The psychology of the silent treatment

Although a perpetrator might use the silent treatment in many different scenarios, this is what every scenario has in common: “People use the silent treatment because they can get away with it without looking abusive to others,” Williams explained, “and because it’s highly effective in making the targeted individual feel bad.”

The silent treatment is a particularly insidious form of abuse because it might force the victim to reconcile with the perpetrator in an effort to end the behavior, even if the victim doesn’t know why they’re apologizing. “It’s especially controlling because it deprives both sides from weighing in,” Williams said. “One person does it to the other person, and that person can’t do anything about it.”

The silent treatment might be employed by passive personality types to avoid conflict and confrontation, while strong personality types use it to punish or control. Some people may not even consciously choose it at all. “A person may be flooded with feelings they can’t put into words, so they just shut down,” Anne Fishel, the director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, told me. But regardless of the reason for the silent treatment, it can be received by victims as ostracism.