Is the silent treatment abuse? To answer this question and more questions about the silent treatment in a relationship, I interviewed Jennifer Solomon, a Marriage and Family Therapist with Affiliates in Counseling. Here is my Q & A with Jennifer!
JP: I think the silent treatment abuse. Do you? Tell me about that.
JS: Abuse is about exerting power. So, yes, because the silent treatment is a way to exert power over another person, it can be a form of emotional abuse. But it obviously runs on a vast continuum.
Sometimes a partner will have an unhealthy reaction to something and they default to silence. But eventually the silence dissipates, and the couple works through the issue. That’s certainly unpleasant — but it’s not abuse.
But when shutting a person down becomes a pattern of behavior and the primary way of dealing with conflict, then it’s a problem. What does this kind of behavior look like? First, it’s prolonged. It can last for days or weeks. It feels like punishment. It creates what can feel like a hierarchy. And it’s manipulative in that it turns the conflict away from the initial problem and into another issue all together.
JP: Describe the silent treatment.
JS: The silent treatment is exactly what it sounds like…it’s when one partner refuses to talk to the other in response to a conflict. It’s appropriate to call it a “treatment” because it’s a deliberate strategy responding to something a partner doesn’t like…but it’s most definitely not a good one. It’s a manipulation tactic that shuts the other person out.
The silent treatment is very different than silence. In fact, silence during a conflict can be a good thing. It allows partners to take a break, regulate their emotions and reset. The goal, however, is for partners to come back to the table after they cool down so that they can have a more productive conversation. Postponing a conversation is dramatically different than shutting down a conversation.
JP: Why do people engage in this kind of behavior?
JS: On the surface, people use the silent treatment to exert power in a relationship. It’s a way to quickly control the conversation or situation. Below the surface, it’s a way to avoid taking responsibility or being accountable for one’s actions. It allows the person to avoid admitting that they may be wrong.
JP: How does the silent treatment hurt the other person?
JS: Have you ever had a door slammed in your face? Can you imagine how it would feel? You might be confused, disturbed, unnerved, scared, demeaned. That’s how the silent treatment feels…it hurts by making the other person feel less than. It sends the message that what the other person is feeling doesn’t matter…it says “you don’t matter.” What can be more hurtful than that? And especially from someone you care deeply about?
JP: What do you do if your spouse gives you the silent treatment?
JS: First, decide if the behavior feels abusive or not because that can dictate how you want to deal with it. There is a common interaction in some relationships that’s called demand-withdraw. This is when the demanding person feels like their needs aren’t being met and the withdrawing person shuts down because they feel hurt or can’t find a way to talk about those unmet needs. This is not the same as the silent treatment because it’s not a power play. And I wouldn’t consider it abuse. That said, this, too, can be an unhealthy pattern that hurts the relationship over time.
If it feels more like abuse, I would call out the behavior and name it. A person can tell their partner that the silent treatment is not going to make the conflict go away and you want them to come back to the proverbial table when they are ready. Without a doubt, this takes courage and an ability to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing how the other person will react. But it tells your partner that you’re not okay with this kind of behavior.
If you want to try to work it through but can’t get anywhere on your own, couples counseling may be able to help. A therapist can help identify patterns of behavior and what is motivating that behavior. They can also help each person reflect on their role in the cycle that keeps repeating. And they can do this in a way where both partners feel heard and understood instead of defensive and angry.
If, on the other hand, the partner isn’t willing to get help, self reflect or hear their partner’s needs for productive communication, it signals that the relationship is in real trouble.
JP: What are more productive ways to handle conflict instead of the silent treatment?
JS: Every couple has conflict. And every couple has to find a way to navigate it. It’s not unusual for one or both partners to get flooded, or emotionally disregulated, when they disagree about something important to them.
But instead of shutting the person out, take a break and come back to the conversation later. The goal is to recognize that a conversation is escalating and to stop it long before it becomes hurtful, or even spins out of control. It’s helpful for each person to take some time to cool off, while asking themselves some key questions like: Why am I getting so upset? How is what I’m doing productive? What do I want my partner to understand about how I feel?
JP: Are there long-term effects of someone who gets the silent treatment a lot?
JS: Absolutely. A person’s self esteem is at risk. If your partner is repeatedly ignoring you or shutting you down, over time you lose your voice literally and figuratively – and, ultimately, your sense of self. It’s a really unhealthy pattern that works again the critical tenets of a healthy relationship: feeling understood, supported, heard, respected…and the list goes on. A general feeling of being equals in a relationship is essential to feeling good about oneself and their partner. Anything that chips away at that is going to result in long-term negative consequences.
Bottom line, if it feels like your partner consistently falls back on giving you the silent treatment, don’t ignore it and wait for them to “just get past it.” It’s a cycle that needs to be broken.
Jennifer Solomon is a Marriage and Family therapist treating couples and families as well as individual adults and adolescents. She earned her Master’s degree with distinction in family therapy from The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Jennifer’s approach to therapy is first and foremost based on sound client relationships. Her compassion, empathy and understanding helps create a solid foundation to help her clients achieve the change they want.
She believes that when people get stuck, it’s important to slow down and look at what’s getting in the way of being able to move forward. Taking an active role, she encourages clients to look at what they want and need and helps identify possible paths forward. She has a special interest in helping people navigate life cycle transitions and views collaboration with her clients as a key ingredient in helping people get unstuck, make change and grow with confidence.
Jennifer also has a special interest in working with families managing life-threatening food allergies, an area she understands well from her own family experience as well as years of working within the food allergy community.
Jennifer received her first Master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Chicago and has many years of experience in the field of communications, where she counseled a diverse array of clients at the macro level.
Jennifer has experience in:
- Couples issues, including communication problems, infidelity and conflict
- Lifecycle transitions including marriage, separation, divorce, blended families, parenthood, career, grief and loss
- Parent-child conflict
- Parenting conflict
- Family of origin issues
- Self-esteem issues
- Food allergy management and anxiety