Dealing With the Silent Treatment in Relationships


The silent treatment is the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed romantic relationship. These tips on dealing with the silent treatment in relationships will help you undo some of the damage it causes.

silent treatment in relationshipsTaken too far, the silent treatment is emotional abuse – and it’s definitely one of the causes of relationship problems. The tips in this article on dealing with the silent treatment are geared towards couples in romantic relationships, but can be applied to all types of partnerships: work, school, family, or even neighbors.

The silent treatment is part of what’s called a “demand-withdraw” pattern in a relationship. It happens when one partner pressures the other with requests, criticism or complaints and is met with avoidance or silence. Below are the results of a research study on the silent treatment in relationships, plus tips on dealing with it.





Research from Paul Schrodt, Ph.D. at Texas Christian University shows that couples engaged in demand-withdraw pattern experience lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy, and poorer communication. This professor and graduate director of communication studies also found that the damage caused by the silent treatment can be both emotional and physical.

And, believe it or not, the silent treatment is associated with anxiety and aggression as well as physiological effects such as urinary, bowel or erectile dysfunction.

What is the silent treatment?

The silent treatment occurs when someone – your partner, best friend, family member – ignores you and refuses to speak to you. It’s a very hard pattern to break, but my tips for dealing with the silent treatment will help you get started. They’ll also help you see your partner’s behavior in a different light.

“Couples get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,” says Schrodt in What the “Silent Treatment” Says About Your Relationship. “Both partners see the other as the problem.” The first tip for dealing with it is to take responsibility for your part in the problem.

Ask the wife – whom research shows is more often the demanding partner in relationships – and she’ll complain that her husband is closed off, emotionally unavailable. Ask the husband and he’ll say he might open up if she’d just back off.

Dealing With the Silent Treatment in Relationships

The silent treatment is when someone you love refuses to acknowledge or talk to you, no matter what you say or do. It’s frustrating and hurtful, and is a form of emotional manipulation and control. It’s an immature way to deal with hurt feelings – but if you know how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships, you can protect yourself.

The silent treatment came from early cultures long ago, when ostracism or being expelled was a form of punishment. Even today, not being included in a group or community is a terrible thing to experience. In early cultures, being ostracized meant almost certain death because people couldn’t live without the protection of a society.

Today the silent treatment isn’t about physical life or death, but it can affect the longevity and health of your relationship. That’s another reason learning how to deal with the silent treatment in relationships is so important: it can make or break your bond with your partner.



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Learn why your partner uses the silent treatment

Sometimes people can’t express their thoughts or feelings, so they clam up. Other times their emotions – anger, hurt, fear – are so strong that they simply can’t talk. Sometimes people feel that they aren’t a match for their partner verbally, so they shut down. The silent treatment can be a way for your partner to protect him or herself. The silent treatment is a form of bullying, and it’s often used to get what is wanted in the relationship. This type of passive aggressive communication might be all your partner learned as a child – it may be how your partner controlled his or her world.

Why do you think your partner uses the silent treatment in your relationship? Understanding the reasons behind his or her behavior can help you move forward in your relationship.

Talk about the silent treatment with your partner

Of course you can’t deal with the silent treatment when your partner isn’t talking to you, but you can bring it up after the storm has passed. Tell your boyfriend or girlfriend how much you care about them, and how important they are to you. Share how it feels when you get the silent treatment, and how it affects your relationship. You might even discuss other examples of verbal abuse in relationships, so your partner sees how serious it is.

Avoid “giving as good as you get” when you’re on the receiving end. It doesn’t help to deal with the silent treatment in relationships by giving the silent treatment right back to your partner! This just increases hostility and negative feelings, and puts more of a wall in between you and her.

Accept your partner’s unwillingness to talk

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m guilty of giving the silent treatment to my husband. It seemed like a good idea at the time – it seemed to be an appropriate way to deal with him! But it’s not appropriate. It’s actually very harmful to a relationship, even though it seems like “just” the silent treatment.

One of the best tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships is to ignore it. Walk away and leave your partner alone during an actual episode of the silent treatment. If you sweet talk, beg, or threaten your partner while he or she is giving you the silent treatment, you’ll only make it worse. It’s better to just let your partner’s anger and childishness run its course. Eventually she’ll come back to you, ready to end the argument and start talking again.

Learn the pattern of the silent treatment in your relationship

Sometimes people who give the silent treatment need their partners to make the first move. After you’ve given your partner time to cool down, maybe you have to be the first to apologize. It doesn’t seem fair, but often the giver of the silent treatment is the one who needs to be approached.

What’s the pattern of the silent treatment in your relationship? If you can identify it, then you’re in a better position for dealing with it. If your partner needs two days to cool off, then don’t approach her before that. If your partner refuses to talk until you apologize first, then you need to meet her where she’s at – if you want to stay in this relationship.

For more tips on dealing with the silent treatment with your partner, read How to Communicate Better in a Relationship.

Quick tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships

Remember that getting more talkative or vocal when you’re getting the silent treatment won’t help your relationship. Here are a few strategies for dealing with the silent treatment with someone you love:

the Silent Treatment

Dealing With the Silent Treatment in Relationships

  • Remind yourself that the problem can’t be solved until your partner tells you what is wrong. It’s not up to you to fix the problem
  • Don’t try to read your partner’s mind – it’s impossible!
  • Don’t give the silent treatment back
  • Let your partner know that you care about her and want to know why she’s upset, when she’s ready to talk
  • Invite your partner to explain what is bothering her, when she’s ready
  • Don’t engage. Don’t play your part of the game. Instead, go about your business and try not to get angry. She will eventually have to change her behavior

I know these tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships are easier said than done! But, if you can stay emotionally healthy when you’re faced with the silent treatment, you’re more likely to deal with it the right way.

If you feel like you can’t live without your partner, read How to Let Go of Someone You Love. I wrote it to help people deal with everything from the silent treatment to the loss of a loved one.

Learn how to deal with toxic relationships

I list Lillian Glass’ book below because it’s incredibly important to learn how to deal with toxic relationships if your partner refuses to stop giving you the silent treatment. Learning how to communicate better or finding tips on dealing with the silent treatment in relationships won’t help unless you know you’re with a toxic person. Equip yourself with the tools you need to deal with difficult people, or think about breaking up with your partner.

the silent treatment in relationshipsIn Toxic Men: 10 Ways to Identify, Deal with, and Heal from the Men Who Make Your Life Miserable, Lillian Glass describes how to identify, handle, and heal from men who make you miserable. You’ll learn tips for dealing with the silent treatment in relationships – plus how to handle all types of men, from the “Sneaky, Passive-Aggressive, Silent-But-Deadly Erupting Volcano” to the “Instigating, Backstabbing Meddler.” Dr. Glass offers ten practical ways to deal with every type of toxic partner.

I welcome your thoughts on the silent treatment in relationships, but I can’t offer advice or counseling. If you share what you’re experiencing, you may feel better – and you might gain clarity into your relationship.

My hope for your relationship is for healing and growth. May you and your partner have good conversations, and work towards building a healthy relationship that doesn’t involve the silent treatment.

If it doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s wrong for you.

xo



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35 thoughts on “Dealing With the Silent Treatment in Relationships

  • Emily

    I don’t agree with any of the above. If someone treats you this badly – and ignoring someone is the worst – you should get out. Don’t argue, don’t question (it’s their problem) just leave.

    I once lived with a guy in a foreign country. I was 20 and naive. We were going to get married. Then he gave me the silent treatment – refused to speak to me – spoke to my folks, my friends but completely ignored me – it was frustrating, hurtful and upsetting but I didn’t realise how manipulative it was until months later. I left him and he chased me half around the world, begging me to come back to marry him. I loved him so much I would have said yes there and then but one thing I needed to know first – why had he behaved like that? Turned out he had an ex-girlfriend coming to visit from abroad and he’d wanted me out of the way so he could have a last fling… I kicked him out there and then; it was Xmas Eve. I never looked back. You’d all be wise to do the same.

    Now I’ve learnt: no one deserves to be treated badly and ignored; it’s just manipulation – as said above – passive agressive behaviour. If they do it once, they’ll do it again. You’re worth more.

  • Clifford

    i’m currently facing the silent treatment from my friend and its really hard to deal with, i hope these tips are going to work for me…thanks.

  • Laurie Post author

    When you’re dealing with the silent treatment in relationships, you’re also dealing with feelings of confusion and insecurity. Silence from your boyfriend, husband, or life partner brings up all these questions that you can’t answer! It’s a weird and sometimes scary place to be.

    I can’t give personal advice and I don’t know if your boyfriend will change. But, I did write an article about how to overcome feelings of insecurity and confusion:

    5 Steps to Overcoming Insecurity in Your Relationships
    http://www.theadventurouswriter.com/quipstipsrelationships/overcoming-insecurity-in-relationships/

    The most important thing to ask yourself is whether you can continue moving forward in your relationship just the way it is. I wouldn’t expect my husband to change, because change is difficult (but possible!). The only person I’d expect to change would be me.

