We can all agree that there are things that should never be said in anger. Crossing the line to hit below the belt in a heated argument can quickly become the source of deep-seated resentment in relationships. That’s why 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.
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.
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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.
Counsellor Snigdha Mishra, a psychotherapist by training, tells us what it 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 behaviour in a partner. When you withdraw communication with this intent, you’re using silent treatment as a tool to induce a positive behaviour change. Here the clear focus is on certain maladaptive or dysfunctional behaviour 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 behaviour. 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
Knowing how to win the 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.
It is used as a means to inflict pain and suffering without leaving any physical marks.
This account of a 40-something woman in therapy and contemplating divorce only and only because she could no longer put up with the silent treatment manipulation being meted out her by her husband perfectly sums up why this behaviour qualifies as emotional and mental abuse.
What the experts say…
Psychologist Mallika Pathak 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. Any individual who uses silent treatment is doing so as a way to control, and manipulate a person and is 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.”
And statistics corroborate
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.
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How to Respond to the Silent Treatment?
Despite its damaging effect, silent treatment manipulation is rampant in 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. All you need is the right approach and mindset.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to respond to the silent treatment:
1. Get to the root cause of the problem
Never operate from the assumption that you are responsible for the silent treatment if you want to know how to win the silent treatment. There is always an underlying cause for people to resort to this kind of behaviour. 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 husband for weeks.
2. Try the Sandwich Method approach
Want to know how to handle the silent treatment with dignity? The Sandwich Method may well be your best option. 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’.
Make it a point to keep your demeanour 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.
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 a ‘who blinks first’ game in motion. This helps no one. Not you, not your partner, not your relationship.
All this will lead to is widening of the distance between you two, and prove detrimental to the relationship as well as your psyche. Instead, 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 behaviour.
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 off 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 off your grudges.
However, overcoming the hurt caused by someone you love and care for isn’t easy. But try you must. Instead of focussing on how you’ve been wronged, look inwards and explore your shortcomings and faults. Then, apologise 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.
However, if 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
If you’re taking the above-mentioned approach, 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? 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 counselling – can be extremely beneficial in recognising and sorting out some fundamental issues in the relationship.
8.Have an honest conversation with yourself
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?
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.
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 behaviour. 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 the silent treatment, “Silent treatment can be dealt with by first understanding the psychology and dynamics behind it. When a person resorts to the 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 behaviour, 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.”