The Silent Treatment: Psychological Abuse in Disguise

The Silent Treatment: Psychological Abuse in Disguise
Sergio De Dios González

Written and verified by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 14 October, 2023

The silent treatment is a strategy frequently used by people who appear to possess great self-control and claim to be more rational than emotional. At the same time, it is related not only to an expression of passive violence but also to a concealed strategy of psychological abuse. That is to say, it can profoundly damage the person on the receiving end.

The silent treatment is characterized by a group of behaviors with the objective of ignoring the other. We see it in all types of relationship: couples, friends, parents and children, relatives, etc. Use of the silent treatment implies a prior conflict. Sometimes, however, the victim of this type of behavior is not aware of the conflict, precisely because the other party has not expressed it openly.

“The worst sin to our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that is the essence of inhumanity”

George Bernard Shaw

The silent treatment involves actions such as: refusing to speak to someone, not acknowledging what they say, pretending that you can’t hear them, distancing yourself or avoiding their company as if they were contagious, ignoring their express requests or needs, or any kind of behavior that seeks to make a person feel invisible or invalid.

These types of behavior are quite harmful. Not only do they demonstrate immaturity, meanness, and a lack of emotional intelligence, but they can have serious consequences for the other person. Engaging in this behavior is an attempt to control and harass and it doesn’t represent anything positive for a relationship.

The silent treatment can cause stress and emotional trauma

A person who is the target of the silent treatment can feel very intense negative emotions. Ignoring a person means that they are worth nothing, that they don’t matter. Things become even more unhealthy when all this is happening in a cruel and cold silence, which the victim doesn’t know how to interpret.

silent treatment tears

People who are ignored eventually become overwhelmed by feelings of sadness that can sometimes lead to depression. They also feel anger, fear, and guilt. Ignoring someone is a way of accusing or pointing the finger at them in an indirect way. This is exactly what makes this strategy an unhealthy way to deal with conflict.

Victims of this type of behavior tend to feel extremely distressed. They can’t understand what they are doing wrong or why exactly the other person is treating them in this way. It’s as if they are losing control and this causes a lot of stress. This is why this it is considered a form of abuse. There is no shouting or hitting, but there is plenty of violence.

The silent treatment has physical effects as well

Studies have been done that show that feeling excluded or ignored can cause changes in the brain. A zone of the human brain called the “anterior cingulate cortex” is responsible for detecting different levels of pain. Scientists have proven that this zone is activated when something receives the silent treatment.

silent treatment abuse

Activation in this zone means that physical symptoms also start to appear. Some very common symptoms are headaches and digestive problems. Fatigue and insomnia are also frequent complaints. If the situation is severe and prolonged, serious problems can arise, such as an increase in blood pressure, diabetes, or even illnesses like cancer.

The autoimmune system is also affected, primarily because of the high levels of stress that the situation causes. The consequences are even more serious if the person giving the silent treatment is an authority figure such as a teacher, parent, or boss.

Learning to negotiate these types of situations

Sometimes the silent treatment is used by two people who love each other, such as romantic partners, good friends, siblings, etc. Sometimes people think that if they use the silent treatment, the other person will change their behavior or do what the other person wants them to do. They think of it almost as an educational tool. They are, however, very wrong. Ignoring another person as a form of punishment only destroys relationships.

silent treatment friends

As with many tactics, which are defensive and a result of insecurity, the use of this one shows very poor communication skills. Silence can be healthy when tempers are high and a pause is needed before something exacerbates the situation. However, when silence is used as a method of control or punishment, it becomes abuse.

No one should passively allow themselves to be ignored by someone else, at least not without an explanation of their behavior. And no one should try to resolve a conflict using the silent treatment. When there is a problem between two people, the only healthy thing is to engage in dialogue to find solutions. Silence and distance only generate more problems and, in the end, solve absolutely nothing.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.