know what’s bothering me. If you cared you’d apologize for what you did. Or they say nothing at all.

4. When the abuser completely ignores what you’ve said, changing the subject or just staying silent to a question or statement that generally requires a response. This is disempowering you and “one-upping” you with silence.

It’s a favorite tactic of particularly infantile narcissists. For example, your boss requests volunteers for a project that requires skills you have, perhaps even unique skills. You raise your hand and he ignores you. Or you say, “I’d like to do that,” and he pretends he hasn’t heard you and remains completely silent, as if you do not exist or as if what you said was never said.

In general, for people you aren’t close with and may not see often, telling someone that how theirsilent treatment hurts or angers you isnot be a great idea. That’s because someone who uses this tactic feeds onthe negative emotions of his victim. Not letting the perpetrator witness your negative feelings and showing him that you aren’t bothered by his behavior may be the only thing you need to get him to stop.

Another response that might get the person to stop is to tell him that his behavior appears immature, controlling, desperate, manipulative, ridiculous, etc. It’s best to do this if you truly do not feel affected by his behavior and can even laugh it off.

Obviously, if you are in a close or unavoidably close relationship with thisperson such as a spouse, your responseshould take this into consideration. Since the silent treatment is often (though not always) a sign of an immature or otherwise dysfunctional emotional life, therapy can really be a help, especially goal-oriented, behavior-oriented therapy that also works on managing the thoughts and emotions. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy might be helpful.A couples therapist who is skilled in these methods might be a good choice.

Getting your spouseto go to therapy with you may not always be possible, but if the relationships is important to them and you feel that their behavior is irreparably damaging it, you might be in a position to strongly encourage even demand it of them. If not, go to therapy on your own so you can learn how to handle their behavior in a way that is healthy for you.

If it is a parent and you are an adult who doesn’t live with them, you can learn to set healthy boundaries for yourself. If you are on the receiving end of a snippy, clipped semi-silent treatment, you can say something like: Dad/Mom, I love you so much and I want our relationship to be enjoyable and supportive. When you give me the silent-treatment, that damages my positive feelings. Therefore, I am going to end this conversation now but look forward to speaking to you when you can speak to me openly without giving me the silent treatment.

What do you do if it is someone you are “stuck” with but don’t have an intimate relationship with, such as a boss or colleague? This can be tricky but rule number one is: Don’t go swimming in shark infested waters while you have a cut on your finger. One sniff of blood in the form of any weak or emotional response to the silent treatment and the narcissist will go for the kill.

Instead, appear (and truly feel, if possible) relaxed and positive. Laughing at them will only incite or enrage them, but if they use the silent-treatment regularly or other controlling, disempowering tactics, a sigh, smile and shake of the head (with maybe a strategic eye roll) can diffuse the situation. If done in a friendly, gentle manner,these gestures sends the message that you aren’t taking them so seriously and it gives them permission to back down and not take themselves so seriously.

If your colleague or boss has no sense of humor, or is truly a narcissist, this will backfire, so be careful! The main thing is to develop a strong sense of self and not let it get to you. Remember, you can only change your behavior, not anyone else’s.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

What is the Silent Treatment?

Who of us isn’t guilty of giving someone a strong dose of the silent treatment? Feelings bruised from words spoken or actions taken, we retreat into our silent world, all the while hoping our actions make our mate pay for the harm they’ve done to us.

Withdrawing is not something new. Watch your four-year-old pout and you’ll recognize the early signs of ‘the silent treatment.’ They refuse to talk because they’re mad. Truth be known, they’re really deeply hurt and make the decision to hurt back—and it works!

Many couples coming to work with us at The Marriage Recovery Center are disconnected, often by one or both partners choosing to use this immature behavior. Many have used this form of communication for years, with the patterns of interacting becoming ingrained.

Why do people use the Silent Treatment?

Why do we continue to use ‘the silent treatment’ if it is so destructive? It gets back to basics—‘hurting people hurt people’—and research shows that ‘the silent treatment’ is particularly effective in causing damage. No one wants to be on the receiving end of this form of treatment, and we all know it.

While not proud to admit it, I’ve used ‘the silent treatment’ in my marriage. I’ve rationalized it by telling myself I was just taking time to myself to think. While partially true, I knew my actions were also hurtful and did not quickly stop it. Perhaps you can relate.

To be fair, there are times when we must cool off, and this can actually be a healthy action to take. When feeling overwhelmed, it is important and even responsible to pull back, reflect and choose your actions carefully. If you let your mate know you are taking some time to consider how to effectively respond, they will likely be understanding and even appreciative.

Helpful Scripture

Scripture speaks clearly on this issue. The Apostle James instructs us: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). The Apostle James knew full well the lethal power of the tongue, but also seemed to know that there is a place for quiet spaces in a relationship.

The words of James are very apropos to relationships. We need to be slow to speak and slow to become angry. We must learn to be quick to listen. These are skills that are easier said than done and should never be confused with using silence to hurt.

Here are Five Steps to resolve “The Silent Treatment”

1. Confront the behavior.

Just as we would confront the four-year-old who refuses to talk, we do the same for the adult in our lives. We must do this carefully, however as we don’t want to give the pouter extra clout. We should simply acknowledge that they have withdrawn and we want to give them an opportunity to talk it out effectively. Offer them the opportunity to talk, OR to take an agreed-upon timeout.

2. Hold them accountable for withdrawing.

We must make it clear that we notice the behavior, and now invite them to speak directly to you about whatever is bothering them. Additionally, you note to them that their behavior is hurtful. While you cannot make them talk, you can let them know you notice what they are doing.

3. Share your feelings with them.

As you invite them to talk directly with you, let them know the impact their withdrawal has on you. You might say something like this: “I’ve noticed that something seems to be bothering you. You seem to have withdrawn. I want to invite you to talk directly to me about whatever is troubling you. I also want to let you know that I find your prolonged silence to be very hurtful.”

