Giving someone the silent treatment is like hurting someone without using words or hands. It creates a huge void among partners in intimate relationships. When one partner is silent and cold, the other reels from isolation and hurt. As this toxic behavior chips away at the victim’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth, it can be hard to figure out how to handle the silent treatment with dignity and protect oneself from long-term emotional damage.
The silent treatment is when a person refuses to engage in conversation with another, shuts themselves down, and appears inaccessible. According to studies, interpersonal emotional experiences such as heartbreak, manipulation, and stonewalling have the same effect on a person as physical pain and can be hard to cope with.
To find out more about the psychology behind silent treatment and how to handle it, we reached out to counseling psychologist Aakhansha Varghese (MSc Psychology), who specializes in different forms of relationship counseling, from dating and premarital to breakup, abuse, separation, and divorce.
She says, “Giving someone the silent treatment speaks volumes about your character. It’s an unhealthy way of dealing with problems in a romantic relationship. If a person can’t confront a difficult situation, it shows a lack of maturity on their side. Likewise, the person on the receiving end tends to get so emotionally scarred by the experience that they may find themselves at a loss on how best to handle the situation.”
Why Do People Resort To Silent Treatment
If your partner is giving you the silent treatment, it shows how they can’t handle uncomfortable situations and emotions. It speaks volumes about their character because ignoring someone is abuse as it creates an atmosphere of stress, anxiety, and fear. It threatens the very idea of love because love is supposed to be calming and peaceful.
Relationships are supposed to provide a sense of safety. When someone ignores you on purpose and uses it as a tool to control you, it goes against what love is. That’s why it becomes difficult to figure out how to handle the silent treatment with dignity because this toxic trait can take a toll on your mental health.
Aakhansha says, “Stonewalling is one of the silent red flags in a relationship. People who resort to silent treatment have low self-esteem. It’s often a learned response. Chances are when this person was a child, they must have experienced their caregiver/guardian shut down and not respond to conflict or an uncomfortable situation. When silence is used as a means to express their vexation, it makes the child feel ostracized and rejected. This is when the child starts feeling worthless and the caregiver’s behavior has a severe impact on their self-esteem.”
Intentionally or unintentionally, they grow up believing that this response is justified because it is the only response to the conflict they have witnessed firsthand. Some other reasons why people resort to the silent treatment include:
- The person thinks their views and opinions aren’t valued or respected hence they go silent
- On the flip side, they think that the person they are in conflict with isn’t worthy of knowing their opinions and thoughts
- The silent treatment is the preferred tool of narcissists for punishing someone and gaining control of the situation. There are chances your partner could have Narcissistic Personality Disorder and you may be dating a narcissist (It’s wise to reach out to a licensed therapist if you suspect you’re dealing with narcissistic silent treatment)
- They have an intense desire to control and manipulate you
- They are immature and don’t know how to communicate
- The abuser’s psychology behind silent treatment is their indirect way of saying you are not good enough for them
Signs Your Partner Uses Silent Treatment To Manipulate You
It’s important to identify the difference between silence and silent treatment in intimate relationships. When you are in a healthy relationship, you often give each other space. You may go silent after an argument to cool off. It’s one of the healthy ways to avoid saying hurtful things to your partner. But once you’ve got a grip on your emotions, you come together and talk it out.
On the other hand, stonewalling someone just to escalate the matter is unhealthy. Let’s say you and your partner are having an argument in the relationship. During the argument, one person is offended and walks away. They decide to ignore their partner the whole day and the whole night knowing that this would make the other person anxious and sad. It’s how one partner uses their silence to inflict pain upon the other partner. That is the psychology behind the silent treatment.
Aakhansha says, “When your partner knows that their silence makes you miserable after an argument and they resort to it anyway, it’s one of the signs they are trying to manipulate you. They make you feel like you are responsible for their silent behavior and you have to earn their voice again by pleasing them and acting as per their whims and desires.”
Before we find out how to handle the silent treatment with dignity, let’s get to know some signs your partner is resorting to silent treatment just to see you suffer. These are also some of the signs of a toxic partner:
- They constantly ignore you despite reaching out to them several times
- They are silent for days on end and you don’t know when they will talk to you again
- You are constantly worried that this behavior will end up being the reason for your breakup
- You feel like you are always walking on eggshells around them
- They talk to everyone except you
- They make you feel that their silence is your punishment
- It’s one of the signs they are trying to emotionally manipulate you with their silence when you bend over backward to please them
- If you are the only one reconciling after a fight, it’s one of the signs this is their tactic to manipulate you
How To Handle The Silent Treatment With Dignity? 7 Expert-Backed Tips
The silent treatment hurts intimate relationships, the person who is on the receiving end of it always ends up feeling dejected, angry, isolated, and heartbroken. This makes them question their self-worth leaving a negative impact on their mental health. If you are doing through a similar situation and don’t know how to react, here are some expert-backed tips on how to handle the silent treatment with dignity:
1. Call out on their behavior
Aakhansha says, “A healthy way to deal with the silent treatment is to call out on their behavior. But do it subtly. Don’t make the situation worse by yelling at them, saying hurtful things, or venting out your frustration at them. Talk to them when they are in a good mood and let them know how this behavior impacts you.”
Some of the things you can say include:
- “I noticed things are different between us now. We have lost the ability to communicate effectively. How can we turn this around?”
