Silent treatment: Is it abuse and how to respond (2023)

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.

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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.

(Video) How To Respond To a Narcissist's Silent Treatment LIKE A BOSS! 😎

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 to respond

(Video) THE DREADED SILENT TREATMENT - What's Up, Why & Best Ways to Respond

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.

Trying the above steps can help those in an otherwise healthy relationship. However, people in abusive relationships will need to take different steps.

If a person feels that they or their family are in immediate danger, they must call 911. If they are not in immediate danger, a person who believes that their partner is abusive should consider whether or not they wish to stay in the relationship.

It will help someone in an abusive relationship to:

  • stay in contact with their family and friends
  • talk privately with a trusted professional, such as a counselor or domestic violence advocate, who can discuss the person’s options in a safe space
  • seek advice and support from a domestic abuse organization, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline or Love is Respect
(Video) 5 Ways to Respond to the Silent Treatment From a Narcissist

Couples who have difficulty communicating effectively may benefit from counseling. A therapist can help the partners express their feelings so that they can resolve conflicts in a healthy way.

However, therapists and organizations including the National Domestic Violence Hotline do not recommend couples counseling for those in abusive relationships.

This is because domestic abuse is not a product of an unhealthy relationship. The issue lies only with the abusive person. In some cases, focusing on relationship issues in therapy may reinforce their abusive behaviors.

People on the receiving end of a partner’s abuse may benefit from individual therapy if they safely engage in appointments. A therapist can help them recover their self-esteem and understand that they are not responsible for their partner’s behavior.

Abusive people who wish to change can enroll in programs to help alter their behaviors.

(Video) Staying strong during the silent treatment | 3 TIPS to WIN | How to deal with the silent treatment

Using the silent treatment is an unproductive way of communicating within a relationship. It can sometimes be a form of self-protection, but at other times, it indicates emotional abuse.

People who regularly use or experience the silent treatment should take steps to address it.

If there are other signs of abuse, it may be necessary to seek outside support to stay safe.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:

  • phone, at 800-799-7233
  • live chat, at thehotline.org
  • text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522

Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for People of Color, here:

FAQs

Is the silent treatment a form of manipulation? ›

The silent treatment is widely regarded as a form of emotional manipulation and even psychological abuse. It is the act of ceasing to initiate or respond to communication with someone else or refusing to acknowledge them altogether.

Is it toxic to give silent treatment? ›

When silence, or, rather, the refusal to engage in a conversation, is used as a control tactic to exert power in a relationship, then it becomes "the silent treatment," which is toxic, unhealthy, and abusive.

Is the silent treatment narcissistic abuse? ›

The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse typically employed by people with narcissistic tendencies.

Is silent treatment a red flag? ›

The Silent Treatment is Your S.O.'s Main Conflict Technique

If you're in a relationship, conflicts and arguments come with the territory. Managing these conflicts and working through them together are a necessary part of developing a healthy relationship, which makes the silent treatment a huge red flag.

Is silence a form of emotional abuse? ›

This is a form of emotional abuse. It's normal to not want to talk to someone when you are angry or frustrated. In most cases, this happens occasionally and blows over. However, if a person regularly uses the silent treatment to influence or control your behavior, they are being emotionally abusive.

How can the silent treatment backfire? ›

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!

Is the silent treatment Gaslighting? ›

The silent treatment is the ultimate gaslighting because it denies the reality of you, of your humanity,” Sarkis says.

What happens when you ignore the narcissist silent treatment? ›

If you ignore a narcissist and deny them their source, they may become enraged and try even harder for your attention – especially in ways that can be toxic or abusive. Ignoring a narcissist will enrage them because of their fragile egos. They'll feel humiliated and lash out against you to protect themselves.

What kind of person uses the silent treatment? ›

At best the silent treatment isan immature behavior used by spoiled brats and manipulativeindividuals. At worst, it is a weapon used by abusers to punish their victims. One demographic of the population that particularly loves the silent treatment is the narcissist.

How do you respond to a narcissist silent treatment? ›

Tell the person how the silent treatment hurts and leaves you feeling frustrated and alone. That's not what you want or need in a relationship. Explain that you can't resolve issues this way, then be specific about those issues. If this sort of behavior is a relationship deal-breaker for you, state it plainly.

How long should the silent treatment last? ›

Ideally no more than 1 hour, hopefully less. Say “I will be back in *** (time) to continue the discussion” even if you can only manage to come back to agree to close it down for the time being, or take the matter to counselling.

Why do people give the silent treatment? ›

Although a perpetrator might use the silent treatment in many different scenarios, this is what every scenario has in common: “People use the silent treatment because they can get away with it without looking abusive to others,” Williams explained, “and because it's highly effective in making the targeted individual ...

Does the silent treatment mean you have been discarded by the narcissist? ›

Silent treatment vs silent discard

People with narcissistic tendencies tend to see others as objects to meet their needs and will discard them when it is no longer met or the person adds no value. Their pattern of relationship is to idealise, devalue and then discard. The silent treatment is a temporary discard.

