3 Surprising Ways the Silent Treatment Can Damage Your Relationship and 6 Helpful Ways to Respond

Am older woman giving a man the silent treatment

Trying to have a discussion with your partner, you quickly realise it’s going nowhere?

You try to ask questions, create discussion topics, anything just to get them to talk. Yet, nothing works. They just remain silent, staring either at you or out into space.

Getting increasingly frustrated with each silent moment, you eventually hit a breaking point. Then, you storm out of the room with all of those hurt feelings while your partner remains in silence.

The “Silent Treatment” is a passive and hurtful way to get back at your partner. Unsurprisingly, it can cause actual damage to your relationship, often reaching the point of no return.

Why People Use the Silent Treatment

Here are three reasons someone might give another person the silent treatment:

  1. Avoidance: Sometimes people stay silent in conversations because they don’t want to acknowledge or admit something. They might feel inadequate, ashamed, or guilty, for example, and don’t feel able to express it. Or they might not feel safe to express their feelings, possibly fearing conflict, embarrassment, or rejection.
  2. Communication: A person might remain silent when they feel unable to express their feelings, but they want their partner to know they are upset.
  3. Punishment: If a person uses the silent treatment as a punishment for something they did not like or to control or manipulate the behaviour of another person, that’s a form of emotional abuse.

How the Silent Treatment Affects Relationships

Consider these three ways the silent treatment can stealthily damage your relationship.

1. It creates an unhealthy power dynamic

The first way the silent treatment damages relationships is that it shuts down any communication between you. As a result, you have no idea what your partner is thinking or feeling.

However, they do know what you are thinking and feeling because you are telling them.

Their silence brings about an unhealthy power dynamic in which your partner has more information than you. As a result, you might feel helpless and powerless, as they undoubtedly have an advantage over you.

Authentic communication shouldn’t be like this. Instead, it ought to be an open dialogue in which both partners are equals. It can feel very disempowering when you don’t even have vital information, putting you at a disadvantage.

2. It promotes unclear motives and intentions

Because your partner is not communicating, you have no idea what their true intentions might be.

This is a problem because, when couples do have arguments or fights, it’s helpful to know the other person’s intentions so you can work together to resolve the dispute.

For example, let’s say a couple is having a disagreement over housework. To find a workable solution, each person needs to consider and express what they are willing to do to resolve the difficulty.

One partner might say that they will take care of the dishes and sweep the floors while the other takes out the rubbish and waters the plants.

This willingness to communicate, negotiate and compromise reaffirms that you are both still committed to the relationship and each other. When you get the silent treatment, you just don’t have that information. You don’t know where you stand and cannot move forward.

3. It betrays your commitment to vulnerability

If you’re the one giving the silent treatment, you know that is an effective tool to assert more power and control over your partner.

When you pull the silent treatment card, you know how your partner will respond (usually negatively). Giving the silent treatment allows you to wall yourself off, protect yourself from feeling uncomfortable emotions, and confronting challenging facts about yourself.

Of course, your partner doesn’t know that because you won’t tell them. Thus, the silent treatment is a way for you to control yourself and your emotions, letting no one into that vulnerable area of your life.

However, in the long run, the silent treatment always causes more problems than it solves.

The Long-Term Damage of the Silent Treatment

Over the long term, the silent treatment erodes the most crucial factor important to any relationship: trust.

Without trust, there can be no foundation for a healthy relationship to build, let alone grow.

If you are the one who is giving the silent treatment, ask yourself why that is. What are you hiding or protecting? Are you controlling or manipulating the other person?

If you’re on the receiving end, ask yourself why your partner gives you the silent treatment. Also, consider changing tactics for how you engage your partner in a conversation. If your default is to a more direct and blunt approach, maybe try a softer one instead. Or pick a time and place to have a conversation where your partner might feel safer or more relaxed. You also need to ask yourself if they are giving you the silent treatment as a punishment or as a way to control some aspect of your behaviour.