- “Are you using silence to cool off or is it a defense mechanism for difficult situations? Whatever the reason is, please know that it’s hurting me”
- “If you’re hurt by something I said or did, please tell me. You can’t use the silent treatment and expect me to read your mind”
Related Reading: How To Deal With A Husband Who Thinks He Does Nothing Wrong
2. Apologize for your mistake
Aakhansha says, “It always takes two to tango. If your partner is stonewalling you, then the possibility of being hurt by your actions cannot be ruled out. Start by apologizing for your mistake. Don’t take accountability for your actions.”
That said, a romantic relationship should be about equality. If one partner is apologizing, so should the other. You can’t leave room for a power imbalance. How to handle the silent treatment with dignity? Here are some things you can say to sincerely apologize for the hurt and make them see the error of their ways as well:
- “I am sorry for the hurtful things I said. I hope you too are sorry for everything you said and did in retaliation”
- “I have apologized for my mistakes. I would appreciate it if you could do the same”
- “We can’t carry on with this relationship with ego in the driver’s seat. We have to apologize to each other when we mess up, otherwise, our issues will never be resolved”
3. Try to find out the reason behind their silence
When dealing with such behavior, a very important question that needs to be addressed is: is the silent treatment abuse? Aakhansha says, “Not always. Sometimes people who give you the silent treatment don’t do it out of spite. They may not even know that their silence is causing you immense pain and stress. They have trouble understanding their own emotions. This makes them withdraw from communicating. It shows the person’s lack of confidence in themselves and the relationship. They think speaking up will do more damage than staying silent. Hence, they think silence is golden.”
That’s to be able to deal with the silent treatment, you need to understand where it’s stemming from. If the silent treatment after a fight is to let things calm down, then it can be a healthy way of dealing with conflicts in a relationship. But if they are stonewalling you to manipulate you or tip the power dynamics in the relationship in their favor, then you need to understand this is a form of mental abuse.
4. Educate them about the psychology behind silent treatment
Will he come back after the silent treatment? Will she understand that this treatment is causing more harm than good? Yes, when the anger has dialed down and when you educate them about their toxic attitude. When the two of you have gone back to being normal, talk to them about their behavior. Let them know that you feel isolated when they use the silent treatment. Every relationship has its ups and downs. Couples argue. The way they resolve conflicts in the relationship is what determines whether or not a relationship can survive.
Talking about how to win the silent treatment, Aakhansha says, “Tell them you’re not a mind reader and you have no way of knowing what’s going on inside their mind until they share it with you. You don’t have to raise your voice or make sarcastic comments to make your point. They may not know that their hostile behavior is unkind and deeply painful. It’s time you talk things over and differentiate between the right and wrong way of using silence.”
5. Don’t have the mentality of an eye for an eye
If your partner is manipulative or a narcissist, they could well be using the silent treatment to make you suffer and get their way. They often squirm like a needy child when things don’t go according to their wishes. Silence is their way of letting you know that they are unhappy with you and want you to suffer.
Just because your partner is resorting to such narcissistic silent treatment manipulation and uses gaslighting phrases to control you, doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate in kind. Relationships don’t work that way. Instead, use these phrases when your partner pulls the stonewalling card:
- “When you’re ready to talk, let me know”
- “I know you’re hurting right now but so am I. If you keep ignoring me, things are only going to get worse”
- “There are rough patches in every relationship. It’s on you and me to work it out”
Related Reading: 23 Signs Of An Unhealthy Relationship
6. Structure your conversation
Create a structured conversation so that you don’t digress from the topic at hand – which happens often when you’re in the middle of an argument or a heated discussion with your partner. You start somewhere else and end somewhere else entirely. Establish fair fighting rules and control the urge to use cuss words, resort to name-calling, or yell at each other.
Here are some ways you can approach the situation and communicate better with your partner:
- Avoid using words like “always” and “never”
- Use “I” sentences that show how you are feeling so that your partner doesn’t feel that you’re blaming them
- Clearly explain what’s bothering you. Tell them the way they shut down is unhealthy and hurtful
- How to win the silent treatment? Use the sandwich method of communication. Compliment your partner first and then make a request followed by another positive statement. Sandwich your request or issue between two positive sentences
7. Seek professional help
Being subjected to silent treatment invariably takes a toll on your mental health. If you feel the damage runs too deep or you and your partner lack the know-how to break free from this pattern, seek help. Of course, you can turn to trusted friends and family members for advice. But when you feel overwhelmed by all the negativity born out of stonewalling and silent abuse, couples counseling can be immensely beneficial in creating self-awareness about negative behaviors and acquiring the tools to turn things around.
If you’re married to a narcissist or are seeking therapy for mental-health-related issues, Bonobology’s panel of experienced therapists would be glad to help you every step of the way.
- If your partner is aware of the fact that stonewalling and ignoring someone is abuse, then they are doing it purposefully to hurt you
- Most people who use the silent treatment in a relationship do it as a way to avoid confrontation. They don’t know that it’s hurting the other person’s feelings. It’s a learned behavior and they think there is nothing wrong with it
- Handle the silent treatment with dignity by calling out their behavior. Educate them that ignoring someone is abuse and they can’t keep doing it
- When your partner pulls away after a fight, don’t force them to talk to you. Let them come to you on their own
If your partner refuses to understand you and keeps falling back into the pattern of the silent treatment, you need to set the record straight. Tell them you won’t tolerate this anymore. Giving an ultimatum is not good in romantic relationships but you have no other choice than to respond to the silent treatment firmly. You don’t have to win the silent treatment either. Because whether you win and they lose or vice versa, your relationship stands to lose a lot in terms of love, respect, and belief in one another.