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5 Ways the Silent Treatment is Damaging (And How to Cope)

Written by Devin Gackle
A writer of novels and novellas, plus a handful of short stories and poems.
Dr. Ray Kadkhodaian has a Masters and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, is a licensed therapist, the CoFounder of the Lighthouse Emotional Wellness Center, and the CoFounder of Couples Synergy, LLC.

Fact Checked. Our dedicated editorial team tirelessly evaluates every article we publish to ensure the information is factual, up-to-date and free of bias.

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I’m sure you’ve all heard of the silent treatment. It’s a method of psychological punishment and manipulation we’ve all probably used or experienced at some point, whether we were aware of it or not.

Forms of social exclusion like the silent treatment are a part of our society, including in children’s games like musical chairs and reality television programming. It’s even used when you are trying to argue with someone you may not actually be prepared to argue with – like when someone says, “I can’t talk to you right now, let’s talk tomorrow.”

Despite its uses in our society, the potential negative effects of the silent treatment should be seriously considered. When you cease to respond or initiate different forms of communication, it can cause conflict to intensify.

In this article, I’m going to explain why people use the silent treatment to ignore people in a relationship, how serious the consequences of silent treatment can be, and how you can deal with it. When you understand more about the reasons why people do this and how bad it is, you will learn to solve problems in your relationship differently and positively.

Silent Treatment – What It is and What It’s Not

But here’s the thing about blatantly ignoring someone: not only is it rude, immature, inconsiderate, cruel, and petty, it’s downright emotionally (and sometimes physically) damaging.

Ignoring someone is not an act of love. In fact, silent treatment qualifies as abuse.[1]

emotional abuse silent treatment

    Just because you are not using your hands doesn’t mean you can’t irreparably hurt someone else. Ignoring someone is also not a strategy; it’s a flat-out disregard for someone else’s feelings.


    It might be hard to read what I have to say based on my own experiences and some research on the various effects of silent treatment. But I’m writing this because it’s so, so important.

    Some people take the silent treatment to extremes. No one should ever be treated this way or feel like they have to put up with this kind of behavior in someone else because it is definitely not okay. It is also not something you can just “get over” or “just move on” from because it stays with you.

    Here are also other red flags you shouldn’t ignore in relationships.

    Why People Use the Silent Treatment

    Now that you know the silent treatment meaning, it’s time to know a few reasons someone might ignore you.

    1. They Blame You for a Problem

    Personally, I think this is the easy way out. Someone might blame you for a problem and ignore you so that the “problem” goes away or they might just be mad at you, but too immature to talk to you about it. Ironically, it actually makes things worse.

    But either way, it’s just an excuse for someone to avoid caring or dealing with any drama or problem. This also creates a problem that wasn’t there or adds to the drama

    2. They Just Want to Hurt You

    Maybe they’re deliberately trying to hurt or punish you, or they’re too selfish to care about what your feelings are, or they don’t respect you.

    Another reason people use silent treatment is that it gives them control of the situation and power over you. They might even try to turn it around so that they are the victim or deny that there is a problem, thus making your feelings irrelevant. This is one of the typical narcissistic behaviors.


    3. They Think It’s the Right Thing or Good for You

    When someone ignores you, they might not realize the damage it causes ― or they do, and they think it’ll make you better. Or maybe they need space but don’t bother to tell you that. They could just be avoiding a confrontation and not realize they’ve gone about it the wrong way.

    To be clear: I am NOT saying that people who ignore others are automatically bad people. Everyone has their problems, and life is hard, so figuring out the right way to deal with things isn’t always easy. Sometimes, all you need is time; sometimes, people come around, and relationships can heal.

    But regardless of the reason, ignoring someone can have serious consequences.

    How the Silent Treatment Sabotages You (And Your Relationships)

    Here are 5 ways the silent treatment is more damaging than you know:

    1. It Causes Emotional Trauma or Stress

    This may be a given, but there is a wide variety of overwhelming emotions that come with being ignored. Feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, and despair can occur. The effects of silent treatment as abuse can also contribute to depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia.[2]

    When someone’s existence and feelings are dismissed and disrespected, they feel devalued, unloved, unworthy, and insignificant. Like an old couch, you toss it out because you don’t have room for it.


