The silent treatment is the most common form of passive aggression in interpersonal relationships. It is a purposeful exclusion used to punish someone. It involves intentional silence that is meant to inflict emotional punishment. The use of it suggests compromised skills in several areas: interpersonal relationship, communication, distress tolerance and emotion regulation. If used repeatedly in a relationship to punish the other person, this can rise to the level of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is not always about what is said, but about what is withheld.
When someone is administering the silent treatment, they are trying to show that they are dominant over you. The person administering it may feel justified in their behavior, even convincing themselves they are somehow the victim. This behavior is a reflection on the giver, not necessarily the receiver.
The silent treatment is different from a cooling off period. There is such a thing as healthy silence. Just being quiet or declining to have a conversation is not the same thing as the silent treatment. Exiting a conversation can be a healthy and beneficial thing to do as part of a conflict resolution plan, to escape emotional abuse or just to compose oneself.
The silent treatment can be a very destructive behavior when it involves personal relationships. When it is repeatedly used in a relationship, it may result in a very different outcome than desired. Others may grow tired of repeated manipulation and pull away. Pulling away may be an act of purposeful boundary setting to protect and preserve oneself. Therefore, people who engage in the silent treatment may alienate people and sabotage their relationships.
It can have lasting effects on those who have received it on an ongoing basis, especially from a parent, caregiver or significant other. It can cause the recipient to panic if someone becomes quiet — even if that quiet means nothing. In situations where healthy silence is used in the course of a normal argument or communication, this healthy silence can feel so painful to the recipient that they apologize immediately (even if not at fault) just to ease the pain. Those who have been given the silent treatment have reported experiencing a sense of loss, a sense of not belonging, diminished self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness, powerlessness and shame.
When you communicate with others, remember that while words may hurt, silence is indeed deafening.
Drop your comment about how silence has caused in your relationship.
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