The term “silent treatment,” chillingly, comes from 19th-century prison reform. Instead of physical punishment or grueling work, which was believed to do nothing to truly alter the character of the criminal, prisoners would no longer be allowed to speak to each other and rarely be spoken to. They’d be referred to by a number and never their name, forced to cover their faces and spend long amounts of time in isolation. It was intended to break their will in a way no hard labor ever could. And while it was difficult to enforce, and many prisoners found ways to communicate by singing, coughing or waving, many of them went mad in response to the deprivation; it rendered them into something far worse than merely criminals. They had become invisible nothings. Worthless, powerless zeroes. Poof.
So share this tidbit the next time your partner ices you out.
Unfortunately, people give each other the silent treatment everywhere people live, breathe and interact. It’s not typically so malevolent as a 19th-century prison, though, and nowadays “silent treatment” usually means anything from light sulking to hostile seething or complete shutting down in stony silence. But it still feels terrible. And people on the receiving end of such freeze-outs rarely know what, if anything, to do about it, often scrambling and begging the other person to please just look at them or talk to them, only to be met with a cold glare.
The Most Common Conflict Pattern in Relationships
A recent Reddit thread queried r/AskMen how they deal with the silent treatment from their significant others. In a nutshell: Boyfriend asks girlfriend if she’s cool with him getting some weed this weekend, and she flees the room like it’s on fire, proceeding to never utter more than two words at a time until she really feels like it. He’s at a loss, because she’s agreed to talk through issues in the future but always returns to the same dramatic, impenetrable act.
As with most relationship gripes, there’s probably more to the story: He probably smokes too much weed in her view, or she just doesn’t like it and wishes he would stop, but he doesn’t. But regardless, it doesn’t change the simple fact that getting the silent treatment feels frustratingly powerless, and sometimes even crazy-making.
And it isn’t just the bane of romantic partnerships. Friends may frost each other after an argument; co-workers ice at will. In one survey, being blown off at work was reported as the fourth most common tactic used by colleagues or supervisors to punish other colleagues, ranking only worse than being accused of fake errors, being glared at, or having one’s contributions minimized or mocked.
As terrible as it feels, it’s also the single most common conflict pattern in relationships, and research shows it’s also extremely damaging, according to a review of the existing studies on conflict done by communications professor Paul Schrodt. Still, it happens all the time.
The pattern is called demand-withdraw, and it works when one person “pressures the other with requests, criticism or complaints and the other responds with silence and emotional distance,” Schrodt explains. There are a few hallmarks of the pattern, according to Schrodt: Partners establish demand or withdrawal as their role and lock horns on it and both people believe the other person is the jerk at fault. The withholding silent person is viewed as an emotionally unavailable gargoyle, while the demanding person is seen as a critical hellbeast. The worst part: They’re both made equally, profoundly miserable by it, and that stress it causes radiates throughout their bodies and psyches in every direction, causing digestive issues, anxiety issues, erectile issues, happiness issues.
It’s also a common tactic in narcissist abuse, where it’s wielded coldly as a cruel, harsh weapon of diminishment and control. In those relationships, it’s considered the psychological equivalent of being physically pummeled, though some experts argue that it’s just poor communication, not abuse.
Either way, anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the ice storm has wondered what the hell is happening inside the person giving the silent treatment. Don’t they know how angry and ridiculous they seem? Shutting down and storming off is sometimes called the “coward’s temper tantrum,” because the act is fantastically stunted to watch: Here are adults that can’t even use their words to express their anger, sadness or frustration, and are willing to hole up like children in a self-imposed time out, at maximum cost to their relationships, reputation and dignity.
Why We Give the Silent Treatment — and What to Do About It
“Most often, a person walks away because they are emotionally flooded,” clinical psychologist Jacqueline Duke tells me by email. “They require some time to sort out their intense or mixed feelings. They ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ in order to avoid saying the wrong thing.”
So what are you supposed to do with a flooded engine? What do you do when someone’s giving you the cold shoulder? Is there any way to break it? Some code word, some magic phrase?
Mostly, we’re told to wait it out. Online, self-help sites advise a variety of tactics from simply giving them space to think, only apologizing if you’re actually sorry for something you did, and then setting healthier rules for communication going forward. Others advise that you approach the person “calmly and gently” and “acknowledge that you’ve hurt them,” reminding them how much you care about being “a good wife or husband.” Others tell you to look long and hard at yourself and see what you’ve done, because it’s obviously something or they wouldn’t have to pull away, and reassure them that you’re here for them whenever they’re ready.
But at issue here is that some people give the silent treatment preemptively whether you’ve done something or not. When someone can ghost without discussion, even temporarily, they’ve robbed two people of having a side. There is only one side: Theirs. And it cuts through everything to demand its way.
