We’ve all done it. At one time or another, you’ve emotionally withdrawn from someone who set off some sort of emotional trigger in you.
The Silent Treatment is a protection mechanism that kicks in when you feel hurt, unsafe, or triggered in some way. When someone does or says something that betrays your values, morals, or beliefs, you may withdraw and put on your “emotional armor”.
Some information may be so hard to accept or understand that you just want to slip back into your shell so that you can process it and figure out what to do next.
Important: If you tend to withdraw love and affection to cause someone you care about to feel bad and you’d like to change that about yourself, sign up for the life-changing Healed Being program over at healedbeing.com).
If you are currently in a relationship with someone who uses the silent treatment to make you feel guilty or sad, listen to my podcast Love and Abuse to help you navigate through the difficulties.
This type of protection mechanism has a purpose: To save you from further emotional pain. When you experience any sort of emotional trigger, the emotional pain that accompanies it causes you to either take action (fight, argue, assert yourself) or freeze or flee (be alone, don’t talk about it, hide your emotions).
However, if you are a fan of the latter and choose silence over expression more often than not, you are slowly dissolving your bond and love.
Alone time to process and figure things out is absolutely healthy, but not to the extent where you continue to hide how you really feel about something you are triggered by.
In other words, if someone does something that you don’t agree with, and every time they do it you choose to withdraw emotionally, you create an ever-widening chasm of misery that distances each of you from one another. Soon, any love you had will dissolve and there’ll be nothing left but the misery.
This is why it’s so important to express and be honest about some of the things that trigger you. For example, when my father used to ask me to borrow money all the time, I would build resentment and become distant, but never shared with him that I didn’t like what he was doing.
I figured he’d somehow read my mind and know that I was upset. I never told him I was so he just kept on asking. More resentment built and eventually, I stopped talking to him altogether.
Ten years went by before I saw him again, just a few weeks before his death. I stayed silent for ten years simply because I was too afraid to express myself to him. All I had to do was ask, “Can you please stop asking me for money?” and that would have been that.
No matter what his response would have been, I would have spoken up and not let my angry silence keep distancing us. It’s possible he would have stopped talking to me after that point, but at least the truth would have been out on the table. Though even when the truth is told, there’s still a chance we may not have spoken for ten years just the same.
Regardless, all that time, I chose not to express myself. I shut the door on communication because I wanted to avoid any confrontation. Instead of giving him a choice to stop asking, I closed the door on our relationship.
When the truth is out on the table, you have something to work with. It is tangible information. When the truth is not spoken, however, resentment can build.
The Silent Treatment dissolves love and breaks apart bonding. It shuts out the other person and keeps them in the dark about what’s going on in you. You may have every right to be angry or upset about something they did, but maybe it’s better to let them know. At least tell them what you’re angry or upset about so that the silence doesn’t slowly eat away at your love or respect for them.
I went silent repeatedly in my marriage. My wife felt my distance so often that she felt abandoned and alone. This caused her to fall out of love and eventually leave me.
When you withdraw your emotions from the relationship more often than not, the love will be lost and there will be no turning back. It’s hard for anyone to trust someone who withdraws like that because love is not being reciprocated, so the receiver of the silent treatment comes to a place where they can’t even trust giving their heart to the emotionally withdrawn person. The receiver is always in the dark, not knowing what’s happening with the silent one.
No one likes to stay in the dark for too long. Love, trust, and bonding will dissolve, and soon they will feel completely alone.
Your silence is not the message to convey to your loved ones. They won’t be able to read your mind or figure things out on their own, so you sometimes have to spell out what you’re thinking clearly.
Don’t withdraw love.
Too many good relationships are lost because of that. Just express the truth, even when the risks are high. Truth gives the other person something to work with, even if they don’t want to hear it. Hiding that truth only makes things worse. And the long-term resentment and mistrust that builds is cancer to any relationship.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this behavior and soon realized that it was used as a tool for manipulation (although I was too young at the time to find the words to express my thoughts). This person would stop talking to the person who she had an issue with (usually the smallest of trifles which anyone else wouldn’t bat an eyelid about) for weeks or months, depending on the magnitude of the offense but, when she was ready to move on, she’d act normal as if nothing had happen and the person who’d been given the silent treatment would be expected to similarly act as if nothing untoward had happened.
