I hate the silent treatment. Of course, I hate being the recipient of it, but even when I’m not at the receiving end of someone else’s silent treatment, I hate what the silent treatment often represents: an intentional effort initiated by someone to provoke attention from a partner, friend, family member, or worse yet, a sign that someone’s voice has been squelched so often that silence is their only way of responding to a difficult moment.
So why am I writing about the silent treatment?
Because I think that too often, we treat the silent treatment much too casually. This strategy for communication becomes a behavior that we excuse or simply put up with, like accommodating someone who claims he or she is not a “morning person.”
To treat the silent treatment as just the way someone handles communication or a specific situation, and not much more than that, is dangerous. The silent treatment is a problematic form of interaction, regardless of the reason for which it’s being used.
The question is: is the silent treatment a form of emotional abuse? Or is it just a personality trait, a preferred method of coping?
I don’t want to make it seem like everyone who uses the silent treatment is intentionally being abusive. Sometimes, it is the recipient who provokes the silent treatment. It’s important to note that in some cases, a person can utilize the silent treatment only within a particular relationship because the person he or she is dealing with won’t respond in any other way and has worked to squelch their voice, oftentimes through gaslighting.
And more importantly, I don’t believe that most people who inflict the silent treatment on somebody else are intending to be abusive.
In an effort to discover and learn more about why some of us use the silent treatment and what the silent treatment is really about, I spoke to Dr. Steve David, who is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles and an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department Of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Is the silent treatment a form emotional abuse?
Some silent treatment rises to the level of emotional abuse. This silent treatment involves intentional silence that is meant to inflict emotional punishment. For example: “If she’s going to keep nagging me, I will just ignore her because I know that drives her crazy.”
It suggests poor interpersonal relationship skills and more specifically, it suggests poor communication, distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills. If used repeatedly in a relationship to punish the other person, this silent treatment does rise to the level of emotional abuse.
Is there an appropriate, healthy way in which to be silent? Is it healthy to indicate to another person that you need to be silent?
Depending on the situation, there are times when being silent is appropriate and healthy.
However, it is usually the case that it is healthy to indicate to the other person when and why you need to be silent right now: “I am feeling too angry to discuss this in a reasonable way right now.” or “I’m not sure how I feel about this right now, I need some time to clarify my thoughts and feelings around this.”
And there is usually a point in the future you would be willing to discuss the issue(s) again: “I am willing to talk about this in a few hours when I’ve cooled down a bit, how about 3:00PM? Does that work for you?”
Silence with no explanation is “stonewalling” and stonewalling is highly destructive to relationship. For example, when someone makes the claim: “I can’t deal with her pressure to talk about our relationship problems, so I just won’t say anything.” Or, when someone says: “I can’t deal with his angry tone of voice, so I just won’t say anything.”
Stonewalling makes the other person feel dismissed and invalidated.
Is the silent treatment a call for attention and help? Is it a strategy to get the other person to pay attention?
Some silent treatment is a call for attention that arises out of low self-esteem or a need for validation accompanied by poor communication, distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills
Example: “He’s not paying enough attention to me at this party so, fine, I just won’t talk to him for the rest of the night. Maybe then he’ll pay attention.” or “I will get really quiet and if she really cares about me she will ask me what’s wrong.”
This silent treatment is highly manipulative, involves emotional game-playing, and is highly destructive to relationships. When repeatedly used in a relationship, this silent treatment will often eventually lead to the opposite of the desired outcome because many people will tire of repeated manipulation and will pull away. Hence, people who engage in this type of silent treatment often alienate people and sabotage their relationships.
Is there a pattern in a person’s behavior that relates to his/her tendency to use the silent treatment, instead of direct confrontation, direct engagement?
In general, most silent treatment is an indication of poor communication, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation skills.
Some silent treatment indicates an emotional paralysis or an inability to articulate one’s feelings during relationship conflict. These people are sometimes popularly referred to as “emotionally shut-down.”
Silent treatment intended to inflict emotional punishment is present in a variety of people including people with anger management issues, “You made me angry so now I will punish you.”
People with narcissistic tendencies (e.g., “I will punish you if you reject me, have any complaints about me, or suggest that I am lacking in any way.”), and people with antisocial tendencies (e.g., “If you cross me or disrespect me you will pay for it and I don’t care how it makes you feel.”) also use silent treatment.
Silent treatment that involves a need for validation through emotional game-playing is often present in people with low self-esteem, people with Borderline Personality Disorder, and people with dependent personality tendencies (e.g., “I need you to prove to me that you love me or reassure me that I am worthy or valuable in order for me to feel okay about myself.”).
What does the silent treatment have to do with someone’s ability to vocalize on a daily basis, what they want. Do people who use the silent treatment tend to be the type who have a difficult time being upfront and honest about what they want?
All forms of silent treatment involve poor communication, distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills, and these manifest in different ways, depending on the type of silent treatment.
Silent treatment that manifests from a person’s inability to access and articulate his or her needs in a healthy communicative way are the type who have difficulty with emotional access and expression or the “emotionally shut-down” type.
I think it’s ironic that we refer this behavior as the “silent treatment,” when it’s so often used to elicit a reaction–the opposite of silence.
It’s important for us to consider the issue of silent treatment from both the sides of inflicter and the recipient. For the person who is wielding the silent treatment, why do you do it? Is it to get that reaction? Or, perhaps you are using the silent treatment as a weapon because you have been victim to always having your voice dismissed, and so, you no longer feel comfortable or confident in directly speaking out?
And for the person who is on the receiving end: are you a person who has a history of being a victim to the silent treatment? Do you allow the person you are dealing with to speak up or do you shut them down when things get too emotional?
There’s a certain high that comes from wielding the silent treatment as an communication weapon, “Let me see this person beg for my attention, squirm to fight their way back in.”
Often, this feeling is what compels people to repeatedly use the silent treatment–because it feels so good to see someone beg, plead for attention.
Beyond seeing the silent treatment as simply the way someone handles communication, we also must remember the impact of the silent treatment is long-lasting and deep. From my personal history (having experienced the silent treatment as a child) and from talking to others who have dealt with the silent treatment, especially in childhood, a theme emerges:
For those people who haven’t processed the pain from those experiences in which they were the victims of silent treatment, there exists a lingering resentment and pain. It doesn’t matter if they are now in a better relationship with those who have previously given them the silent treatment–there is still emotional residue.
For those of us who have dealt with the silent treatment, particularly from parents or from someone we loved deeply, we are often conditioned by these experiences, where we panic if someone goes quiet–even if that quiet means nothing.
For instance, if the person we’re communicating with has had a busy week at work, or perhaps they’re just not feeling like saying much, we become anxious and wonder “is it me?” And we also want to immediately ask: “Are you mad at me?”
It took me quite a long time to get over healthy silence, to stop questioning someone when they were quiet or had nothing to say.
And for others who have experienced the silent treatment, the pain of that strategic and conscious silence is so great that they become quick to remedy a difficult moment with a loved one. Instead of allowing the argument or communication to play out, they jump to apologize for wrongdoing–even if they are not at fault. Because the pain of the silent treatment in the past is so great, they can’t bare to be the recipient, and so, they push aside their own needs in order to mitigate that pain.
This will be the first of many columns I write about, that explores the ways in which we communicate with the people we love.
In the meantime, please remember this: after the silent treatment is employed, and you and your loved one/friend/family member have made amends, the resentment from the silence still lingers; it may not rise to the surface for a while, but it’s there. Silent treatment is unlike a loud, vocal argument, where difficult words are spoken, but the argument gets closed and resolved after all the direct and explicit yelling.
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