Ah yes, the silent treatment. Sounds pretty rough, right? In fact, other than being straight-up rude (and annoying and unhelpful), the silent treatment can be a form of manipulation, according to therapists who have expertise in relationships, abuse, and narcissism—which means learning how to deal with it that much more important.
How the silent treatment can be manipulative
Before we dive in, let’s be clear on what the silent treatment is and isn’t. For starters, it’s different from taking a break during an argument, especially after communicating about that.
“Taking a break during an argument, especially if your [nervous system is] feeling dysregulated, can be a healthy coping skill for any couple,” says Amelia Kelley, PhD, LCMHC, ATR, CYT, a trauma-informed therapist who empowers survivors of abuse and relationship trauma. “The silent treatment is not necessarily taking a break—rather, it is a form of emotional abuse that denies connection with another person.”
Someone may use the silent treatment to control how the other person responds, acts, or feels, perhaps pushing them toward guilt or shame, adds Kelley.
Using this tactic also allows the person to better control a discussion or argument. “By giving a person ‘the silent treatment,’ they can dictate the conversation or dictate whether or not that conversation takes place,” says Kristin Davin, PsyD, a psychologist with Choosing Therapy who specializes in couples and marriage counseling.
In short, it’s largely about intention. “If someone is intending to hurt, to get their way, or to punish their partner with the use of the silent treatment, they are then using it as a manipulation tactic instead of a communication strategy,” says Leanna Stockard, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist with LifeStance Health.
What the silent treatment as manipulation may look like
Unfortunately, the silent treatment can be employed in many ways. “It may look like prolonged silence over days or weeks, refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other person, being silent until they are done being silent, and/or being silent until the other person takes full responsibility [or] changes their behavior,” Stockard says.
They may do this because they desire a particular item or outcome, whether that’s “a gift or item that they want, or getting what they want in the form of having the other person apologize first,” adds Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, a trauma-informed therapist with Choosing Therapy who specializes in relationship trauma and narcissistic abuse. The person believes the silent treatment will get them that.
They may also do it as punishment. “The silent treatment is sometimes used as a way to punish someone who behaves in a way that is displeasing to the other person,” Gillis continues. In the end, she says, they want to feel like they “won” the argument.
Amber Williams, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Thriveworks in Normal, Ill. who specializes in relationships, divorce/breakups, and life transitions, shares a specific scenario of using this tactic to control and punish. In her example, a boyfriend doesn’t respond to his partner’s texts or calls after his partner says they aren’t ready to be physically intimate. As a result, the partner feels they should just sleep with him, thinking that would be easier.
To be clear, this manipulation tactic doesn’t happen in romantic relationships solely. It can occur in any kind of relationship. “Another harmful example is when parents withdraw from their child as a means to make their child ‘feel ashamed of themselves,’” Dr. Kelley adds.
The effects of the silent treatment
On the person receiving it
The silent treatment can have a snowball effect, unfortunately. According to Dr. Kelley, it can hurt your self-esteem and ego, make you feel ashamed or at fault, and lead to difficulty practicing self-compassion. As a result, she continues, you may feel internalized anger, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance use issues.
You may also feel less comfortable and safe in the relationship like you’re walking on eggshells. An increased fear that you’ll do something wrong and “cause” your partner to give you the silent treatment again is also common, Stockard says. “This can ultimately lead to a lack of confidence, thinking something is wrong with you, feeling like you need the other person, and perhaps even feeling stuck in the relationship,” she adds.
Additionally, your attachment style can be affected. “Long-term exposure can lead the person who is chronically ignored to begin exhibiting traits of anxious or disorganized attachment as they try to navigate the unstable relationship dynamics and their constant struggle to regain positive attention from their partner,” Dr. Kelley says.
On the relationship
To understate the obvious, unhealthy communication is never helpful. “The silent treatment leads to an inability to navigate through conflict,” Stockard says. “This can lead to a lack of trust or equity in the relationship because the silent treatment can cause an imbalanced power dynamic.” That imbalance potentially means a case of abuse and a lack of safety, too, she continues.
How to deal with the silent treatment
Try to avoid giving in
As much as you may want to beg or plead with them, Williams says this only encourages the situation. “Give the person some space, don’t escalate, don’t assume responsibility for the other person’s actions, assert your boundaries, consider the reasoning behind their motives, and seek out support from a friend or family member,” she encourages.
