What Is Silent Treatment, Why Is It Used And How To Respond?

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Getting angry or upset in a relationship is normal. Many couples fight with each other, but refusing to communicate can be a mistake. Silent treatment or stonewalling is the process of shutting out your partner completely after a fight or disagreement. It can have several adverse effects on your relationship.

Relationships are based on a solid foundation of communication. This bridges the gap between partners. In the absence of communication, the gap might grow and make the relationship unhealthy.

If you are giving or receiving silent treatment, this post is for you. It describes silent treatment, its effects on a relationship, and how to avoid it.

What Is Silent Treatment?

Silent treatment is when a person refuses to communicate with their partner. This form of passive-aggressive communication is also known as giving a cold shoulder. It is ineffective, harmful and is an emotionally abusive way to avoid, punish, or control the partner.

A person could become silent to seek attention, trouble their partner, manipulate to gain control over the partner, or any other reason. Meanwhile, the partner struggles through the vicious circle of depression, guilt, and other negative emotions.

Some of the examples of giving silent treatment in a relationship are explained below.

  • He says, ‘let’s go to a movie or a bar.’ He insists on it, even after she refuses to go due to work pressure at the office. Instead of understanding her situation, he gives her the cold shoulder. He doesn’t talk to her, take her calls, or meet her for a few days after that. This might leave her feeling guilty. 
  • She asks her partner to spend more time with her, but he goes out with his friends anyway. She gets angry and stops talking to him. She even refuses to take his calls or meet him. This situation can confuse him, or he might get angry too.

Irrespective of what the demands are or what the situation is, a silent treatment does no good to the relationship. And if it continues for a long time, the relationship could become worse and go as far as a breakup or a divorce.

Why Do People Use Silent Treatment?

The reasons might differ from one relationship to another, based on the couple’s dynamics. Here, we list some of the common reasons why a person might give their partner the cold shoulder.

1. They want to punish

When a person wants to punish or hurt their partner, they may stop talking to them. This could also mean that they no longer have feelings for them or care enough about them to not hurt them. They want the person to feel guilty and may play the victim to gain control over the partner, while also disrespecting their feelings.

2. They seek attention

They think their partner is ignoring them or not giving enough respect. Whether they genuinely feel that or are just assuming it, they could give the partner the cold shoulder or stonewall them to get their attention, and not necessarily to cause harm.

3. They are afraid of the fight

Some people don’t want to get into fights, as they believe that fights only damage the relationship more. Or they think that their temper might harm their partner. So instead of talking and sorting it out, they try to give each other space and say nothing.

4. They don’t know how to resolve

When a person cannot share their emotions or doesn’t know how to deal with conflict, they become silent. They don’t realize that silent treatment can be worse than fighting or getting angry with one another.

5. They are tired

Constant arguments and fights can be exhausting. And when they are fed up with these conflicts, your partner may want to take a break from all that talking. That’s when they tend to stonewall or give you the silent treatment.

The partner giving the silent treatment might think it is the most effective treatment. But in reality, it is not. Stonewalling can worsen the situation, create more gap between the two, and could even destroy the relationship. In the next section, we talk about how this behavior affects the relationship.

How Does The Silent Treatment Impact You And The Relationship?

Silent treatment affects the other partner and the relationship in several ways.

  • It causes mental stress: The partner who gets the silent treatment goes through a lot of trauma. They are disrespected, isolated, excluded, and not valued. All these could cause a lot of emotional and psychological stress. If the stonewalling continues for a longer time, it could pressurize the partner into feeling guilty and hurt.
  • Leads to self-doubt: The suffering partner might not understand what is going on with them. They doubt or second-guess themselves and get disturbed. Questions such as ‘Did I do anything wrong?’ ‘Did I hurt them?’ or ‘Do I deserve this?’ could bother them until the partner starts talking again and tells them what exactly the problem is.
  • Affects health: Thinking about it all the time, and not taking care of yourself might affect your health. Stonewalling can disturb your focus on work and affect your professional life too.
  • Damages relationship: If the silent treatment becomes a habit, trust, respect, care, and communication in the relationship are damaged. Eventually, the partners fall out of the relationship.

Silent treatment can be tormenting as long as it lasts. And it can last very long unless you put your foot down and decide to end it.

How Long Can The Silent Treatment Last?

How long a person can stonewall you depends on the person and the reason or the situation that led to such a consequence. It could be for days, weeks, or even months together. But the longer it continues, the fewer might be the chances of making everything right in a relationship.

Nevertheless, there are ways to respond to the treatment and bring your relationship on track.

How To Respond To The Silent Treatment?

