The Silent Treatment – What You Are Saying By Not Saying Anything

silent treatment

Probably at one time or another you have been either on the giving or receiving end of a silent treatment, otherwise known as the cold shoulder. What you probably didn’t realize is that the silent treatment is a form of ostracism like the cold shoulder. When someone is ostracized it affects the part of their brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Do you know what the anterior cingulate cortex does?

The anterior cingulate cortex is the part of the brain that detects pain. When you give someone the silent treatment you are causing that person physical pain. Simply by ignoring someone else’s existence you can inflict pain on them. This is what the ever popular “time out” with a child is so effective. The child feels ostracized, therefore is feeling pain even though no physical pain was inflicted on them, and therefor they want to behave so they don’t have to feel that way again.

The silent treatment can be a very destructive behavior when it involves personal relationships. Let’s say with a husband and wife for instance. The silent treatment breeds bitterness on both ends and it borders on emotional abuse… I’m not making that up to be dramatic. That’s what “they” say. I’d hate anyone to confuse what I’m saying with my own divorce.

Cooling Off And Ostracizing Are Two Very Different Things

Let’s not confuse the silent treatment with something known as “the cooling off period”. The cooling off period is where one person is so angry or disgusted by the other person that they just cannot deal with the situation in that state need time to calm down before they begin to speak to this person. That’s fine and actually that’s probably better than sitting and screaming at each other.

There is a big difference between taking some time to cool down and outright ignoring the existence of the other person. Resulting in someone or both letting go of the relationship. The silent treatment would be more along the lines of you doing something that pisses someone off, they clue you in on it (or not), and then they don’t speak to you, acknowledge you or even make eye contact with you for sometimes days. No good.

To me, this is a form of torture. Nothing positive comes from this type of behavior. What makes more sense…blowing up about something, cooling off a little and then talking about how to resolve it OR not blowing up about something, staying completely pissed and not doing anything to help resolve the situation? If you said the latter… you’re a dick.

When someone is administering the silent treatment they are trying to show that they are dominant over you. The silent treatment (when it becomes a mutual one) is a power struggle in pain tolerance…whomever the winner is, cares less. Hopefully it will never get physical or involve bullying.

When You Are On The Receiving End Of The Silent Treatment

It’s interesting to me that research has shown that woman and men respond to the silent treatment very differently. Woman who are on the receiving end of the silent treatment seem to try anything in their power to win back their good grace with the ostracize where men…don’t. They just deal with it.

But what exactly are the men just dealing with and the woman trying to avoid? The emotional pain associated with being ostracized. Those who have been treated to the silent treatment have reported as sense of loss, of not belonging, of lower self-esteem and a feeling of unworthiness. All of these feelings are the result of someone just not acknowledging them or ignoring them. I find that pretty interesting.

I can say that I honestly don’t ever remember giving someone the silent treatment…not anyone that it would matter to anyway. I don’t think I have it in me to do that to someone. Not even in a passive aggressive silent treatment kind of way either. Why you ask? Because I’ve had it done to me, I know what it feels like and it totally sucks. My friend Micky Ward knows this all too well. I’m more the type of person that would like to blow up about something, probably say some things I don’t really mean, apologize for saying the things I don’t really mean and then move towards resolution. But hey…that’s just me.

Here’s a personal account from a reader who wanted to share her story:

It happens when you least expect it. You are living your life to the very best of your abilities when things just… Change. It felt so sudden, but in reality it was probably building and growing for several months. It occurs in small ways and begins in all the little things that you stop saying to each other. Then the resentment starts. The quarrels, the arguments, the snippy conversations, the single word answer to every question that is asked. And growing use of the word ‘Fine’. I hate that word. I know that hate is a strong emotion, especially to describe my feelings, but it’s the only word that adequately covers how I feel. After I discovered the hidden meaning of that word, I hate it even more now. But it’s the silence that hurts the most.

