February 6, 2010

The Silent Treatment

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 8:22 am

In the 1980s I was working at a small law firm; the other assistant and I sat at desks just a few feet away from each other in an area adjacent to reception. In other words, we were pretty much in each others’ faces. Mostly, this worked out well because she and I got along really well. In fact, I adored her. But one day I did something to annoy her. I don’t remember what it was; she probably doesn’t either. However — perhaps because we were both young and not yet fully versed in the art of effective communication — instead of telling me about it, she simply stopped talking to me.

There we were, eight hours a day, five days a week, in a tiny space and, except for absolutely essential utterances like, “Are you using the printer?” she said not a word to me — nor did she look at me, smile at me, or even say “bless you” when I sneezed. It drove me crazy. That’s the idea of the Silent Treatment — to drive its victims nuts. The one who stops talking has all the power over the one who is not talked to.

You’ll be going about your business and suddenly you notice that the atmosphere has grown chilly. At first you think it’s your imagination, but as time goes on you know it’s not. If you’re feeling gutsy, you may ask, “Are you okay?” or “Did I do something to annoy you?” The Silent One does not like these sorts of questions because to open up is to lose that power. So be careful about inquiry — the resulting angry outburst may make you long for a return to The Silent Treatment (which may be intentional manipulation by the perpetrator, who may purposely make your efforts to break the silence more wretched than the silence itself; therefore the perpetrator maintains control).

This leaves you to contemplate what you’ve done “wrong.” It’s a long process: first you have to think back to the last time the person spoke to you. “Hmmmm….I know things were okay yesterday at noon because I told that joke and the Silent One laughed at it. Okay, now, what could I have done between noon yesterday and now?”

So, in your tortured mind, you recount hour by hour….did I forget to say “thank you”? Did I say something in a teasing manner and accidentally offend? Did I insult a relative? And so on.

Zipping around the Internet yields some interesting comments on TST. A blogger named Ken Savage [http://www.kensavage.com/archives/silent-treatment/] writes: “Probably at one time or another you have been either on the giving or receiving end of a silent treatment, otherwise known as the cold shoulder. What you probably didn’t realize is that the silent treatment is a form of ostracism. When someone is ostracized it affects the part of their brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Do you know what the anterior cingulate cortex does? The anterior cingulate cortex is the part of the brain that detects pain. When you give someone the silent treatment you are causing that person physical pain. Simply by ignoring someone else’s existence you can inflict pain on them.”

I haven’t checked Mr. Savage’s credentials (this is a blog post, not an academic research paper), but his hypothesis sounds exactly right to me. In days gone by, ostracism from one’s community was one of the worst forms of punishment. And remember, when the friar tells Romeo of the prince having decreed banishment, Romeo responds that he’d rather be dead than banished. To be declared invisible can literally be a fate worse than death.

In fact, at suite101.com we learn from Professor Linda Roberts of the University of Wisconsin that “…verbal withdrawal can be just as destructive to a relationship as actual violence. Psychological abuse is abuse.”

Karen Stephenson, writing for suite101, cites Kip Williams, Ph.D. on the effects of being ignored: “…[T]here are detrimental effects to physical health as well as the mental health. Those who have been ill-treated on a repeated basis report a sense of not belonging, loss of control, low self esteem and unworthiness. They also have increased stress levels, headaches and depression.”

And my power theory is confirmed: “Abusers will often withhold conversation and acknowledgment of their spouses’ existence to gain control.”

As in my example with the co-worker, TST isn’t inflicted exclusively by spouses. Parents, siblings and friends have been known to turn a cold shoulder as well.

If you ever give The Silent Treatment — stop it. And if you are the one who is made to feel nonexistent then, at a minimum, recognize that it’s not your fault. Most important, if this is happening in your own home — where you are supposed to feel safe and loved and supported — then you may have some difficult decisions to make.

Because no one deserves The Silent Treatment. Do you hear me? You, yes, you — I’m talking to you. There are too many warm shoulders in the world for you to settle for a cold one. Declare your visibility.


  1. Read your website, very nice page, thank You! Wish to share this meaningful saying – “Dreams are illustrations… from the book your soul is writing about you.” I wish you a life full of smiles and happiness! Hope you can visit my favorite Abusive Relationships site as well.

    Comment by Lila@violent relationships — March 7, 2010 @ 2:02 am

  2. Lila – That is a beautiful quote; thank you so much. And thank you for visiting the Sacred Wilderness. I’ll check out the site you recommend. –Ann

    Comment by Ann — March 7, 2010 @ 8:05 am

  3. Ann:

    This could be MY story. I work in a two-secretary office; we sit a few feet away from one another in a small room / reception area. We are in each other’s faces all day. This has worked out well because we got along.

    But one day I did something to tick her off. She apologized but it has happened FOUR (4) MORE TIMES — and each time I have forgiven her. (My mistake was not putting her in her place after the FIRST incident; I never called her on the carpet for her unprofessional behavior). Note that I never discussed these incidents with ANYONE in the office; she and I always worked things out. After the fifth incident, however, I went to my supervisor (whom I’ve known for years) just to blow off steam. I asked him to keep the conversation between us, but he went to HER supervisor anyway, and the rest is history. Instead of speaking to me about it, she has stopped talking to me. My supervisor is aware of it, but doesn’t think it’s a problem.

    So here we are, eight hours a day, five days a week, in a tiny space and, except for absolutely essential utterances like, “Are you using the printer?” she doesn’t say a word to me (not Good Morning, Good Night, God Bless You). She doesn’t even look at me. When 5:00 pm comes around, she walks out.

    One day, I asked her if she would like to talk, she muttered something about having a lot of work to do at the moment, but later, sure — well she blew me off — just walked out of the office at 5:00 pm. I was left standing there holding the proverbial “olive branch” when all of this wasn’t even my fault — so much for taking the high road.

    But it got me to thinking — if we weren’t co-workers, would I want to know this person on the outside?!! My answer was “NO!”. I’m here to do a job. It certainly would make my day more tolerable if she was civil, but she has chosen to be immature and unprofessional — her problem not mine.

    Her treatment of me is INHUMANE — 2+ months of being retaliated against and shunned. If she came up to me today and said she was ready to talk, I would tell her that things are fine just the way they are — and they are. She opened my eyes up to who she REALLY is and therefore, I don’t care to even share office “niceties” with her.


    Comment by Karen — June 18, 2010 @ 7:36 am

  4. Karen, thank you for sharing your story. I’m truly glad that you’ve found a way to make peace with this situation, though it’s obviously miserable and hurtful. I hope for your sake that things improve somehow, and soon. Meanwhile, the high road is still yours for the traveling and, as you wisely point out, her response is her problem, not yours. Thanks again for writing.

    Comment by Ann — June 18, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress Hosted by Sonic.net