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Whatever You Do, Don’t Do the Silent Treatment

Whatever You Do, Don’t Do the Silent Treatment
Whatever You Do, Don’t Do the Silent Treatment

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Life for a 19th-century sailor was hard: Months at sea were accompanied by constant danger and deprivation. To make matters worse, mariners saw the same few people all day, every day, in a radically confined space where they were expected to get along and look after one another. On a long voyage, one obnoxious person could make life utterly miserable for everyone.

So sailors used a tried technique to deal with an offender: the silent treatment. They would ignore him completely for weeks on end. That might sound like an innocuous action to you, but in truth, it was far from it. The silent treatment was, according to the writer Otis Ferguson in 1944, “a process so effective in the monotony of ship’s life as to make strong men weep.”

Of course, the silent treatment is a technique used not only by sailors. It can be encountered anytime, anywhere, from home to work. You have almost certainly experienced some form of it. Being subjected to the silent treatment is a lament I commonly hear from others, on whom it is imposed by romantic partners, parents, friends, colleagues.

Long-married couples will go for days without speaking. A person will give their oldest friend the cold shoulder. I knew a father who refused to speak with his daughter for 30 years. Silent-treatment inflictors do it because, as the sailors discovered, it was devastatingly effective in imposing pain on the recipient. So much pain, in fact, that it can leave a person scarred and a relationship in ruins.

With some knowledge about how imposed silence actually affects people, you might want to think twice before you freeze out that annoying family member. And you will be better equipped to deal with the silent treatment the next time someone imposes it on you.

You have probably inflicted the silent treatment on others—two-thirds of us have done so, according to the psychologist Kipling Williams in an interview with Daryl Austin in The Atlantic. Williams is arguably the best-known expert on the phenomenon. We use it, studies conducted by Williams and his co-researchers suggest, for two main reasons. The most common one is to punish someone for perceived misbehavior, something they said or did. Behind this, the next most common is conflict avoidance; you might go silent to avoid a major blowup, for example. Other motives can also apply, such as feeling that a relationship has reached a dead end, leaving nothing more to say or do.

Arguably, people who impose silence do so because they believe it works—whether as a punishment, a way to avoid conflict, or a coping mechanism in one of those dead-end situations. Williams and colleagues have reported that about one-quarter of inflictors regard it as an effective tactic. But at what cost? Those on the receiving end describe feelings of pain, and resentment from being ostracized by a loved one. And by pain, I mean literal pain—researchers have been able to identify the part of the brain affected by exclusion: the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is also characteristically implicated in the sensation of emotional pain.

The effects on an ostracized person are what you might expect from that finding. Williams has shown in his research that being ignored initially provokes reflexive anger and sadness, followed by reflection on the motives and meaning of the treatment, and, when persistent over time, resignation. Not the resignation of being reconciled with a situation but a miserable state of alienation, hopelessness, and depression.

Like all kinds of abuse, silent rejection can impair a victim’s overall competence. In one experiment that asked participants to imagine that they would end up alone in life, this form of silent rejection lowered their ability to think clearly and complete complex tasks. What this suggests is that the silent treatment may be effective in satisfying the inflictor’s aggression, but it is an intensely cruel and disproportionate way to deal with conflict. Not very surprisingly, then, we find that people high in Machiavellianism—a willingness to hurt and manipulate others for their own gain, even a trivial one—may employ this technique with partners and friends.

Given how destructive the silent treatment is, like physical abuse, it can wreck relationships. In one 2009 paper, frequent use of the silent treatment was negatively correlated with commitment to one’s relationship. And according to the Gottman Institute, which conducts research on the success and failure of marriages, the act of cutting off your partner by stonewalling can be a contributory factor to divorce.

Interestingly, the treatment causes relationships to dissolve most consistently when the recipient has high self-esteem rather than low self-esteem. When such a person is ostracized, they have the personal resources to see their partner’s conduct for the gross maltreatment that it is and head for the exit. The unfortunate corollary is that people low in self-esteem, like vulnerable partners in an abusive relationship, are less likely to leave. Lacking the capacity to reject their abuser, they stay to endure the sad silence with the partner who hurts them.

Because its aggression is covert, the silent treatment might seem harmless. But it’s really not; it’s terrible. We should all work to avoid engaging in it and, if possible, to avoid receiving it as well. Here are three practical lessons to get the silent treatment out of your life.

1. Silence can be a blaring alarm.
Drawing on my experience of working with a lot of young adults who are dating, I strongly recommend that, as a simple matter of self-defense, people consider quickly abandoning a relationship in which the partner engages in the silent treatment. It is a form of cruelty, and may be an early warning of a damaged person who is willing to hurt you. Naturally, such a rapid exit is not possible in some relationships—in cases, for example, in which parents use it. But at the very least, people subjected to the treatment should force open acknowledgment of the tactic by calling it out and stating that they consider it tantamount to abuse.

2. Break the cycle.
Speaking of families, a lot of research suggests that pathologies can be transmitted down through generations. Thus domestic violence routinely runs in families, and a tendency toward alcohol misuse can be as much as 60 percent inherited (some combination of nature and nurture). Not surprisingly, scholars have found a significant association between parents’ application of the silent treatment and its use by their adult children. If you find yourself freezing out people you care about when you are upset, you could ask yourself whether you saw this as a child; perhaps your parents did it to each other, or to you, so you see it as normal conflict behavior. If so, you have a golden opportunity to break the cycle of this damaging habit.

3. Say what you think.
A question that naturally follows from the last point is: “Okay, so how do I break the cycle?” Researchers have found that people who ruminate on a conflict with their partner—turning it over and over in their mind—are especially prone to punitive actions, including the silent treatment. If this is you, rather than trying to change your ostracizing behavior directly, start with the rumination itself. Maybe you are uncomfortable about expressing your displeasure and bottle it up. That leads you to punish your loved one in a disproportionate and damaging way. Try not to get stuck perseverating on the dispute, and use your words instead.

The silent treatment is a terrible habit for you and for your loved ones, but I should close by noting that silence per se certainly does not have to be destructive. In fact, one of the best things you can regularly do for yourself and others is to engage in prolonged periods of silence—not the silence of punishment, but the silence of love.

Every year, I participate in a four-day silent retreat, immersed in prayer and contemplation without uttering a single word. My wife does the same—though separately, because together we would not manage 30 seconds without talking with each other. I can think of nothing I do that so wonderfully clears my mind and brings me closer to the transcendent than this extended silence. My biggest problems become manageably small ones; my major resentments shrink to minor annoyances.

Indeed, one way to cope with being given the silent treatment might be to immerse yourself in this type of divine practice. Scholars have found that spiritual practices can be remarkably effective at dealing with the pain of being ostracized by others. Perhaps the only exception to a ban on the silent treatment is when you choose to practice it on yourself.

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