The use of the silent treatment within all types of relationships is very common.
Ironically, it is called the silent treatment, but is often imposed to gain the opposite effect—some form of outburst or reaction.
Silence can be a means of taking a little space after a conflict when it is difficult to find the right words to say. We may choose to say nothing at all if we can’t engage in open and honest communication right away. However, prolonged and deliberate silence can cause things to escalate further.
When used negatively, silence is a passive-aggressive way of dealing with a situation and can be extremely frustrating for those on the receiving end.
The person giving the silent treatment may feel in control of the situation by refusing to work toward a resolution.
The one on the receiving end will often feel hurt, rejected or of low importance and may increasingly become more desperate to gain the attention of the one who is ignoring them.
These feelings can quickly fester turning to anger and resentment—which aggravates problems and often delays resolution even further.
The silent treatment can be a form of abuse, but it is not always. Sometimes it happens because it is not easy to find the right words to say, and time is needed to think things through. A little space after a disagreement can be a healthy way to avoid a heated argument, so both parties can agree to take time out to gather their thoughts.
If this is the case, a few words can make a huge difference. Something as simple as, “I just need some space to calm down and think about things,” or “I’m not sure how I feel at the moment so it’s better if we talk in an hour or two,” can ease the tension.
When intentional silence is used in a mentally abusive way, the intended outcome is to inflict an emotional punishment. It is also a form of game playing by using manipulation to provoke feelings of guilt and to cause distress to the other person.
A huge part of the frustration is because there is no time frame for closure. For the person on the receiving end, minutes can feel like hours as they wait for a signal of a white flag to let them know that it is safe to communicate again.
Often, the person dishing out the silent treatment will feel some sense of satisfaction that the other person is struggling to cope. This feeling of power they gain can be addictive and compel them to continue this behaviour.
While remaining silent, the person may even seem upbeat, happily going about their day, easily talking to everyone else while displaying little to no sign there is a problem. What they may not realise is how destructive this method is to their relationship and how it can cause long lasting and often irreparable damage.
If someone is intentionally giving out the silent treatment, there are a few ways to alleviate the negativity it can cause.
1. Understand that we cannot force another person to change their behaviour.
We are in control of our own actions and others are in control of theirs.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to make or force someone to change the way they act. The most effective thing we can do is to explain how their actions affect others and how it damages relationships. Then, we take control of our own actions and reactions to stop allowing people to treat us in negative ways. Hopefully, they will see that their behaviour is destructive and will soon alter the way they communicate.
2. Explain How We Feel.
Let the person know that we value the relationship, however, are not willing to be frozen out. If they are not prepared to try to work things out, then we will not wait around feeling upset until they do so. Explain, briefly, the effects their behaviour has upon us and how it is causing long lasting damage.
3. Don’t Repetitively Force Communication.
Once we have explained how we feel, leave the rest up to them. Trying to use tactics or pleading with them to talk may only escalate things further. Plus, it gives them satisfaction that withdrawing from you has given the desired outcome. Loving relationships should not consist of ploys to manipulate reactions. Communication should take place freely and should never have to be forced.
4. Do Not Feed the Behaviour.
Drama, outburst and tears are all ways of showing that the silence is causing a negative effect. Try to remain calm, discussing things in an open, calm and mature manner.
5. Try Not to Give Mixed Messages.
Bouncing from showing their behaviour is not causing you upset to begging and pleading for a resolution, will send out powerful signals that their actions are taking effect. Stay strong in not allowing the other person’s toxic actions to penetrate. Remain calm and feel positive rather than focusing on the silence.
6. Boost Self-Esteem.
We can focus on ourselves—take time out and do things that feel good.
Going for walks, visiting friends and reading can all be simple ways to take the mind off things in the short term. Over-thinking the situation can be exhausting. We can concentrate on creating a happy space for ourselves.
7. Understand that we are allowing this behaviour in our lives.
We have choices whether we continue with the dynamic, change it or end it. Even if we don’t sanction the end of the relationship, we can still end the effect of the behaviour by removing ourselves from it and not allowing it to infiltrate our moods and psyche. Change the dynamic, say “no thank you” and soon the perpetrator will see that their actions are having limited effect.
The silent treatment can last from hours to years depending on the situation and relationship. The more a person engages in deliberate silence, the more natural it will feel. Plus, they will feel powerful if the other person reacts.
When we stop reinforcing this passive-aggressive trait, we have a higher chance of reducing it over time. Both parties can unlearn and relearn how to act and react when disagreements arise. It may even stop immediately.
We can take a look at ourselves, ensure we are approachable, and change our own behaviour so that the silent one can feel comfortable in opening up.
As we focus on and fix ourselves, it will highlight the need for the other person to take responsibility and do the same. The understanding that honest, open and mature communication is valued highly, while being ignored is rude and abusive, can be the very first start in tempting the other person to snap out of it.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Alex Myles
Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Flickr / Patrik Theander