Do you know someone who chooses not to talk when they’re upset or angry with you? Why do they approach conflict this way? The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive tact used when an individual doesn’t have the emotional maturity or security to handle the conflict in a more appropriate way. It is often used as a way to punish or detach from another person. Often people use this approach because they fear conflict or confrontation, or lack skills to communicate assertively. They fear the response or anticipate a negative outcome so instead they choose to disconnect. However, the silent treatment doesn’t work and only perpetuates the conflict. The longer the silence progresses the greater the resentment and hurt.
In some cases people use the silent treatment to control or manipulate others. The assumption is that if they hold out long enough the other person will agree with them or accommodate their needs. This is similar to a child who says, “if you’re not going to play by my rules then I’m taking my ball and going home.” Sometimes people with narcissistic tendencies will adopt this approach in an effort to shame or punish a person into doing what they want. When a person fixates on blaming others, they avoid personal responsibility which creates significant conflict in relationships. Being ignored is painful. What are some healthy options in response to the silent treatment?
The best approach will require you to not absorb the emotional pain and to not assume it’s all your fault. Instead of being like “velcro” (where negative emotions stick) opt for “teflon” (let emotions slide off). Try to remain positive and relaxed around the person and don’t allow them to ruin your day, week, etc. At some point it will important for you to let them know that the silent treatment doesn’t help with resolution of conflict, but instead pushes you further away. Choose to be assertive which is to be open, honest, and direct without being hurtful or mean. Take ownership of your mistakes, but don’t assume total blame. Lastly, let them know that talking through problems is a better choice than keeping them inside which punishes each other. Remember, you can only change your own behavior, not that of anyone else.