We can all agree that there are things that should never be said in anger but silent treatment is not acceptable either. Crossing the line to hit below the belt in a heated argument can quickly become the source of deep-seated resentment in relationships and not knowing how to respond to silent treatment can also make the situation worse.
We’ve all been taught to not engage in discourse when tempers are soaring. However, this time-out to cool down should not be confused with the tendency to freeze the other person out by giving them a cold shoulder. The latter falls in the category of silent treatment – an abusive tendency that does more harm than good. If you’ve been at its receiving end, you’d have found yourself desperate for an answer to how to respond to the silent treatment.
At times, the silent treatment is used by people to show they are hurting with something that you may have done or said or it can be even something that you may not have any connection with. Although someone giving you the silent treatment is not your fault, remember that if you have hurt them, or done something wrong, an apology from you would benefit your relationship a great deal.
Giving someone the silent treatment speaks volumes about your character. You might want to use it positively to disengage from an argument but if you continue being silent for days then you could be using it as a tool of abuse. Let’s understand what silent treatment manipulation means, how to spot it in a relationship, and ultimately, how to handle the silent treatment with dignity, with the help of insights from counseling psychologist Snigdha Mishra (CBT Training from Beck Institute, Philadelphia and Diploma in Integrated Clinical Hypnotherapy), who specializes in couples counseling for a broad spectrum of issues.
Decoding Silent Treatment Manipulation
The line that divides healthy distance from arguments and silent treatment manipulation of the other person is often very thin. And one that can be blurred easily. We all need time and space, some of us need more time to cool off after an argument, but that does not entitle them to give the other person silent treatment.
The psychology of silent treatment is complicated. It has a positive side and a negative one. And how to react to silent treatment often depends on what kind you’re dealing with, to begin with. It is often said that giving someone the silent treatment speaks volumes about your character. However, before you go hurling this as an accusation at your partner, it’s important to know the difference between going silent as an act of preservation (of the self and the relationship) and using it as a tool of manipulation.
Snigdha, tells us what silent treatment manipulation is and how to identify it, “Silent treatment in a relationship can be a tricky one. The first thing that needs to be considered is the nature of the silent treatment. It can be used both as a positive and a negative strategy. When used positively, it acts as a strategy to communicate displeasure to help motivate to change undesirable behavior in a partner.
“When you withdraw communication with this intent, you’re using silent treatment as a tool to induce a positive behavior change. Here the clear focus is on certain maladaptive or dysfunctional behavior in a partner. This works as a strategy and a positive one at that. On the other hand, silent treatment manipulation borders on a form of emotional abuse.
“Sadly, the latter is a more predominant form of behavior. It is used as a premeditated pre-planned way of showing anger and power over your partner to manipulate them into submission. This kind of silent treatment is not aimed at mending or improving the relationship. It is a form of abuse that hampers the relationship because it is triggered by imbalance, passive aggression, and irrationality.
“Thus, silent treatment manipulation is a marker of an unhealthy relationship. It is often enough said that effective communication forms the basis of any good relationship. When silent treatment is used as a tool of manipulation, you know trouble is brewing in the relationship. The problems often run deeper than what we see on the surface.”
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The Impact Of Silent Treatment
Dealing with silent treatment in marriage or a long-term relationship is not easy. “My husband loves to keep malice with me and give me silent treatment” or “My partner punishes me by going silent and cold toward me” – if this is how you end up feeling after every fight or disagreement, your partner’s behavior can have a far-reaching impact on your psyche.
You may wonder about how to confront someone who is giving you the silent treatment. And with good reason. In such situations, knowing how to respond to silent treatment becomes imperative not just for the survival of the relationship where this form of stonewalling is repeatedly used as a disarming tool but also for the mental health and well-being of the person at receiving end.
The silent treatment is often used as a means to inflict pain and suffering without leaving any physical marks but its impact is often as lethal as that of verbal abuse. That is perhaps why it is said giving someone the silent treatment speaks volumes about your character.