4. If your mate chooses to talk, continue to have a healthy dialogue about the issue.

If they choose to talk to you, share your appreciation with them. Thank them for sharing, reinforcing positive behavior. This will be a quick fix to a potentially troubling situation. If they continue to give you ‘the silent treatment,’ you have no choice then to give them the space they are creating.

5. Be ready for connection when they choose to reconnect.

At this juncture, however, they will need to take responsibility for withdrawing in an unhealthy way and for creating more hurt in the relationship. Hold them accountable for withdrawing and share that you are ready to reconnect when they acknowledge the damage they have done by giving you ‘the silent treatment.’

In summary, silence is a particularly painful weapon and has no place in a healthy relationship. Taking a time out, agreed upon by both people, can be an effective way to get space to reflect, pray and consider a healthy response. You should allow for ‘time outs’ and must agree that ‘the silent treatment’ will never be tolerated.

We are here to help and offer phone/ Skype counseling on issues related to this article. Please go to our website, www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and discover more information about this as well as the free downloadable eBook, A Love Life of Your Dreams, including other free videos and articles. Please send responses to me at [email protected] and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/izkes

Dr. David Hawkins, MBA, MSW, MA, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has helped bring healing to thousands of marriages and individuals since he began his work in 1976. Dr. Hawkins is passionate about working with couples in crisis and offering them ways of healing their wounds and finding their way back to being passionately in love with each other.

The silent treatment is a refusal to communicate verbally with another person. People who use the silent treatment may even refuse to acknowledge the presence of the other person.

People use the silent treatment in many types of relationship, including romantic relationships.

It can sometimes be a form of emotional abuse. This is the case when one person uses it to control and manipulate the other.

This article will discuss the silent treatment, why people use it, and how individuals can respond to it. It also looks at how the silent treatment relates to abuse.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

Share on Pinterest Refusing to communicate verbally with another person can be a form of emotional abuse.

People use the silent treatment for a number of reasons. These include:

  • Avoidance: In some cases, people stay silent in a conversation because they do not know what to say or want to avoid conflict.
  • Communication: A person may use the silent treatment if they do not know how to express their feelings but want their partner to know that they are upset.
  • Punishment: If a person uses silence to punish someone or to exert control or power over them, this is a form of emotional abuse.

In most cases, using the silent treatment is not a productive way to deal with a disagreement.

Research indicates that both men and women use the silent treatment in relationships. However, clear and direct communication is essential for healthy relationships. Using the silent treatment prevents people from resolving their conflicts in a helpful way.

When one partner wants to talk about a problem but the other withdraws, it can cause negative emotions such as anger and distress. According to a 2012 study, people who regularly feel ignored also report lower levels of self-esteem, belonging, and meaning in their lives.

Because of this, the silent treatment can have an impact on the health of a relationship, even if the person who is silent is trying to avoid conflict.

A person with a partner who avoids conflict is more likely to continue a dispute because they have not had an opportunity to discuss their grievances.

A person may be using silence in an abusive way if:

  • they intend to hurt another person with their silence
  • the silence lasts for extended periods of time
  • the silence only ends when they decide it does
  • they talk to other people but not to their partner
  • they seek alliances from others
  • they use silence to blame their partner and make them feel guilty
  • they use silence to manipulate or “improve” their partner, or to pressure them to change their behavior

Other types of emotional abuse

In addition to the silent treatment, a person might use other types of emotional abuse to control their partner, such as:

  • monitoring their activities
  • demanding access to their phone, email account, and other digital information
  • deciding what they wear, eat, or drink
  • isolating them from their family and friends
  • controlling all their finances and spending
  • controlling whether or not they go to work or school
  • humiliating them in front of others or on social media
  • using intimidating behavior, threatening them, or giving them ultimatums
  • threatening to harm themselves, pets, or loved ones
  • gaslighting them
  • withholding affection, such as sexual activity
  • guilt-tripping them

Over time, emotional abuse often escalates to physical violence.

How a person responds to the silent treatment depends on whether or not their partner is being abusive.

If the silent treatment does not appear to be part of a larger pattern of abuse, a person can try the following approaches:

Name the situation

Acknowledge that someone is using the silent treatment. For example, a person can say, “I notice that you are not responding to me.” This lays the foundation for two people to engage with each other more effectively.

Use ‘I’ statements

A person can let the other person know how they feel by using “I” statements. For example, the person on the receiving end may say: “I’m feeling hurt and frustrated that you aren’t speaking to me. I would like to find a way to resolve this.”

This type of statement focuses on the feelings and beliefs of the speaker rather than any characteristics they attribute to the other person.

Acknowledge the other person’s feelings

Ask the other person to share their feelings. This lets them know that their feelings are important and valid, and it paves the way for an open conversation. Avoid becoming defensive or going into problem-solving mode. Try to stay present and listen empathically.

If the person responds in a threatening or abusive way, it is important to remove oneself from the situation until they calm down. Talk to a doctor, therapist, or trusted friend for help.

Apologize for words or actions

A person should not apologize or blame themselves for another person’s use of the silent treatment, as the silence is how their partner chooses to respond.

However, they may need to apologize if they have said or done something that may have hurt the other person’s feelings.

Cool off and arrange a time to resolve the issue

Sometimes, a person may give someone the silent treatment because they are too angry, hurt, or overwhelmed to speak. They may be afraid of saying something that makes the situation worse.

In these cases, it can be helpful for each person to take some time to cool off before getting together to discuss the issue calmly. Counselors call this “taking a time-out.”

Avoid unhelpful responses

Try to avoid escalating the situation or provoking the person who is silent into speaking. This can create more conflict.