The Best Way To Respond To The Silent Treatment

This is what to do when someone ices you out — and how to help them address the behavior altogether.

by Brittany Risher
Originally Published: 
Man and woman at breakfast table man is ignoring woman for his phone

You don’t know what you did, but you know you did something — and your partner is pissed. The anger isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the way they’re handling it. Instead of communicating about whatever it is you did, they’re not saying a thing. Maybe they’re stomping around or sighing heavily, but they certainly aren’t speaking to you. Ah, the silent treatment. Now you’re probably walking on eggshells, hoping this will return to normal soon.

The silent treatment is a power move, a game of emotional chicken that is debilitating, maddening, and genuinely unhelpful from a unification standpoint. Whether it’s a rare thing in your relationship or a go-to defense mechanism, here’s how you can break through the invisible barrier, address the real issue in the short term, and work together to make the silent treatment quietly go away for good.

Why The Silent Treatment Happens

The silent treatment “is a way to try and inflict emotional pain on someone as a consequence of feelings of anger or frustration,” explains relationship therapist Megan Harrison, LMFT. “Through withholding approval, they are non-verbally expressing that your actions and words are unacceptable.”

Someone may use the silent treatment if they are angry or overwhelmed and don’t know how to explain themselves in a healthy way. They might default to the silent treatment because they’re conflict-averse and don’t want to get into big discussions, or it may simply be a tactic used to gain the upper hand by forcing the other person to feel guilty and try and make things right. It could be a learned behavior (perhaps a parent used it) or simply something that’s helped them in the past.

Regardless, the silent treatment is a petty, passive-aggressive tactic used in emotional warfare. It breaks every rule of healthy communication, which is why the silent treatment or “stonewalling” is listed as one of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen, a quartet of traits that often spell doom for a relationship.

Now, it should be pointed out that there’s a difference between the silent treatment and your partner saying they need some time to cool down after a fight. The latter is perfectly fine if they explain their intentions and address the issue at hand once they’re in a calmer place. It’s the act of completely locking someone out that is the problem, says psychiatrist and therapist Elisabeth Gordon, MD. “They refuse to interact and become non-communicative and non-responsive.”

Why The Silent Treatment Is So Harmful

When you’re on the receiving end of the silent treatment, you may feel powerless, disrespected, invisible, frustrated, or angry — or you may cycle through all of these emotions and more.

“Many people feel powerless because we, as humans, are inherently social creatures,” says Gordon. “Our brains are structured to recognize social inclusions because those signal safety and the ability to keep going.” In fact, the part of the brain that perceives social connection also perceives pain and threat. No wonder being stonewalled by a loved one hurts so much and makes us long to reconnect so we can feel safe again.

The silent treatment also “doesn’t create a situation where you can discuss and resolve the issue that started it”, Gordon says. And any lack of communication is never positive since it’s essential in every relationship to be able to openly and honestly express your feelings.

When taken to the extreme, the silent treatment can become a way to manipulate and control someone. So be mindful and notice if your partner gives you the silent treatment infrequently, does it on a more regular basis but is open to talking (perhaps after a few hours or a day), or if you think it’s becoming emotional abuse.

How To Respond To The Silent Treatment

The best thing to do when your loved one won’t communicate (and may be glaring at you) is to not escalate things, advises Harrison. This means: Don’t take it personally. Be calm and patient. Do not respond in anger. Don’t be patronizing or condescending. Don’t beg your partner to respond.

So what can you do? Respond to their silence.

Communicate about the silent treatment, stating what you observe by using ‘I’ statements,” Gordon says. For example, you can say, “I notice you’re shutting down and not responding to me.” Then use more ‘I’ statements (because those don’t place blame on the other person) to explain how their silence makes you feel.

Follow that up by gently explaining how this makes it harder to resolve the underlying issue. Once you lay all of that out, Gordon says to propose some alternatives, such as a cooling-off period since emotions may be high right now. You could say something like, “If you are too upset to talk now, fine, let’s not talk. But let’s set a time to re-approach this later.”

When you do talk about it, give your partner the floor. “Wait until they are done speaking; that gives them space to discuss what is bothering them,” says Gordon. Thank them for talking and not disengaging. If they’re upset because of something you did, consider apologizing, which can help de-escalate the situation even further. Then, per Gordon, “try to have a discussion about both the resolution of [the] issue and, either then or later, about how to not get into that situation again.”

How To End The Silent Treatment For Good

If the silent treatment is a fairly common reaction from your partner, address that during this initial conversation.

“Talk about how you would prefer if they didn’t use this, with an emphasis on why it’s damaging, how you feel, and how it doesn’t help resolve the situation,” Gordon recommends.

Bringing it up in the present can help prevent the silent treatment — or remedy it more quickly — in the future. If your spouse begins building a wall between the two of you, remind them of the conversation you had. Say, “remember that time [fill in the blank] happened, and what we talked about?” Recall how, together, you worked through the issue and achieved some form of resolution and success, Gordon explains. “That helps make it about the behavior, not the immediate situation at hand.”

For a softer approach, create a code word that brings to mind the time when you two worked things out or that makes you both laugh. Anytime your partner uses the silent treatment, say that word or phrase. It can help dispel some tension and nip the issue in the bud. Of course, all of this is easier when you can both communicate without accusing and judging. So work on this if you need to.

Lastly, if your attempts to resolve the silent treatment don’t help, consider couples therapy.

“It might be a learned behavior,” says Gordon. “Your partner doesn’t know other ways to engage and resolve conflict.” A professional can help with this.

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