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Silent Treatment Abuse: How It’s Used and 40 Signs & Ways to Respond to It

Many people like to control others through silent treatment abuse in order to create a reaction. Here’s how you need to respond for your own sanity.

Silent Treatment Abuse

Just so we’re clear, giving someone the silent treatment is silent treatment abuse. A way to manipulate someone, not talking to you without giving you cause is a way to control you. 

The silent treatment is when you know someone is pissed at you. But they won’t tell you why. Even worse, they won’t even tell you they’re mad. They just ignore you.

Leaving you in your own mind literally drives you crazy. Nothing is worse than trying to pry something from someone who doesn’t want to give. 

If your partner won’t answer you, then there isn’t anything you can do. Making you even more miserable.[Read: Don’t overlook these important signs of emotional abuse]

Why silent treatment is not the best solution to resolve conflict in relationships

As you might suspect, the silent treatment is not a good way to resolve your conflicts in a relationship. Clear and direct communication is essential for a healthy relationship of any kind.

When someone uses the silent treatment, it prevents them from working together to resolve their problems productively.

So, when one person wants to talk about a problem but the other one withdraws, it causes negative emotions such as distress and anger. People who regularly feel ignored have lower levels of self-esteem. [Read: How to surround yourself with positive people]

Because of this, when there is silent treatment abuse in a relationship, it can impact the overall quality of the relationship, even if the person giving the silent treatment thinks it’s a good thing in order to avoid conflict.

But avoiding conflict doesn’t make it go away. It only prolongs it. People need to talk to one another in order to work out their grievances.

The bottom line is that the silent treatment is abuse because it is manipulative and essentially ignores another person’s existence, which is the highest form of insult. [Read: How to take a stand in your relationship and fight the silent treatment]

Is it a form of abuse? 

You might not think that simply not talking to someone is a form of abuse. But it is – or at least it can be. Here is why the silent treatment is a form of abuse.

1. Intent to control another person’s behavior

Many people want to control other people. Only the person can control their own behavior. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t try to use the silent treatment to try to do it anyway.

2. Manipulation of emotions

Of course, when someone refuses to talk to us or acknowledge our existence, it doesn’t feel good. It makes us sad, angry, and uncomfortable. [Read: 27 signs of emotional manipulation to know if you’re being used by someone]

But that’s usually the point – the person wants you to feel that way because they are manipulating your emotions.

3. Threat to self-esteem

If someone seems like they don’t care enough to even try to work out the problem by talking to you, then this can negatively affect your self-esteem. You would hope that they want to move past the problem as much as you do.

4. Isolation and depression

Whether you are living with the person who is giving you the silent treatment or not, it can still lead to feelings of isolation and depression. [Read: Relationship is making you feel depressed – is it time to move on?]

You can feel like you’re all alone because, in a sense, you kind of are without interaction with the other person.

Power play gone wrong

If your partner is a regular mute when things don’t go their way, turn the tables and learn how to deal with it. If that doesn’t work, wave your hand and walk away. 

The childish power play has no place in an equal and loving relationship. So, learn how to respond to the silent treatment in a strong and healthy way. [Read: Relationship power plays – what men need to know]

For example, maybe you’re with a partner who loves to go silent when they don’t get what they want. And maybe they simply don’t like the fact that you went out with your friends. 

You might text them when you’re out, just a regular “miss you,” text. And it might be met with silence. You might text again, “what are you up to?” and still no reply.

It might sound trivial, but it would probably ruin your night. And you might even end up going home early. Of course, that’s what they want. [Read: How to spot manipulative people and stop playing the victim]

Can you see how the silent treatment can be a tactic to regain power and punish someone unfairly? It’s a narcissistic trait, a form of manipulation. You should not have to put up with it.

Is the silent treatment always manipulative?

Of course, we all give the silent treatment in a non-serious kind of way sometimes. For instance, you might have a small argument about the tiniest thing. Instead of listening to what your partner has to say, you might simply sit there and ignore them for a few minutes. [Read: The right and mature way to give someone the silent treatment]

This isn’t the type of silent treatment we’re talking about. 

We’re talking about a tactic designed to punish and assert control, not something we all do when we simply want to be a little childish for a few minutes.

Why is the silent treatment used? 

