The Slap of Silence

by Leah McClellan

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“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” – William James

We all feel hurt and angry with our friends or loved ones sometimes, and most of us have fairly predictable ways of dealing with our feelings. Although we might blur the lines once in awhile, most of us fit into one of several categories.

Aggressive people go on the offensive right away.

Let’s say there’s a team meeting at work, and a presenter refers to a colleague in a less-than-complimentary way. The aggressive personality blows up right on the spot—or the minute they’re out the door—and she’ll defend herself in no uncertain terms.

Passive types tend to avoid conflict.

When they do confront people, they’re usually not very forceful. The passive individual might look for just the right moment to beat around the bush until the other person (hopefully) gets the message. If he doesn’t, the passive person is likely to just let it go.

Assertive folks confront directly and calmly with a goal in mind.

This type isn’t afraid to initiate a discussion and say she feels hurt or angry. She’ll expect an explanation, possibly an apology, and she’ll ask that the action isn’t repeated. She’s also ready to apologize for misunderstanding if that’s what happened.

Passive-aggressive personalities express their feelings indirectly.

As the term suggests, a passive-aggressive personality type is aggressive, but he expresses his aggression passively or indirectly without accountability. He’s angry all right—he might even be furious—but he won’t show it because to do so would mean admitting weakness or vulnerability. Instead, he (or she) gets back at the person or seeks revenge indirectly and discretely so that no one would ever guess he did it.

Giving the “silent treatment” is very common in people with a passive-aggressive personality type.

He might ignore the colleague who offends him, but it won’t be obvious. Maybe he won’t respond to an email, and later he’ll claim that he never received it. If he does respond, he might skip over important questions or reply with a “word salad” which makes little or no sense, especially if he’s explaining something or giving directions. He might even make those directions deliberately confusing or faulty.

A passive-aggressive personality type will stop short of any act that’s openly aggressive because it will give him away. He’s usually very clever about it, and his behavior can be confusing, unsettling, and quietly disruptive.

In an intimate relationship or marriage, the passive-aggressive person might do any of the above but he also gets quiet—and stays that way—when asked a specific question or is expected to discuss a problem. He’s silent not because he needs to think about it but because he’s not willing to answer the question much less discuss it.

John Gray, in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, popularized the notion of a man going silently into his “cave” because, supposedly, that’s just what men do. But women frequently give people the silent treatment as well. If he—or she—eventually comes out of his “cave” and is able to discuss an issue and resolve it, that’s one thing. But when he shuts down completely—for days—without explanation and never returns to the subject, even when asked, it’s a different matter altogether.

The silent treatment can feel like a slap in the face because it’s insulting. Invalidating. Humiliating. And it can make a person feel rejected and utterly powerless.

Dr. Kip Williams says it’s a form of rejection or social ostracization that can be extremely painful. According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, the emotional pain felt from the silent treatment is much like physical pain because of shared neural pathways in the brain. In other words, when we pull a muscle or break a bone, the pain we experience is much the same as the pain felt when a loved one—whose validation and attention we seek—rejects us and gives us the silent treatment.

Dr. Williams and his students conducted experiments and numerous interviews, and he reports in the article that, “One woman, whose husband both physically abused her and ostracized her, said that the bruises would heal quickly, but the silent treatment was more damaging.”

The silent treatment can be a form of emotional abuse.

And that’s every bit as damaging as physical abuse—sometimes even more so because the victim can’t make sense of things or understand why he’s hurting over someone’s apparent inability to talk about something. Or she blames herself, thinking she asks too much, wants to talk too much, or that something must be wrong with her for feeling hurt.

When a colleague or a friend gives you the silent treatment, that’s one thing. But if you’ve experienced frequent, hurtful episodes of the silent treatment from someone you love and care about, educate yourself and talk it over with your partner. Find out whether the silent treatment you’re experiencing just means he’s collecting his thoughts until he’s ready to talk.

