The Silent Treatment In A Relationship Is A Killer

The Silent Treatment In A Relationship Is A Killer


By Dr. Kurt Smith, LMFT, LPCC, AFC

Ah, the silent treatment in a relationship – nothing says, “I love you”, like being ignored. No one likes getting it, yet a lot of us do it.

Sadly, a lot of us know what it feels like to get the silent treatment in our relationship. In couples counseling it’s not uncommon for me to hear partners say,

He hasn’t spoken to me in a week”


She ignored me for three days after our last fight”

Is The Silent Treatment Abuse?

So, is the silent treatment in a relationship a sign of emotional abuse? Yes, it is.

Now sometimes being quiet is a good thing. If you need to be silent so you don’t say something you shouldn’t, then it’s a good thing to do. If you need to remain quiet for the management of your anger, then staying silent is smart.

Maybe you’re using silence as a good communication technique, that’s okay too. Sometimes staying silent so you can really listen to your partner or to ensure your partner is able to express themselves can be hard to do. But practicing purposeful silence can be good and is different than using the silent treatment as a weapon in your relationship.

What separates the silent treatment from a good conflict management skill or communication tool is the intent behind it and how long it lasts. When it’s used to hurt or punish it’s really a form of passive-aggressive anger and very harmful to your relationship.

When the silent treatment goes past a few hours, which should be long enough for all of us to cool down and get past the intensity of any hurt feelings, then it can become abusive.



Why The Silent Treatment Is Bad

As the above social media post describes, getting the silent treatment in a relationship causes the same response in our brains as being physically hit. Brain imaging shows that physical pain and social pain excite the same parts of our brain. The chemicals released in our bodies are the same too. And over time this kind of emotional abuse can even cause changes in the structure of our brains as well.

As if feeling alone, shut out, unloved aren’t enough, it also can cause us to question if there is something wrong with us. This can lead us to react with behaviors that are unhealthy and contrary to maintaining a healthy relationship.

When someone you love stops communicating with you or ignores you outright for periods of time, it can create feelings of desperation. You may find yourself apologizing for things that were never your fault, begging for attention, or going out of your way to please your partner in ways you wouldn’t normally (and perhaps shouldn’t).

The controlling and cruel nature of the silent treatment in relationships makes it a clear form of emotional abuse and relationship manipulation creating an imbalance and unhealthy dynamic between partners.

The bottom line is that silent treatment isn’t healthy because the strategy behind it is to withhold emotion and affection as a matter of punishment and for personal gain. It can be just as damaging as not controlling emotions at all or fighting all the time.

Stopping The Silent Treatment In Your Relationship

Changing your partner’s tendency (or yours) to use the silent treatment in your relationship will probably take some time. They may not even be aware of how damaging their behavior is.

To begin, you should try to understand why they gravitate towards it, to begin with. People who use the silent treatment regularly were often subject to it themselves as children or witnesses to it in the relationships of important adult figures in their lives. In other words, they were taught that it’s normal.

Now, years later, it’s what they know to do when they want to make a point, get their way, or are feeling hurt.

For others, the silent treatment may be a defense mechanism. They become so hurt or upset that they completely shut down and refuse to communicate at all. In order to protect themselves, they hope that if there’s no more communication there will be no more pain. Clearly not true.

Making your partner aware of their behavior and its effect on you and your relationship, as well as the negative effects it has on them, is very important.

It may not be easy for them to stop what’s probably become a common response to conflict. So, you might try working with your partner to build in some cooling-off time during or after an argument. This should be done with the agreement that you’ll always come back and discuss how you each feel and the topic of your conflict within a certain period of time, say 24 hours.

Put a limit also on how long you can go without speaking to each other.

Too many people accept the silent treatment in a relationship – sometimes because they don’t recognize it as abusive, but often because they feel powerless to change it. Yet being abused always includes a choice. We can’t make someone talk to us, but we can choose whether we will accept being treated in that way.


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