The Silent Treatment: What It Is, Why It’s Harmful, And What To Do If It Happens To You

If you’ve ever found yourself attempting to communicate with someone who is not acknowledging you, then you know what the silent treatment feels like. Also referred to as “ghosting”, this passive aggressive behavior is sometimes abusive and always selfish on the part of the one broadcasting the radio silence. 

What is the silent treatment, how does it affect relationships, and is it ever an appropriate tactic to use when relating to others? Let’s dive in.

What is the “silent treatment”?

Put simply, it’s a refusal to communicate with another individual. This person may be an acquaintance, friend, spouse, relative, coworker, or boss. This highly effective and manipulative technique may be used for a variety of reasons, namely:

  • to get what they want from a situation
  • make another person feel bad
  • avoid conflict 

Regardless of the reason the silent treatment is in play, it often makes the one on the receiving end feel terrible, and with nowhere for clarity and understanding to come through, it can quickly turn into emotional abuse. What may have started out as a “harmless” avoidance of conflict can quickly turn into a stalemate.

The silent treatment, and particularly “ghosting”, whereby one person ceases all communication, seem to be trending in this modern world we live in. Did a large number of our parents employ this technique when we were children? And is that now manifesting in people who don’t know how to speak their minds, resolve conflict, or even simply communicate effectively?

Those who grew up in that environment, ignored often and for reasons not understood, may find that in adulthood the silent treatment is an emotional trigger. They may also find that they too employ this technique, even unconsciously, to get what they want, make others feel bad, or even just to avoid conflict. 

How the silent treatment affects relationships

Clear and direct communication is essential for a healthy relationship, no matter what the nature of the relationship is, and the silent treatment is the exact opposite of that. It does not allow a path forward, and keeps the conflict or hurt feelings perpetually unresolved, which is a recipe for distress. When one person wants to talk but the other simply will not engage, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, a lot of questions floating around. If it goes on for too long, it can cause feelings to sour quickly.

If you’re a person for whom the silent treatment is a trigger, you may ask yourself whether it’s worth being in a friendship or relationship with someone who does that to you. When someone shows you who they really are, we should believe them, as the saying goes. 

And if you’re someone who utilizes the silent treatment to manipulate relationships, it’s good to be aware that you do, since it will likely come up at some point in every relationship you have… romantic and otherwise.

Is the silent treatment ever appropriate?

Cutting off communication with no plan for when to resume it, and without letting your counterpart know what you’re doing, is never OK. Walking away from a heated conversation and agreeing to talk again tomorrow, when you’ve cooled off, is different. This wouldn’t really be described as “the silent treatment” though. Why? Because the silent treatment is disrespectful.

A period of silence may be what’s necessary to bring things back into balance for you, and that’s a different thing than the silent treatment. Indicating that you want to take some time to gather your thoughts before you say something damaging, is healthy and right. But simply shutting down for an undetermined period of time, even if you ARE trying to gather your thoughts, is not respectful of your counterpart. It doesn’t take into consideration how your silence is making them feel, and that’s where it becomes inappropriate. 

Is the silent treatment abuse?

Essentially, the silent treatment turns into abuse when it crosses that line into disrespect. If it’s going on for a long period of time, or attempts have been made to reconcile only to go ignored, that’s abuse. Using the silent treatment as a tool to manipulate or exert power over another individual, is absolutely abusive behavior. 

Research confirms that when a person feels ostracized frequently and/or for extended periods of time, it can heavily impact self-esteem and feelings of belonging. When the silent treatment is done by someone close to you as a means of punishment, the effect is heightened.  

The silent treatment has crossed the line into abuse when:

  • it’s intended as punishment, not a cooling off period
  • it happens often and lasts for long periods
  • you change your behavior to avoid or stop the silent treatment
  • you apologize or give in to demands in order to make it stop

How the silent treatment affects the brain

Research has proven that it activates the same center in the brain that lights up when we experience physical pain: the anterior cingulate cortex. Interestingly, when experiencing feelings of being ostracized, no matter from strangers, close friends, family, or even enemies, the reaction in the brain is the same. 

‘It’s the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,’ says Paul Schrodt, PhD, Professor of Communication Studies. ‘And it does tremendous damage.’ 

  • is the silent treatment toxic? 100%
  • immature? absolutely
  • manipulative? totes
  • passive aggressive? indeed
  • can it cause PTSD? yup, and massive anxiety too

What to do if you’re on the receiving end of the silent treatment

No one needs more anxiety in their lives. And since your brain experiences the silent treatment as actual pain, it’s good to take steps to protect both it and you. What those steps look like, depends on who is doing it to you, coupled with where you’re at emotionally. 

For example, if you don’t know the person all that well, or perhaps they’re a friend but this is not the first time this has happened, it might be easiest to just move on. Nothing to salvage there.

Perhaps they are a significant other, but the silent treatment is an emotional trigger for you. Letting them know this is unacceptable behavior, perhaps even a deal-breaker in your case, is a good place to start. They’ll show their willingness to be a good partner to you from there.

Maybe they’re a coworker… your recourse may be through your (or their) immediate supervisor, or HR, or even mediation depending on the degree of abuse.

The silent treatment creates emotional hostages

Whatever your plan to address the treatment you are receiving, it should come from a place of protecting you. This is being done to you, and it’s an unproductive form of communication in a relationship. It disallows a resolution and holds hostage the one who is being ostracized. It may even call up old emotional wounds or increase anxiety. How to handle it is as personal as the situation that’s causing it, but the bottom line is that the silent treatment is never OK. And you don’t have to put up with it.

Good communication is as important as exercise and a quality diet. Healthy relationships are a sign of emotionally healthy people, and contribute to a higher quality of life on a variety of levels. By respecting the people in our lives (and ourselves) enough to have the tough conversations that ultimately bring us closer together, we can create a healthier world for everyone to live in… one where ghosting and brain pain is not the new normal.


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