This account of a 40-something woman in therapy who is contemplating divorce only because she can no longer put up with the silent treatment manipulation being meted out to her by her husband, perfectly sums up why this behavior qualifies as emotional and mental abuse.
What the experts say about silent treatment
Psychologist Mallika Pathak, who specializes in marital therapy, agrees. Speaking on the effects of silent treatment on the one at the receiving end, she says, “Silent treatment is the perfect weapon that an abuser can use to punish you. It’s indirect, passive, and extremely emotionally hurtful. When someone gives you silent treatment they are doing so as a way to control and manipulate a person.
“They are choosing not to be open and communicate their feelings or their grievances with the individual. That being said, silent treatment should not be confused or interchanged with any attempts made by an individual who is taking some time to cool off after an argument/fight.”
It’s hard to confront someone who is giving you the silent treatment because they might be sulking for days. Not talking to you or addressing the issues is their way of keeping you at tenterhooks. When someone gives you the silent treatment, you keep grappling with the questions about what went wrong. The silence at the dinner table, in the bedroom, at breakfast becomes harrowing after some time.
Confronting someone giving you the silent treatment becomes imperative for the sake of your mental health and well-being. Even more so when that someone is your partner with whom you share the most intimate connection. Willfully shutting a partner out can be a sign of a deeper issue in the relationship dynamic and getting to the root of it is crucial for addressing this passive-aggressive tendency.
Statistics on silent treatment
Research also corroborates this postulation. An analysis of 74 studies on silent treatment manipulation comprising 14,000 subjects indicates that being ignored by a person who is important to you activates the same region of the brain that responds to physical pain.
The emotional neglect and silence from one partner can have a deep psychological impact on the other, triggering problems such as aggression and anxiety. As such, any relationship where silent treatment manipulation is the norm suffers from poor communication, diminished intimacy, and deep-seated resentment.
If you’re wondering how to respond to a borderline silent treatment or full-blown manipulative silence, then the answer lies in figuring out why the communication channels between you and your significant other are so broken down that clamming up and withdrawing seems like a simpler alternative to voicing your thoughts.
How To Respond To Silent Treatment?
Despite its damaging effect, silent treatment manipulation is rampant in relationships. “My husband loves to keep malice with me and give me silent treatment” or “My wife uses the silent treatment to always get her way” or “My partner punishes me for disagreeing with him by giving me the silent treatment” are common refrains in many relationships.
Left unchecked, it can cause irreparable harm to the relationship as well as the person who’s forced to deal with it. On the bright side, it’s not a problem that cannot be tackled. How to confront someone who’s giving you the silent treatment? All you need is the right approach and mindset.
Silent treatment in relationships often shakes the very foundation of the bond you share and yet, it is imperative to work on it for making your relationship stronger and healthy. Here’s everything you need to know about how to respond to the silent treatment with dignity and your self-respect intact.
1. Get to the root cause of the problem
If you’re dealing with silent treatment in marriage or a long-term relationship, the first step toward putting an end to this toxic cycle is to uncover what’s causing it in the first place. Never operate under the assumption that you are responsible for the silent treatment if you want to know how to confront the silent treatment.
There is always an underlying cause for people to resort to this kind of behavior. Traumatic childhood experiences that lead to difficulty in expressing emotions is one of them. Another key factor is narcissistic tendencies. And then there are habitual abusers who resort to silent treatment manipulation out of spite.
Knowing what you’re dealing with is an important step in being able to handle the situation better. The response to how to respond to the silent treatment from a narcissist cannot be the same as dealing with the emotionally-stunted silent treatment from the husband for weeks.
2. Try the Sandwich Method approach
When confronting someone giving you the silent treatment, you may also be concerned about making a bad situation worse. What if your partner stops talking to you altogether? What if it leads to a huge showdown? What if they prolong the silent treatment even more? All of these concerns can be addressed if you learn how to handle the silent treatment with dignity.