1. You Can’t Reward the Behavior
Many people find that appeasing the withdrawing person, and letting them sulk and stew or coaxing them out of it, as tantamount to giving into a screaming toddler. You can’t reward the behavior. I’m a big fan of telling the big, giant baby (ahem, person) you won’t change their diapers — that is, you can’t participate in any relationship where someone shuts down to manipulate you and is incapable of talking through feelings. It’s high comedy, and you can’t treat it as a serious thing, because there’s no way someone who can finance an automobile, hold a job or master Sudoku ought to be able to be that silly.
2. Give Yourself Some Alone Time
In addition to picturing the silent person as a small baby in diapers, crying, I also like leaving. The house, the restaurant, the bar, the anywhere. It’s definitely fighting back, but it’s incredible the way the person will turn on a dime and start frantically calling and texting when you do. The silent, withholding person can’t stand to have it done to them, and it’s one way to show them how it feels. Of course, that doesn’t mean you solved anything, but I can’t overstate how tremendous it feels to peace out.
3. Talk — At the Right Time
That’s not necessarily the most mature route to solving things, though. And if that’s the goal, Duke says the only way to shut down a shutdown is in advance, and the only time for talking it over to do so is way after the heat dies down. Which means at least once, ugh, you’ll have to suck it up, wait until they calm down and establish some ground rules.
Just like adults eventually learn you can’t fall onto the floor screaming when your burrito is taking too long at a restaurant, the withdrawing person has to learn the only “healthy” way to march off in silence. Which means they have to speak a sentence or two indicating they have a tiny degree of mastery over their feelings, by giving a warning that explains the feelings and asks for some time to process them.
“I always recommend telling the person what you are doing,” Duke says. “When the brain is on overdrive with emotions, logical cognitions become more difficult. A simple go-to sentence, such as ‘I need a moment to digest this’ or ‘I’m going to step out and gather my thoughts.’ This statement should be practiced ahead of time (not in the midst of the argument), so that the partner knows that the other person is not intending to be disrespectful, but rather needs some emotional and physical space in that moment. The other person could also acknowledge the other person’s hurt and say, ‘I can tell what I said has upset you and you may need some time. Please know I am available to talk when you are ready.’”
Though having to wait on someone to be a person is extremely difficult, Duke says, an even better option would be the person giving a specific time frame for the processing. “I’m going to the other room to process this and will return in 10 minutes,” you could say, or, “I may need tonight to digest my thoughts and revisit the issue tomorrow morning.”
“Giving a specific time frame prevents the other person from feeling abandoned or disrespected,” she says.
4. Don’t Engage
That said, there is one other situation where it’s okay to administer the silent treatment without feeling bad, which is more applicable to work situations or other social engagements where we may not be able to avoid someone. It’s when that someone is just a jerk, and productive conversation is impossible. Research shows that in such situations, when no resolution is possible anyway, it’s better to just pretend they don’t exist and not engage. Otherwise, it takes far too much energy for both people to ignore and be ignored when they’re otherwise likable and a misunderstanding has arisen.
Ask How Bad This Manipulative Behavior Really Is
In other words, ultimately, there’s nothing we — the demanding types — can really do to force someone to stop going off to be alone steaming while making a sour face. We can still go do whatever we please. And we can still set some boundaries.
But we can refuse to engage with them and refuse to try to talk them out of it. We can use the time to go see a movie, text a friend, watch something, listen to music, or go for a drive. I highly discourage sitting there fretting over whether someone is going to stop being weird long enough to move their mouth and form sentences, because otherwise, you’re still ceding your half of the dynamic and power to them to set the terms for when and how issues will be discussed. Not cool.
Then, when it’s all calm, Duke says, that’s when you have to talk about how to handle it. “The conversation must not be had during or just after an argument, but rather at a calm time when you both want to discuss how to improve your communication,” she says.
And if you’re dealing with the extremely crappy narcissistic kind, the kind who won’t stop doing it no matter how much you talk it out, you’ll just have to give them the silent treatment permanently, by breaking up.
“Most likely, the person who does it in a controlling way is modeling a behavior that they have personally been victimized by in the past,” she says. “Perhaps if they were aware of how they were making the other person feel, they would be more likely to change the behavior. They need to replace that behavior with a healthier coping skill, by using better communication, engaging in activities that assist them in coping with their own anger.
“Most narcissistic individuals use very destructive defense mechanisms that damage their relationships,” she continues. “They need to be willing to first recognize when they are going into defense mode and then learn and practice a healthier way to cope without hurting another person. If they are not open to changing their habits or capable of having empathy and respect for their partner’s perspective, it is not a healthy relationship and best to move on.”
But before you do, make sure to ice them first. Only fair, right?