For instance, my getting a tattoo was a crime worthy of a “Tremendous Huff” lasting nearly for a year! My brother was subjected to it so many times that he stopped caring, and me? I was relieved not to have to listen to her nagging. Over six months of peace? Maybe I should get another tattoo…
I’m sometimes guilty of doing it too, except that when I resort to giving someone the silent treatment, it means I’m completely done with them and they intentionally did something to cause it so I can’t see how they could be “in the dark”. If anyone leaves me because of my silence, that would be exactly what I want and that’s probably why most people won’t let go and make themselves a victim. As if I’m in the wrong for withdrawing emotionally because, as far as they’re concerned, it’s my obligation to let them bring me down to elevate themselves. Nope, I choose to block my number. Not answer the door. Walk away. Ignore if I run into them when out and about. Or, if I have to deal with that person every day, only speak when I have to and avoid whenever I can. How selfish and abusive of me.
You sound like the type of person that gives a lot of chances but when they cross the line, you’re done with them. My girlfriend is like that too! I wouldn’t call that the silent treatment at that point. I’d call it preservation.
Yes, sometimes it’s nice to be in the silence when the opposite is insulting or offensive. “Maybe I should get another tattoo…” 😀 LOL. That would probably do it!
Thanks so much for sharing here.
My fiance said very hurtful things, things that I specifically told him I find hard to handle along with the name calling. I’m 5 months pregnant and I’m also a very sensitive person. He never allows me to be upset at him or else he takes the argument to a verbally abusive level. I told him I’m sorry that it’s all my fault and I basically am shut down. I don’t kow how to express myself to him anymore because he says I’m being trivial. He said nobody wants me, my family doesn’t want me etc. Then he says he’s sorry and that he loves me. I dont even want to look at him in the eyes anymore. We had such a great relationship and got a long so good. I thought we had strong empathy for one another. he said I trigger him to do this but i can’t see what i do that’s so bad to be emotionally abused like this. I think its an excuse and he just does it because his dad was that way. I can have a higher level of expectations some times mostly just because I’m sensitive and would like to he understood. But communication is not working anymore.
Thanks so much for sharing this. Sorry you are experiencing what sounds very much like emotional abuse. I hope you’ve had a chance to tune into my other podcast: Love and Abuse: https://loveandabuse.com/the-podcast/.
One particular episode you could start off with is called The “You’re Too Sensitive” Game. You may find it both supportive and reinforcing of what you’re going through.
Thank you again. I wish you much strength and courage through this.
This is a topic of discussion for all types of relationship. Some tend to sweep it under the rug and try to go back like it was before, but for the person who is in the dark, it’s worse each time. Some are comfortable in their funk and like to give the silent treatment. But, it’s tormenting emotionally and breaks the spirit…
Really well said. Thank you for this.
This made me cry, I personally suffered from this, this year. I was going through so much pain I couldn’t talk to any one about it ( not even my parents ) many times I feel sad that I don’t have a relationship with them, we never talk about me or how I feel. Its always about my academics & house chores & I’ll be 20 in August next year. My mom has never mentioned relationship to me ( not once) , I dong like the course I’m studying ( I want to do something completely different but I want to do this for my dad) , I got scammed early this year, I wasn’t able to pay my fees this year , or attend any lectures , I had debts to pay , I was loosing my mind &
I couldn’t tell anyone , my relationship with God started failing , I was hurting really bad & I still am & my parents still don’t know up until now.
I’ve tried to talk , but just looking at their faces I feel really scared to even say anything.
So yeah I’ve been here hurting ,
I know i need help
I really do.
Thank you for sharing this. Sometimes the people we want to talk to we can’t, that’s why it’s good to have a safe place to express yourself. Even here, expressing what you’re going through can provide an outlet. A best friend, or church, therapy, etc, or where ever you feel safe and not judged can be so helpful.
I know things are rough, but don’t be afraid to be yourself. Sometimes we block ourselves from coming out because we are afraid of how people will respond to us. I think our power comes from being who we truly want to be and saying what feels right to us. The more we hold that in, the more we hurt ourselves.
