People who invoke the silent treatment to punish you, control you or otherwise put you off balance and disempower you, are abusive. The silent treatment is typically a technique used to manipulate you, so it’s important to identify it when it happens. And it’s important to know how to respond.

Yes, there are times when you, yourself, resort to silence just to take a breather in your relationship. Say, after a fight. When you need to calm down. Or when you don’t know how to respond to your partner and need to be quiet while you think. Or when you need to recover from verbal blows that can sometimes occur in a relationship.

The Silent Treatment Speaks Volumes Nancy'S Counseling Corner


But when your partner (boss, parent, sibling, friend) uses the silent treatment like a child would—by holding his breath until he gets his way—then you have a problem. It is a favorite tool of narcissists who use it to get the upper hand. To keep you under control. To punish you for a real or imagined slight. Or to avoid any resolution or compromise so he can continue to feel superior to you, because after all, he knows he is. He doesn’t have to hear your side of the story.

This situation holds you hostage. If you can’t talk then you can’t apologize. Or explain the situation. Or even find out what’s wrong.

What can you do if you are on the receiving end of the silent treatment?

It may depend on your relationship. If you are not very close to this person, and the silent treatment is something he resorts to often, find a way to severe your relationship. Or at least reduce your exposure to him. Because telling him his behavior upsets you is just what he wants to hear. If you can avoid him, it’s probably best. Otherwise, let him know that your find his behavior immature or toxic or desperate, and that you aren’t going to engage when he behaves this way.

If you are in a close relationship with this person, and the silent treatment is part of a dysfunctional emotional life that you suffer through, consider therapy. If the person who dishes out the silent treatment is a narcissist, then you may have problems convincing him that he needs help. Narcissists typically think pretty highly of themselves, and don’t think they need therapy. If he won’t go, you should consider going by yourself. You are in an emotionally abusive situation, and you may need help.

If you are in a relationship with a family member who engages in this behavior, like a parent or sibling, then you can set boundaries. You can say something like, “I love you, and I want to have a good relationship with you, but when you give me the silent treatment, it is difficult for me. I don’t feel we can have a positive, adult relationship under these circumstances. I need to take a break from you until you are ready to stop giving me the silent treatment.” And then wait until it’s over. If you try to communicate and nothing changed, resolved to stay away until you’re sure it’s over.

Sometimes, regardless of how close you are and regardless of the nature of your relationship, you just need to disengage. Let that person go from your life. Sever the relationship. This can be so difficult, but remember, the silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse. And you do not deserve it under any circumstances.


Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: