The Negative Effects The Silent Treatment Can Have On Your Relationships

After an argument or when you're upset with your significant other, it might feel easy to tune them out. While space from each other can be a good thing at times and may even be warranted to help you both calm down after a heated exchange, when one partner ignores the other by invoking the silent treatment, then it's less of a good thing. There's no doubt that communication about matters concerning conflict can be difficult, especially if you and your partner have to address a topic that makes one or both of you feel vulnerable. And while the silent treatment may feel like an easy way to regain control or deal with an undesirable situation in your relationship, the effects it can ultimately have on your dynamic with your partner are more negative than beneficial.


According to Medical News Today, the silent treatment occurs when there is a refusal to verbally communicate with another person. The silent treatment can even become a spectrum of intentional communication refusal, with some instances of the silent treatment involving a refusal to communicate verbally and other instances invoking a complete refusal to acknowledge the other person at all, sometimes going as far as to act as though the other person doesn't exist even if they are in close proximity. Similarly, the silent treatment may be a one-time response to a situation that you simply aren't ready to speak about, or it could become emotional abuse within your relationship.

The psychology of the silent treatment

When someone is given the silent treatment, they are likely to feel ostracized. The Atlantic reports that social ostracism has been used for centuries, even millennia, to punish people in various situations from banishing an individual from a community or society to dynamics between two individuals. In modern times, it's unlikely that a person will be banished to the outskirts of town by a medieval monarch, but there are many ways that the silent treatment appears in today's society. Whether you have a family member who refuses to speak to you or a friend who ghosts you without explanation, the silent treatment can appear outside of romantic relationships or dates who stop texting without notice. Regardless of the unique situation, the silent treatment can pose harm to both the person being iced out and the person perpetrating the silence.


When the silent treatment is used, there are psychological risks to self-esteem and overall well-being, per PsychCentral. Since humans are inherently social and seek the acceptance of a community for our survival, being frozen out by a significant other can pose a threat to our primitive need to survive. The silent treatment can provoke a psychological response that encourages the person being iced out to seek approval and acceptance from the person perpetrating the silence, and in doing so they may apologize for things they didn't do or alter their behavior to please their partner and secure the social inclusion needed for human survival.

Why the silent treatment is used

There is no single way to conduct the silent treatment, but the effects can be harmful any way it is used. PsychCentral acknowledges that while no two uses of the silent treatment are identical, including the motive underlying the treatment, there are three primary categories comprising the majority of uses of giving someone the cold shoulder. For people who don't like conflict, the silent treatment could be a way to avoid vulnerable or distressing situations. When someone has grown up in a volatile home, they may have a tendency to avoid conflict and therefore invoke the silent treatment as a way to ignore situations they see as threatening. For other people who utilize the silent treatment, it could be employed only when specific topics come up. This type of silent treatment usage is called selective topic avoidance and is frequently found when a person is trying to ignore certain topics or conversations.


The silent treatment is never a healthy form of communication, but it is especially harmful when it is used as a form of punishment (via PsychCentral). By refraining from speaking to their partner or withholding attention completely, the silent treatment is used by some people to punish and gain control of a situation. Sometimes the need for control could come from a place of feeling insecure or afraid of being without basic control, but some people seek control over situations and try to obtain it by giving their partner the silent treatment.

The silent treatment can prolong conflict

The silent treatment and healthy communication can be compared to apples and oranges. Yes, there may be times when a certain topic should be discussed at a later time or you may need to think things through before addressing an issue in your relationship, but you should communicate to your partner that you need to put a pin in a conversation rather than ignoring them completely. Using the silent treatment to avoid addressing issues isn't effective and can end up prolonging conflict, per Medical News Today. If there is already existing anger or other emotions over a situation, ignoring your partner by giving them the silent treatment can make their upset intensify. Should you eventually come around to discussing a topic following the silent treatment, there could be a heavier climate of anger and frustration hanging over your relationship that ultimately makes resolving conflict more difficult.


The partner subjected to the silent treatment may feel like they're walking on eggshells, they may feel belittled or question their self-worth, and they may become afraid to address issues in the relationship (via Choosing Therapy). If the relationship continues, the partner who has been frozen out may avoid bringing up concerns, which results in ongoing problems in the relationship persisting instead of being resolved. When conflict and obstacles are ignored, the people in a relationship can grow resentful or suppress feelings, which can lead to more explosive conflict in the future or resentment towards one another.

Resentment can build up while intimacy decreases

The silent treatment can lead to mounting resentment in your relationship, which can be compounded by other negative effects the silent treatment imposes on your relationship's dynamic. When resentment occurs in a relationship, there's a strong likelihood that an emotional imbalance will form (via Headspace). Whereas expert tips to deal with resentment in healthy, productive ways, such as starting by identifying that you're feeling resentment and naming the emotion so that you can then figure out why you feel resentment and subsequently address it with your partner, when resentment builds because of the silent treatment the ability to address the presence of the emotion may be void, per PsychCentral. The reason why resentment from the silent treatment is especially harmful is two-fold because not only are you unable to discuss something with a person who refuses to speak to you, but it's common for the recipient of the silent treatment to develop a fear of bringing up taxing topics because they fear additional freezing out by the other partner.


As resentment builds from the constant use of the silent treatment, the trust between you and your partner can erode. If you don't trust someone or feel like you're walking on eggshells around them, then you probably don't want to be intimate with them, not to mention that sexual intimacy can't even happen if your significant other won't acknowledge your existence. The two components, resentment and decreased intimacy, can create a downward spiral.

The silent treatment can lead to gaslighting

Even though anyone can employ the silent treatment, and most people may avoid an uncomfortable discussion on occasion, chronic use of the silent treatment can lead to more severe dynamics in your relationship, such as gaslighting and questioning lived experiences. A 2013 study published in Communication Monographs found that the silent treatment, which the researchers termed the demand/withdraw pattern of interaction, is perpetrated by both men and women. Regardless of gender, being ignored poses detrimental effects.


When a person feels like they need to apologize over and over again for things they may not have actually done, they may begin to feel that they are responsible for things they never did or otherwise have their self-esteem negatively impacted because they come to believe that they are constantly doing things that aren't acceptable. While apologizing for things you've actually done is both polite and essential to being a kind person who takes accountability for their actions, the repetition of feeling like you need to apologize for things you haven't done to gain your partner's acceptance can become a form of gaslighting that can have severe repercussions for your relationship, as well as your individual wellbeing. Forbes Health reports that gaslighting can lead to a person developing a distortion of reality and in the process having their agency degraded as they develop increasing amounts of self-doubt. Gaslighting occurs when a person is told that their feelings, thoughts, and actions aren't correct or even real.


Physical side effects of the silent treatment

Because the silent treatment is based on verbal communication through behaviors like the refusal to speak to another person or acknowledge them at all, it might sound odd to associate physical side effects with the silent treatment. However, the effects of being ostracized and ignored can have an impact on a person's physical well-being. A 2012 study published in Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience found that two parts of the brain associated with social connection and pain are activated when someone is subjected to the silent treatment. The respective parts of the brain provoked during the silent treatment are the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which detects exclusion and perceives both acute and chronic pain, and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which registers social pain. When these two areas of the brain are activated in tandem, the result is that the brain simultaneously absorbs the exclusion from a significant other and connects it with the body being in pain. If the silent treatment is used in excess, the brain can begin to correlate it with chronic pain.


PsychCentral states that the physical effects of the silent treatment can occur through increased blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, and weight gain. These physical conditions can work in a detrimental cyclical nature since not getting sufficient or decent quality sleep can lead to weight gain, which in turn can lead to hypertension.