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The silent treatment: a cycle of control
by TeenHelp June 1st 2019, 12:52 PM

The silent treatment: a cycle of control
By Cassie (cynefin)

The silent treatment, or stonewalling, is when one person responds to another with silence for an extended period of time. These times of silence can last days, weeks, or even months before they are broken. The person who is receiving the silence typically does not know what they did wrong; the person giving the silence usually breaks it and acts as though nothing has occurred. One experience of the silent treatment is enough, but when it is used over time, the recipient can suffer with intense emotional scars.

It's emotional neglect and abuse
Emotional neglect is when someone withholds something from another. A parent may withhold hugs or any type of affection, for instance. Stopping interactions is neglectful in the same way that stopping support or affection is. The silent treatment is also considered emotional abuse because often times, the giver is aware of what they are doing and they know it harms the recipient.

When someone is excluded or ignored, the part of the brain that is impacted is the same part of the brain stimulated when someone is physically hurt [source]. The recipient often feels afraid, sad, unworthy, and insignificant.

The silent treatment can occur within many different types of relationships, but couples and the parent/child relationship tends to see a lot of it. It can also be observed in friendships between children, especially when the children are young. When it occurs in the parent/child relationship, the child begins to understand that the presence of their parent is conditional and they walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting the parent. It is equally as damaging in romantic relationships, which do not tend to last very long as a result.

Examples of what it looks like
In the parent/child relationship: A child may receive the silent treatment from her father despite not knowing what she has done wrong. She apologizes frequently so she does not lose the support of her father but he still remains quiet. Days later, he begins speaking again and she learns that she angered her father by slamming the car door too loudly.

In a romantic relationship: A man receives the silent treatment from his partner. He tries to get his partner to sit down and talk about what he is upset about, but all of his attempts to do this are unsuccessful. Finally, when the man has apologized enough, he learns that his partner was jealous (and blames him) because another person in public appeared to be attracted to him.

Why it is done
The specific reasons behind the silent treatment are sometimes trivial and can only make sense to the giver, but sometimes the recipient knows why they are experiencing it. It is dependent upon the people, feelings, and circumstances involved.

A lot of times, it is done in effort to control the recipient. Being silent to someone causes them to question their actions, (sometimes) apologize profusely, and feel afraid. Givers can thrive on these feelings, especially when apologies are often part of the equation.

Giving the silent treatment as a way to control can sometimes, but not always, be associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Not everyone who struggles with the silent treatment has the disorder; however, there's just a link [source].

Some people who respond with silence are not fully aware that they do it, nor do they have a malicious intent. Often times, it is done when people are having difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings.

The difference between giving the silent treatment and taking time to cool off after a disagreement lies with the intentions. Someone wanting to cool off typically wants to walk away to sort their feelings before returning so they don't say anything harmful. In contrast, someone giving the silent treatment is trying to harm someone else.

If you or someone you know is experiencing the silent treatment
  • Don't apologize if you don't think you did anything wrong because apologizing lets the giver take control. They may want the apology, but that doesn't mean one is warranted.
  • Don't show that it is bothering you. Even though this is painful, try to get support from others. The giver is looking for the reaction to let them know that they were successful in hurting your feelings.
If you or someone you know is giving the silent treatment
  • Try to find better ways to express your feelings. Even if you aren't ready to talk, you can tell someone that you are not ready and you will return when you are.
  • Consider your reasons for going this route. Do you know what makes you feel like shutting others out? You can try examining these ideas with someone you trust.
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