Frozen out – Why do we use the silent treatment? [Psychological research]

Frozen out – Why do we use the silent treatment? [Psychological research]

– Getting it and giving it (Someone close to you may have stopped talking to you and/or looking at you)
– There is usually a lot of embedded meaning in the act of giving someone the silent treatment
– It is very common
– It can be a way of reclaiming power in a relationship & a protective measure
– It can occur in a range of contexts
– It can sometimes occur from a whole range of people – this is called ostracism
– It is often used as a weapon, Usually after quite a lot of negativity in a relationship (it Develops from defensiveness and contempt, & it can become stone-walling)
– Gottman Research – criticism, contempt, give-up (the death knell of a relationship)
– Couples often seek therapy when the relationship is in crisis

Research looks at:
– Who gives the silent treatment
– Why do they give the silent treatment? (Is it defensiveness)
– Do people withdraw because they feel they cannot say anything
– How does it impact children who see parents do this behaviour and do the children go on to do the same behaviour when adults?
– Is it a learned response in conflictual situations – Do children learn from family members and friends of family?
– When do people give the silent treatment someone they care about & And when did they themselves receive the silent treatment from people they care about?
– This often seems reasonable person giving the silent treatment [And they often feel they have been left with no option]
– Paradoxically it also often seems totally unreasonable when they themselves are given the silent treatment

When people are ostracised as a result of the silent treatment:
– It threatens a person’s sense of belonging
– it Severs connection with people
– It lowers our self-esteem – We believe we have done something wrong or that there is something wrong with us
– it Threatens our sense of having any control over situations
– It violates your sense that you should be acknowledged by other people

It occurs with in couples (It can be a form of abuse in relationships – It is seen as “micro aggression” and a form of domestic violence – Often from a more dominant member to a less dominant member)
It can occur within groups – e.g. the workplace (& it can make it difficult to work); families – siblings &/or parents – can lead to estrangement; neighbours/friends

– The silent treatment can be sustained for long periods of time
– People close to you (the one giving the silent treatment) can be scared of the moods
– Family members can ignore the behaviour of the person giving the silent treatment
– It can be a passive means of control
– The ostracised can then withdraw as a means of protecting themselves [Defence mechanism, But is it helpful – Does it make you more lonely even though you feel there is no other option?] – self-protection (This is a danger when it becomes the first line of defence – This is when it is most problematic – When it is used all the time)
– Families can get into the habit of giving the silent treatment, and this can become “the norm”
– The silent treatment can have a “contagion effect’ with in a dyadic couple even when one person was not using silent treatment as their “go to”
– Using the silent treatment can be linked to personality style & to the history of using it and and having it used against you
– It can also be used in combination with rage & is often cyclic
– Exclusion in the workplace is clearly identified as a workplace bullying tactic (however, it is harder to detect/pinpoint to prove – the ultimate form of bullying)
– Ostracism is extremely prevalent in the workplace And is seen as more problematic in the long term than bullying
– People can feel the need to walk on eggshells around the person giving the silent treatment (with no eye contact) – the other person often doesn’t know what is going on

Ostracism impacts our physiology and our psychological well-being:
– research – virtual ball game – shows how even the “trivial” impacts us (not catching a ball for a couple of minutes)
– feel angry, sad, anxious & all other feelings
– area in the brain that registers physical pain, also activates social pain or harm
[it is highly stressful]

Humans are biologically-attuned to sense and feel social exclusion

Bipolar Disorder sufferers can feel that others close to them sense that they are giving them the silent treatment, but it is part of feeling depression – anecdotal evidence of a bipolar disorder sufferer

– givers of silent treatment, often have experienced it themselves

Parent & adolescent (who doesn’t have the power – for e.g. not listened to – in the hierarchy – if not listened to – concentrate on the emotional attunement – the emotional state of the adolescent (Adults often complain about the adolescent playing video – He encourages adults to find out as much as possible about the games – After all they are popular for a reason:
– They teach hand-eye coordination
– They teach thoroughness – If you do not complete, you cannot go to the next level
– They encourage the adult to play the game with the adolescent
– Take kids on an interesting outing and they will talk – if the parent shows interest in them
– Have a family dinner and talk with the adolescent, & And creative questions about school what was funny, what did you do that was creative, who did you play with?

What can we do when we feel we can’t talk to someone:
– put a time limit on it – give me an hour – it is difficult to stop it & it maintains itself
– change perception of the relationship & accept [it means the end though]
– apology
– know your patterns & inform others
– use motivation – such as acknowledging inter-generational impacts
– take responsibility for behaviour, accept the impacts & be honest to effect change

Source: ABC Radio National Life Matters Podcast 13 November 2015 @

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