The Silent Treatment Can Be Emotional Abusive

Many times, when a person remains silent, it’s because they don’t know how to express their thoughts and feelings, or they do not feel safe and secure enough to do so at that moment. While such behaviours are unhelpful in a relationship and can lead to further future problems, they are not abusive. They are a natural way to protect oneself.

However, silence can be abusive if the person using it:

  • Intends to hurt or punish their partner
  • Looks to blame their partner or make them feel guilty
  • Uses silence to change their partner’s beliefs, thoughts or behaviours
  • Continues the silence for a prolonged period
  • Is the one who decides when the silence ends
  • Talks to others, but not their partner
  • Seeks alliances from others

If you feel that the silent treatment in your relationship fits this description, don’t ignore it. Whether you are the person giving or receiving the silent treatment, help is at hand. Without active intervention, such behaviours only worsen over time. They don’t heal themselves.

What Can You Do?

If the silence in your relationship is not part of a pattern of abuse, there are several things you can do that might help improve your communication.

Name it

The next time your partner gives you the silent treatment, call it out. You can say something like, “I notice you’re not responding to me.” If that way, you’re explicitly inviting a response, opening the door to communication.

Use I statements

If you are the one on the receiving end, it can be helpful to express how you are feeling. E.g., “I’m feeling hurt and frustrated as you’re not responding to me. I would like us to find a way to resolve this together.” In doing so, you express how you are feeling, rather than blaming the other person or putting them on the spot.

If you are the one who would typically be silent, you could try something like, “I don’t know how to respond.” Or, “I’m feeling anxious (or afraid, etc.) about that. It’s hard for me to talk about.”

Acknowledge your partner’s feelings

Ask your partner what they are feeling. Listen and acknowledge what you hear. As you do, you let your partner know you care about their feelings; that their feelings are real and valid (even if you don’t feel the same way). Avoid becoming defensive, problem-solving, or justifying your position. Try to stay with your partner and understand their perspective.

However, if your partner responds in a threatening or abusive way, it is crucial that you remove yourself from the situation until they calm down. Talk to a doctor, counsellor, or trusted friend for help.

Be willing to apologise for your words or actions

No one should apologise or blame themselves for someone else’s use of the silent treatment (or any other behaviour). That is how the person chooses to respond. And that’s their responsibility, not yours.

You may, however, need to apologise if you have said or done something that may have hurt the other person’s feelings.

Cool off and agree on a time to talk

Sometimes, someone may give another the silent treatment because they are too angry, hurt, or overwhelmed to speak. They might be afraid of saying something that worsens the situation, so they choose to say nothing. Or they might need time to consider their response.

In such instances, it’s often helpful to take some “time-out” before getting together to discuss the issue more calmly.

Avoid unhelpful responses

Try to avoid generalising, goading, or pushing your partner into responding. While it might seem that way in the frustration of the moment, try to avoid comments such as, “You never talk to me!” Or, “That’s right, walk off as usual.” Such responses never improve the situation. They only increase the level of conflict.

Keep calm and try to keep your communication as open as possible.

When the silent treatment is abusive

If you are worried that the silent treatment in your relationship is more than just poor communication, you need to seek help right away. If you feel you are in immediate danger, call 999 (or text REGISTER to 999 if you cannot communicate verbally). Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, you could legally leave the house to escape domestic abuse, including emotional abuse.

Check out the government’s latest advice at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/domestic-abuse-how-to-get-help

When to Seek Help

The self-help tips above might be enough to resolve a blip in an otherwise strong relationship. However, even the most robust relationships can hit troublesome times. If you and your partner struggle to overcome the silent treatment, consider seeking couple’s counselling.

Together with a therapist, you will better understand why the silent treatment is happening and equip you to do something about it. That way, you can protect your relationship from the damage of the silent treatment.

If you would like to make an appointment to see one of our specialist relationship counsellors, please call us on 0151 329 3637 or complete our online referral form. We look forward to hearing from you.

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