Some thoughts about this:
The Silent Treatment
First off, the silent treatment is best understood as being in the same league as solitary confinement in a prison. It’s not nearly as extreme a measure but, nonetheless, it is a form of punishment especially distressful to human beings. Typically, it includes the purposeful withdrawal of contact with another human being (usually a loved one) to establish power and control over the situation and/or the person.
Why Is It So Painful?
The silent treatment punishes someone by ignoring the basic human needs for companionship, affection, and attention. Essentially, the silence breaks down all three of these ways of relating and is very painful for the person on the receiving end. Isolation and shunning typically continue until the other person offers assurances to do what the ‘silencer’ wants. If you can remember being frozen out of a conversation or out of a group at a party or meeting, you know what the silent treatment feels like.
Motives and Ethics
So why do people use this type of behaviour on other human beings?
This is a complex subject but here are a few questions that might unearth some motives or purposes. Does the silent treatment…?
- Uphold a relationship or uphold someone’s rights (or self-righteousness)?
- Increase the flourishing of others or the diminishment of others?
- Create meaningful change or confer a stubborn challenge?
- Construct a healthy relationship or destruct a meaningful connection?
- Heal hurts and wounds or give one of you the upper hand?
- Make things go right or make things go a certain way?
Furthermore, if you are ever tempted to use the silent treatment…
- What is your end goal?
- What will it take for you to break the silence?
- What will the silence do for you or your relationship?
Silence As a Treatment
We cannot forget this basic premise: the silent treatment is a ‘treatment’—it is not in the same realm as inattention, nor is it a dedicated time away to collect one’s thoughts when one feels psychologically overwhelmed. If that were the case, the treatment would end in a few hours at most with meaningful connection (it usually doesn’t).
Rather, the silent treatment is most often used as a way to make a statement about who will win and who will lose in a conflict between two people. Silence can be held for days or even weeks (in extreme cases) if a person is motivated enough to keep ensuring that his or her point is still being made.
My overarching ethical belief is that I (we) should treat every person with dignity and respect, upholding each person’s inherent value and need for connection. Along with that, I believe that each person should be able to access his or her own agency, shared power, and privilege, especially in intimate relationships. The silent treatment doesn’t fit with ideas about how to work with our humanity and vulnerabilities.
To the person who asked this AMA question:
Ask your spouse (or friend) to consider other coping strategies for working through difficulties, ones that increase connection, belonging, and flourishing for both of you. By all means, take a time out if either of you are fired up about something and revisit the area of conflict as much as you need to in order to resolve it…but return to the conflictual conversation when you are both calmer with your prefrontal cortex (your reasoning, analyzing, prioritizing brain area) firing again and the promise of a healthy relationship a priority.
Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC