Silent Treatment: How to Respond to It

By Carmen Sakurai



Text Messages Were Marked as Read but Unanswered… again

My calls went straight to voicemail. I was obsessively repeating every conversation and interaction up to that point to see if I missed anything. What horrible act have I committed this time? Why am I being treated like I don’t matter or exist?—?yet again?

Have you ever found yourself in a position where it was nearly impossible to get someone to speak to you or acknowledge you? Perhaps this person was someone you thought you were close to? If so, you have experienced withholding?—?better known as the silent treatment.

What is the Silent Treatment?

The silent treatment is a behavior where one partner in a relationship ignores the other, and completely stops acknowledging them through any and all forms of communication.

It often follows an intense argument between individuals, and the target of this behavior is more often than not, unaware of the conflict because the one withholding has not communicated it.

Keep in mind that this behavior is not limited to romantic relationships. It can happen between parents and children, friends, and coworkers. And the effect is more intense when executed by someone close to you as punishment.

** The silent treatment is frequently used by people with mental illnesses and personality disorders (i.e., depression, anxiety, borderline, narcissistic personality disorder) as a survival, self-protective, or manipulative tactic. I won’t go too deep into the who or why, as much as the importance of learning how to effectively respond to this behavior while protecting your emotional & mental well-being.

Behaviors of the Silent Treatment

The silent treatment involves actions towards the target person that includes:

  • Refusing to speak to them.
  • Not acknowledging what they say.
  • Ignoring their phone calls, text messages, etc.
  • Pretending not to hear them.
  • Avoiding their company.
  • Not acknowledging their feelings and opinions.
  • Dropping off the radar for a length of time, then reappear, acting as though nothing happened and everything has always been fine.
  • Ignoring their needs and requests to communicate clearly.
  • Behavior intended to make them feel invisible or invalid.

Origins of the Silent Treatment

The term has been in use since the prison reforms of 1835.

Yes, prison.

The silent treatment was used as an alternative to physical punishment.

It was believed that forbidding prisoners from speaking, calling them by a number instead of their name, and forcing them to cover their faces so they couldn’t see each other would break their will like no other punishment could.

It rendered the prisoners into something far worse than being identified as criminals. They had become invisible, worthless, powerless?—?nothing.

Constantly being on the receiving end of this type of behavior can absolutely deteriorate your self-esteem. That’s something you might want to explain to the loved one, who thinks nothing of shutting you out after every fight.

Why People Give the Silent Treatment

Here are the most common reasons I collected from clients, support group members, and online surveys, to why people choose to go silent.

  • To punish the other person.
  • To control the other person / manipulate the situation.
  • To inflict emotional pain.
  • They weren’t taking me seriously, so at communication just seems pointless.
  • Feeling too overwhelmed to talk about or deal with the issue.
  • Afraid of my temper.
  • Afraid of how the other person will react to what I have to say.
  • Hoping time will make the problem go away / Out of sight, out of mind.
  • I wanted them to feel the pain they were putting me through.
  • I was starving for attention. If they cared about me, they will notice my unhappiness and do everything to make me happy again.

The 4 Common Types of Silent Treatment

  1. Cool off and emotionally readjust during or soon after a heated argument. It’s natural to withdraw from communication when you feel hurt or want to avoid saying the wrong thing in the heat of the moment. This pause allows space to solve the problem.
  2. Shut down due to poor communication skills. Modeling this behavior from a parent or other primary caregiver who avoided conflict because they haven’t learned how to effectively talk about their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Protection from a toxic relationship. This s called No Contact and is not the same as the silent treatment. However, because it’s one of the most frequently asked questions from my Narcissistic Abuse Recovery students, it’s been added here.
  4. Manipulate and control. Manipulators use this an expression of passive violence and covert emotional abuse. This can result in damage to the self-esteem of the person on the receiving end.

