Is Silent Treatment a Form of Abuse? Here’s What to Know

Refusing to communicate can be a form of manipulation designed to hurt

When you think of abuse, your mind probably goes immediately to physical violence, yelling, or intimidation. But an abusive relationship can also be silent. Some people use silent treatment abuse to manipulate and control their loved ones. This is a form of emotional abuse

It’s normal to not want to talk to someone when you are angry or frustrated. In most cases, this happens occasionally and blows over. However, if a person regularly uses the silent treatment to influence or control your behavior, they are being emotionally abusive. 

Continue reading to learn more about silent treatment abuse, including how to identify it in your life and how to get help. 

Couple giving the silent treatment

PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

Emotional abuse is abuse. If you need help call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, text “START” to 88788, or visit the website to chat.

When Is the Silent Treatment Abusive?

Emotional abuse is a series of behaviors and actions that are meant to erode a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. Over time, that behavior can make people more dependent on an abuser.

The silent treatment is when one person refuses to talk to or otherwise communicate with another. While it’s normal to cool down after an argument or frustrating conversation, the silent treatment is often used over a longer period of time and as a way for the silent person to punish or control the person they are ignoring. This is known as silent treatment abuse.

Here’s how you can know whether the silent treatment you’re experiencing is one of the signs of emotional abuse. 

Control

Emotional abuse is executed at least in part to exert control over a person’s behavior. Oftentimes, emotional abusers use their actions to make their target feel less than, or to make them more dependent on the abuser.

If someone is giving you the silent treatment in order to control your actions, they are causing silent treatment abuse. For example, the person might say they’re not speaking to you until you apologize, or they won’t speak to you if you go out with friends. They’re using the silent treatment to control your behavior and that’s not OK.

Manipulation

Similarly, abusers can use the silent treatment to manipulate you into certain actions. For example, they might give you the silent treatment in order for you to give them sex or money. If a person is giving you the silent treatment to gain something for themselves, they are showing a sign of emotional abuse.

Length of Treatment

Taking some space after a heated argument is normal. In fact, it’s a healthy coping mechanism to ensure that you don’t accidentally do or say something hurtful. However, when the silent treatment stretches on, or is regularly used to avoid important conversations, it is no longer a healthy choice.

Exclusion

Humans are social creatures. Being made to feel excluded or ostracized has been used as a punishment for centuries. Being excluded activates the same areas of the brain that being a victim of physical violence activates. If another person is using the silent treatment to make you feel excluded, they are being abusive. 

About 95% of people who called the National Domestic Violence Hotline in 2020 were experiencing emotional abuse.

Ways to Resolve the Issue

Resolving someone else’s abusive behavior is never the victim’s responsibility. Abuse is never your fault, and nothing you say or do should elicit silent treatment abuse. 

However, if it feels safe to do so, you can talk to your loved one about silent treatment abuse in order to help them understand the impact it has on you. 

Calmly Express How You Feel

During a calm time—not when you’re being given the silent treatment—tell your partner exactly how it makes you feel. Let them know that it feels hurtful and abusive, and it’s a behavior that you need to work together to change.

Set Expectations

Talk with your partner about rules for communication, especially during arguments. For example, it’s OK to take time to cool off, but set limits. You might decide that either one of you can call an hour-long “time out” from an argument, or that you’ll always talk to each other before bed.

Establish Boundaries

Set boundaries around silent treatment abuse. Let your partner know what the consequences will be if they continue to give you the silent treatment. When your boundaries are violated, take action.

When to Seek Help

Professional guidance can help both victims and perpetrators of silent treatment abuse. If you and your loved one try unsuccessfully to change your communication patterns but still find yourself getting the silent treatment, reach out to a relationship counselor. 

Other Signs of Emotional Abuse

The signs of emotional abuse are more nuanced than the sign of physical abuse. In addition to the silent treatment, emotional abuse can include:

  • Name-calling, general meanness, and put-downs
  • Controlling where you go, who you see, or what you wear
  • Gaslighting, or making you doubt things you have experienced
  • Threats, including threats that your partner will harm themselves or divorce you
  • Jealousy
  • Any controlling behaviors
  • Blaming you for their behaviors
  • Making you feel bad for wanting or not wanting sex
  • Inundating you with gifts or compliments as a means of control.

Summary

Silent treatment abuse is a form of emotional abuse in which a person refuses to communicate with you in order to control or influence your behaviors. Taking time to cool down after an argument is healthy, but shutting off communication for a long time, especially in order to control another person, is a form of abuse. 

A Word From Verywell 

Realizing that a dynamic in your relationship is unhealthy can be scary. However, there are steps that you and your loved one can take to build healthier communication patterns. The first step is to talk with your partner when you're both calm and point out that their behavior is hurtful. Then, work together to set expectations and boundaries around communication. A professional can help you develop healthier ways to communicate and identify if the relationship is abusive. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When does silent treatment become abuse?

    The silent treatment becomes abusive when it is used to control another person’s behavior or to hurt them emotionally.

  • What are common signs of emotional abuse?

    Emotional abuse is any intentional behavior that negatively impacts your self-esteem and causes you mental or emotional harm. Common signs of emotional abuse include gaslighting, making someone feel guilty or stupid, or controlling their behavior.

  • Why does the silent treatment hurt so much?

    Research shows that being excluded activates the same areas of the brain as when you experience physical abuse. Humans are social creatures, so being intentionally excluded can be extremely hurtful.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Domestic Violence Hotline. What is emotional abuse?

  2. Relationships Australia. Is giving your partner the silent treatment ever ok?

  3. Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., and Williams, K. D. 2003. Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science 302:290–2. doi:10.1126/science.1089134