There are different reasons for using the silent treatment, and each individual has their own. Although it’s usually used as a response to conflict or being hurt, motivations can vary quite a bit. Here are some top reasons people use the silent treatment. [Read: 23 signs of narcissism people overlook until it’s too late]

1. Conflict avoidance

Some people are very uncomfortable with direct conflict and want to avoid it at all costs.

So, for those who take this passive approach to potential problems, the silent treatment can be used as a way to avoid any uncomfortable situation directly.

2. Punishment

On the other hand, a person with a more aggressive personality might use the silent treatment to punish someone by withholding communication. They think it’s an appropriate response and strategy for punishing another person.

3. Selective topic avoidance

If someone feels overwhelmed and can’t – or won’t – deal with it, they may use the silent treatment to completely ignore or disregard a sensitive topic altogether.

They see this as protecting themselves and their emotions. [Read: Emotional shutdown – what it is, why people feel it, and how to help them]

4. They blame you for a problem

You might have actually done or said something wrong that hurt them or made them angry.

And if so, then they are blaming you for what happened. They think that not talking to you will make you see why you did something wrong.

5. They just want to hurt you

Some people are just malicious and toxic. They may not have a good reason to give you the silent treatment, but they just want to hurt you.

Even if they do have a good reason, such as you hurt them first, they want to get back at you by not talking to you. [Read: 30 mean ways your boyfriend could hurt you emotionally and how to react]

6. They think it’s the right thing or good for you

Perhaps they think that the only way you will learn your lesson is if they withhold communication with you.

Maybe they have tried other ways to get through to you about something, but you just don’t notice or change.

Why the silent treatment is the worst abuse

The silent treatment is about the worst form of abuse that someone hangs over you. There is nothing worse than the feeling you have done something wrong, but not being able to get answers from the person who you feel you wronged.

Whether you are getting the “nothing” or “fine” answer followed by days, weeks, or even months of silence, that is a form of abuse designed to control you and make you feel about an inch tall. [Read: How to perfect the silent treatment in a relationship the right way]

How the silent treatment sabotages you and your relationships

As you can see by now, the silent treatment can be considered abuse and might ultimately sabotage you and your relationships. Here’s why.

1. It causes emotional trauma or stress

There are so many overwhelming emotions that come when someone doesn’t talk to you. It will cause someone to feel lonely, bad about themselves, and have feelings of despair. 

When someone’s feelings – and overall existence – are dismissed, they can feel unloved, unworthy, and insignificant. They might feel like garbage that has just been tossed to the curb. [Read: 17 life secrets to smile more often, feel great, and laugh your stress away]

2. It causes psychological stress

The psychology behind the silent treatment is that it can be a mind game and can be used as a form of manipulation. It is an emotional roller coaster ride, and it tears down someone’s sense of self-worth.

Feelings of being ostracized, exclusion, and loneliness can also lead to new or worsening depression and anxiety in some people. The psychological effects can be either short-term or long-lasting.

3. It may have serious physical side effects

These feelings of loneliness and exclusion can also put someone at increased risk of chronic disease.

Because they are feeling depressed or stressed out, their body’s natural response will be inflammation which is a risk for all diseases. [Read: How to take care of a sick girlfriend – do it right without losing it]

Some possible physical problems that can occur because of silent treatment abuse are cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. 

4. It can cause behavioral changes

When you are ignored, it causes you to behave in ways that you might not normally do. For example, you might question or second-guess yourself and others. You might also lash out or doubt people or situations you wouldn’t otherwise.

There is also a possibility that you might feel like you’re bothering the other person or acting too needy. [Read: How to stop being needy – why people get clingy and 32 ways to fix it]

Because you know you’re not acting like yourself, this could make you feel guilty, uncertain, or heighten your fight-or-flight reactions.

5. It can destroy relationships

Because there is no communication, each partner might feel like the problem with the other one. So, they wait around for the other one to apologize and admit they were wrong.

However, when this happens, each person cares more about being right than saving the relationship. One or both of them might feel like the better person by not interacting with the other. [Read: What is a toxic relationship? 53 signs to recognize love that hurts you]

This decreases intimacy and trust between the two people. It can also cause anxiety and aggressive behavior. This turns relationships toxic, and it might even end them altogether.

Ways to combat silent treatment abuse

Silent treatment abuse is the key characteristic of a narcissist. It is a way to get you to do what someone wants by withholding love and attention from you—classic signs of narcissism.

They hold something back from you that you crave, which is not just communication but information about what you have done. [Read: 23 secret signs of narcissism most people overlook until it’s too late]

It positions you to make you do whatever they want. Anything to get the punishment of silence lifted.