If this is just the first time that your partner is giving you a silent treatment, be calm and kind instead of reacting negatively. But if giving the silent treatment has become a habit for your partner, then you should refuse to become the victim. Call them out on it instead of taking it quietly.

Here are a few tips on how to deal with it.

1. Think about the causes

If your partner is stonewalling you, ask yourself why they may be doing it. Did you both argue recently? Or is your partner deeply troubled by something, but is not able to talk about it? The problem might not always be you or the relationship.

It could be their family, friends, or pressure at work. Try and talk to your partner whenever they are ready, but don’t push them to speak if they don’t want to.

2. Understand your partner and act accordingly

If your partner does not usually behave like that, try to stay calm, use a gentle tone, empathize, and then talk with them to find a solution for whatever is bothering them. And if you think it’s your fault, then apologize, and assure your partner that it won’t happen again.

On the other hand, if such behavior is becoming a habit for your partner, try to give them space and let them know how you are being affected when they stop talking. Be clear that the behavior is not acceptable in the kind of loving and respect based relationship you would like to have.

3. Give and take some time

Sometimes, the solution to a problem could be time. Questioning them constantly or trying to mend everything when they are not ready might only do more harm. Give them space and time to evaluate what’s wrong and check if their behavior is helping either them or the relationship.

But if this behavior of theirs is repetitive, you should take some time and think if it is worth being treated like that. If you think you deserve to be treated better, then think about what to do next.

4. Keep your ego aside

You might be hurt with the silent treatment too. But giving it back by not talking to them or trying to fight and win may not be good either. In fact, such a reaction could create more problems for you and your partner. So, for a while, try to think about your partner and your relationship first, and then about yourself.

But know that there is a thin line between ego and self-respect. If the silent treatment is hurting your self-respect, you should take a break and think. 

5. Stay determined

Have faith in your relationship, and try to handle the situation by staying calm. Be hopeful and mature, and things might just fall back into place eventually.

6. Wait and listen

You don’t always have to initiate a conversation to end the silent treatment, which could last for a while or longer. And when your partner starts to talk, listen, and try to understand them. Lend them an ear and try to understand their perspective, and you’ll find the tension fading away slowly.

7. Seek professional help

If none of the above tips is helping you, then you might think about getting professional help. There are counselors and therapists who can help. If your partner is not able to share their concerns with you, they might be able to talk about it to the professionals.

8. Focus on yourself

If the silent treatment is taking a toll on your mental and physical health, and If nothing seems to change even after you’ve tried everything, then you might want to end it. Think about yourself first and take care of yourself. If your partner loves you, they will come around to you one day.

Some things may cause more damage to the relationship than they would do good. Here are a few things you shouldn’t do when your partner is stonewalling you.

  • Apologizing or repeatedly pleading to talk to you, even if you haven’t done anything wrong – don’t do it. Make an effort, but don’t compromise too much.
  • Getting angry with your partner is also not a good idea. It could make things worse instead of solving the problem.
  • Forcing your partner to talk even if they are not ready.

Misunderstandings and fights may occur in a relationship, and communicating is the best way to resolve them. However, if your partner gives you the silent treatment and refuses to communicate their feelings, you may be left feeling confused. Many people use the silent treatment to punish their partners, seek attention, or avoid fights. However, treating your partner this way may affect the relationship by building stress, doubt, and guilt in their mind. If your partner has been giving you the silent treatment, think about what may have caused it, stay calm, and wait for them to talk again. Avoid pleading if it’s not your mistake, and do not force your partner to talk. Have faith in your relationship, but don’t sacrifice your self-respect to please your partner.

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Key Pointers

  • Communication is the key to a healthy relationship and giving your partner the cold shoulder or a silent treatment can be emotionally abusive.
  • It is perceived as an attention-seeking behavior and a way to send the partner on a guilt trip.
  • However, it can also be taken up as a last resort by a partner who is fed up with fighting and is unable to resolve differences.
  • Frequent episodes of silent treatment may cause stress and self-doubt and have a negative impact on any relationship.

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Vincenzo Sinisi

(HPCSA, SAPA/IPA, IGA)
Vincenzo Sinisi is a clinical psychologist (HPCSA), psychoanalyst (SAPA/IPA) and group analyst (IGA). He offers in-depth psychotherapy (individual and group) for adults from his private practice in Cape Town, South Africa. Sinisi is an active member in the psychotherapeutic community and has held executive positions including chairperson of the Cape Town Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, secretary of the South African... more

Shikha Thakur

Shikha is a writer-turned-associate editor at MomJunction. Her core interest lies in writing articles that guide couples through their courtship to marriage and parenthood. She also specializes in baby names. Being a postgraduate in Human Resources, she likes understanding people and their relationships. This reflects in her relationship articles, where she deals with both the rosy and the grey side... more