My name is Kate and I have been in a relationship with my boyfriend Dan for just over 8 years. We started dating in college as sophomores, both being education majors, and hit things off right from the start. It was not long before we were seeing each other exclusively. We found we could sometimes finish each other’s sentences, much to the annoyance of our friends. After graduating, we found work together a few towns away as teachers in the same high school. Our apartment was a hub of activity as friends, still in college, would drop by to visit or just hang out.

Everything changed about two years ago. District budget cuts forced a restructuring of the high school his position was cut. I was able to maintain my job as a Special Education teacher, so we were able to keep our benefits. It wasn’t completely unexpected. We had heard noises about the cuts through the teacher’s union and the school grapevine. Our principal knew about our relationship and tried to keep spots for both of us. He was overridden by the administration. Dan’s position was cut and he was forced to find a job in retail at a local mall to help cover expenses. Dan’s new work meant that his days off were midweek and vacation time was a premium. I still had my weekends and summers off. And I was able to pick-up extra activities that paid over and above my salary. However, this meant more hours after school covering extracurricular activities and tutoring for struggling kids.

At first, things were alright. We made ends meet and kept our apartment. Money was tight, but not overly so. We just joked that this was just another ‘plot twist’ in the narrative of our relationship. Things would be back to normal the next year. When Dan’s contract wasn’t picked up in September was when things began to change. Dan would sleep in on his days off. And little things around the apartment wouldn’t get done. Or he would ‘clo-pen’ as they call it, work until close one night and open the next morning. He would come home and crash on the sofa in front of the TV, I would wake him to get him to bed. As our schedules became more erratic, our chances to do things together became fewer and farther between. Friends dropped by less and less, and then stopped coming by altogether. I still had my peers and coworkers at school, but poor Dan was working with high school kids.

The disconnection between became enormous. And the arguments started around Halloween. We missed our friends and the teaching life we had together. There are periods where we miss each other for 24-48 hours, only to meet exhausted in the bedroom. Things wouldn’t get done, like the laundry or paying a bill on time and we would fight. And though people say you should never go to bed angry, we began to do it more and more. It was the silent treatment after Christmas that really hurt. And the use of the word ‘fine’ became a habit. Its use ended most of our fights. Oh, and the definition of FINE, that word I hate so much? It stands for Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. It also stands for how alone and hopeless I feel. We don’t talk all that much, because we are too afraid to we’ll start fighting. And we can’t solve our problems or frustrations if we don’t talk. I’m stuck. He’s stuck. And things are now far too quiet.

Thanks for sharing Kate.

877 comments on “The Silent Treatment – What You Are Saying By Not Saying Anything
  1. Stephanie says:

    Reading the comments have given me a new insight. Although I dated him for a few months, I had a flashback from previous relationship and took my anger out on him…and it wasn’t pretty, it was verbal (via text). I regret more than anything, he really is a good guy. Mind you we both have a lot going on in our lives, he going thru divorce, trying to obtain join custody of his child,(he is the most amazing father I’ve ever seen). I’m rebuilding my life after break up and now a single mom. Yes you may say too much going on for me bringing anyone in my world but, I’m only human and I recently found the interaction with another human is vital for me…if it’s positive of course. All was good til I blew up on him. Last we spoke he said get things together and give me a call. It’s been over a month and half.I sent a hand written apology letter, called, sent text no reply. He even said before when we got into a tiff, that he wasn’t gonna take my call or talk to me anymore, but he’d had a few drinks so decided to talk to me. We had a good understanding of each other after that. I know I should just move on, but ignoring by ignoring??? Not something I see OK.I keep pondering if is he hurt, is he mad at me, has he lost interest?? I need closure on this either I have a chance or I don’t?? I don’t see him in daily passing. I’m considering going to his home and confronting him, he is a very understanding person and way I see I have nothing to lose at this point but a world of happiness to gain. Truth of matter I miss him, and it’s hurtful to say the least he can’t even pick up the phone to say BUZZ OFF or something….Insight Please….

  2. Stephanie says:

    Stephanie here again… My relation I explained is it consider slient treatment or should I just get the hint he is no longer interested and suck it up. I’m finding it hard to focus or just let go because I’ve never been treated as I fell off the planet except in high school, but isn’t that what high school kids do?? I’m 40, most of my friend say just for get it… but it isn’t that easy, guess because deep down I want what I had prior my mistake of emotions I took out on him….How to make this right and clear the air???