When you get into an argument with someone, usually you have a “cooling off period.” It is a time when you mutually decide not to mess with one another for a day or two. 

A time out from communication. You allow yourself to heal, and they allow themselves time. But, the silent treatment is different. [Read: How to use the silent treatment the right way when you don’t see any other way]

In silent treatment abuse, one partner continually reaches out to the other only to be ignored and punished. If you are the recipient of silent treatment abuse, it not only ruins your relationship but also destroys days and weeks of your life. 

To stop the abuse, take back control. Try to divert the ways they seek to gain it.

1. Ask yourself why

Your partner isn’t giving you the silent treatment because they want to, they’re doing this for a specific reason. Now, you need to do some investigative work and ask yourself why they’re doing this. [Read: 21 big signs of emotional abuse that could break you down completely]

Many people struggle with expressing their emotions, so rather than talking about them, they shut down and create distance.

The silent treatment may be a way for them to protect themselves. However, it can also be used in a manipulative manner as well. 

They’re not getting what they want, so, instead, they give you the silent treatment until you give up. But let’s not jump to conclusions. [Read: This is how you know there is manipulation happening in your relationship]

Instead, ask yourself why they’re giving you the silent treatment.

2. Avoid allowing the silent treatment to get to you

It’s really uncomfortable when someone ignores you. They do it because they need a reaction. 

Whether they’re scared of confrontation or being manipulative, the silent treatment is meant for you *the ignored* to approach the issue. [Read: How to express your feelings in a healthy way]

Now, you can approach them and talk about the problem, and that’s fine. However, don’t allow their behavior to get into your head. Don’t let it take over and occupy your thoughts.

3. Write it down

If you want to track the progress of the relationship between you both, write it down. When you have a disagreement, write down how you were feeling, what it was about, and how you two resolved it. 

That way, you track not only their behavior but your own. Maybe you’re doing something which triggers the silent treatment. [Read: 25 honest, self-reflection questions to recognize the real YOU inside you]

4. Name the situation

Many times, it’s easy for people to just pretend like nothing is wrong and carry on with their lives.

But when one or both of you does that, then you are just ignoring the problem. And nothing can get resolved if you have your head in the sand like an ostrich.

So, if the other person isn’t going to speak up and tell you why they are angry, you have to be the one to do it. Because if they’re that stubborn that they won’t even talk to you, then who knows how long they will carry on like this?

That’s why you have to be the one to break the ice and confront the issue. [Read: Reasons people have a fear of confrontation]

5. Cool off and arrange a time to resolve the issue

Maybe you had a big fight and you are both angry at each other. The other person is prone to giving the silent treatment, but maybe you are still wanting to continue the fight.

If that’s the case, it’s important to cool off before you try to talk to the other person.

The reason you need to do that is that when your emotions are running high, you can’t think clearly. And when you can’t think clearly, you might say something you regret.

So, when you feel like you have collected your thoughts and emotions, then you can think about how to respond and what you want to say. [Read: How to calm down when you’re angry and regain your composure quickly]

6. Don’t react negatively

Many people react negatively when they’re confronted with the silent treatment. They become upset which makes complete sense. However, you need to confront the silent treatment in a different way.

Instead of becoming angry or upset, approach them in a calm manner and let them know that you’re available if they want to talk to you. 

That way, you acknowledge that something is wrong, but put the ball in their court when it comes to talking about it. If something is bothering them, they should come to you and express it. [Read: How to calm down – 15 instant hacks to put the crazy away]

7. Eventually, talk to the person about the silent treatment abuse

If they’re not willing to confront you, then you should confront them. Give them enough time to approach you though.

If you decide to talk to them, do not approach them aggressively. Instead, be completely calm and ask them if they want to talk. If they do, then talk to them calmly about the incident and why they’re giving you the silent treatment. 

Ask them what they are feeling and what they need from you. Then, you tell them how you were feeling and what you need from them. [Read: 23 dos and don’ts to remember in a relationship argument]

8. Use “I” statements

When someone is angry with the other, they tend to blame the other person. For example, if someone was late showing up, instead of accusing them of being a horrible person, you can use “I” statements.

So, in this instance, you might say something like, “When you were late, I felt like my time wasn’t important to you, and it made me uncomfortable.” 