I remember in my twenties when I went through any hardship at all, I really believed it was going to be that way for the rest of my life. Turns out as you continue learning about yourself and relationships, thoughts and feelings change without even thinking about them. It just happens because you’re still learning new things about yourself.
I wish you much strength and resilience through this. Know that it will pass. You may not like going through it, but looking back on it, you’ll realize so much about yourself. I think the bottom line is to remember that YOU are important and valid and worthy, and no one can ever take that away. Stand in that worthiness and don’t let people make you feel any less about yourself.
But what if you have repeatedly express your feelings and he does nothing to change it only continues doing what he knows hurts you. Instead I have pushed him away because I tried talking about it.
I define love as supporting someone’s happiness. If he is doing things he knows hurts you, that is not love, that is cruel. If he only wants to see you suffer, why? Have you asked him why he wants you to feel pain instead of happiness?
I’m sorry you’re going through this. I know it’s tough. 🙁
Yes I have asked why there’s no change. I get the mistakes I made in the past thrown in my face. That’s how he justifies his actions in today. Everything based on what I have done to him in the past. So maybe there’s no going forward b/c he can’t or chooses not to see past the old stuff. But yet claims he’s over it and everything is good. Confused.
This might be a helpful episode for you:
Listen to segment two. If he can’t get past your past, there needs to be a stopping point or you will never be happy in the future.
So ive started dating this girl and she is overwhelmed with stress, she has told me that she tends to withdraw and not be present. She also depression. My question is ive asked her if she wanted some space and her answer was no. But she just started with the silent treatment. What should i do in this case? Do i just text her eveyone to tell her know im still here or do i leave her alone. She says when shes use to dealing with stress this way.
Let her know that you’re there for her when she’s ready. It will go a long way to make her feel safe with you. The safer she feels with you, the more likely she’ll open up to you over time. In order to be safe, let her share or not share all she wants and be that non-judgmental, supportive person she needs.
Some people use silence to process. The toughest part for you is that you may feel neglected during her time alone. Try not to take it personally. In fact, you may find that she is even more loving toward you when she’s done processing.
The only time this may not work is if you are doing something that is upsetting her and she doesn’t want to tell you about it. If that’s the case, you once again have to show up as that non-judgmental, supportive person so that she feels safe enough to express things to you, even about you, so that you don’t react in a way that makes her feel that she can’t be honest with you.
Instead of asking if she wants some space, which is a great question by the way, ask her if you can rub her feet or run her a bath. Make her environment comfortable and let her know that no matter how down she gets, you’ll always be there when she needs you.
Space is great for everyone to have when they need it. Let her have it and perhaps over time she’ll feel like sharing more. If she doesn’t, and the rest of life with her is great, then let her process as needed. Perhaps this is how she handles things, and that’s okay!
What if you do reciprocate and tell them how you feel but they just want listen and keep doing the same things. Then getting violent or defensive when you dospeak and reach out for help. My silence is so I won’t have to deal with a panic attack after him not listening and constantly yelling telling me how I feel is so minuscule.
Thanks for the question. Unfortunately, see my answer below. This type of behavior is often considered emotional abuse. When you are with a person that you feel unsafe being yourself around, then you have to consider the option of either getting professional help (if they’ll agree, which they often won’t. Or, they’ll force you to go because “You’re the one with the problem”), or consider taking yourself out of the abusive situation.
I know it’s not easy. There’s often a lot of emotional investment into the relationship, and there’s also the months or years of your partner making you believe you are bad, unworthy, unlovable and more. You get to the point where they convince you that you cannot make good decisions and you’ll never be happy again.
It is ALL untrue. You just don’t believe it until you are away from the abuse for a while and you can start thinking with a clearer head.
Read up on emotional abuse (I’ve written several articles on it, look for “emotional abuse” in the search field above), and check out loveandabuse.com in case you want to analyze your relationship.
You do have options, even if you are convinced that you don’t. You don’t deserve to be continually invalidated. I look at love as supporting your partner’s happiness. What you describe does not sound like love, it sounds like control. I wish you the best through this. Thank you for your question.
