5 Emotionally Abusive Uses of the Silent Treatment
Silence can be weaponized to abandon, invalidate, pressure, provoke, or punish.
Psychology Today cross-published this essay.
- Unreflective people can ghost meaningful and necessary conversations to avoid taking responsibility for harm and being vulnerable.
- Entitled individuals can deploy the silent treatment to resist yielding to and reciprocating respect for others’ values, needs, and boundaries.
- Manipulators can weaponize non-responses to frame victims as immature and unstable, thereby deflecting culpability.
Being ignored, specifically excluded or ostracized, can manifest as physical pain, according to a study that found the brain region which registers physical pain can also be involved in processing ostracism.
This psychosomatic response to passive aggression suggests that harm does not necessarily require any enactment the eye can perceive. A void of action or acknowledgment — for instance, abandonment, neglect, peer exclusion, or the silent treatment — can be harmful despite the invisibility of wounds.
As conversations on emotional healing increase, more and more people recognize how various forms of the silent treatment — ghosting partners via dating apps or friends via texting, stonewalling after being caught lying, or simply walking right past the victim of a rumor — can inflict emotional damage.
Humans are social beings, and our species has survived for so long only because of our ability to communicate and foster a sense of belongingness. Weaponizing silence can, therefore, negatively impact whoever is on the receiving end, whether the motive behind it is passive-aggressive pettiness, a vindictive power-play, or severe punishment.
That said, almost all of us will confront the manipulative use of silence at one point or another, and to that end, we should be able to recognize the following five situations in which the silent treatment amounts to emotional abuse.
1. Dodging accountability or obstructing a fair resolution. A common strategy to avoid taking responsibility for harm is ghosting meaningful and necessary conversations about how one’s shortcomings are implicated in interpersonal challenges.
Accountability-dodgers can mistakenly believe that preventing verbal exchanges is the cleanest and cleverest way to sidestep. Doing so ensures, at the very least, that one will not be caught off guard and sucked into defensive rebuttals that reveal character flaws.
Yet, a protracted non-response speaks for itself — it is neither neutral nor void of inferential information about one’s willingness to self-reflect and come down from their high horse.
Weaponizing silence often obstructs the possibility of a simple and straightforward resolution, usually at the other party’s expense.
Owning their contradictions and inconsistencies in the presence of another can feel more complicated than simply talking with someone who humanizes them and holds space for their fallibility.
Consequently, they feel compelled to opt out of reconciliation and exempt themselves from being held accountable. And they often make these selfish choices to protect their “peace,” without any regard for how their denial and fantasy invalidate the pain they caused others.
2. Dismissing someone’s values, needs, or boundaries. People hold their values close. Whether we realize it or not, most of us have a “top-three” list of core values that constitute the foundation of all our more specific needs.
These needs, in turn, inform our feelings. When others disregard our emotions, we might feel compelled to set boundaries based on our core needs and values. While asserting our needs is our right, doing so can offend those who feel entitled to treat others however they wish.
It can feel abusive when someone employs the silent treatment in a way that dismisses our values, needs, or boundaries — yet expects us to honor theirs. The message is that we have forgotten our “place” or stepped out of line by requesting mutual respect and reciprocity.
This is a clear sign of a one-sided relationship that caters to one party while devaluing and/or taking for granted another.
3. Withholding responsiveness to provoke a reaction. Provoking people is easiest if they are already feeling worried or vulnerable. Many people who weaponize the silent treatment know this all too well and exploit their understanding of vulnerability to sidestep being confronted.
By deploying silence indefinitely, they strategically add insult to injury and leave their target further dysregulated — except with no trace of harm.
They assume the person they have harmed will succumb to the urge to inquire about the non-response, possibly becoming more upset each time they circle back.
They will likely juxtapose their silence alongside the other party’s frantic outreach to manipulate others into taking their side by conflating silence with composure and maturity.
They may even distort any contact whatsoever as harassment, veering into the territory of legal abuse and malicious prosecution.
4. Punishing someone into compliance and conformity. An independent or non-conformist mindset can rub people wrong, even when an alternative explanation or solution makes the most sense.
The fact that most people derive emotional stability from the status quo can explain this illogical reaction. The predictability that the status quo guarantees organizes their decision-making and constitutes a big chunk of the emotional security they rely on to avoid indecision and worry.
Understandably, people become upset when independent thinkers and non-conformists, however well-intentioned, expose the arbitrariness of the status quo — that is not necessarily as cost-effective, efficient, fair, logical, or sustainable as society teaches us.
Retaliation against these tradition-breakers often involves weaponizing silence.
And within institutional contexts — say, challenging the official authority or social power of college administrators, elected officials, employers, or religious clergy — the silent treatment often looks like shunning from leaders, leadership’s yes-men, and passive bystanders who agree, but only privately.
5. Pressuring someone into forgiveness. Choosing not to reconnect with someone who has proven themselves undeserving of your trust can elicit a backlash from bystanders who misread the situation. They may perceive you as overreacting or being too harsh.
This is especially true when the individual holds a traditional identity or social role upon which society confers authority and status. Media portrayals, for instance, often essentialize clergy, cops, mothers, and teachers as innately harmless and selfless, despite the many exceptions.
Often, the silent treatment is the price one pays for asserting boundaries and refusing to compromise on self-respect.
The subsequent shunning can come from all sides — the community at large, extended family, or directly from the person who broke your trust yet remains entitled to forgiveness.
Not only that, but magical thinking often frames the expectation of forgiveness as if the temporary high following forgiveness does not require a mutually agreed-upon plan to sustain it.
Weaponizing silence to pressure someone to abandon their dignity and self-respect is coercive and invasive.