When you use “I” statements, you are attempting to prevent the other person from feeling attacked and becoming defensive. Diffusing this anger will help them understand your point of view. [Read: How to talk about your feelings in a relationship and grow closer]

9. Remind them of how it makes you feel

In the conversation, remind them how their behavior affects you. The silent treatment isn’t effective when it comes to communicating because it’s doing the complete opposite. 

You’re not talking to them when they’re giving you the silent treatment so how can you resolve anything? Remember to use those “I” statements and express how they make you feel.

10. Confront it with a smile

If you are okay with yourself and still happy, then they aren’t bringing you down, making you desperate, and guiding your mood with their abuse. [Read: 52 happy habits and ways to find happiness within yourself and feel better]

If you want them to stop treating you with silent treatment abuse, simply go about your day with a smile and a pep in your step.

Of course, that is the hardest thing in the world to do, especially if they are someone you love and you are an empathetic person. 

But the only way to get them to stop sulking and controlling you is to go about your business—happy, smiling, and like you don’t have a care in the world, to prove that you don’t care that they try to manipulate you.

11. Talk about your boundaries

It’s time to create some boundaries. Honestly, they’re there for a reason. If someone starts with the silent treatment, it’s emotionally harmful to you and them. So, you need to state your boundaries. [Read: Tips for how to set boundaries with difficult people]

Are you willing to put up with this behavior again? If not, then tell them that *in a nice way, of course*. Being shut out won’t result in a positive relationship.

12. Talk about effective communication

Okay, so you told them your boundaries, but that’s not enough. Now, you need to work on building up effective ways to communicate. 

Set up rules for what you both should and shouldn’t do if you’re upset. If they’re angry, then maybe it’s best for them to calm down and approach you when they’re able to talk and vice versa. [Read: Communication exercises for couples – easy games to be a better lover]

13. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings

You may or may not have done anything wrong. If you did, then the other person probably has a right to feel angry and upset with you. 

Even if you didn’t do anything wrong but the other person thinks you did, you still should acknowledge their feelings. As the saying goes, perception is reality. So, if in their mind you did something wrong, then you might as well have.

That’s why you have to allow them to feel what they feel whether or not you agree with it or how they are expressing their anger. [Read: How to show empathy and learn to understand someone else’s feelings]

14. Apologize for words or actions

If you really did do something wrong, then you need to take a good, long hard look at yourself and realize where you went wrong. Why did you do what you did? Do you know how much it hurt the other person?

That’s why it’s so important to apologize for your words or actions if you did something wrong. Apologizing is not a weakness – it’s a strength. And it’s necessary if you want to resolve the issues that happened between the two of you.

15. Avoid unhelpful responses

In other words, don’t give what you get. If you think the silent treatment can be stopped by like-kind, you are very wrong. It only makes the situation worse. [Read: How to stop being angry – free your mind and stop hurting yourself]

It is totally human to want to give what you get and stop talking to them the way they do to you, but it isn’t going to solve the problem.

If you are silent right back, then you act just as immature as them. Don’t give them the silent treatment, just talk to them like you would any other day. 

Whether about mundane things or things around the house, be the person that you always are. You can’t beat them by joining them, so don’t silence them back. [Read: What men must do when given the silent treatment]

16. It takes two

Remember, a relationship, regardless of what kind it is, takes two people to make it work. If someone gives you the silent treatment, it’s your responsibility to keep yourself healthy and safe. 

Take charge of your life and make sure that they understand this isn’t going to fly with you. But this also means you’re going to have to help them work on healthy communication. It’s a team effort here.

17. Or just ignore it

If you want someone to stop using silent treatment abuse, stop letting them know it upsets you.

Just like someone bullying you, if you ignore them and they don’t get a rise out of you, then they give up and stop the behavior. [Read: 44 stress-free ways to ignore someone and stop people from hurting you]

The silent treatment is a tactic to manipulate and control you. If you show them you can’t be manipulated, then they stop wasting their energy and try something else, or give up altogether and who knows… Maybe grow up?

So, how do you ignore it? Stop asking what is wrong or trying to find ways to communicate. 

Watch television, invite a friend to dinner, do whatever you need to get your mind off them and what they are doing. [Read: Toxic people – 25 early warning signs to watch out for]

Pretend to be completely oblivious to what they do to get them to stop wasting time and energy.

18. Don’t play into their hands

If you go at them with anger, resentment, or sarcasm, then you do exactly what they want you to do. See, they are silent because they want you to lose your shit and fly off the handle out of frustration and fear.