    What changes can you make in your life and relationship, to make dealing with the silent treatment easier?

  • Ruby

    Been with my lover for a year now. This week he stopped contact with me after Tuesday, today is Saturday evening. I feel like he’s giving me the silent treatment. Even when he’s wrong, I always have to apologize first. I’m 24 and he’s 43. Is he too set in his way to change? He’s never gone this long without letting me know.

    • Bettina Fuller

      I know this is reply is WAY past due — hopefully you have long since moved on with your life by now, but maybe someone else will read this response and it will help them.
      LEAVE HIM. You are too young to bind yourself to this level of pain. Use your youth to find a new life partner and happiness. Your BF is too old, too set in his ways, and your May/December romance already has an inherent power inequality that works against you. Why is your BF dating a woman who could literally be his daughter? To me, that speaks of a history of failed relationships on his part,

      Women spend way too much time trying to fix broken relationships, when they should be trying to find already healthy, loving partners. You can’t change him. Time to find an emotionally healthy person with whom to build a future.

  • sisi

    I have been separated from my husband for five years. Before that here has been the silent treatment for twenty five years.. I can’t get him to talk on the phone or my text. but he talks when I visit his office. I still love him how can i reach him

  • Evelien

    My boyfriend is giving me the silent treatment right now. We have been dating for over 7 months but we have been ‘officially together’ since about a month. A new partner is exciting and fun, but when it comes to getting to know your partner when you’re in a fight… That’s stressful. We had a small argument a while ago and he didn’t speak to me for a couple of hours. At that time I didn’t really realise it, coz we’re long distance so we don’t see each other every week. He just didn’t text me. It was just now when we had our big argument, I noticed that this is what he does and those couple hours non-talking should’ve been mu first clue. He has the right to be angry with me, I said something to upset him and I know it (I already apologized, but it doesn’t seem to break the silence). It’s just hard for me that he’s not talking to me. I’m a very emotional person and I recently got out of a depression, so this doesn’t do me any good. I’m afraid to lose him over something stupid. Since this is our first fight… I don’t know how long this is gonna take and if he will come back to me. So I’m kind of a train wreck right now. He won’t return my calls or texts, we were supposed to see each other this weekend but I don’t know if that will still happen with this situation going on. I rather have someone yelling and screaminf at me, at least that way you can solve the argument… This just leaves me powerless and frustrated…

    • Linda

      I’m going to offer some advice…since he displays this behavior as a boyfriend and he is not your husband I would suggest you end it with him. Because guess what, he is going to do this as your husband as well and it’s about ten times worse when your living with someone and they ignore you for days and weeks. Like walking right by you, don’t speak to you as though you don’t even exist. It’s pure hell. If I had known my now husband would do this to me he would have been dropped immediately because I don’t play this game. We too didn’t see each other often because it was long distance so I had no idea he would act like this. You deserve better! The choice is yours!

    • Siggy

      Same here…if I say something (usually express any type of feelings) it’s the silent treatment. Relationship is 2 plus years.

  • Ben

    I’m confused. My wife will say that I never communicate with her, but when I try to communicate she shuts me down. I never give her the silent treatment. I’m just quiet and introverted and I live with two kids, my in-laws and a constant stream of visitors so alot of communication doesnt happen because we simply don’t have a chance to be alone. When I do open up I’m met with criticism and judgement rather than a sympathetic, empathetic or supportive tone. Sometimes I am so emotionally exhausted I tell my wife I just need her hugs but she still hasn’t hugged me for months. I just don’t understand how she can be so understanding and compassionate to people she barely knows but holds me to some impossibly high standard that I fear I will never meet. I know I’m not perfect but I am doing my best.

  • Marla

    What about if it’s your own mother? I set a boundary that although I love her, she couldn’t be around my children until she sobers up from alcohol abuse. She threatened to disinherit me and told me I deserved “whatever I get because of this.” The silent treatment has lasted weeks. I don’t trust myself to call because I am worried I will lose my temper and say something I regret. She has no interest in my family or my life. She hasn’t been there for me and I haven’t felt safe to confide in her for years.

  • Melanie

    Excellent article on dealing with the silent treatment in relationships. Only thing is I would say to make it gender neutral as BOTH sexes participate in this behavior. I know from personal experience. Thanks.

    • Linda

      Has anyone actually had any success in actually getting their spouse to stop using the silent treatment? I’ve been married a year and I had no idea he even did this. He never revealed this part of him before we were married or I would have never married him. He will ignore me for a week no speaking, coming home at midnight, I don’t know where he is or what he is doing. I’ve never experienced this hell in my life before. I don’t know what to do. I just carry on with life as usual until he breaks his silence. Oh and he insists he loves me so much. But from what I know you don’t ignore people you love.