What it it is repeated over and over again the emotional mistreatment
Repeated silent treatment is often labeled emotional abuse. When someone does that to their partner over and over again, it causes the partner to feel bad all the time. Soon, the partner is unable to feel good knowing that they will soon feel bad again.
Emotional abuse is exactly that: Repeatedly causing someone to feel bad about themselves. It is sinister and hard to break out of.
I have many articles on emotional abuse (use the search field to find them). Also, visit loveandabuse.com to check out the MEAN Workbook on emotional abuse and manipulation.
Thanks for your question!
What happens if:
I’ve said or done things in the past that weren’t good and after much fighting over 2.5 yrs, my partner finally helped me realise the impact of what I’ve done. I realise and I really do want to change.
But now my partner is upset at me because she kept replaying what had happened (every possible scene you can think of) and is withdrawing.
I’ve said I want to make things better for the future and I can’t change what had happened in the past but she is unable to get past the past. She doesn’t believe anything I say (when I say I had no intention of making her upset) and continues to look at me as if I’m the enemy
Thanks for sharing this. When she replays what happens, what do you do? Do you defend yourself? Do you tell her to get over it because it’s in the past?
How you respond / react to her expressing is SOOOO important when you are at this stage of a challenge like this. When you are truly sorry for what you did and you know you will never act that way again, there’s often a lot of unresolved emotions that need to come out of the person who was once a victim of your behavior. The key word is unresolved. She needs closure and she is having trouble getting it because of how you’re reacting, even if your reaction is silence or submission.
In my opinion, the best thing you can do every time she brings up a past that you are responsible for is to tell her, “You’re absolutely right. You have every right to feel that way and I wish I had never done that. You didn’t deserve that behavior.” or something to that effect. Also, give her the safe, non-judgmental, non-defensive space she needs to let all that energy out of her. She needs to know you hear it and you’re taking it in. If you’re just rolling your eyes and waiting for her to stop yelling, you’ll never get anywhere.
It sounds to me like she really wants the relationship to work, believe it or not, but she isn’t getting what she wants from you. In my opinion, you shouldn’t walk away with your tail between your legs, and you shouldn’t stand up to her and defend yourself or even tell her that you’ve changed. I believe you need to take the attitude that she’s absolutely right and you absolutely deserve it. It’s not for me to say you actually deserve it or not, but what I’m describing is a scenario where she gets to vent and express in any way she wants and scream and be upset without you invalidating or minimising it at all. Let her have the spotlight and stand there and take it knowing that she is releasing a lot of repressed / stored anger / upset / sadness or whatever.
When you do this for her, she will eventually release everything she’s got. But she won’t be able to release any of it if she feels invalidated or thinks that you believe you’re right or thinks that you’re just waiting for her to “shut up” so that you can move on.
No one can hold on to that much energy for long when they are allowed to fully express it to someone who knows they deserve it. Even if you think she isn’t right about everything she says, let her be right and let her express until she’s said all she wants to say. As you do this, these moments should happen less and less UNLESS she isn’t telling you what she’s really angry about. If there’s something deeper, you may have to say, “It sounds like there may be something else you’re upset about that you’re not sharing with me” but I would save that as a last case scenario. You may have to go through a few weeks of this before thinking about using that. And only use that if that upset energy doesn’t decrease in her because she needs to know she can trust you to give you her entire expression of self.
I wrote an article that isn’t about this at all, but there’s a part where I talk about how I did this with my wife when I was married. It’s right here if you want to search for the word “wife” and see where I talk about it:
Again, I stress the important that you have to be genuinely remorseful for what you did and not just play the game until she’s done venting. If she senses that you’re just waiting for her to stop so you can go on with your day, she’s never, ever going to feel closure and this will probably never end. It sounds like you are remorseful so you may have to “take it” until she gets it out of her system. But do watch and observe your own reactions / responses to find out if something you’re doing is making her feel unsafe / invalidated / minimized.
I wish you the best with this.
I’m in love with this guy, at least I think I am..I know I am. He made it clear to me that he just wants a friendship. I really don’t care for relationships right now anyway..but part of me kinda wishes he wanted me. Sometimes I try to create distance between us, I try to avoid him most days so I can focus on other things..or in this case other people. I guess I’m just trying to find someone else for a while to get over him. But withdrawing would only dissolve love and create resentment, And I don’t want that at all. Nothing good would come out of me ignoring him..but walking away..seeing if he’ll i don’t know chase me? would make me feel like he cares. We’ve been best friends since the 7th grade, I’m a sophomore now. And yes I know i’m extremely young and boys shouldn’t really be on my mind but come on can you blame me? We’ve all been teenagers once…but this is how I feel..any advice? Anyone?..please..?
Why shouldn’t boys be on your mind? That’s perfectly normal when you’re in high school. Nothing wrong with that as long as you make sure no one ever takes advantage of you. Meaning, don’t let anyone pressure you into anything you don’t want to do. No means no. Anyone that tries to convince you to say Yes when you’re at all uncomfortable is someone you can’t trust. I know, I sound like a parent, but seriously, this isn’t about parenting, it’s about your power. You need to keep your power and when someone lies to you or tries to convince you that you should do something you feel uncomfortable about, they either honor your wishes or they aren’t healthy people to be around.
As far as your dilemma, when someone makes it clear they want to be friends, it’s important to honor that too. It’s better to tell yourself, “This will never, ever turn into a relationship so I will treat us as friends and that’s it,” than to believe that perhaps he’ll change his mind. Why? Because you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering if and when it will happen.
One thing I learned over the years it’s better to take people at their word than play all those stupid head games. Head games are when someone says they want to be friends but maybe someday there can be a relationship. Not now, but I don’t know when. That’s a head game because they’re not giving you any closure – they’re not giving you enough detail to form a conclusion. You need conclusions! You need to know for sure because if you don’t know for sure, you will get anxiety and all the other negative feelings that come with not knowing if so and so likes you or will they ask you out. It can be overwhelming, especially in high school, because you are learning about so many things, especially attraction and wanting to be liked or loved. So that’s why you need conclusions.
“I like you but want to be friends”
That’s a conclusion. Take it at face value. Don’t read any more into it than what’s already been said.
“I like you but I don’t know what I want.”
There’s no closure there! If you don’t get a Yes or No, something concrete, you’ll be sitting by the phone for months hoping they call. That’s the crappiest feeling in the world. So, you have to resolve this by getting closure yourself. You can say something like, “Well, I need to know. Do you want a relationship with me or not?” if they say, “I don’t know”, then you say, “Then I’m going to assume you don’t so I can move on. I don’t wait around. I want someone who knows what they want. If you don’t know what you want, then you’re not ready and I don’t need someone who isn’t ready.” or something like that.
When there is no closure, you have to create the closure so you’re not sitting around waiting for other people to make up their minds.
There’s good news and bad news about being your age. The good news is that love and relationships can be so exciting and new and adventurous and it feels so good to be liked and loved by people you care about.
The bad news is that when you start feeling crushes and love for someone else, it’s going to be so strong that you will believe this is the one you want to spend the rest of your life with. That doesn’t sound so bad, but there are often breakups when you’re young. Not saying it happens to everyone, but it’s best to know that breakups happen and they will hurt like hell! BUT, you will also heal and move on and realize that when one person isn’t right for you, someone else is.
That was the hardest part for me. I “knew for a fact” that the girl I was dating in high school was the one I was going to spend the rest of my life with. When she broke up with me I cried like a baby. But I survived and graduated and eventually found other people to be in a relationship that made me realize the girl in high school wasn’t right for me after all, even though I “knew for a fact” that she was perfect.
We think people are perfect but they aren’t. Everyone has some good and some bad qualities. The goal is to find someone you resonate with most and then you have something special. When it ends, you hurt, you grieve, you move on, you heal, then you meet someone else that you thought would never be better than what you had before, but it turns out they are different in some ways and better in some ways and suddenly everything feels good again.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. It’s tough being a kid, almost an adult, but keep your smarts about yourself. Know that there will be good times and bad, and know that the bad will pass and good times will come again.
I wish you the best!