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The Silent Treatment Hurts & is Emotional Abuse (how to stop it)

There was a time when my wife and I would be arguing and she would just suddenly stop and walk away, and I’ve done it too. I know that’s not good, but I wondered exactly how the silent treatment hurts us and is the silent treatment a form of emotional abuse?

The silent treatment is a form of manipulation and type of emotional abuse. The person giving the silent treatment is taking control of their partner and forcing the conversation to end with no input from the other. It shows a total lack of respect and can lead to depression and low self-esteem.

But there’s a lot more to know about the silent treatment and why it’s far more deadly than you might think.

But there ARE solutions!

You don’t have to accept being ignored, manipulated or emotionally abused.

In this post, we’re diving deep into the world of the silent treatment. We’ll explore exactly what it is, why it is indeed a form of emotional abuse, and why someone we love might do that to us.

Specifically, though, we’ll explore how the silent treatment hurts us.

More importantly, we’ll learn the steps we can take to stop it so your relationship can get to the next level and stop the cycle of abusive communication.

What does the silent treatment mean in relationships?

Have you ever been in the heat of a disagreement with your spouse only to have them abruptly shut you out?

Nothing has been resolved and there’s still more to be hashed out. And yet with no say in the matter, they decided for both of you that the conversation was done.

The silent treatment hurts us by our partner shutting down and refusing to participate in the communication.  Basically, they’re ignoring us, often while we are continuing the conversation.

Renowned marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman refers to those who give the silent treatment as stonewallers.

Dr. Gottman has done more research on marriage and relationships over the past 40 years than virtually anyone. He has literally studied thousands of couple analyzing the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Specifically, in this case, he has reported that in heterosexual couples over 85% of the stonewallers in a relationship are men (guilty!).

Dr. Gottman considers the silent treatment or stonewalling as he calls it, to be one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Essentially one of the 4 worst things partners can do to each other and a very accurate predictor of divorce.

I have a recent article called Gottman’s Four Horsemen & Why Your Marriage Should Avoid Them.

In that post, I break down all 4 of the horsemen and analyze the damage each does to our relationships.  If your relationship is struggling, I highly recommend taking a moment to go through that post.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

If you love Dr. Gottman’s work as I do, and don’t own it already, you owe it to yourself to get his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (click to see it on Amazon).

That book may have literally saved my marriage!

Is the silent treatment a form of control?

Yes, is the short answer.

The silent treatment is a form of passive-aggressive abuse designed to inflict pain.

The silent treatment hurts us by design; no accident. Our partner is in pain and rather than wanting to relieve the pain, they want us to feel it too.

I know in my own case I have given the silent treatment to my wife when I feel like I have nothing left to say.  Or I revert to that mode when I’m so frustrated I worry I might say something I will regret.

So I take the approach that when you have nothing nice to say it’s better to say nothing at all.

My wife, on the other hand, gives me the silent treatment when she feels overwhelmed.  She will retreat to the bedroom and close the door and simply ask to be left alone to “process”.

Is ignoring someone rude?

One key distinction is that the silent treatment (stonewalling) is not the same as asking for a moment to cool down.

Whether you’re talking to your partner or your child, if you get to the point of anger, it’s good to step away.  It’s good to take a moment to collect your thoughts so you can speak your mind from a place of love instead of anger.

In those moments though, it’s crucial that you communicate the need: “I am not able to talk about this right now.  I need a little time to collect my thoughts.  But I do want to talk about it later”.  If you can set a time to talk later that’s even better.

That way your poor spouse isn’t going all day wondering when or if you’re going to talk to them.

What should you do when you are hurt?

In both cases, I understand why my wife and I do what we do. But it’s also important for both of us to realize that the silent treatment hurts us and our marriage. We are causing damage.  We are shutting the other out.

More importantly, we’re causing our disagreement to not get resolved in a timely manner.

And we’re forcing the other to wallow alone in the feelings of conflict.

Wallowing indefinitely since we have no idea when the other is going to decide to play ball. In short, people who are guilty of stonewalling are narcissistic & selfish (been there, done that).

What does the silent treatment do to someone?


The silent treatment is a way of getting the upper hand in an argument.

The person giving the silent treatment is focused only on themselves and trying to make their partner feel bad.

They feel out of control, thus the silent treatment is a form of taking control back.  They are essentially saying “you can’t make me argue with you back”.

It’s also a childish form of behavior.  The adult equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?”

Adults resolve issues.

We work through conflicts and disagreements.  Children punish others when they feel feelings they can’t understand or don’t want to deal with.

Think about this analogy.  In prison, the worst offenders get what?  Solitary confinement.  There they have to sit in silence and get no interaction with anyone.

The silent treatment is essentially putting your spouse in solitary confinement.

One of the ways in which the silent treatment hurts relationships is the patterns it creates in both partners.

