Updated: Aug 15
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
When you think about the types of behaviours that are commonly described as emotional abuse, you might think of yelling, criticism, humiliation, embarrassment, gaslighting, and other types of behaviours.
This may be a surprise to some, but silent treatment can also be considered as form of emotional abuse when it is intended to control another person's behaviour or punish another person for not abiding by their rules, demands, or expectations.
If you are experiencing silent treatment in one or more of your close relationships, you may find that your self esteem and your mood are affected. You may also be struggling to figure out how to navigate the relationship and what you want to do moving forward.
This post discusses silent treatment, what it is, how it affects you, and some do's and don'ts for how to handle this difficult situation.
What is silent treatment?
Silent treatment involves withdrawing communication and may involve ignoring someone or pretending not to hear what they are saying.
Silent treatment is abusive when it is used as a way of controlling or manipulating another person's behaviour, choice, or decision. Likewise, it is also abusive when it is used to punish another person for not acting in an approved manner.
Furthermore, silent treatment can also be viewed as abusive when it occurs frequently, lasts for long periods of time, or ends when the person on the receiving end of the silent treatment either apologizes, pleads for the silence to stop, or gives in to a request, demand, or expectation.
What is the impact of silent treatment on mental health?
If you are experiencing silent treatment right now, you might notice that you feel:
anxious about when the silence will end
worried about the status of the relationship
pressure to change your behaviour, choice, or decision to accommodate the other person (even if that goes against your own values, beliefs, and preferences)
You may feel a range of other emotions as well but this list is a general guide to give you a starting point toward understanding the possible effects of silent treatment on your mental health and well-being.
Why might someone give silent treatment?
The person who is giving you the silent treatment may be engaging in this negative behaviour if they are having difficulty managing and expressing their feelings or if they are having a hard time discussing a difficult topic but don't know how to explain it.
This isn’t an excuse for their behaviour but rather may provide some insight as to other reasons why they might have stopped communication as they may not want to further escalate the conflict or they could be overwhelmed by their emotions and don’t want to say something to you that they will regret.
As can be seen, this is a very different intent as compared to if they are trying to punish you for not meeting their request, demand, or expectation if they are trying to manipulate your behaviour toward what they want you to do.
Understanding the reasons why they may be engaging in this type of response can be useful information as you try to figure out how to respond yourself.
Dos and Don’ts for how to interact with a person who is giving silent treatment
Here are some strategies that hopefully will be helpful for you as you try to engage the person who is giving you the silent treatment:
don't beg or plead for them to talk to you
don't follow through on what they want you to do if that isn't what you want for yourself
do let them know that the silent treatment is not ok with you
do recognize that you deserve to be treated with respect and that you don’t have to tolerate abusive and manipulative behaviour
do ask them how they are feeling to see if they are willing to share their feelings openly or take steps towards doing so
do let them know if you want to work through the issue together as a team (even if that means agreeing to disagree and prioritizing the relationship above all)
do reflect on whether the silent treatment is being used along with other abusive tactics
do set boundaries in the relationship or consider ending or putting limits on the relationship if they are unwilling to develop a healthier communication style or if they continue to use silent treatment
You may decide to consider some or all of the above points in determining how to approach this relationship. Being intentional about who you keep in your close social circle – and to what extent you are involved with them– can be a valuable choice that can influence your mental health now and in the future.
Facing silent treatment is a very difficult experience. It is understandable that you might feel helpless, angry, and demoralized.
It’s important to know that you don’t have to stay stuck and that you have options for how to communicate with this person and how to engage with them moving forward -- this includes the possibility of stopping communication with this person altogether if they still choose to not learn healthier communication patterns, figure out how to express their feelings positively, or if they keep trying to use silent treatment with you.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
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