June 25, 2024


Laura, a 43-year-old architect, had always had a tricky relationship with her younger sister, Carla. However, things hit a low point when Carla was setting up a new business and asked Laura to invest in it. “She asked me for £10,000, I’m sure because she knew my husband had recently inherited a large sum of money. For various reasons, including the fact that I knew the online boutique she was launching was doomed to fail, I said no. Her reaction was explosive. She called me every name under the sun. She told me I was unsupportive and smug.”

After the storm came the big freeze. Laura hasn’t spoken to her sister for three years. “It’s not like we don’t see each other. She lives nearby and we still attend some shared family events. I tried to talk to her, but she would look the other way when I tried to catch her eye.” For a while, Laura says, it was “ all-consuming, trying to re-establish communication. Now, I just walk around her like an awkward piece of furniture. If we must speak, it’s done through our kids, which can’t be setting a good example.”

Psychotherapist Julie Murray says that, unlike other cold-shouldering behaviour such as “ghosting”, there is a lot of shame involved in the silent treatment. “It’s a sign that something has gone terribly wrong with the relationship, whether that’s with a romantic partner, a friend or a family member. If it happens to you, you can feel massively rejected, worthless, confused and lonely. The closer you are to the person, the more painful it’s going to feel, because you’re more vulnerable.”

This has been the case for Vikram, 35, whose mother has been giving him the silent treatment on and off since he was a teenager. “She is often interfering and judgmental when it comes to my life choices. The way she demonstrates her disapproval is to withdraw communication.” When Vikram split up with his fiancee, a woman his family doted on, his mother didn’t speak to him for six months. Instead, they communicated through his father. “If it wasn’t so painful, it would have been funny,” he says. “We’d be at the dinner table and she would say to my dad: ‘Ask Vik if he wants soup.’ Eventually, she came out of it, as she always does, until the next time.”

There have been many subsequent episodes of the silent treatment, such as when his mother found out from another family member that Vikram’s new partner was pregnant. “We had told three people, preferring to avoid all the fuss until after the three-month scan. It was so destabilising being cut off by her at a time when my partner and I really needed support.”

Kip Williams, professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, Indiana, has studied the effects of using the silent treatment for the past 40 years. He became fascinated after watching a documentary, The Silence, while he was a student. It concerns James Pelosi, a West Point cadet who was ostracised by his peers for cheating in an exam. Despite being exonerated, for 19 months he was forced to eat at a separate table, live without roommates and was spoken to only at official events. “It was a gripping documentary. As a social psychologist, I study the impact of people on other people, but no one had really studied the effects of ostracism – being ignored and excluded.”

In these times of culture war, where some argue we live in a “cancel culture”, ostracism has never been more prevalent. Williams notes that whole nations can give each other the silent treatment, such as when some UN member states refuse to recognise other states. Williams says that nations respond to the silent treatment in much the same way as individuals. “They usually seek ways to be heard, taking on the more antisocial role to be provocative and gain control.” It plays out, too, in social groups where one member takes an unpopular view – Covid-denial or supporting Brexit, for example – and is frozen out by the others.

Williams believes that being on the receiving end of silence is so distressing because it threatens all our human needs after the basics of food, shelter and safety have been met. This concept of a pyramid of needs was introduced in the 1950s by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who said the higher needs included the need to belong and have social connections, the need to feel good about yourself, and the need to feel that your existence is meaningful.

In his own research, published in the journal Science in 2003, Williams and colleagues identified that when someone is ostracised, the same areas of the brain are triggered as when experiencing physical pain. They also conducted an experiment giving participants painkillers to see if feelings of rejection could be treated in the same way as physical agony and found that it could. This was backed up by MRI brain scans.

“If you get into a fight with someone, that’s not great but at least you are still connected, you are acknowledging each other,” he says. “You can demonstrate competence by winning the fight. Ostracism can be more distressing because it’s taking away all of your needs.”

Unusually for human behaviour, deploying silence as a coping strategy isn’t related to any particular personality trait, but is triggered by circumstances. “We interviewed a great many people who have either given out the silent treatment for a chronically long period or who have received it,” says Williams. “The motives were varied. Sometimes people do it even if it’s not really part of their repertoire. For example, we met a father whose son, out of the blue, said something so hurtful that he couldn’t think of a retort. So, he said nothing. He stopped responding altogether. He wouldn’t have dinner with him or even look at him. He stopped acknowledging him. He saw his son deteriorate … and still he couldn’t stop because stopping would have been an admission that his behaviour was inappropriate. Instead, he kept dwelling on the initial hurtful comment to justify his behaviour. Eventually, very slowly, he found his way back to normal communication with his son. In worst case scenarios, these situations can last a lifetime. We met one woman who had been given the silent treatment by her husband for 40 years. If the silent treatment becomes a longstanding pattern, you lose self-esteem and perspective. When asked why she stayed, this lady replied: ‘At least I’ve got a roof over my head.’”

