Does your partner sometimes give you the silent treatment and you’re wondering how to handle it with dignity?
There are various reasons why someone cuts off all contact with you for a period of time and won’t respond to your attempts to communicate. But how do you know if someone is just struggling to express themselves (or fears doing so), or is intentionally trying to hurt you by withdrawing their affection and verbal dialog?
In this article, we’ll explore the effects of silent treatment on the recipient, how to respond to the silent treatment, making contact after silent treatment, and how to spot signs of abuse.
What is the Silent Treatment?
When someone gives you the silent treatment, they are withdrawing communication from you, usually because they can’t or won’t communicate their feelings. This leads them to clam up, withdraw, and leave you out in the cold.
Regardless of the reason, whether it’s intended to hurt someone or not, silent treatment effects include feeling sad, isolated, confused, and dejected. A 2012 study reported that people who often felt ignored had lower levels of self-esteem and belonging in their lives. Other research found that being ignored by someone who is important to you activates the region of the brain that responds to physical pain.
This is why extended and frequent periods of it are considered emotional abuse and are not only damaging to the person but also the relationship.
Signs that someone is using the silent treatment in an abusive way:
- They display narcissistic traits
- They often struggle to express themselves maturely
- They have been a victim of emotional abuse themselves
- They have a sadistic personality
- They want to maintain power/control over you
Research has found that both men and women use silent treatment in relationships but clear and thoughtful communication is a key foundation for any healthy relationship, and the silent treatment stops us from resolving inevitable conflicts.
How to Handle the Silent Treatment with Dignity
You may have come across the phrase, “giving someone the silent treatment speaks volumes about your character.” It shows how you deal with conflict, how you treat people who you claim to care for and your emotional maturity.
So, the next time you find yourself on the receiving end of it here’s how to handle the silent treatment with dignity.
How to win the silent treatment: don’t give your partner the reaction they may be looking for. If you suspect they’re doing it to punish you, then they will want you to keep texting, calling, and begging them to talk to you. So resist the urge to do any of these things. Let them come to you when they’re ready.
In the meantime, try and stay occupied with other things like work, getting outdoors, meeting friends, or doing something fun.
Reflect on whether you did anything wrong
Before you figure out how to respond to the silent treatment, think about whether there’s a good reason for their behavior.
Did you do something to hurt them that you are aware of? Even if you’re not aware of it, there still may be a reason why they’re feeling hurt and can’t speak to you right now.
Why are they giving you the silent treatment?
The next step to handling the silent treatment with dignity is to think about their motives. Are they just upset or struggling to process their emotions right now? Are they afraid to tell you how they feel? Have they completely isolated themselves from everyone, or just you? Do they do this often, and for how long? Does it feel like you’re being punished?
Although giving someone the silent treatment speaks volumes about your character, it is not always done out of malice.
An abuser will intentionally want to hurt you by withdrawing from and isolating you. They gain power from the silence and will use this power to get you to make you feel desperate, apologize (even if you did nothing wrong) or change your behavior, or beg for forgiveness.
Signs of abuse to look out for:
- The silence lasts for long periods and happens regularly
- The silence only ends when they say so
- They will talk to other people, just not you
- They seek alliances with others (children, other family members, mutual friends, etc.)
- They use silence to pressure or manipulate you to do what they want you to do
- They use silence to make you feel guilty
Give your partner time and space
Some people choose to shut their mouths because they don’t want to say something they regret, which is understandable, but when someone continues to stay silent for days or weeks at a time, it’s likely they’re using it as a tool of abuse.
If this is a rare occurrence, give your partner some time and space to cool off. You can then come together and regain contact after silent treatment and discuss the issue calmly after gaining some perspective.
Take care of yourself
As we explored earlier, the side effects of the silent treatment aren’t good for your mental health and well-being, so it’s really important that you look after yourself during this time. Don’t beat yourself up, or think that you are responsible for helping your partner mature and have grown-up conversations. It is 100% their issue, not yours (unless you know that you have caused them pain).
Make sure you surround yourself with positive people who care about you. Eat well, move your body, and get outside.
Initiating Contact After the Silent Treatment
Now that you know how to handle the silent treatment with dignity, here’s how to initiate contact when you’re ready (alternatively, wait until they are ready and come to you).
Acknowledge the situation out loud
If you’re ready to make contact and want to try and reach your partner, the best way to do so is to acknowledge what’s happening. For example, “I notice that you’re being distant and not responding to me right now.”
This opens up a path to discuss what’s happening and gives your partner a chance to explain things from their side.
Avoid saying anything unhelpful that could escalate the situation, or provoke your silent partner into speaking. This will likely only make the situation worse.
Apologize (if needed)
You should never apologize just to keep the peace and try and get your partner to speak to you again when you’ve done nothing wrong.
However, if you have done something wrong, or you don’t realize you have but your partner explains why they feel hurt, then it may be appropriate to apologize for your actions.
We are all different. Some of us are highly sensitive people and feel things more deeply than others do. If you’re in a relationship, you probably have a good sense of your partner’s personality and whether they are more on the sensitive/empath spectrum.
Explain the impact of silent treatment on your relationship
Here’s how to win the silent treatment, say your peace, and give your partner a chance to say theirs.
Use “I” statements to explain to them how their silent treatment made you feel, e.g. “I have felt really hurt since you stopped talking to me, and I’d really like to resolve this so that it doesn’t get to the point again in the future.” This focuses on how you feel, rather than pointing the finger or blaming them.
It could also be worth mentioning that silent treatment can be seen as a form of emotional abuse, and can have a huge impact on your mental health and also the trust and intimacy in your relationship. Your partner needs to understand the damage they are doing to you and your partnership, and that it cannot continue.
Ask your partner why they struggle to express themselves sometimes
Broach the subject of why your partner stops communicating with you when they’re hurt, angry, or upset. Invite them to share their feelings, and let them know that you value how they feel.
They might tell you that they just don’t know how to put how they feel into words, or they just need space to process how they feel, and these are definitely things that can be worked through. After all, we learn how to communicate from watching our primary caregivers, which are usually our parents. And if they had an unhealthy relationship, then we’re likely to have inherited at least some of those toxic traits, one of which could be poor communication or an inability to express ourselves.
However, if your partner gets defensive, lacks empathy over their behavior, or responds in a threatening way, it’s a sign that they know the hurt they’re causing but are unwilling to take responsibility for their actions.
Decide how to move forward
The final step is to decide whether you can work together to strengthen your communication and avoid this happening again, or whether you need to call it quits and go your separate ways. Working with a therapist could be helpful, but only if your partner is ready and willing to change.
It’s on you to set boundaries and make it clear that you won’t tolerate being treated this way going forward because it’s not good for your mental health or overall happiness.
If you suspect your partner is using the silent treatment as a form of abuse, I would encourage you to immediately end the relationship - nobody deserves to be treated this way.