When you do, they put it back on you. What happens when you go after them when they won’t talk to you and say things out of anger and frustration? [Read: Narcissistic abuse – 16 subtle signs a narcissist is abusing you]

Likely, you end up feeling bad and remorseful. That is where they want you. It is in your reaction and behavior that they find their control. Don’t play into it.

If they won’t talk, then let them sit. Don’t play into their hands by giving them what they want. You misbehave and then feel bad about it. 

You won’t survive it with your self-respect intact. [Read: How to respect yourself – 37 secrets of self-respect, self-belief, and self-love]

19. Don’t give in by reaching out to them

Whatever you do, try not to force a conversation with them. The only way to break the abuse is to be secure that if they won’t talk to you, then you’re fine without them and will survive.

The best way to stop the desperation of trying to reach out to get them to talk is to think about all the other times they gave you the silent treatment and how you survived it. 

Instead of prying them out of their ridiculousness, if they won’t respond, then go about your day as you would any other. Don’t give in and don’t be manipulated, or you will do it forever. [Read: 16 abusive tactics of a manipulative partner who wants control]

20. Focus on yourself

The silent treatment can throw the strongest person off balance, that’s why it’s so commonly used as it is highly effective in mentally breaking down people. 

But now is not the time to allow yourself to be thrown off balance. Now, you focus on your own mental health.

If you’re receiving the silent treatment, remember that this is the behavior of an immature person. Keep your routine, exercise, meditate, and be around positive people during this time. [Read: How to focus on yourself and create some sunshine]

21. Leave the relationship and find happiness

If all else fails, stop the cycle and save yourself. Make no mistake, silent treatment abuse is abuse. If you ever hear someone say they are “shutting down” that is another term for silent treatment abuse.

Whether it is because they don’t know what to say or even understand how they feel, it isn’t on you. Neither is it your responsibility to get them to grow up and talk.

The more you try and play into it, the worse it gets for you. The silent treatment is a control mechanism to create a reaction, feel remorseful for reacting, and start feeling bad about yourself. [Read: 34 reasons to break up with someone and leave even if you love them]

So, stop feeding into it. If you can’t get it to stop, then for your own sake you should move along.

What not to do

Now that you know what to do in response to being the victim of silent treatment abuse, you also need to know what not to do. So, keep these things in mind.

1. Respond in anger, which can just escalate things

Whatever you do, don’t respond to the other person with anger.

They are withdrawing for a reason, and if you add a lot of anger into the mix, things could escalate in a bad way. So, keep your cool and stay calm. [Read: How to calm yourself down – instant hacks that work like a charm]

2. Begging or pleading, which only encourages the behavior 

It’s understandable that after a while, you feel desperate for them to talk to you. So, you might resort to begging and pleading for them to stop ignoring you.

But that might just encourage them to keep doing it. So have some self-respect and refrain from doing this.

3. Apologizing just to put an end to it, even though you did nothing wrong

Although it may be tempting to apologize for whatever they think you did, try not to. If you do apologize when you did nothing wrong, that will just help them “win.” [Read: What men should do when given the silent treatment]

They will feel powerful and know that the silent treatment works on you – to their benefit, not yours.

4. Continuing to try reasoning with the other person after you’ve already given it a shot

Many people in the world are very irrational. They only see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe.

It doesn’t matter if you present evidence to the contrary, they still won’t let you be right. So, stop trying to reason with them if you already tried. [Read: No one cares about me – 18 reasons why and steps to stop feeling this way]

When is it time to seek help?

It’s not unusual for people to use the silent treatment once in a while. Probably everyone has done it from time to time.

But if this person has a recurring pattern of silent treatment abuse, then it’s time to get help – especially if you have tried everything you can to get them to change, but to no avail. [Read: Relationship therapy – 25 clues to know if it’ll help your romance]

You could suggest that the two of you go to counseling together so that you can both learn better conflict management and communication skills. If they don’t get help, then nothing will change. And that just means more misery for you.

[Read: Signs of a narcissist and ways to break up with them]

If you read this, you know the despair you feel. It isn’t worth it. You are worth being in a relationship with an adult who will talk through your problems, not hold you hostage with silent treatment abuse.

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Carol Morgan LP
Dr. Carol Morgan
Dr. Carol Morgan has a Ph.D. in communication and is a professor at Wright State University where she loves corrupting young minds. As a relationship and succes...