  3. elleke jenkins says:

    The silent treatment hurts deeply.
    You have to realize that you cannot make another person behave the way you want them to. And confronting him will make things worse. He will know that he can control you. I’m not saying that he is intentionally trying to control you, but usually people who give the silent treatment manage confrontation by avoiding the conflict, not caring about the pain inflicted. This is a childish behavior.
    Several things–
    If you care for yourself first, he may come around, but is a relationship with this man in your best interests. Have you thought about how the future would be if you are subjected to this behavior on a regular basis? He may be a great father (How old is his kid?), but what will happen when a conflict arises with his child? Will he give that child the silent treatment also.
    Would you want to be hurting like this in the long term? Yes, you might have screwed up, but you apologized and tried to make up. If someone does not respond to your efforts, are they worth any more effort?
    Ask yourself if your past relationship is the real cause of your aggravating behavior. I bet there is more to it than that. If you are sensitive to certain behaviors relating to past situations, ask yourself if your reaction is reasonable. Ask yourself if he was invading your space, crossing your boundaries or pushing your buttons. If he was doing any of these things, then does that mean he is trying to control you emotionally, keep you guessing, changing the rules of the relationship or even getting satisfaction out of making you suffer? Do you really NEED to have a relationship with someone like that if that is the case?
    The hurting will go away, but it may take a long time. Let the next move be his and then if you respond positively, make sure that you are in charge of you. Make sure that you don’t respond to his provocations. Make sure that you have an outlet for your pain other than spilling it out onto him.
    If he gets the point, maybe you have made progress and can have a good relationship. I DOUBT IT. My experience from having ST people in my family and in my ex-spouse is that they don’t change because the problem is with them. They don’t like directness and a little discretion about the other person’s behavior will not change their need to avoid directness. These people are happy where they are because if they cut someone off, they have cut off the conflict.
    I hope that you will find the strength to get through this without a lengthy grief period.
    This is not your problem; it is his. Let him have it.
    So sorry this happened to you.

  4. MadMan1981 says:

    I had this done to me post-break up by someone I DEEPLY loved. The worst emotional torture of my life. I am still getting therapy and going a big emotional clean up to reset my priorities. It has been HELL

  5. Stephanie says:

    Thank you so much for your reply. I’ve gotta say you are right with what you say on the cause of my aggravating behavior, although I took it to much higher level than I ever should have…I think I will forever regret and hate that I did to the extreme measure. We were together for such a short period of time but outside my screwing up…I wanted him in my life for more than just a in and out fling. I find myself wondering if he knows the depth of the ST and doses he really want to inflict that upon another? I don’t think so…I truly feel that I hurt him and going thru a divorce and obtaining join custody is his main focus. It bums because I wanna make myself feel better bout the whole thing but suppose I gotta admit I don’t matter enough to him. I can be pretty high strung at times and that part of me so want to just confront him and say, HEY are you aware of what the ST can do to folks and You being the understanding person you are, just wanted to talk to you about, I have been bothered by the way things were left and I’d like to clear the air with you…being polite not yelling not demanding… Biggest part of me feels I have nothing to lose at this point but a world of understanding and possible happiness to gain. I desperately need closer on this…because ST is horrible.

  6. rosekate says:

    Why will dr sambol give out my email when i specifically told him that
    my work with him was to be kept a secret i think i have to contact him
    immediately to stop further exposure see my friend am sorry i cant
    discuss that. all i can tell you is that my problem is solved and i am
    happy together with my two kids and also my husband with the help of dr sambol again. i paid drsamdol all i owned him then why should he discuss me with his client
    this must stop if not i shall stop speaking of his good works as i
    have been for him helping me to bring back my husband

