Photo Credit: Socrates, Status Mind
The silent treatment. Seems so juvenile, in a way, and yet it is used as a punishment in relationships, both personal and professional. We may be the ones doing it without even thinking that’s what it is. Here we go.
In the earliest years of our marriage, Dave and I would sometimes have a fight about something. At times, the conflict didn’t end well for me, anyway. Then, without really a goal to be vindictive or mean, I would just have nothing to say to him…for as many as three days. Oh, we would cover the normal conversation of life – schedules, kids, etc., but from my side, all matters of the heart were wrapped in silence. Punishing him with that silence. I don’t think he always noticed, but inside my own heart and head, it was brutal.
Fortunately for us both, I grew out of that. Now after a disagreement, it may take me a few minutes to shake off my frustration…but not days. Silent treatment in our marriage is over.
In his book Ostracism: The Power of Silence, psychologist Kipling Williams writes: “William James [father of American psychology] suggested that to be ‘cut dead’ and to go ‘unnoticed’ by others would be worse than the ‘most fiendish punishment.’ The silent treatment may well be the most frequently used method of cutting people dead.”
In his piece Ostracism, Dr. Williams introduced the topic with a further quote by Dr. James: “If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met “cut us dead,” and acted as if we were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruelest bodily tortures would be a relief; for these would make us feel that, however bad might be our plight, we had not sunk to such a depth as to be unworthy of attention at all.( James 1890/1950, pp. 293–94)
Psychologist Karen Young talks about silent treatment as “
Photo Credit: Jaeda DeWalt
Silence is a very disorienting experience because you usually can’t discern what it means. It can put you off balance.
Anyone who has ever experienced ostracism knows what it feels like and how debilitating it can be, even for a mature thinker.
Silent treatment can be intentional and manipulative, however it can also become a habit of “communication” – neglectful communication. Excluding someone from a conversation (at work or other association), not making eye contact, not speaking in casual encounters, not answering emails/texts, leaving a group member off a group email, not acknowledging someone’s input…and so it goes.
[Of course, all the above can happen innocently for the overloaded person, without intention. The dilemma is when we, over time, just let it keep happening because we can’t figure out how to fix it..or just aren’t inclined…to fix it.]
The curious thing about silent treatment, if you confront the person you sense is doing it, that person can always deny it…whereupon you feel like you’ve read the situation wrongly, you overreacted, etc. It is like a double punch.
So what does one do in regards to silent treatment? What are the counter-measures? I would love for you to share yours in the Comments because I am still sorting out what can affect change.
In a personal relationship, in a non-conflictive moment, you may talk together about what silence conveys. It may be that neither of you have an understanding of what’s going on with the other…because of the silence. Face-to-face communication most always helps with understanding each other better.
In a work situation, or other organizational affiliation that demands working together, systems can be put in place that facilitates engagement… team meetings, weekly email updates, some sort of regular internal communication process. Like with bullying prevention, a core value that speaks to the essential of regular, empowering communication can have impact.
A work or family culture that just accepts silence as a way of coping with stress or frustration can affect everyone in that culture. Identify the issues and do what you can to move them toward health.
One-on-one, there still may be little we can do to counter or improve a situation with such a someone – one who has made silence a pattern to control their encounters with others. We can definitely mark the experience, and check the pain. Then if there seems no way to improve the relationship, the best thing we can do is put our own boundaries around the experience…but not necessarily the person.
Photo Credit: Pikord, Michael Davis Lowery
[The above graphic was a chuckle, not a true work-around.]
We don’t want to respond to passive-aggressive behavior with the same sort of behavior. We may, however, have to acknowledge that for some people, it’s a deeply ingrained habit that could even have become unconscious.
When our daughter was 3 years old, she went through a season of not speaking to people. She would bury her face in my leg, or just turn her face/body away from the person. Then I tried to “excuse” her behavior with “she’s become shy lately.” The same friend above, Jan, who was also a parenting mentor for me, said outright: “That’s not being shy; that’s being rude.” Some of you may be put off by that, but I appreciated her being straight with me. From that day on, this mama worked with that 3-year-old on what ignoring and not speaking communicated and on how to be courteous and respectful. Now the lovely woman she has become is working on the same lessons with her little one.
Whatever your take is on this, hopefully you won’t default to perpetrating the silent treatment as your own pattern of controlling situations. Don’t do it yourself. Don’t be that person.
It helps me to realize that friends, family, and coworkers who use silent treatment didn’t get there overnight. There could have been an event, an altercation, a painful experience of their own that set them up for emotionally withdrawing and using silence as coping or as punishment. For some, like in our early years of marriage, silent treatment may be very situational. For others, it is borne out of habit – a habit of feeling no compulsion toward connecting with people they don’t value or whom they feel don’t value them. It is what it is.
In this day of social media and over-sharing, to put yourself out there and then be met with silence is a strange and sometimes painful experience. Fortunately, even that does not define us. Right? Right.