      • S

        Hi Linda,

        I read your comment on this website and I can understand perfectly well what you are saying. I have a husband who is just like this. He can go on for weeks not talking and
        wont even tell me what’s going on. We have been married for 4 years now and I almost went crazy the first 2 years because of this behavior. I have never seen or experience anything like in my life before. Now, after 4 years I just ignore him when he starts this ridiculous thing. How are you coping with this? Hope to hear back from you.

      • Linda

        Hi S.—my husband has finally admitted he has a problem with giving the silent treatment and I think he will go to counseling. Fingers crossed. I am just trying not to do anything or say anything confrontational so that he doesn’t get mad. I don’t really want to live like this but it’s kind of the only choice I have I guess until he can work out why he does this and how he can stop doing it. If it’s possible.

      • Ben

        My wife has been ignoring me for over two months. In the presence of other people she will appear happy and friendly and will show me the slightest affection but when we’re alone she has refused to talk to me and completely ignores me. I don’t know what to do. We went to counseling twice but she refuses to go back. I know I’m not perfect but if I’m so terrible that she’ll ignore me for two months I can’t help but wonder if she loves me at all.

    • Joanie Condor

      Too much “gender neutral” in the world today Mels…please spare me and the rest of society of the “gender neutral” boloney. Men are men, Women are Women and each have their own set of behaviors. Though both sexes may participate in this behavior, it is mostly men that clam up simply because it’s in their nature to do so. Women are more verbal, men are more well…men.

      • Captain Psychodrive

        Well, as someone who’s had to deal with the silent treatment from my girlfriend (now ex-girlfriend), let me throw in my two cents.

        From what I’ve seen, the silent treatment heralds the end of a relationship. She and I would argue. If it was my fault, I’d man up, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. When it was her fault, she would insult me, bring up things i was sensitive about, and when that didn’t work, she’d go silent and refuse to acknowledge my existence for days at a time. She refused counseling. Didn’t want to talk to anyone about it (at least, not in front of me, I eventually found out she was spreading rumors through my circle of friends) until one day, during those silent days, I just said to her “have fun” and left.

        Cue my phone exploding five days later, accusing me of abandoning her when I was always the one trying to talk things over. This explosion lasted a month. I refused to deal with any of it, as I was done.

        To say this is a one-sided issue is a fallacy. Both sexes are doing it. For me, my answer was to leave. I refuse to love someone who ignores my existence when it’s convenient for them to do so. It just leaves issues unresolved.

  • Dee

    I’ve been my married to my husband for nine years n for nine years he’s been given me the Silent Treatment.where n the hell do they do that at they’ve spoken about letting ur husband cool off!! N not to pressure him n give him time to come Around. In some cases that may be true if it was two weeks or two months maybe but,nine years of pure hell. Just Imagine u living in a house with ur husband n He doesn’t tells u Nothing.Its unreal but Iam in the Process of getting out!! The Marriage No one should have to live like that.

  • Diane Shaffer

    Sounds like my 24 year marriage. I didn’t know I was marrying a 5 year old. I can’t do anything right. I’m constantly changing everything about myself to make him happy. No matter what I “fix” about myself he finds something else about me to blame for his unhappiness. He’s currently giving me the silent treatment because I used tea tree oil and he didn’t like the smell. But do you think he said anything about it. Of course not. It’s like pulling teeth to figure out what the problem is. I either get the silent treatment or berated for offending his space/nose. Once I finally got him to tell me what the problem was he accused me of purposely trying to ruin his day. I walk on egg shells constantly. Never knowing what will set him off. I have to be on my toes always thinking before I say or do anything as to not offend him. He thinks people in traffic are trying to ruin his day to. Slow him down. I got him to go to therapy and he said it wasn’t working because he was still waiting for her to tell him how to be happy. She wrote him a letter and told him she could not help him because he failed to do his part in therapy. Not to mention he quit showing up. No shows no calls. His time is valuable but not anyone else. Except his friends that is.

  • Jose

    My girlfriend gives me the silent treatment when it’s my fault AND when it’s her fault. I find myself apologizing for things even when its not my fault just to stop the silent treatment. It’s emotionally draining. Then when I apologize she acts like the victim even if it was her fault. It makes no sense.

    • Ben

      My wife told me she didn’t want to be married to me any more but when I packed a bag to sleep at my sister’s she accused me of abandoning her and our children. What was I supposed to do? I’ve been told by some women that it was said in anger implying she didn’t mean it…I’ve never, ever suggested a divorce but every time she is upset I am in fear that she will leave me.