I know in my case when my wife withdraws it makes me push harder.  I just want to resolve the conflict so we can move on.  She retreats and I push to get to her to engage.

I feel ignored and she feels bullied.

It’s especially bad from the standpoint that most likely both partners see the other as the problem.  This cycle is commonly referred to as the “demand/withdraw pattern”.


Do passive-aggressive people know how to love?

The short answer is yes.

But passive-aggressive people are damaged, They communicate in damaging ways. Often their behavior is seen as rigid. They won’t always communicate openly and honestly. Instead, they may behave childishly. They may also use sarcasm or play the martyr.

In short, they do know how to love but they have some serious issues with communicating their feelings effectively.

When partners only see the other person as the problem and don’t take any ownership of their own actions, they are bound to repeat their mistake.

If we repeat mistakes, especially relationship-crushing ones like stonewalling, we’re starting our relationship in a downward spiral.

When our partner doesn’t feel heard, or feels forced out of the conversation, eventually they will start to get apathetic about it.

When we consistently feel apathy or indifference towards our partner, we begin the shift our feelings from love to hate.

If you feel your relationship is moving from love to hate, it’s not too late to do something about it!

One of my most popular posts on relationships is called Top 3 Reasons for Divorce and How You Can Avoid Them.  I highly recommend you take a moment and check that out.  The marriage you save could be your own! Just click that link to read it on my site.

Check out this great infographic from The Wall Street Journal!


How to communicate when you are hurt

I’m a firm believer in the old “when you, I feel, because” method of communicating.

I first learned that technique from one of my first bosses at my former employer a good 25 years ago (thanks to Caitlin!).

Essentially when you communicate like this you aren’t passing judgment on the other person. If a person feels judged they will naturally raise their defenses.  When they do that, they likely won’t hear anything you have to say.

I would also avoid labels; describe the behavior, then describe how it makes you feel.  

Lastly, state why it makes you feel that way.  If your partner feels like you are criticizing them they will get defensive.  Both criticism and defensiveness are on John Gottman‘s list of the 4 Horsemen.

So while your marriage might be able to sustain 1 of the horsemen, you don’t want 3 of them hanging around!

Another tried and true communication technique is to ask questions more than making statements.

Statements are finite; absolute and unbend-able. If you ask me a question it makes me feel like you value my opinion.  It also gets me thinking and I  just might realize I’ve made a mistake.

If you think owning a mistake is better when we realize it ourselves rather than having it pointed out, you’d be right!

So say something like “honey when you shut down and won’t talk to me it makes me feel like you don’t value my opinion.

It also makes me feel like you don’t value our relationship enough to resolve the conflict.  I feel that way because I’m not privy to what you’re thinking and I don’t know how long it will take before you will speak to me about it.

And being in limbo indefinitely is really frustrating for me.”


Are addicts more likely to use the silent treatment?

Yes, is the short answer here too.

Professor Paul Schrodt of Texas Christian University conducted a recent study where they examined over 70 other studies on the silent treatment and specifically the “demand/withdraw pattern”.

As with Dr. Gottman, Schrodt found in examining over 14,000 couples, that men were the predominant ones giving the silent treatment.

He and his fellow researchers also found a direct correlation between those couples stuck in this pattern and those who suffer from addiction issues, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Thus the silent treatment hurts others because we are hurting ourselves.

In other words, when we bring our own issues to the table that we haven’t dealt with, we’re more apt to enter into damaging behavior in our relationship such as giving the silent treatment.

So what are my . . .

9 Awful Ways the Silent Treatment Hurts Your Marriage?

1. It is emotional abuse

Forcing your partner to sit alone and wait for you to come around to resolve a conflict is unfair.

It’s forcing them to adhere to only what you want.  A relationship is supposed to be a collaborative effort; even conflict.  When we don’t work together, eventually we learn to work apart.

2. It’s dis-empowering your partner

We all want a say in our relationship.

Just in the same way it doesn’t work when spouses don’t communicate with each other on spending, we also have to work together on conflict.

When one spouse force-ably removes all control from the other by giving the silent treatment, it completely dis-empowers the other.  If that happens regularly, eventually the relationship will end.

3. You are devaluing your partner

When we take control of our partner and behave in a way that constitutes emotional abuse, we are essentially telling our partner they don’t matter; they aren’t important to us.

While that may not be the intended message, it is undoubtedly the message that gets received.  When our partner feels unloved or undervalued they will start to place less and less value on the relationship in return.

4. Stonewalling tells your partner you don’t respect them

We all want love and respect.

For most of us, our spouse is the one person who’s opinion matters the most.  Thus they are one of the few people who can really hurt us.  The silent treatment hurts us because, in part, we are being told our partner doesn’t respect us.

If received on a regular basis we will begin to not respect the relationship back.