What being ignored does to a person? ›

Research finds that feeling ignored can affect people's sensory perceptions, such as feeling that surroundings seem quieter. Being ignored creates feelings of self-doubt, feeling a lack of control, and feeling not worthy of attention.

What's another word for the silent treatment? ›

In this page you can discover 7 synonyms, antonyms, idiomatic expressions, and related words for silent-treatment, like: blackballing, cold shoulder, ignore someone, ignoring, ostracism, ostracization and sending-to-coventry.

Is the silent treatment disrespectful? ›

Silent Treatment – What It is and What It's Not

But here's the thing about blatantly ignoring someone: not only is it rude, immature, inconsiderate, cruel, and petty, it's downright emotionally (and sometimes physically) damaging. Ignoring someone is not an act of love. In fact, silent treatment qualifies as abuse.

How do you deal with a spouse that gives you the silent treatment? ›

How to Respond to the Silent Treatment from Your Spouse
  1. Don't assume you know the reason for the silent treatment. ...
  2. Explain to your Silent Spouse your need and desire to communicate. ...
  3. Be ready to listen, not just talk. ...
  4. Be gracious, not caustic or sarcastic, when your spouse does make the effort to talk with you.

Do narcissists come back after silent treatment? ›

More often, the narcissist will go silent for some period of time, and then return as if nothing happened. They may have found a new source of supply but had a falling out with them and now they need something from you. Your best bet is to ignore them the way they ignored you earlier.

Is giving the silent treatment passive-aggressive? ›

It may be a passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval and contempt is exhibited through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence. Clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker identifies it as a form of manipulative punishment.

How do you deal with being stonewalled? ›

  1. Ask for a break during conflicts. Stonewalling is often a result of feeling overwhelmed. ...
  2. Acknowledge that you are not the “fixer' in the relationship. ...
  3. Lead with empathy. ...
  4. Trust yourself. ...
  5. Prioritize self-care. ...
  6. Talk to a professional at Relish.
28 Feb 2021

Why narcissists use silent treatment? ›

The silent treatment, a form of stonewalling, is a tool used by narcissists to punish someone who has behaved in a way they don't like. Most people want to right wrongs and if they feel like something negative has happened in the relationship, they want to discuss it to lessen tension and to protect the relationship.

What turns a narcissist off? ›

The best way to shut down a narcissist is to not engage with them at all and to go no contact. People that are narcissistic want things from you – they want your attention and your emotional reaction.

How does a narcissist text? ›

When a narcissist senses they're losing you, they'll use texting to overwhelm you with words—usually a heady mix of almost-apologies, vague promises, and passive-aggressive digs. Example: “Hey, Babe. I've been thinking about us all morning and how great we are together.

What a narcissist does at the end of a relationship? ›

At the end of a relationship, narcissists may become combative, passive-aggressive, hostile, and even more controlling. People with NPD often fail to understand other people's needs and values. They are hyper focused on their egos, but do not account for how their actions affect others.

What is stonewalling in a relationship? ›

What does it mean to stonewall someone? In simple terms, stonewalling is when someone completely shuts down in a conversation or refuses to interact with another person.

Why is silence so powerful? ›

Being silent allows us to channel our energies. It gives us the clarity we need to calmly face challenges and uncertainty. The hour of silence I practice each morning, and encourage you to practice as well, can be a time for collecting our thoughts, training our minds, and deciding how we want to enter into the day.

How do you get power over a narcissist? ›

Take these steps to handle a narcissist:
  1. Educateyourself. Find out more about the disorder. It can help you understand the narcissist's strengths and weaknesses and learn how to handle them better. ...
  2. Create boundaries. Be clear about your boundaries. ...
  3. Speak up for yourself. When you need something, be clear and concise.

How do you neutralize a narcissist? ›

4 Tricks to Neutralize Narcissists
  1. Leverage the fact that narcissists like to be associated with higher status people. ...
  2. Recognize that narcissists are generally not good team players since there are few people whom they consider their equals. ...
  3. Stick to the rules. ...
  4. Protect your other reports.
10 Jun 2011

Is silence the best revenge? ›

Silence speaks volumes

The best revenge is no reaction. Believe it, the silence and zero reaction really bothers your ex, and they consider it as the best served revenge. Nothing creates more curiosity than silence. Your ex would expect a vent or an angry rant from you, but don't give in.

Why are narcissists silent? ›

Essentially, the point of the silent treatment is to make the victim feel confused, stressed, guilty, ashamed, not good enough, or unstable enough so that they would do what the manipulator wants.

What is Gaslighting emotional abuse? ›

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. People who experience gaslighting may feel confused, anxious, or as though they cannot trust themselves.