1. Going Silent to Cool Off and Readjust

You’ve likely given this type of “silent treatment” yourself at some point. Maybe to avoid saying something you might later regret, or because you were emotionally flooded and not in a good place to communicate effectively. The intention is to get your bearings straight, not to punish or manipulate.

Taking time to cool off is necessary when a person feels too emotional to deal with a conversation or problem. Sometimes, it’s needed to create a clear space to process your thoughts and feelings instead of allowing a heated conversation to escalate and blow up beyond repair.

Once the feelings of overwhelm and shock dissipates, the silence usually ends and communication is reopened.

Let the other person know!

Communicate your need for space with a time frame for when you will get back to them. This can help reduce or prevent the other person from feeling helpless & abandoned in the meantime.

You can initiate a time-out by saying:

  • “I need time to process this. Let me get back to you tomorrow after I clearly think this through.”
  • “Let’s give ourselves a breather to clear our thoughts and continue this discussion in 1 hour.”

If the situation turns heated and you just need to get out fast…

  • “I can’t do this right now. We’ll figure this out tomorrow.” (hang up / stop texting / walk away)

I’ve had to resort to this when emotions and attitudes on both sides got to a level where I just absolutely?—?couldn’t. It’s more considerate than shutting them out without notice.

If you’re aware this is your automatic response due to depression, anxiety, or other mental/emotional illnesses…

Consider discussing this with people you trust and are closest to so they’re not left in the dark.

Based strictly on personal experience, it’s best to have this conversation when you’re feeling calm. This is because communication is better given and received during this state.

The dialogue can look like this:

“As you know, I suffer from depression/anxiety, and my automatic reaction to stress or conflict is to shut down. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. It’s something I have to do to conserve energy in order to survive the moment.”

You might even add:

“If this happens, please try to avoid repeatedly calling/texting. Because while I enjoy your company, I desperately need space to get my bearings straight. It might be difficult because you care about me, but giving me the time & space to float back to the surface will help me more than you know.”

How to Respond to a Request to Cool-Off and Readjust After an Argument

If they communicated their need to clear their head, take this opportunity to find calm and reset as well. Besides, if your emotions are going haywire because they requested a break, it can mean you need it just as much.

Please continue making your peace of mind and mental/emotional health a priority. Practice self-care and enforce your boundaries. Your well-being is just as important as anyone else’s.

If you don’t hear from them after the requested time frame.

Or if none was given, you can try reaching out after a day or two using non-threatening and non-accusatory language that looks something like this.

“Hi. I would really like to resolve our last conversation. If you need more time and space, I understand. Can we can talk tonight/tomorrow so we can try to figure this out together?”

When they respond.

Proceed with kindness and an open mind. Scroll down to Once Communication Has Been Reestabished for tips on strengthening your active listening skills.

If they don’t respond.

Scroll down to If You Still Don’t Hear Back From Them for advice on how to show support while enforcing your boundaries.

2. Going Silent Due to Poor Communication Skills

Some people lack effective communication skills simply because they were not taught how to properly acknowledge and communicate their thoughts and emotions when they were younger. They model the behavior they have been victimized by in the past, and as a result, cope with stressful conversations and situations by avoiding conflict altogether.

A trained mental health professional can help correct this behavior by identifying the triggers and teaching healthier coping skills to better regulate their overwhelming emotions.

Once the levels of threat and conflict have simmered down, the withdrawn person will likely feel safe to reestablish communication again.

How to Respond to Silence Due to Poor Communication Skills

If the person in question does not usually behave in a dysfunctional manner, you can help by doing a little bit of detective work. They might be hurting or struggling and have no idea how to communicate it.

Did something happen at work or school? Maybe they’re dealing with family issues? Perhaps it’s a private problem they’re trying to work through?

Before continuing, let me remind you:

  • While the other person might feel safer with a wall of silence around them, you also have the right to feel mentally, physically, and emotionally safe in your relationship.
  • You are not responsible for changing someone else’s behavior, and it’s important for you to know whether it’s in your best interest to accept, work through it, or decline.

