"Emotional abuse is any type of abuse that is not physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse to the silent treatment, domination to subtle manipulation"— Beverly Engel
Origin of term
The term originated from "treatment" through silence, which was fashionable in prisons in the 19th century. In use since the prison reforms of 1835, the silent treatment was used in prisons as an alternative to physical punishment, as it was believed that forbidding prisoners from speaking, calling them by a number rather than their name, and making them cover their faces so they couldn’t see each other would encourage reflection on their crimes.
In personal relationships
Silent treatment is refusal to communicate verbally with someone who desires the communication. We see it in all types of relationship: couples, friends, parents and children, relatives, etc. Use of the silent treatment implies a prior conflict. Sometimes, however, the victim of this type of behavior is not aware of the conflict, precisely because the other party has not expressed it openly.
The silent treatment is a form of attention, power, and control over another person and is a passive-aggressive approach in communication. Someone might use the silent treatment as a way to avoid conflict or deflect responsibility. At times, people use the silent treatment as a way to punish another person. Ultimately, the person lacks the ability to communicate their feelings appropriately.
For example, a person may want to shift blame onto you instead of owning their faults. Or, they want to magnify your faults instead of recognizing their own. Whatever it is, the silent treatment makes you feel guilty or at fault instead of them.
Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger and frustration. The consequences of this behavior on the person isolated by silence are feelings of incompetence and worthlessness.
The silent treatment is sometimes used as a control mechanism. Sometimes the goal of the silent treatment is simply to communicate displeasure and once the message has been received and understood the silent treatment ends.
What is really going on though is the more they ignore you, the more you want to fix it. And that is what they get such satisfaction out of, which is watching you squirm and "Jump through hoops" to try to get them to pay attention to you and to communicate with you. It is a real EGO BOOST for them and they actually get a rush from the entire experience. It also puts them in control and gives them tons of attention, from you.
The silent treatment is nothing more than the adult version of a childhood temper tantrum. It’s juvenile and to be blunt, incredibly narcissistic. In most cases, the person who has “gone silent” will internalize their emotions and regresses to an earlier point in life. In many ways, this is a learned behavior that was likely picked up during early childhood.
These types of behavior are quite harmful. Not only do they demonstrate immaturity, meanness, and a lack of emotional intelligence, but they can have serious consequences for the other person. Engaging in this behavior is an attempt to control and harass and it doesn’t represent anything positive for a relationship.
The silent treatment can cause stress and emotional trauma
The effects of emotional abuse are frequently underestimated. Just because you cannot see the damage being done, does not mean that it does not exist.
A person who is the target of the silent treatment can feel very intense negative emotions. Ignoring a person means that they are worth nothing, that they don’t matter. Things become even more unhealthy when all this is happening in a cruel and cold silence, which the victim doesn’t know how to interpret.
People who are ignored eventually become overwhelmed by feelings of sadness that can sometimes lead to depression. They also feel anger, fear, and guilt. Ignoring someone is a way of accusing or pointing the finger at them in an indirect way. This is exactly what makes this strategy an unhealthy way to deal with conflict.
Victims of this type of behavior tend to feel extremely distressed. They can’t understand what they are doing wrong or why exactly the other person is treating them in this way. It’s as if they are losing control and this causes a lot of stress. This is why this it is considered a form of abuse. There is no shouting or hitting, but there is plenty of violence.
The silent treatment can damage your health
Victims of psychological abuse are more likely to suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), than victims of physical abuse. This is because the pain of social-exclusion, such as being ignored and ostracised, can be relived far more easily than the pain suffered by a physical injury.
Psychologically abused women, in particular, are likely to encounter poor mental health, with 70% experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Furthermore, sufferers of emotional abuse are more likely to go on and form other unhealthy relationships. They also have greater difficulty trusting a new partner.
The silent treatment has physical effects as well
Studies have been done that show that feeling excluded or ignored can cause changes in the brain. A zone of the human brain called the “anterior cingulate cortex” is responsible for detecting different levels of pain. Scientists have proven that this zone is activated when something receives the silent treatment.
Activation in this zone means that physical symptoms also start to appear. Some very common symptoms are headaches and digestive problems. Fatigue and insomnia are also frequent complaints. If the situation is severe and prolonged, serious problems can arise, such as an increase in blood pressure, diabetes, or even illnesses like cancer.
The autoimmune system is also affected, primarily because of the high levels of stress that the situation causes. The consequences are even more serious if the person giving the silent treatment is an authority figure such as a teacher, parent, or boss.
Difference between a cooling-off period and the silent treatment
Following a disagreement or awkward episode, silence can be a good thing. Silence can be healthy when tempers are high and a pause is needed before something exacerbates the situation.
A cooling-off period works best if both parties can agree to a time when they will come together to resolve the issue. However, do note that the silent treatment differs from a cooling-off period in that its duration is extended and unknown.
And if silence is used as a method of control or punishment, it becomes abuse.
How to handle silent treatment
Sometimes the silent treatment is used by two people who love each other, such as romantic partners, good friends, siblings, etc. Sometimes people think that if they use the silent treatment, the other person will change their behavior or do what the other person wants them to do. They think of it almost as an educational tool. They are, however, very wrong. Ignoring another person as a form of punishment only destroys relationships.
If someone is purposefully trying to hurt you through the silent treatment and acting out of malice, don’t keep begging them to talk to you. Just don’t contact them. Don’t return the silent treatment in this situation either, but don’t let the situation get to you.
You can’t change the other person, no matter how hard you try to make things better. People who have long histories of this behavior aren't likely to be "fixed" for your friendship or relationship. If the relationship is abusive and harmful for you, consider walking away. Your well-being is more important than spending time around someone who has no qualms about emotionally abusing you. Know that you are worthy of a healthy relationship with someone who can communicate in a mature, emotionally healthy manner.
The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse that no one deserves nor should tolerate. If an individual experiences this absence of communication, it is a sure sign that he or she needs to move on and heal.
No one should try to resolve a conflict using the silent treatment. When there is a problem between two people, the only healthy thing is to engage in dialogue to find solutions. Silence and distance only generate more problems and, in the end, solve absolutely nothing.