I was driving home one day and saw two people on the road ahead, enjoying an evening afternoon stroll. I recognized them—knew them, in fact, quite intimately—and slowed down, raising one hand to wave.
They jammed their heads lower. They twisted their bodies to the side, to put as much of their backs towards me as possible. And they kept on walking, as if my big fat behemoth of a car were just a visual illusion, a wisp of cloud that didn’t concern them.
My smile withered on the vine.
People have been giving one another the cold shoulder since the 1800s—at least, that was the first recorded use of the term.
If it’s ever happened to you, you know exactly how it feels. Teenagers are masters of the art. Don’t like someone? Act like they don’t exist.
It’s a favorite weapon in the passive-aggressive arsenal, excusable with the simplest lie: “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you were there.”
It shows up in schools, in the workplace (where it’s the 4th most common form of bullying), and in families.
There’s even a catch-all term for it:
Deliberate Social Exclusion
Whether it’s giving a loved one the silent treatment or excluding the kid no one likes, ostracism is more than an easy way to put someone down. It’s a form of emotional abuse.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
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.”
Sometimes, the consequences go even further than that.
Accounts of attempted suicides in school children show that peer rejection, in the form of deliberate social exclusion, often plays a role.
So, when adults employ the silent treatment in their own relationships—whether it’s Dad ignoring Mom because she’s always nagging him, or Mom freezing out her daughter because she came home past curfew with alcohol on her breath—young people learn that it’s an acceptable way to treat another person.
After all, it “works.”
It hurts the victim and gives the perpetrator a false sense of power.
The perpetrator gets off scot-free, because he or she hasn’t actually done anything. Ignoring someone isn’t a crime.
But it is abuse.
Why Do People Do It?
Psychiatrist Dr. Hemant Mittal believes that people deliberately exclude others for several reasons.
It’s “a way to hurt [the] other person without indulging in aggressive behavior, [and] one gets an excuse to avoid caring, respect or value of the other person.”
Clearly, that kind of behavior doesn’t belong in loving relationships. And yet it’s everywhere.
In marriages, the silent treatment is part of a broader demand-withdrawal pattern.
Dr. Paul Schrodt of Texas Christian University considers it “the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship.”
His research found that, when one partner’s requests are met with withdrawal by the other partner, relationship satisfaction declines.
It starts off so innocuously. Picture a man watching television while his wife asks him what he wants for dinner. He can hear her, but he doesn’t respond because he’s engrossed in the game. She repeats the question more loudly, then louder still. Finally, he shouts at her to leave him alone.
Over time, it grows into more egregious forms of ignoring one another, such as stonewalling. You try to speak to your partner about what’s going on in your relationship—perhaps something he did or said that hurt you—and he shuts down on you. He refuses to listen or engage in any way.
When a request for communication is rebuffed or an attempt at intimacy rejected, a coldness at the heart of the relationship begins to grow. Couples become more emotionally distant.
Restoring the warmth means rethinking how you deal with conflict.
Beyond The Silent Treatment
Without the right skills, it can be hard to find a balance between complete withdrawal and total confrontation.
It feels like an either-or situation:
Either you ignore him…
Or you get into a huge argument.
But there’s a middle ground inhabited by honesty and kindness.
Kindness means acknowledging the other person’s presence. Even if you’re so angry you can’t speak, you can still nod and force a smile.
Honesty means explaining your emotional withdrawal. All you have to do is say, “I’m still angry about X, and I need some time to process it.”
But in some families, no one is allowed to talk about distressing subjects. Without communication to clear the air, anger takes root and spreads. It flourishes in the silence, where no one gets a chance to explain themselves or correct misunderstandings.
Freezing people out doesn’t fix what’s wrong. It just poisons relationships beyond repair.
So let’s acknowledge that we can’t make the objects of our anger vanish from existence by pretending they’re not there. That kind of game should have ended in high school. Maturity demands an emotionally responsible way of dealing with conflict.
Talking is always a good start.