When the Silent Treatment turns Ugly

When the Silent Treatment turns Ugly

By Aleks Trkulja

We’ve all experienced punishment via the Silent Treatment at some point. Whether we have been the perpetrators, or the targets, the experience is unpleasant and emotionally exhausting.

The Silent Treatment is a form of Ostracism (ignoring or excluding). We develop an understanding of ostracism from an early age, such as ‘time-out’ when misbehaving, to prison sentencing and solitary confinement in adulthood. However these forms of punishment have detrimental effects to the target and source of ostracism. Professor Kipling Williams (Purdue University) suggests ostracism affects four primary needs of control, belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence. Targets of ostracism lose their sense of control and self-esteem, whereas sources maintain all control.

The Silent Treatment is known as Punitive Ostracism - it is applied intentionally as a result of wrongdoing. Targets of ostracism can acquire depressive and anxious symptoms as a result of being ignored. And although sources attain control and power, this can become a habit that is hard to break, making communicating in relationships a lot harder.

In general, giving the Silent Treatment does no favours to any relationship; it only establishes unhealthy approaches to conflict resolution. No matter how upset you are, ignoring someone will not ignite an epiphany for him or her to understand how you feel, but communicating feelings will.

In Social Psychology research, the aversive affects of ostracism on targets and sources are the primary focus. A third party to consider is the Observers of ostracism.  Children witnessing these unhealthy relationship strategies are impressionable and most likely learning to model this behaviour.

This is an important perspective to take for those who use the Silent Treatment regularly to maintain control in a relationship. It is important to consider who might be influenced by this behaviour, so demonstrating healthy communication is beneficial  for the relationship and those affected by observing ostracism.

In heated arguments, when the silent treatment feels like the last resort to maintain control, consider communicating anger and frustration by saying, ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed and need some time alone to calm down. I will come back soon and we will talk about this.’ This is a much healthier approach, especially when dealing with children.

As tempting as it is to ignore the ones you love when they anger or upset us, excluding them from understanding your emotions will only make the situation harder.