Is the silent treatment abusive? And how do I deal with it?


Most of us understand the pain of hearing nasty, callous, or insensitive words that keep playing over and over in our heads. Many of us have wounds caused by silences that deafen the voices and words around us. Many feel the silent treatment is abusive; others think it is a necessary evil. Although there are situations of aggression where silence is needed, it is more or less used to make the other party feel bad.

The silent treatment is a tactic to avoid connecting with another person by refusing to speak to them orally. A frustrated partner may cease talking after a disagreement, or a parent may avoid eye contact or speak to a child.

According to psychologists, it can be harmful when it forms a part of a habit of policing or punishing conduct. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “Hey, look, I need to take a break,” or “I need to stop talking about this,” whether you are attempting to establish boundaries, create conflict, or express your displeasure. But I believe that the silent treatment differs because its goal is not to establish boundaries or restore emotional control. The goal is to hold the other person accountable,

So, is the silent treatment abusive?

The word “abuse” is so loaded, and nobody enjoys the idea that they are mistreating someone else. When we think about that word, we picture sick people torturing others in awful ways.

However, the silent treatment is more emotional abuse, primarily done to settle an argument between two individuals in a relationship. But usually, the silent treatment is a counterproductive strategy for resolving conflicts.

The receiving end has a high psychological cost, even though the silent treatment can reflect the source’s emotional distress. Relationships can suffer, perhaps permanently, from silent treatment. It can be abusive when it develops into a pattern of conduct, especially when it combines with other unpleasant behaviors like threats or insults, and when the goal is to exert control. But for these reasons, giving the silent treatment can be construed as maltreatment.

It’s a means of controlling someone

Both sides should feel free to behave however they like in any relationship. They may make poor decisions and take harmful actions against themselves or others, but they do so voluntarily. A person has the right to set boundaries and enforce them when someone crosses them.

But the silent treatment doesn’t make these boundaries clear and doesn’t say where the boundary is or what the person who crossed it did to cross it. This behavior is a type of control since it puts the other person on the defensive. Giving them the silent treatment implies that you are correct and they are wrong and that it is up to them to make things right. You don’t offer them a choice; the silence will continue if they don’t comply with your demands.

It makes others feel anxious

Regular use of the silent treatment by one person sows the seeds of anxiety in the other person. After all, they might never know when someone will use it against them. Someone who is always on edge because of how unpredictable things are is likely to start another quiet time.

This tactic is another instance of control because it offers an advantage to whoever uses the silent treatment as a weapon. The quiet person doesn’t have to worry about what the other person might do. During the event, the silent treatment also makes people anxious. While one person withdraws, the other is left trying to find a way to patch things up. However, they are cautious about doing so since they don’t want to worsen things.

It threatens others

A threat is when someone warns another, “You will face the repercussions if you do this (or don’t do that).” You can see how the silence treatment could be interpreted as a threat. It warns you that you will continue to hear more silence if you don’t remedy this.

The message reads, “If you don’t repair this, the relationship is over.” It states, “I’ll make you pay again if you annoy me again.” The silent treatment causes so much more emotional harm than more overt threats, even though it may not initially appear to be threatening conduct.

Others doubt themselves because of it

Minor issues that shouldn’t elicit a strong response may benefit from the silent treatment. It helps plant doubt in the other person’s mind in these situations. Why am I getting this? Am I a fool for acting in this manner? Do you think I’m wrong?

Due to this uncertainty, they may be unable to behave freely in the future. Of course, if a person in a relationship genuinely hurts someone, they should endeavor to avoid doing it again. However, if they consistently receive silent treatment, they might start to doubt their actions.

The impact this may have on a person’s self-esteem is another factor. If there is constant silence, it sends the message that they do not deserve honest and open conversation, and they are only deserving of pain.

It blames others

After a conflict, one party may swear to remain silent for a while to say, “You did this.” You are at fault, and I’m not guilty. Of course, this isn’t usually the case, but it doesn’t alter the message the silencer sends.

Again, this can hurt the other person’s self-esteem because they will believe they are faulty in so many ways. They’ll start to assume responsibility for things that are not their fault and will think that everything is their fault.

What do you do if you receive silent treatment?

When responding to the silent treatment, you need to be sensitive, open, empathetic, and have a healthy dose of humility.

The strategy is as follows:

Look for answers

The silent treatment is typically not well received when it is given, and it happens as a response to a problem. So, what do you do? Find a way to talk it out.

The likelihood is that they would participate in the reconciliation process if there was an actual resolution to whatever caused the conflict between you. Of course, not right now, but sooner or later.

If you have any ideas for solutions, gently present them. Don’t force things down the other person’s throat because you believe it to be the “correct” thing to do or the necessary course of action. Ask for feedback on how to improve the relationship while speaking softly and without blaming them.

Verify your feelings for each other

After a fight, there’s no use running from the feelings that you’re both experiencing. You should use the above solution strategy with a strong statement that you accept their feelings for what they are but that your feelings are also legitimate.

This solution is much more effective than implying that they are exaggerating. The other party might not agree with you, but they do with yours. Therefore, don’t ask, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” Instead, choose a more accommodative phrase like:

“I can tell you’re hurting because you’ve backed off.” I realize you might need some time to gather your thoughts and comprehend what happened, but I’m available to talk about it whenever you’re ready. The other party receives the message and will feel satisfied by your gesture if they return to the table and start a conversation within a decent amount of time.

However, it’s OK for you to communicate your feelings if they continue to treat you silently for several days or longer. You must express your pain if you don’t want to invalidate it.

Be calm and continue your daily routine

Keep in mind that the power of the individual using the silent treatment is a significant component of the tactic. However, most of that power comes from what you do for them.

They will continue to think that quiet is effective if you cringe, ask pardon, or make huge moves to win them over. As soon as you voice out what needs to be said, you can educate them that their strategy won’t provide the outcomes they’re after if you avoid confrontation and ignore the silence.

You should honestly apologize if you offended them with something you said or did, but you should only do this once. Repeated excuses only give the other person more power. One would assume they would cease playing their game once they saw you weren’t. Naturally, if they don’t

Know when enough is enough

You can’t give someone the silent treatment indefinitely or every time you have a minor disagreement; a relationship should not be that way. You must reach a breaking point sometime and declare that enough is enough. We’ve already talked about how using the silent treatment frequently or continuously amounts to abuse, and you don’t deserve it.

Know your boundaries, and continue to engage with the other person to improve the situation for as long as you believe it is healthy. Be prepared to end the relationship if things don’t get better.

You shouldn’t do this as a demand or threat. Don’t try to startle the other party into making a change (though it might happen). Just let them know that you won’t put up with this kind of treatment for much longer, and then act after you feel you’ve exhausted all other options. Although it will hurt you and them, it will be for the best in the long run.


If you’re adopting the silent treatment to express your hurt, you should look for better, more productive methods to control your emotions. A parent who engages in such behavior with their child must be aware that there are long-term emotional costs and that to break the cycle, the parent may require the assistance of a mental health expert.

If a partner wants to avoid escapism, they might need to think about what need they are trying to fill when they do this. To address your distress and return to the conflict healthily, you must set limits while not giving the other person the impression that you are punishing them.

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