The Sandwich Method may well be your best option in this case. It’s a technique to offer constructive criticism without aggravating the other person or making them more emotionally distant than they already are. The crux of this approach is to use positive reinforcement through ‘I’ statements instead of blame-shifting through ‘You’ remarks. So, instead of “You always do this!” try “I want to understand how we can make this better”. Avoid lashing out with statements like “giving someone the silent treatment speaks volumes about your character and you fare poorly on that account”.
Make it a point to keep your demeanor calm and gentle, and make the other person feel comfortable with pursuing the conversation. If they choose to stay silent or walk away, don’t lose your cool. Try to approach them another time. This not only works for romantic relationships but also when you’re trying to figure out how to respond to the silent treatment from a friend or family member.
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3. Do not respond to silent treatment with silent treatment
Yes, we’ve all heard the proverb ‘diamond cuts diamond’. Except in the case of silent treatment manipulation. It is tempting to respond to silent treatment with the silent treatment of your own. But it will only set a toxic ‘who blinks first’ game in motion. that helps no one. Not you, not your partner. It only makes your relationship more toxic.
All this will lead to widening the distance between you two and prove detrimental to the relationship as well as your psyche. The effective way of dealing with silent treatment in marriage or a relationship is to extend an olive branch. Try to validate their feelings as best as you can.
This helps create an atmosphere of trust and comfort, where the other person can open up and talk about their feelings honestly. However, this approach only works best when an emotional hurdle is triggering the behavior. If you’re looking for ways to respond to the silent treatment from a narcissist or a serial abuser, this is not it.
4. Try to let go of your grudges
The importance of forgiveness in a relationship cannot be stressed enough. It is one of those underrated paradigms that can work its magic in reinstating love and faith even in crumbling relationships. So, the answer to how to win the silent treatment may well lie in letting go of your grudges.
Particularly, if you’re figuring out a way to respond to a borderline silent treatment. In that case, it may help to cut your partner some slack, forgive them for escalating a fight by freezing you out and try to understand why they behaved the way they did.
However, overcoming the hurt caused by someone you love and care for isn’t easy. But try you must. Instead of focusing on how you’ve been wronged, look inwards and explore your shortcomings and faults. Then, apologize for them. Not only will you feel light and baggage-free but the act will also thaw the ice between you and your partner. Once that’s done, emerging from the tendency to resort to silent treatment will become easy.
5. Hold off in making the first move
As a recipient of the silent treatment manipulation, it is not incumbent upon you to reach out every single time. Especially if it’s a question of how to respond to the silent treatment from a narcissist. In such situations, waiting it out can often prove to be the best approach to make the other person see the impact of their actions on you.
Confronting someone giving you the silent treatment repeatedly requires you to hold your own. If your partner pulls back on all communication with you just to prove a point or to get you to toe their line, and this has become a predictable pattern in your relationship, then extending an olive branch isn’t your best recourse. Instead, you must wait for them to come to you.
However, when they do approach to make amends, do not shut them out with a cold shoulder of your own. Remember there is no substitute for effective communication in a relationship. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a question of how to respond to the silent treatment from a friend, family or your spouse.
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6. Give them time and space
How to react to silent treatment and break the deadlock? If you’re taking the above-mentioned approach of letting your partner come to you, make sure you give space and time to the other person until they’re ready to make the first move. When doing that, do let them know that you’re waiting to talk things out.
While you wait, don’t spend all your time and energy on questions like – Is the silent treatment immature? Or how to handle the silent treatment with dignity? This will only make your partner’s silence more overwhelming and hard to deal with. Instead, occupy your mind space with an activity you enjoy. That way, when you do talk things out, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to understand the other person’s perspective.