  7. Sue says:

    My new boyfriend give me silent treatment for three days after I was late to reply by text. I was working and slightly late home fell asleep for short time and then check phone and found I had missed his message first one was 4 hr previous. He did this once before and I went to see what wrong. This time I just rang and text to see what wrong. This cause me much distress so when he finally answer phone we talk and I said I angry and need time to cool off before we discuss issue again. I am very tempted to break it off. I don’t think I can make this man happy. Just feels like a control issue

  8. ems says:

    My boyfriend and I are on week 6 of ST. We have known each other for many years, but have been together as a couple for the past year, and engaged since February. At present, we live 200 miles apart although this will be changing over the summer when we will make a home together. For the time being, we see each other every two weeks for the weekend, talk at least twice a day and text constantly. My fiance is usually very loving, very attentive, and we talk non-stop and laugh a great deal together.

    However, on occasion, he becomes very cold, hostile, and completely disengages emotionally from me/us – for no reason whatsoever. There is no emotional care, praise, love, affection, he doesn’t ask anything about me, and appears to be totally oblivious to the extreme pain and heartache he is causing. I have tried everything to penetrate this ‘mood’ but nothing works. Had we had a row to cause any of these silences, it would be easier to understand and would perhaps enable me to deal with it better – but they always come completely out of the blue, after we have spent an amazing time together.

    These episodes are not (currently) frequent; the first time I experienced one, it lasted 4 days but this last one has now been 6 weeks and it’s killing me. I am functioning – just – but that’s about it. I am normally a lively, fun, happy person, but I’m now constantly anxious, and none of it makes sense. I love this man so much – I can’t talk to my friends or family about the situation as I do not want them to be angry with him. I can’t eat and am now quite underweight, I can’t sleep, I can’t concentrate at work or on my normal life/hobbies/interests etc. I’m okay one minute, the next I’m in floods of tears and I just feel that I can’t take any more.

    I have stopped contacting him – but do respond if he contacts me – and always try to make sure that I sound positive and like I’m fine. I don’t know what to do, I am so so hurt that someone who professes to love me more than anything in the world can treat me like this. This dreadful coldness just descends and I feel like I’m stuck in this dreadful limbo situation waiting/hoping that he’ll ‘come back’.

  9. Ken Savage says:

    Has anyone been given the silent treatment over email or on social media sites?

  10. Camus says:

    I’m more the type of person that would like to blow up about something, probably say some things I don’t really mean, apologize for saying the things I don’t really mean and then move towards resolution. But hey…that’s just me.
    Well it’s certainly not just you. :) I’m on the same boat as you Ken. I’m not proud of it, but that’s who I am. I do try to keep the cool, but I do blow up often. And I am not a bit ashamed to apologize, so that’s something I’m really proud of :)

  11. starcall says:

    The silent treatment can sometimes be very damaging for a person. It shows that you are very upset with them and it can harm your relationship with that person. I used to do it to people all the time but now I try to avoid doing it because I’ve had it done to me and I know how much it hurts.

  12. tastefuldeath says:

    I always avoided providing the silent treatment. I think it’s generally silly and it’s unfair to people. I’m engaged right now and one of the things I promised myself I will do is to talk to him when I have a problem with him.

    Not that I haven’t used it ever. I had some online acquaintances who sort of crave attention, even though it can be the bad kind. If they realize that they’re making a mountain out of a mole hill, that’s when I stop it and try to work with their issues. If not, well, I don’t think I should even try. There are people who just can’t be helped.

  13. nonsiccus says:

    I hate having the silent treatment run on me by my SO. I feel doubly guilty about what I (allegedly) did or didn’t do not because of the issue itself, but because my SO won’t have the decency to talk about it. Recently, we’ve been working through it but you’re certainly right that you need to address it before allowing it to become irreparable.

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  1. [...] is Ostracism! I found a brilliant write up to support this. It is true indeed that when you receive the silent treatment, it feels equivalent to physical [...]

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  3. [...] The silent treatment can be a very destructive behavior when it involves personal relationships. Let’s say with a husband and wife for instance. The silent treatment breeds bitterness on both ends and it borders on emotional abuse… I’m not making that up to be dramatic. That’s what “they” say. (1) [...]