For some people, resorting to silence is learned behaviour from their family. “People who regularly resort to the silent treatment may be doing so because they don’t feel safe expressing their emotions,” says Murray, “or they feel they might lose control once they start expressing themselves, and their anger or frustration might boil over. They don’t have a map for how to do it.”

There has been a lot of buzz about attachment theory lately and Murray references it here. “If a mother is emotionally well-regulated, that sets the basis for a secure attachment for the child, who is then likely to be better at regulating their emotions, be more aware of the emotional impact they’re having on others around them and better at repairing when things go wrong. Less securely attached people – the avoidant or anxious types – may feel so emotionally overwhelmed and unable to understand how they feel that a fight or flight response is triggered. Or, in this case, a freeze. When your threat system is activated, you shut down.”

An inability to handle conflict is often at play. Gail, an administrator in her 50s, describes her own behaviour as “a very civilised way of being angry”. She gave her neighbour the silent treatment on and off for stretches of up to six months. “The day we moved in, our children – then five and 12 – got out of the car and started to run around in excitement. It’s a terrace house and the driveways are tight. Out came our neighbour, yelling about how she hoped we were going to control our children as she didn’t want them on her driveway. Then she complained when I hammered a nail into our side of the fence to put up a hanging basket, saying we were ruining the structure. It was the last straw. I’m afraid I use silence in situations like this because I hate conflict.

“I used to check that she wasn’t in her front garden before I came out of the front door, ridiculous I know. Then she complained when we got a trampoline, saying the kids could see into her garden when they bounced. I retaliated with another long spell of silence. In between times, she would phone to ask for our help with her computer, and we obliged. But then she complained that our cats were walking along her fence, ruining her trellis, and we had to go back to silence again. I would see her in the street and look the other way.” Over time, Gail says, the silences became fewer and fewer and they got to know their neighbour, who, they realised, had grown up in a life of privilege and was not used to living in a small terrace house. “When we finally told her we were moving, I think I saw a tear in her eye. We still exchange Christmas cards.”

There are things you can do if you are on the receiving end of the silent treatment. Psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler, author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations, suggests an exercise she calls the “RAN process” (which stands for resent, appreciate and need). “First, you ask yourself what you resent about the other person or situation. Get it all down on paper and don’t hold back, be totally honest. Then write down what you appreciate about the other person. That might be challenging and annoying, but stay with it. And finally, write down what you need from the person or situation. It might be as simple as, what I really need is an apology. If you work through all that, you’ll find yourself in a much less reactive place and you may be able to get out of the trap of silence and have a productive conversation with them.”

Digital silent treatment is an area Rozenthuler sees a lot of now, such as deliberately not liking someone’s celebratory post on social media out of jealousy. “Psychological data suggests that being ignored is more hurtful than a negative comment,” she says. “Digital silent treatment is prevalent now, maybe because it’s easy to do, and people are feeling very disempowered and struggling with their own lives. Seeing other people seemingly having an easier time of it can be triggering.”

Whether online or offline, what can you do if you are the victim of someone’s deep freeze? “The typical response is to try to make yourself more likable and more acceptable in the eyes of the person who is doing this to you,” says Williams. “That can cause you to bend and change your behaviour and values to please them, which isn’t helpful. Or you might be triggered to lash out at them; or be provocative to force them to acknowledge you. We interviewed one woman who threw a marble ashtray at her husband just to get a reaction.”

There are some less drastic ways of breaking the deadlock, depending on the severity of the situation. “People often don’t realise the impact of their actions, so you might start by telling them their behaviour is making you feel distressed and lonely,” suggests Murray. “You could also try to find out what’s going on for the other person on an emotional level.” At the lighter end of the silent-treatment spectrum is the sulker. We all know people who will seethe in a corner for an hour or so, sighing loudly and, in case we hadn’t noticed, announcing: “I’m not talking to you.”

“The sulker often wishes for other people to understand them, yet does nothing to help themselves,” says Murray. “It’s like when you’re a baby and your parents magically give you everything you need without you asking. With sulkers, there’s an unconscious wish to experience that from others.”

Full-blown silent treatment between romantic partners can be a lot more difficult to navigate. Murray advocates taking a step back and agreeing a time to reconnect. “You might say: ‘Things seem quite difficult just now. Let’s come back in half an hour or tomorrow and we can maybe talk about what’s going on.’ It’s important to set an end-point so that the silence doesn’t expand into days, even weeks.” However, she sounds a note of caution. “If there’s a pattern of this, particularly with a spouse, if silence is used as a form of manipulation and control, then that is abusive and therefore concerning. You need to get help sooner rather than later.”

Some names and identifying details have been changed.

In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org.

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