7. Seek help
If you’ve exhausted all your options and made earnest efforts but the question of how to win the silent treatment still stands, it may be time to seek outside intervention. Professional help in the form of couple therapy – or even individual counseling – can be extremely beneficial in recognizing and sorting out some fundamental issues in the relationship.
Sometimes a partner gives silent treatment because they do not know how to process their own feelings. You may be left feeling like dealing with silent treatment in marriage or your relationship is getting harder and harder, whereas your partner may not even know another way to respond to a difference of opinion or an argument. In that case, opting for relationship counseling is a good idea. A third-person perspective can help straighten things out.
Dealing with silent treatment can be a grueling and exhausting experience. If you have a partner who either thrives on shutting you out or knows no other way to deal with conflict, you must consider getting the right help to deal with all the difficult emotions their behavior may invoke in you. Therapists on the Bonobology panel have helped many like you. You too can benefit from embarking on a journey of self-awareness and healing with them.
8. Have an honest conversation with yourself
If you’ve tried confronting someone giving you the silent treatment but made no headway, it may be time to look inward for answers. Your partner may not be ready for a conversation but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid critical questions too. Have an honest conversation with yourself and try to understand which underlying issues are triggering this repetitive silent treatment.
At this point, it is also important to reflect on whether this equation is taking a toll on your body and mind? If yes, ask yourself is any depth of love worth such toxicity? Do you want to stay in such an unhealthy relationship? If you think that your partner deserves a chance because they are otherwise loving, caring and concerned but this is the only issue in their character, then you can look for ways to handle it.
9. Move on
How to respond to the silent treatment from a narcissist or a serial abuser? It’s a question that often leads to dead ends. In this situation, the other person is deliberately using silent treatment manipulation as a tool to control your mind. That means the intent to make amends is missing.
In such situations, moving on is often better than staying and spending your life wondering how to win the silent treatment. You may love your partner deeply but you will not find your happiness or peace of mind with them. Sometimes, dealing with silent treatment in marriage or a relationship is about putting yourself first. And this is one such situation.
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10. Know that it wasn’t your fault
Even though the perpetrator of silent treatment will make you believe so, you’re not to blame for their behavior. So, shake off the blame and focus on healing yourself. The impact of such forms of abuse is often hard to identify but very deep. Seek the help you need, work toward healing yourself. The trauma of silent treatment manipulation should not cast a shadow on your future relationships.
Psychologist Shefali Batra perfectly sums up ways to respond to silent treatment, “Silent treatment can be dealt with by first understanding the psychology and dynamics behind it. When a person resorts to silent treatment, the recipient must try to understand the reason behind it. Managing it then becomes easy.
“Using logic is key. Don’t react emotionally. The person could well be doing so with a sense of silent abuse. In its milder form, silent treatment could be a simple act of sulking and harmless seeking of attention. Once you know why this is happening, the question of how to respond to silent treatment gets automatically simplified.
If it’s harmless attention-seeking, you can give your partner some attention and move on. If it’s part of abusive controlling behavior, you need to let the other person break the ice. Don’t validate their actions with a reaction. Professional help is always recommended in toxic relationships like these. It takes skill and training to remove the venom and make the relationship amorous yet again.”
The silent treatment psychology can come from a toxic childhood, narcissism or a person’s inability to process their emotions. Attention seekers may give silent treatment but some use it as a manipulative tool for mental abuse.
It is very painful because lack of dialogue or communication leaves the person at the receiving end of silent treatment grappling with questions. They just don’t understand why their partner is behaving this way. If a person is dumped after silent treatment it’s even worse because they never get closure.
Sometimes silent treatment is a good way of disengaging from an argument and giving your partner time to cool off. Short spurts of silent treatment can be good for a relationship and can help avert ugly fights.
Like gaslighting, the silent treatment is also a kind of manipulation where a person is withdrawing communication to manipulate and control their partner. You could keep apologizing and asking what’s wrong, but your partner would stay mum and not reply.
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