Illustration for article titled What to Say When Someone Gives You the Silent TreatmentPhoto: Dean Drobot (Shutterstock)

There are few things more alienating than being in a relationship with someone who isn’t talking to you. The permanent stone wall can feel crazy; When someone gives you the silent treatment, it becomes easy for your mind to run amok and race through frantic thoughts about what you did wrong.

If done with malicious intent then silent treatment is a really abusive behavioral tactic that is often used to make someone feel bad or to change their behavior for the benefit of the offender. Fortunately, the silence can be broken. There are ways to control this type of passive-aggressive behavior with targeted communication.

What is the silent treatment?

You probably know the term. It boils down to a person in a relationship ignoring a significant other, friend, child, or family member for an extended period of time. Occasionally, the person doing this may not even state why they fell silent.

As Joel Cooper, Princeton professor of psychology told the Atlantic Earlier this year, silent treatment deprived people of one of their most basic, instinctive needs.

Since we humans need social contact for our mental health, the consequences of isolation can be severe … In the short term, the silent treatment causes stress. In the long term, the stress can be viewed as abuse.

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There is no universal reason someone might stop all verbal communication, but a fundamental facet of silent treatment, when it occurs, is due more to the silent person’s own problems than to anything else. Daryl Austin writes in The Atlantic that different personality types use silent treatment for different reasons:

The silent treatment can be used by passive personality types to avoid conflict and confrontation, while strong personality types use it for punishment or control. Some people may not even make a conscious choice.

In essence, silent treatment is a harmful (non-) communication tactic that is often intended to be in control of other people by sowing doubt, confusion, and fear. Occasionally, the silent person will be emotionally overwhelmed and not know how to put their feelings into words. Even if it’s not that diabolical, the latter reason can still have dire consequences: A study written in 2014 by Paul Schrodt, a professor at Texas Christian University, found that it was a Harbinger of Divorce for Married Couples.

How do I know if it’s abusive?

If you are in a committed relationship and are experiencing the cold shoulder for the first time, it is best to evaluate the signs of abuse. As Healthline points out, there are several that point to the spread of silent treatment in abusive territory.

Some of the hallmarks of abuse end with the victim apologizing or changing their behavior just to break the wall of silence. Healthline explains:

It is common and takes longer.

It comes from a place of punishment, not a need to cool off or regroup.

It only ends when you apologize, plead, or give in to demands.

You have changed your behavior to avoid silent treatment.

What can be done about the silent treatment?

One way to address the problem is to call them directly, but never in an accusatory or hostile manner. The psychiatrist Elizabeth Gordon recently said fatherly that someone on the receiving end should use I-statements that clarify how the speaker is feeling. You can do this by saying, for example, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been very calm lately” or “It feels like you’re going to shut me out”.

A fairly dubious way to address the problem might be to wait it out, hoping it’ll be over. This could theoretically work if your partner is just working through something on their own that they will eventually leave behind.

If it doesn’t, you may have to resort to raw, emotional honesty. If you express yourself that this hurts, you are likely to be as effective as hoping the problem will resolve itself, if not more. And as the psychologist Andrea F. Pollard wrote Psychology todayIt might help you become compassionate about the silent person.

She wrote:

Remember that whoever uses the silent treatment cannot think of any other remedy. That too suffers. Realizing the suffering of the other makes you feel less bullied and more willing to offer something empathy, a hug or a guide.

Or of course, if this is a consistent pattern in your relationship, it is recommended that you seek appropriate help to determine the root causes of the problem. When all else fails and the wall of silence cannot be broken down, it may be time to end the relationship.