If you suspect that what you’re experiencing might be a form of abuse, please seek help from a trusted friend, spiritual leader, or professional counselor.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who regularly gives the silent treatment to someone you care about and love, even though that someone makes it clear that he wants to talk with you and that your silence is hurting him, think about it. Educate yourself.

If you just get overwhelmed sometimes, or if you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, say so. Ask for a time out, and reassure your loved one that you just need time to think. Within 24 hours or a few days at most, revisit the subject and work out some compromises or solutions to the problem.

If you know your partner has been upset and hurt when you give him or her the silent treatment, please talk with someone you trust.

You might also consider getting professional help to learn more effective ways of dealing with strong feelings as well as discussing and resolving problems.

None of us are born with skills for communicating about difficult subjects or resolving problems. We’re taught—directly and indirectly—and we pick things up along the way on our journeys to adulthood. But as adults, we have choices.

We can choose to confront people aggressively and risk damaging our relationships. We can turn away passively when we’re a target and put our own self-respect at risk. We can strike out with slaps and punches and, though they’re silent and invisible and we don’t take responsibility for them, we can hurt someone deeply and destroy our relationships. Or we can choose ways of communicating that allow us to respect ourselves and also those we care about and love.

What about you? Have you ever experienced the silent treatment? Do you give it? Join the discussion.

For additional reading:

The Silent Treatment – A Form of Abuse

Passive Aggressive Behavior, a Form of Covert Abuse

The Boomerang Relationship: Passivity, Irresponsibility and Resulting Partner Anger

Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression From the Bedroom to the Boardroom



Jean Sarauer

I’ve experienced the silent treatment many times, and it’s not effective. It generally makes me not want to deal with the other person at all. If it’s someone I have to deal with (because we’re related!), I totally ignore their behavior, continue to treat them well, and go about my business even if it means leaving them behind while I go do something fun.

I could never give the silent treatment. Just don’t have it in me to do that!
Jean Sarauer´s last [type] ..How CommentLuv Stole My Heart From Disqus


Definitely can’t be effective because there’s really no goal in it–it’s more of a reaction a person has, though it seems like a control tactic and can be used as such and it can hurt. It usually only puzzles and frustrates people, at the very best.

Same here–couldn’t possibly give someone the silent treatment! I’m all about communication and setting things straight and cards on the table an all that. No matter how uncomfortable it might be.


I’d send this to an ex-boyfriend of mine who was a master of the silent treatment if I knew his email address. He could go for weeks being giving me the cold shoulder, and worse, not telling me why — guess that’s the silent part. Anyway, I was young, what can I say? That would not fly with me now.

Thanks for an indepth and enlightening post. Gotta go talk to the hubbie, Leah! Not that I’m giving him the silent treatment, but I am spending more time with my online friends than him these days. Oops. Is that like a slap in the face? Maybe.
Katie´s last [type] ..What is the World Trying to Tell You &amp Are You Listening


I think a lot of us are more familiar with the silent treatment than we’d like–including me. Though I do the research, most of what I write comes from personal experience, or at least that’s where I get the inspiration or idea. Definitely wouldn’t fly with me now either!

As for hubbie, here’s the thing: it’s only a slap in the face if you’re denying him something he needs and you’re aware of it (can’t imagine you’re doing that but just saying). I mean, there’s nothing wrong with silence, in and of itself, or spending time with friends and so on. And if a couple agrees on how much time to spend together–or not–then it’s a non-issue. Definitely a good thing for any couple to discuss!

Have fun :)

Giulietta Nardone

Hi Leah,

I can’t believe you’re talking about the dreaded silent treatment. It’s been handed down through the women in my family as a form of communication, even though it’s absurd and brings nothing but grief to the punisher and the punishee.

You can’t clear up anything with folks who will not communicate with you. Nothing can make a person in the throes of the silent treatment speak. It’s that all consuming and emotionally paralyzing.

I’ve got a half-written essay on it. Not quite finished. The last half needs more “sound.”