5. It’s a form of control over your spouse

The silent treatment hurts us because it is a form of control.

The one giving the treatment is taking all the control in the relationship and forcing the other partner to operate on their terms.  It’s completely one-sided and damaging to your partner’s self-esteem.

6. It can cause physical ailments in the receiver

While it’s well-known that the silent treatment hurts us emotionally, it isn’t as widely known how it affects us physically.

According to a recent study by The Journal of Neuropsychiatry, “the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) lies in a unique position in the brain, with connections to both the “emotional” limbic system and the “cognitive” prefrontal cortex.” It affects our “ability to control and manage uncomfortable emotions”.

They go on to say that “avoidance of painful emotions is often the motivating force in negative behaviors such as substance abuse, binge eating, and suicide.”

Essentially. if your spouse feels ignored, the brain sends them a signal that they are in physical pain.

That signal to the brain can ultimately lead to a host of devastating physical ailments.

7. Suffering under the silent treatment can lead to depression and low self-esteem

Repeatedly being given the silent treatment hurts us on a deep psychological level too.

After all, if your spouse, supposedly the one who cares for you the most treats you in a way that devalues you, eventually your self-esteem can plummet. As we see our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth decrease over time, which can lead to depression, feelings of rejection, and possibly even suicide.

8. You will both be in worse health

If the couple does stay together, where there was once love and affection all that will be left is hatred, bitterness, and sarcasm.

Rosie Strout, a doctoral student in the Social Psychology Ph.D. Program at the University of Nevada conducted a recent study at the universities of Nevada and Michigan. She found that by studying hundreds of married couples, that “experiencing a great deal of conflict in a relationship is very damaging to health, as are negative health behaviors like smoking and drinking.”

Strout went on to say that “conflict can be particularly damaging for health if spouses are hostile or defensive during disagreements or if they are arguing about the same topic over and over again without any resolution”.

9. Ultimately this behavior will destroy the relationship

But even if the relationship is destroyed, if the receiver finds their self-esteem is destroyed they may lack the will to actually physically end the relationship. The result could be years spent together in anger, frustration, and hatred.

But in most cases, the silent treatment hurts us by actually leading to divorce or breakup.

How do I get over silent treatment?

Dealing with a spouse or partner who gives you the silent treatment can be very hard to deal with.

Some people respond by giving the silent treatment back to their partner. Others get clingy in a desperate attempt to “win” their partner back. Others simply withdraw and wait for their partner to come crawling back.

In truth, none of those are the best response. The silent treatment hurts us, but we aren’t helping the relationship by inflicting more pain back in response.

Here are the best steps to take in dealing with a partner giving you the silent treatment:

  • Understand this is them asserting themselves in the relationship (because they may have otherwise felt powerless and this was a means of gaining control)
  • Put your ego aside (even if you truly believe you did nothing wrong). In relationships, we can be right and we can be happy, but we can’t always be both.
  • Try and understand the root issue that led to the silent treatment (and take ownership of your role in it)
  • Allow your partner space so they don’t feel attacked or pestered (but make it clear that the two of you will be discussing it further after they have some time)
  • Resist the urge to escalate (avoid name-calling, profanity, or yelling as it will only make everything worse
  • Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated (remember no one can take advantage of you without your permission)
  • Seek out a great marriage counselor (if the behavior continues or worsens)

Final thoughts

In this post, we looked at how the silent treatment hurts us.

More specifically we explored how stonewalling, also known as the silent treatment, is really a form of emotional abuse. It’s one of the 4 worst things you can do to your partner or receive from your spouse.

But most importantly, we explored what to do when we are the receiver of the silent treatment and how to save your relationship.

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Photos that require attribution:

ANGRY-ANN by Josh Janssen is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

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Jeff Campbell


Thursday 29th of August 2019

Thanks for writing the article. This is what exactly has been happening in my marriage, my husband seems enjoy giving me silent treatment whenever he doesn't get what he wants or I don't please him. I didn't know that it's considered as emotional abuse and manipulation. I do feel devalued, not being respected, and heard. And I'm just tired of his stonewalls and I think It's enough.

Jeff Campbell

Thursday 29th of August 2019

Hi Sara

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Do be aware he may not realize it's emotional abuse and manipulation. So I would suggest starting by letting him know how it makes you feel when he does that. Rather than hurling accusations or getting mad, simply say something to the effect of "honey, when you shut down and refuse to talk about a problem we're having it makes me feel not respected and devalued because it forces everything to be on your terms instead of mutual. If you need a moment to collect your thoughts, just let me know that, but set a time for us to continue the conversation both so it can be resolved but also so that I'm not just in limbo and at your mercy".

If that doesn't work, then it may be time to try marriage counseling. I have a post which goes into great detail on marriage counseling so if you've never done it and have questions, it might be a good place to start -

Thanks for being here and I hope this helps.