Dealing With the Silent Treatment

Posted on: November 6th, 2018 in mindset by Pat Mesiti | 12 Comments

Do you know someone who resorts to the silent treatment whenever they are upset? They refuse to discuss what is troubling them, but instead they glower in silence and hang over you like a grey raincloud. There is an old saying, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,’ but it is actually better to say not-nice things rather than subjecting a friend or family member to the silent treatment for days!

Dishing out the silent treatment to someone who has hurt you is a passive-aggressive form of behaviour. It is hurtful. Being subjected to the silent treatment as a friend, son, daughter or spouse can make you feel worthless, especially if you are exposed to this treatment on an ongoing basis. It is a form of emotional abuse.

Cooling down and the silent treatment are different

Counsellor Lisa Concepcion says people often go silent when they are angry and don’t want to talk. They need the time to process their thoughts and pull themselves together. But other people use silence as a way to manipulate people. It is a means of inflicting pain. The silent treatment should not be confused with taking time to cool down after a fight. It is okay to tell someone you need time to think but you will come back to them when calm. However it is not okay to subject someone to silence for an extended period of time.

Research has shown that the act of ignoring someone activates the same area of the brain that is affected by physical abuse. Also the best predicator of whether a relationship will last, is not whether people fight, but how they fight. I always recommend to fight fair, and the silent treatment is never fair.

Silence is punitive

A professor of Psychology at Purdue University in Indiana, Kipling Williams, who studies ostracism says, ‘Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.’ He says the silent treatment activates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends or enemies. Often a person will resort to using the silent treatment when they feel they have been pressured with requests, criticism or complaints.

Prof Paul Schrodt from Texas Christian University says that when two people get locked in a demand-withdraw pattern, the damage is both emotional and physiological and can include anxiety and aggression. Silence is sometimes called the weapon of choice because it is so powerful and easy to get away with.

So how do you respond to the silent treatment?

I’m afraid that if you have a friend or partner who regularly subjects you to the silent treatment then you need to reassess the relationship, because it is not a healthy relationship. You may need to break away from this person or start counselling as they are being hurtful to you on a regular basis.

If it is a family member, for example a sibling or parent then you are going to have to develop some coping mechanisms.

  1. Don’t take the silence personally and work on your self-confidence.

The silent treatment is meant to make you feel worthless and unloved. This person wants you to feel belittled and come grovelling back so that you are under their control. Again, I say it’s a form of manipulation, but if you believe in yourself then you will see this person as the manipulator they are.

Try to ignore their behaviour. Put on a cheerful demeanour and continue to speak to them as though you don’t even notice they have gone silent. The family member being silent will find this frustrating.

  1. Do not plead with them to speak to you

I’m sorry but people use silence to feel powerful and gain the upper hand. If you plead with them to speak to you, you are giving them what they want. They want to feel like you can’t live without them and they can control you. I know that getting the silent treatment is frustrating and annoying, but still it is best to pretend that it isn’t bothering you.  If the person giving you the silent treatment is also a narcissist, they will love it when you beg for them to speak. If anything, it will encourage them to stay silent.

  1. Do not argue with the silent person

If you continue the argument with the person who is resorting to silence you will get nowhere. It will be a one-sided argument that you will lose! The person who uses silence is usually very angry. They also lack the skills to process and deal with their anger and then effectively communicate why they were angry to you. Remember they are the one with the problem. Refrain from arguing.

  1. Do not say you are sorry if you are not

Do not offer an apology to the silent party as a way of entreating them to end the silence. Come on, you would only be rewarding them for the bad behaviour. It also negates all the points you made prior to them retreating into silence. Stay strong in yourself.

Of course if you have done something dreadful you should apologise. If you have done something truly offensive, you may not be on the receiving end of silence but rather the relationship has ended. Offer one apology and then retreat. Do not pester someone with apologies. It is their choice as to whether or not they are prepared to forgive you.

If you are the subject of silent treatment from another person, then often you are left with only one option. Go away and focus on making yourself happy.


Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


  1. Brenda Upton says:

    My husband of 37 years has not spoken to me in 5 days. When I go to bed, he gets up. He leaves for the gym, etc before I get up and tries not to return until I’ve left for work.
    It’s important to say that my 98 year old mother moved in with us in July. That has been a big adjustment for everyone, of course. My mother was very rude and belittling to him, I believe, in the beginning. I don’t know what to do. I have suffered from major depressive disorder all my life. I need support, help & guidance.

    • Pat Mesiti says:

      Hi Brenda, so sorry to hear about your situation, it sounds like your husband is hurting.
      I would recommend you book sessions for both of you with an experienced relationship counsellor to start communicating again.

  2. Jimmy Donovan says:

    Hi my name is Jimmy, I am stuck in a marriage where I truly believe my wife has some personality disorders and part narcissist. Antisocial and she doesn’t talk to her mother and father or sister and she’s very angry inside her dad left when she was 6 months old but he was always in her life. It is easy for her to hate she barely has any friends and all of my friends were her friends until she tried to ruin all my relationships. It all started she put tape recorders in my car because she doesn’t trust anyone and she heard me and my friend talkin about her I would, I was venting everyday because she acts very peculiar and she gets mad at everything so this relationship wasn’t the greatest. This has been going on for 15 months I’ve been in and out of the house sleeping on Friends couches and finally one day I decided to get an apartment and the next town and after staying there for 6 weeks she wanted to meet with me and have a heart-to-heart talk, although I did all the talking because she doesn’t know how to speak and she’s the best at the silent treatment. I agreed with her to give up the apartment to come back home and I told her I wanted her to go to therapy and work on yourself. I’ve been going to therapy for a year working on myself and I went in the beginning with her but as soon as she saw the therapist was compromising not just signing with me but compromising in the middle then she didn’t want to go anymore because all she wants to do was point the finger at me every session so she really didn’t want to go work on a self. Make a long story short I was home for the six weeks and then I left again because she was following me videotaping me in the house recording me in the house it was just crazy so we had a fight one night and I left. I feel bad for her and I love her and I wanted to work it out as long as you went to therapy. Those are my boundaries that she goes to therapy but she doesn’t want to go and now she tells me she hates me and she blocked me from her phone and from Facebook like a child. I don’t know what to do but I just wanted your opinion thank you

    • Pat Mesiti says:

      Hi Jimmy,

      It sounds like you’ve been going through some very challenging times. The boundaries you set are perfect, it sounds like she needs help, and if she’s not willing to get some, you have to protect yourself and live your life.
      You can’t continue being held hostage by someone not ready to receive professional help.
      I hope things work out for you…

  3. April says:

    Hi Pat! I’m hoping you can give me guidance on how to deal with an adult child who is giving me the silent treatment. She has given me silent treatment on many occasions but it became worse after I allowed her boyfriend to move in after getting kicked out of his place. I made the mistake of screaming at her after weeks of silent treatment, which is no excuse but I was in severe pain from the combination of her silent treatment and undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis. She continued with silent treatment for 4 more weeks until I broke down and told them to get out. They moved out on 01 October 2019 and I haven’t heard from her since.
    I miss her because she is my child but the relief I feel from her absence is incredibly soothing even though I feel terribly guilty. What do you suggest?

    • Pat Mesiti says:

      Sorry to hear you’re going through this… silent treatment is awful.
      I recommend you don’t go to their level and don’t take it personally, and maintain your stance. If they see it works, they will always rely on the silent treatment to get what they want. Just ignore it (as hard as it can be), and be patient until it blows over.

  4. Kathryn says:

    Hi Pat, your article says exactly what I have been enduring with my husband of 6 years. Sadly, I have gotten the silent treatment for the last 3 years.
    I have tried on several different occasions to strike up conversations.
    He is able to communicate on a very basic, impersonal, non threatening level and then resorts back to silence.
    I feel that silence is his choice. Its total mental abuse!
    I have finally had enough!
    Its painful to be treated this way and I will not continue to be a victim of misery.
    Thanks for posting this article! It just confirms what I should of done years ago!

  5. Adam says:

    Hi Pat, My current girlfriend whom I have been with for the past 4 years have been giving me the silent treatment for that past 4 weeks, I asked her in the beginning if there was something wrong, she responded with nothing is wrong. When I call her sometimes she answers, and sometimes she just ignore the call. When I talk to her, it’s a one sided conversation only. I tried confronting her by telling her that this is not healthy, still she will not talk. she want me to confess what I have done, Which even if I did something I really have no clue, what is it.
    Please, give your opinion because I am really confused.

    • Pat Mesiti says:

      Hi Adam,

      Sorry to hear you’re having problems, although I don’t know exactly the whole story, it sounds like the relationship is over unless you both agree to work on it and consider going to counselling.
      It is harder if one person doesn’t want to talk though. Hopefully you manage to sort it out…

  6. Peter says:

    Hi Pat! My wife whom ive been married for 10 years she’s resently given me cold shoulder, lack of communication, being rude n angry sometimes. She’s partying every weekend with her friend. When I confront her for this kind of behavior she will tell me she doesn’t need my permission to do what she wants. Ill get angry n yelling at her n tell her how i can’t even do anything because of her behavior. Last time i said to her i want to take her out n she must bring her friend along she doesn’t agree with me she says ill be rude to her friend we rather sit at home n dine. I’m confused i really am she wasn’t like this before we used to be happy. Pls help maybe I am being egnorent couse we always tell how we love each other n planning ahead but when comes weekends it’s trouble. I really don’t know

    • Pat Mesiti says:

      Hi Peter,

      I’m really sorry to hear about your family situation, it sounds like you’re really hurt.
      The best advice I can give you is for you both to attend family therapy sessions together. It might take a few sessions to gain clarity but it will be worth it. Through these sessions you’ll both be able to get through to each other and communicate without hostility.
      I hope this helps!

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