Steps to proceed.

1. Acknowledge their feelings.

Remember the prisoners earlier? Forbidding them to speak or see each other, or being addressed by their names, broke their will more than any other form of punishment could. This is because being heard and seen are basic human needs.

The person giving you the cold shoulder wants to be acknowledged… and they need to be reminded that it’s necessary for you as well.

Acknowledging their feelings not only validates their experience, but it also creates space for conversation. Through this, you can lay the foundation for trust, openness, and safety and demonstrate you genuinely care about their feelings and value your relationship.

2. Suggest next steps.

I’ve found that when resolving conflict, it’s always helpful to prepare suggestions for the next steps to avoid losing focus. Keep in mind that the intentions behind these suggestions should be to create a safe space to open up communication for both sides to understand and resolve.

Because the silent treatment is often an indication that one or both people need space to sort things out, keep your “reaching out” simple, and avoid being emotional.

Here’s what this might look like:

“Hey, I really value our relationship, and I’d like to understand why you’re not responding to me. I know when I stop talking to someone it means I’m angry, upset, or sad. If you’re not ready to talk about it or need some time and space, I get it. Maybe we can find time to talk next week so we can figure this out together?”

Once Communication Has Been Reestablished

The conversation following a silent treatment should be handled with care because it’s likely the parties involved are feeling vulnerable at this point. Here are some tips to help you get through this:

1. Listen. Not to reply, but to understand

  • Being a good listener means you need to avoid interrupting. They’re likely to withdraw if they feel you’re just waiting to talk or looking to fight.
  • Getting the silent treatment can easily trigger negative emotions, but do your best to keep your emotions in check. Losing your cool and starting a blame-game will defeat the purpose of your conversation.

2. Create alternatives to the silent treatment

Once the air has been cleared and you both have a better understanding of each other, create a plan to handle this situation better in the future.

Here are some examples:

  • The person requiring a time-out will communicate their need for space, including a time frame to reconnect. (e.g., “I need time to process this. Let me get back to you tonight after I think about this.”)
  • Be open to the possibility that they’re afraid of how you will react to what they want to say. Ask what they need from you, and communicate what you will agree to do, to reduce that fear.

3. Don’t hold grudges

The point of communicating to understand and resolve is to get a better grasp of how both sides translate a particular situation, find a solution to handle it better, and avoid holding this over the other person’s head.

  • Learn what it is that provoked them to shut down in the first place.
  • Decide what you both can do to prevent this behavior from repeating in the future.
  • Move on with a better understanding of each other and how you can better support one another.

4. Get outside help

Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes from someone who isn’t tangled up in the relationship, to see the whole picture. A trusted therapist, counselor, or other professionals can create a safe environment where you can learn to effectively navigate through this.

If You Still Don’t Hear Back From Them

Reach out one last time stating your boundaries with something like:

“Hey, I haven’t heard back from you. I’d like to resolve this but I can’t do this alone. Let’s talk tonight/tomorrow to work this out together.”

If you continue to get radio silence, it’s time to consider cutting your losses and walking away.

While it’s possible they might be going through challenges that you’re not aware of, their silence disturbs your peace of mind, and YOUR well-being deserves consideration as well.

Whatever the reason, remember that a healthy relationship consists of two people with mutual respect for one another. So if you’re the only one participating, they’re not part of the relationship. If they needed more time, you’ve already laid that out on the table, and they could’ve taken you up on it.

Perhaps they’ll return later with a great explanation for why they totally ignored you?—?who knows. But until then, I would shelve this issue for now. This is also a good time to re-evaluate your boundaries and get clear about the behaviors you will and will not accept.

3. Going Silent to Remove Yourself From a Toxic Environment (No Contact)

It is imperative for individuals escaping from abusive relationships to protect themselves and their space from harm & danger by withdrawing from the toxic person and environment.

This is done by blocking the abuser’s phone, emails, social media, and any other method of communication. Survivors must refuse to engage regardless of the manipulation tactic used to try and hook them back in (also know as “Hoovering”).

The method is simply called No Contact, and it is used to create a safe space where survivors can begin healing. It allows room to refocus their energy and attention on healthier areas of their life and relationships.

Survivors of abuse are often concerned that by enforcing No Contact, they’re behaving just as toxic as their abuser. After all, going no contact means to completely shut the abuser out and disregard any and all attempts at communication from their end.

The difference between the Silent Treatment and No Contact:

  1. Abusers use the silent treatment as a tactic to control and punish their victims.
  2. Survivors execute no contact to protect themselves from further attack and make space to begin their journey to recovery.

The silence is indefinite?—?and unless there’s children or a shared business involved, permanent.

How to Respond to No Contact

You don’t.

Instead, seeking help from a qualified mental health professional for guidance on how to stop this destructive cycle is highly suggested.

4. Going Silent to Punish or Control

When this behavior is repeatedly used with the intention to punish, control, and wreak havoc to another person’s emotional and mental state, it becomes a strategy of emotional abuse.

Considered one of the most popular weapons in the arsenal of passive-aggression, the silent treatment keeps the target of this behavior on edge while providing the executor with a false sense of empowerment.

The victim is left feeling extremely anxious, and eventually, grows distressed over the lack of communication and connection. This damaging effect increase in intensity when done by someone believed to have a close connection with the target.

This dysfunctional and damaging behavior might look like this:

  • The behavior is frequent.
  • They go silent to punish you and see you in pain.
  • It only ends when you apologize, plead, or give-in to their demands.
  • They come back and act as though nothing was ever wrong, and refuse to talk about it.
  • You’ve changed your behavior to avoid getting the silent treatment, but it continues to happen without warning.
  • You’re constantly walking on eggshells to avoid getting shut out again.

A common reaction by targets of this harmful behavior is to appease the withdrawing person and get back in their good graces.

I know too well what this feels like and it’s HORRIBLE:

  • The silent treatment happens out of nowhere, without warning. Most of the time, not even an argument to trigger the behavior.
  • The experience was so confusing and painful that I was willing to do almost anything to get the person to respond to me.
  • I even apologized for things I didn’t do to put this behind us.
  • I was ready to take the blame for everything because the pain from being shut out was so much greater than trying to figure out what the real problem was, or who caused it in the first place.

Not only is this humiliating, but responding this way will destroy your self-respect, as well as perpetuate the terrible, abusive cycle.

How to Respond If the Silent Treatment Is Used to Punish or Control

Psychological abuse involves a person’s attempt to control, frighten, or isolate you by using their words and actions?—?as well as continuously exposing you to these unacceptable behaviors.

If you’re constantly walking on eggshells and doing everything you can to keep the other person happy, yet find yourself punished for reasons you’re never made aware off, it’s time to seriously consider removing yourself from that dysfunctional environment.

Being repeatedly shut out without explanation or ever agreeing on a solid resolution will only create chaos to your mental and emotional state. Targets of prolonged and repeated silent treatments often fall into depression. People who think nothing of dragging you through this pain, confusion, and loneliness do not have the proper tools to function as decent human beings.

Without honesty, empathy, and communication – a healthy relationship of any kind cannot exist.

Please lean on the people you can trust and seek help from a trained mental health professional. The silent treatment is emotional abuse. It’s time to stop surrendering to the abuser and focus on healing and recovering from the mental and emotional punches inflicted on you.

The Bottom Line

The silent treatment is one of the most torturous punishments that a person can inflict on another. Regardless of the reason, the silent treatment strips two people of having a side to the conversation or situation because now, there is only one side — THEIRS. And that’s not fair in any relationship.

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