Be compassionate with yourself
When figuring out how to deal with the silent treatment, it’s important to remind yourself that you aren’t a “bad” person, even if your partner is trying to make you feel like you are. “Remember that you did nothing wrong, and you are not alone,” says Williams.
Then, engage in some self-care activities. A couple of her suggestions include exercising and reading self-help books. Dr. Kelley says journaling can also help you explore your experience. Really, it’s about whatever helps you feel better.
Calmly start a conversation with your partner
First, it’s important to note that this may not always feel like your safest choice, and that’s valid. If you think it may be helpful rather than harmful, one piece to consider is when to broach the topic. “Sometimes these conversations are better done outside of a conflict, but this may be difficult for some people as they fear rocking the boat when things are going well,” Dr. Kelley says.
If and when you move forward with the conversation, acknowledge the silent treatment is taking place, Stockard says, and share how it makes you feel. “Within this conversation, make sure you are focusing on your feelings and using ‘I statements,’” she adds. (If you need a refresher, they typically go like this: “I feel _____ when you _____ because ______. Can you _____ instead?”)
Staying calm is key, “even though at the moment this may seem impossible,” Dr. Davin says. This is because reacting with anger or frustration can escalate the situation, she explains. “So take a moment to collect your thoughts, and take a deep breath before attempting to address the issue,” she says.
Additionally, Dr. Davin encourages avoiding any accusatory or confrontational language—using “I” language instead of “you” language will help you here.
Let your partner know what you’re not okay with. “Share that the silent treatment is not an effective way to address issues, and that open communication is a healthier approach,” Stockard says.
Then, discuss how you’d like to address conflict instead. Your boundary setting may look like compromising, talking about your values, outlining consequences, and being assertive, to start.
Reach out to support systems and/or a therapist
While this step can always be helpful, it’s especially important if you feel you may be in an abusive relationship.
Stockard encourages getting advice from loved ones, and Dr. Kelley agrees. “Much like other forms of emotional abuse and manipulation, speaking to another support person who has an outside perspective can help,” Dr. Kelley says.
If steps like these don’t work, you may want to reconsider the relationship or what your time with the person looks like, if at all possible.
The bottom line: “If your partner is not interested in changing this behavior, it is imperative to prioritize your safety,” Stockard says.
How to communicate without using the silent treatment
Practice healthy conflict-resolution skills
One example Dr. Kelley provides is the acronym “DEAR MAN” from dialectical behavior therapy. It stands for describe, express, assert, reinforce, mindful, appear, negotiate.
Active listening skills come into play here, too. Dr. Davin mentions giving your full attention, avoiding interrupting, and asking clarifying questions when necessary. She also reminds us of the helpfulness of “I statements” during these conversations.
Don’t think about “winning” and “losing”
As my therapist once suggested, see problems as “us versus the problem,” not “you versus me.” Competing with your partner won’t help.
“It’s also important to remember that whoever breaks the silence first is not “losing,” Dr. Kelley says. “In fact, it may mean that that particular person is more effectively regaining control of their thoughts and body, so it is actually quite an empowering position to be in.”
If you need a break, communicate the details
Needing some time alone to breathe and calm down can be a healthy and smart idea—just be mindful of how you go about it. “Establishing a place you may retreat to for a break and even the length of time you may feel you need can help,” Dr. Kelley says.
For example, you could say something along the lines of: “I’m feeling frustrated right now and want to come back to this conversation when I feel more and we can be more productive. I’m going to take a walk for 10 minutes to cool down, then I’ll be back.”
If you end up needing more time than you’d guessed, Stockard says, give your partner an update. Let them know you’re still processing but do intend to come back to the conversation once you’re in the right headspace.
She also emphasizes the importance of not forcing your partner to check in on you constantly or to agree with you. “While it is important to come back to the conversation when you are ready, you do need to be empathic about what your partner may be feeling while you are taking space,” she says.
Whether you and your partner decide to talk it out or take a few moments to cool down, the silent treatment—especially when used to control someone—is not the way to go. And if someone is using it on you, remember your power and that you deserve better.
If you are experiencing or have experienced relationship violence and need support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.