  • Chris

    Dealing with it now (6 weeks of silent treatment and counting ) because I refused to deal with the fine he got for not attending jury duty, I told him my plate was full dealing with house repairs, dispute with insurance company over delays, three kids, disabled son, full time work , shopping, washing, cooking, cleaning and kids extra caricular activities. Silent treatment makes a change from being told by him I have borderline personality disorder. Which he did for a number of years.

    • Ben

      As far as I’m concerned the silent treatment is never appropriate. If things are that bad in a relationship that you’ll ignore someone for months then it would be kinder to end the relationship than to subject someone to that.

  • Laurie Post author

    Thanks for your insight into why some men become emotionally distant in relationships, New Age Man! It’s interesting to learn your perspective of the silent treatment, and why showing emotions is dangerous.

    I hope you and your wife can resolve your differences and let go of whatever the issue was that caused the silent treatment. Life is no fun in the war zone! Especially when the battle is at home.

    May you find peace and joy, and may your marriage surprise you in healthy and positive ways.

  • New Age Man

    I’m currently in the process of giving my wife the silent treatment. I will not back down because I don’t feel I’ve done anything wrong. This is a war of wills and I’m not going to lose. She’s responded by returning the favor. Women need to understand that it only works a limited number of times with a man. We’re already non-verbal and good at hiding our emotions. We’re also conditioned by society to act indifferent and “baring your soul” to a woman is extremely dangerous anymore. The campaign by feminists to “Bathe in Male Tears” has demonstrated clearly why showing emotions is dangerous.
    Men give women the silent treatment because women will always find a way to turn any discussion around and make it the man’s fault. He could be enraged but be apologizing to her before it’s over. There is a saying that goes: A woman has the last word in any argument. Anything the man says after that is the beginning of a new argument. That’s why we clam up and become emotionally distant.

  • Mary

    I could have written this! I’m going through this now and I’ve been married 32 years. I only put up with it because my mom did this and I thought it was just a part of life. To think that I not only tolerated it, but also allowed myself to believe it was all my fault, makes me feel as if I have wasted my life. To continue in your relationship will mean a lifetime of him deciding everything from what party you will go to when you can take a shower. If you try to make a decision he doesn’t agree with he will sabotage it so there is a bad outcome and then blame it on you for not working out. You won’t get birthday cards or presents unless he is in the mood. He will complain you don’t cook dinner then when you prepare a nice meal he will find a reason to not eat. He may even be insulting to others in front of you just to prove he demands respect. He will insult you and then say it’s a joke or wink his eye. He would rather have someone feel bad about themselves then to admit he made a mistake. That will include your children if you marry this guy. His ego is very fragile and part of the silent treatment is to protect his ego and totally control the situation by withdrawing. Why put up with this? If you had a similar childhood then you should get help so you don’t fall into a pattern of being attracted to this kind of guy. Have fun and good luck.

  • Zera

    I am dealing with a partner who is giving me the silent treatment and the hardest part is that I don’t even know where I stand in our relationship because we only met when we both agreed to meet and its still a new relationship….he told me before that he likes his space so when he told me that he needs space I tried to understand. Its hard because this relationship is still new so I don’t understand this behavior or I just didn’t expect him to act like this at the early stages of our relationship….He told me that he will tell me when he wants to see me but I think that’s weird because now the space is even on the phone cause he doesn’t call nor text me and when I do….I get ignored, Is this the end cause now am already preparing myself for the worst.

    • MKDinkel

      I could have written this! I’m dealing with the silent treatment in my relationship now and I’ve been married 32 years. I only put up with it because my mom did this and I thought it was just a part of life. To think that I not only tolerated it, but also allowed myself to believe it was all my fault, makes me feel as if I have wasted my life. To continue in your relationship will mean a lifetime of him deciding everything from what party you will go to when you can take a shower. If you try to make a decision he doesn’t agree with he will sabotage it so there is a bad outcome and then blame it on you for not working out. You won’t get birthday cards or presents unless he is in the mood. He will complain you don’t cook dinner then when you prepare a nice meal he will find a reason to not eat. He may even be insulting to others in front of you just to prove he demands respect. He will insult you and then say it’s a joke or wink his eye. He would rather have someone feel bad about themselves then to admit he made a mistake. That will include your children if you marry this guy. His ego is very fragile and part of the silent treatment is to protect his ego and totally control the situation by withdrawing. Why put up with this? If you had a similar childhood then you should get help so you don’t fall into a pattern of being attracted to this kind of guy. Have fun and good luck.