Enjoyed it! Giulietta
Giulietta Nardone´s last [type] ..Have you worn other people’s faces


Hi Giulietta,

Thanks for your input! I agree with you completely on this: “You can’t clear up anything with folks who will not communicate with you. Nothing can make a person in the throes of the silent treatment speak.”

That’s exactly it and what I’ve experienced. The word “bizarre” comes to mind with 2 people I’ve known–it’s as if there’s an unknown trigger that puts them in a silent fog, “the throes,” as you say, as if they aren’t making any effort to do it; it just happens. And there’s no breaking through it, no discussion possible, not at the time, not days or weeks later, either.

I’d be interested in reading what you have to say about it. Wondering if it will be a post or…I’ll keep an eye peeled :)



Oh I can not handle the Silent Treatment – it’s is dreadful. When I get that from someone it eats away at me, I feel like it’s torture. This is the preferred way of a frined of mine, and finally I’ve got her to at least say, “I’m upset, and I just can’t talk about it right now. I will when I’m ready.” That I can deal with.

Great post for PeacfulPlannet Communication – it’s not so peaceful when receiving that horrid silent treatment – and this may let people know how much we need them to speak.
Aileen´s last [type] ..You are Powerful Beyond Belief



“Torture” is a great way to put it. Sounds great that your friend has been able to communicate a little! I’m the same way: tell me what the issue is and that’s fine, whatever. But don’t act out your stuff and leave me guessing.

I really appreciate your comment and everyone else’s…maybe this will help some people to understand how much the silence hurts or causes confusion, at best. It only creates conflict because you’re right; it’s not peaceful.

John Sherry

Leah an all too raw post for me. I recently experienced the silent treatment from so called ‘friends’ on a trip together due to some issue of theirs that spilled over into the break. I found the way to deal with it was broach the subject in a calm manner asking why they were cold shouldering me. When nothing was forthcoming I asked for it to stop and, when it didn’t, I have curtailed any contact. You have to be fair and polite but you must also stand your ground and remember your own self respect. What you don’t deserve you don’t have to put up with. If it continues, walk away and find other friends or folk who willl willing communicate. Amazing though isn’t it when we often tell someone to shut up and when they do it tears our little hearts out!
John Sherry´s last [type] ..What To Do If You’re Having A Bad Day


Hi John,

Not surprised that it’s kind of raw–I suspect a lot of people have dealt with this, and it’s hard. It’s so awkward, too, to ask someone to not be silent or stop giving the cold shoulder–I mean, it’s easier to ask someone to not do something specific, but how can we ask that they stop being silent? lol It’s so tricky, because many people think of silence as doing nothing when, in fact, it’s a something that can be hugely hurtful and much louder than any words can be.

Sorry to hear this happened. Something similar happened to me once, and I was stuck in a hotel room in Paris with this woman for a week. She finally gave me what she was holding in all that time–as she stepped off the train on the way home. I was never so happy to have a trip end. Their loss, John :)



I lived with someone briefly years ago who gave me the silent treatment. It could go on for days. Sometimes I left after a few days because it was intolerable (he never yelled or was physically abusive – I would never tolerate that behavior).

Ironically he’d been to lots of workshops and men’s circles for communication and being in touch with his feelings and actually had an attitude of superiority.

We all have issues (including me), however this was one I wasn’t willing to live with. It is very hurtful and I think indeed it is one of the most harmful relationship patters.

If I see a tendency in myself to shut down I try to return to deal with the issue as soon as I feel I’ve sorted it out and can be centered.

Thanks for a great post.



Hi Lauren,

I’m sorry to hear you had to go through that. What you describe is pretty much what I dealt with in my (ex) marriage. Right down to the workshops and men’s circles and everything. I would never tolerate physical abuse either, but this one is hard to see for what it is.

Great learning though, isn’t it? On the positive side of things, anyway.

Thanks for stopping by!

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