Why do men give silent treatment? ›

Many guys hate failing and feeling inadequate. They often don't have the speed of words to compete with their partner in a conflict. Men's emotional processing capacity is often much slower than their partner. Whilst being silent is a sign of a man's need to process it is also a way to avoid the feelings of defeat.

What a narcissist hates the most? ›

The thing that narcissists hate the most is when their fears of inadequacy are triggered by narcissistic injuries, disappointment, rejection, or even feedback and/or criticism.

How does a narcissist handle rejection and no contact? ›

A narcissist experiences cognitive dissonance. When a narcissist enters into any kind of personal conflict such as rejection or requests for no contact, they immediately experience cognitive dissonance. Therefore, being rejected goes against everything they believe to be true about themselves.

What kind of person uses the silent treatment? ›

At best the silent treatment isan immature behavior used by spoiled brats and manipulativeindividuals. At worst, it is a weapon used by abusers to punish their victims. One demographic of the population that particularly loves the silent treatment is the narcissist.

How do you break the silent treatment? ›

Tell the person how the silent treatment hurts and leaves you feeling frustrated and alone. That's not what you want or need in a relationship. Explain that you can't resolve issues this way, then be specific about those issues. If this sort of behavior is a relationship deal-breaker for you, state it plainly.

How can the silent treatment backfire? ›

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!

How long should the silent treatment last? ›

Ideally no more than 1 hour, hopefully less. Say “I will be back in *** (time) to continue the discussion” even if you can only manage to come back to agree to close it down for the time being, or take the matter to counselling.

Is the silent treatment Gaslighting? ›

The silent treatment is the ultimate gaslighting because it denies the reality of you, of your humanity,” Sarkis says.

Why the silent treatment is so damaging? ›

The silent treatment is a particularly insidious form of abuse because it might force the victim to reconcile with the perpetrator in an effort to end the behavior, even if the victim doesn't know why they're apologizing. “It's especially controlling because it deprives both sides from weighing in,” Williams said.

What happens when you ignore the narcissist silent treatment? ›

If you ignore a narcissist and deny them their source, they may become enraged and try even harder for your attention – especially in ways that can be toxic or abusive. Ignoring a narcissist will enrage them because of their fragile egos. They'll feel humiliated and lash out against you to protect themselves.

Is ignoring someone cruel? ›

But here's the thing about blatantly ignoring someone: not only is it rude, immature, inconsiderate, cruel, and petty, it's downright emotionally (and sometimes physically) damaging. Ignoring someone is not an act of love.

What's another word for the silent treatment? ›

In this page you can discover 7 synonyms, antonyms, idiomatic expressions, and related words for silent-treatment, like: blackballing, cold shoulder, ignore someone, ignoring, ostracism, ostracization and sending-to-coventry.

What is stonewalling in a relationship? ›

What does it mean to stonewall someone? In simple terms, stonewalling is when someone completely shuts down in a conversation or refuses to interact with another person.

Is giving the silent treatment passive-aggressive? ›

It may be a passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval and contempt is exhibited through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence. Clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker identifies it as a form of manipulative punishment.

How do you deal with being stonewalled? ›

  1. Ask for a break during conflicts. Stonewalling is often a result of feeling overwhelmed. ...
  2. Acknowledge that you are not the “fixer' in the relationship. ...
  3. Lead with empathy. ...
  4. Trust yourself. ...
  5. Prioritize self-care. ...
  6. Talk to a professional at Relish.
28 Feb 2021

Is silence the best revenge? ›

Silence speaks volumes

The best revenge is no reaction. Believe it, the silence and zero reaction really bothers your ex, and they consider it as the best served revenge. Nothing creates more curiosity than silence. Your ex would expect a vent or an angry rant from you, but don't give in.

Why is silence so powerful? ›

Being silent allows us to channel our energies. It gives us the clarity we need to calmly face challenges and uncertainty. The hour of silence I practice each morning, and encourage you to practice as well, can be a time for collecting our thoughts, training our minds, and deciding how we want to enter into the day.

Do narcissists come back after silent treatment? ›

More often, the narcissist will go silent for some period of time, and then return as if nothing happened. They may have found a new source of supply but had a falling out with them and now they need something from you. Your best bet is to ignore them the way they ignored you earlier.

Videos

1. How & Why the Narcissist Mother Uses the Silent Treatment on the Family Scapegoat & How to Handle It
(Raised by Toddlers: Surviving Narcissistic Parents)
2. How to Outsmart Narcissists Silent Treatment End the Pain Today
(Michele Lee Nieves Coaching)
3. The Narcissists' Code: Episode 10- The Silent Treatment From a narcissist. Narcissist's POV
(Mental Healness)
4. Silent Treatment = Abuse (Here’s Why)
(A Conscious Rethink)
5. THE SILENT TREATMENT: WHEN THE NARCISSIST GOES PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE
(Surviving Narcissism)
6. THE SILENT TREATMENT IS EMOTIONAL ABUSE
(Looking Behind the Mirror)
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