    2. It Causes Psychological Stress

    The word for this is ostracism (exclusion, banishment). The psychology behind the silent treatment is that it can be a mind game for some people and, in some cases, can be used as a form of manipulation. Along with the emotional roller-coaster, it tears down your sense of self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

    In a recent scientific review, feelings of exclusion and loneliness were even associated with increasing the severity of depression and anxiety symptoms.[3]

    3. It May Have Serious Physical Side-Effects

    In a recent scientific review, feelings of loneliness or exclusion were found to be factors in the increased risk of chronic disease. The psychological effects of feeling excluded (stress, depression) coupled with our body’s natural response to stress (increased inflammation) are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.[4]

    4. It Can Cause Behavioral Changes

    What am I doing wrong? Is something wrong with me? Are you there? Was it something I said? Am I too annoying?

    Being ignored could cause you to behave in ways you might not normally― things like questioning and second-guessing yourself and others, lashing out, or doubting yourself and situations where you normally don’t. You might start to feel like you’re bothering the other person or being too needy. All the questions and doubts might cause you to act like someone who isn’t really you.

    Realizing you aren’t quite acting like yourself could further feelings of guilt, loss of control, and uncertainty; since these feelings initiate a sense of threat to your survival, this may heighten any fight-or-flight reaction you may have.


    5. It Can Destroy Relationships

    Often the issue here is with communication.

    For any of the reasons mentioned above, one partner might ignore or distance themselves from the other. No matter the reaction of the other partner, this action causes a rift. Each partner might feel the problem is with the other, and instead of communicating it with each other, they wait around for the other to admit they’re wrong and apologize.

    But in this situation, each person cares more about being right than they do about the relationship. Or one or both partners might feel they’re the bigger person by not interacting with the other when in reality, the opposite is true. This decreases intimacy and trust between partners and can cause anxiety and aggressive behavior.

    The silent treatment may become a pattern, which hinders the ability to communicate effectively.

    Many people don’t realize the dangers of engaging in silent treatment, which only adds to the problem. The intensity of all these feelings and side effects depends on the intensity of the silent treatment, but that doesn’t make it any less unhealthy or damaging.

    How to Deal with the Silent Treatment

    1. Stay Calm

    Silent treatment in a relationship is always challenging to deal with. But first, remember to stay calm. Whether you’re doing the ignoring or being ignored, forget about anger, forget about your ego, and just apologize. Have a conversation like a real adult. It’s not worth it to keep silent.

    2. Get to the Root of the Issue

    If you’re the one being ignored, do your best to find out what is wrong; do not give them the silent treatment back. If one or both of you needs space, establish that. Since, as mentioned, communication is often the issue, try to discuss and understand the situation. Understanding is key here. You must have patience, the intention to be loving and kind, and the willingness to be understanding—on both sides.

    Part of the reason the person doing the ignoring might be irritated is because they’re not getting what they want, and don’t see why they should compromise. Depending on the situation, they might not see how much they’re hurting you. Make sure the other person knows that you care about them, and that you’ll be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.


    3. Set Healthy Boundaries for Yourself

    Now, if someone is purposefully trying to hurt you through the silent treatment and acting out of malice, they might just enjoy your negative reaction. He or she could be a narcissist. Remember, this is abuse. Don’t keep begging them to talk to you. Don’t contact them, and don’t return the silent treatment in this situation either, but don’t let the situation get to you.

    It’s possible the relationship is unhealthy and needs to end altogether.

    Don’t let anyone treat you like an old couch; don’t ever let anyone tell you you don’t matter. No one deserves to be treated that way, no matter the situation. No problem can be solved by ignoring it, and people still exist whether you ignore them or not.

    In a nutshell: Just don’t ignore people, especially those closest to you. Everyone will be better off if you take the time to sort through the situation.

    Final Thoughts

    Knowing how to deal with silent treatment is integral in any kind of relationship. When you are able to respond in the right manner, you will be one step closer to avoiding feelings of distress and frustration.


    Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

    5 Ways the Silent Treatment is Damaging (And How to Cope)

    Ignoring someone is not an act of love. In fact, silent treatment qualifies as abuse.

    The silent treatment sabotages you and your relationships by causing emotional trauma or stress, causing psychological stress, serious physical side effects, behavioral changes, and finally it can destroy relationships.

    Don’t let anyone treat you like an old couch; don’t ever let anyone tell you you don’t matter. No one deserves to be treated that way, no matter the situation.

    In a nutshell: Just don’t ignore people, especially those closest to you. Everyone will be better off if you take the time to sort through the situation.

    Featured photo credit: finda via finda.photo


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