How to confront someone who’s giving you the silent treatment

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

I must tell you that there are quite a few ways to confront someone giving you the silent treatment! We’ve all been in this situation where someone that we care about simply doesn’t want to talk to us for apparently no reason. Even though things can get pretty annoying after a while, you shouldn’t ignore them, because most of the time, they just don’t know how to express their feelings or how to communicate their needs openly. That’s why they use this form of manipulation. The silent treatment is actually a passive-aggressive action that someone may have learned from past experiences or it might even be something they have picked up more recently. Either way, you should try to help them express themselves in a healthier way, so this behavior should not affect your relationship or your happiness. So, here are a few pretty useful ways to confront someone giving you the silent treatment that you should definitely consider:

Table of contents:

1 Question Your Own Behavior

This is definitely one of the first things you should do when someone refuses to talk to you for apparently no reason. Just question your own behavior and see if you haven’t done something wrong, something that might have made your loved one upset. If you realize that your actions may have hurt their feelings, just apologize and see what you can do to make things right again. In my opinion, this is one of the most useful ways to confront someone giving you the silent treatment, because by admitting that what you did was inappropriate, the other person will be more eager to forgive you.

2 Rehearse What You Are Going to Say

If you still haven’t deciphered the reasons why your loved one is so upset, then you should just confront them, but not before rehearsing what you will say during your meeting. I’m sure you don’t want to get nervous or too defensive, so try to be prepared and plan that conversation ahead of time. Just imagine that you are alone with that person who is no longer talking to you and just say out loud what you want to say. It really is that easy.

3 Speak in Private

The best way to confront that person regarding this matter is by speaking in private with them, so that no one will interrupt you. Just don’t give into their game and remember that communication is everything. Even if they ignore you at first, just smile and say what’s on your mind. Show them you care about them and just explain to them the impact their behavior has on you.

4 Write Them a Letter/E-mail

If you don’t have the opportunity to talk to them in private or if you don’t have the courage to do it, you could just write things down at first, so they can be clearer for you too. Then, you could simply send them a letter or an e-mail outlining how you feel and how their actions are hurting you. Even though this is not the best way to confront someone who is giving you the silent treatment, it’s still pretty efficient, especially if you don’t have the possibility to see that person.

5 Use Humor

The best way to confront anyone who is upset with you is by using humor to brighten up their mood and lighten up that conversation. Even if, at first, this might seem a bit inappropriate, it’s actually the best way to make them listen to what you have to say. Just be playful and express how this entire situation is making you feel. I’m sure they’re not happy either, so just let go of your pride and try to work things out.

6 Pay Attention to Your Tone

It’s so easy to lose your temper, especially when you’re talking to someone who is already upset about something that you did and who is giving you the silent treatment. Just watch your tone, because I’m sure you wouldn’t want to make things any worse. Try to avoid patronizing them if you want to work things out and simply listen to what they have to say.

7 Act in a More Assertive Manner

Another best way to solve a conflict with someone who refuses to talk to you is by learning how to act in a more assertive way, so you’ll be able to express your feelings and stand up for yourself, while still paying attention to your loved one’s needs. There are a lot of books you can read on this matter and also a lot of courses you can take to improve your assertive skills. Just take some action and do something to make things better again for the two of you!

Sometimes it can be pretty difficult to deal with someone who is giving you the silent treatment, but it’s not impossible. Just make sure your conflict will not affect or involve other people and try to solve your own issues. Do you know any other tips on how to confront someone who is giving you the silent treatment? How did you solve this kind of situation in the past? Please tell us what you think in the comments section!

We can all agree that there are definitely things you shouldn’t say to your partner during a heated argument. But have you ever given your partner the cold shoulder instead? Uh-oh. Red flag. The silent treatment might seem like a convenient way to opt out of a conversation that is bothering you but it’s also super unhealthy. What most people don’t know, is that the cold shoulder is a subtle form of manipulation. Sounds extreme but let me explain. The silent treatment (also known as withholding) is used to punish and regain control of a person. It may feel good to ignore your partner when you feel slighted but, it keeps you from finding real solutions to the problems that are bugging you the most.

I’ve been on both sides of the silent treatment. I’ve been the person that uses silence as a weapon and the person being stonewalled with it. I had no idea that responding to the silent treatment gives the person doing it a false sense of control. That’s definitely not OK. Left unchecked, the silent treatment becomes a pattern of behavior and emotional abuse that is used to manipulate over time. Fear not! There are a few things you can do to deal with the silent treatment in a relationship. Let’s break it down.

When Silence Rules

If the silent treatment is such an awful experience, why do we do it in the first place?

1. Silent Treatment = Self-Protection

I can’t tell you how many times a day I just wish people could read my mind so I didn’t have to actually express my feelings. Why do I have to use my words when people should just know when they’ve done something to hurt me?

But the reality is, as much as I wish it were true, human beings are not mind readers. Most of the time, you actually have to say the words “Hey, what you did hurt me,” even when you would rather keep your mouth shut and protect yourself from all of the feels. Even when your partner means well, it pays off to speak up when they say or do something to upset you. We’re human and sometimes putting our foot in our mouth is part of the deal.

When healthy communication habits aren’t modeled by our parents, speaking up can feel like a chore. We either grow up with parents that yell at the top of their lunges or parents that refuse to address disagreements at all. Neither provides a good foundation for handling conflict in a healthy relationship. The bottom line is the silent treatment is not a healthy coping technique for you or your partner.

2. It’s an Unhealthy Way to Regain Power and Control

A part of what makes vulnerability so hard, scary, and uncomfortable, at least for me, is my inability to predict and control what is going to happen once I share my what’s bothering me. That usually makes me pretty angry. I particularly struggle with this when:

  • A) I know the person didn’t hurt my feelings on purpose, or…
  • B) I’m scared that saying something and opening up about my feelings will make that person want to leave or negatively change the relationship.

On top of that, I feel out of sorts when I’m trying to balance knowing that I am upset and being mad at myself for feeling the way that I do. It’s during these moments that I have like I’ve lost some of my power and control over my own feelings. When this happens, I do what feels natural and try to take it back: enter the silent treatment.

Other times, my silence is merely a way for me to create the space I need to process my feelings. But again, the other person is not a mind reader, so neither reason is truly a healthy way to deal with the situation.

How to Deal With The Silent TreatmentHow to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

So how can you deal with the silent treatment? The answer is deceivingly simple. You’re going to have to use your words(I know, ugh). Whether you are the person receiving or giving the silent treatment, there are actions you can take to start a conversation:

1. Name The Experience

You can avoid the silent treatment by compassionately acknowledging what you’re feeling. Avoid accusations or hostile language and try not to overthink it. I know for me, a simple “I know I’ve been quiet lately” or “Hey, I noticed you’re not responding to me” opens the door to healthier communication.

2. Acknowledge The Other Person’s Feelings and Share Your Own.

Being heard and seen is one of our basic needs as humans. Acknowledging your partner’s feelings not only validates their experience, it creates space for a larger conversation. Through larger conversations, you can lay the foundation for trust and signal that you’re interested in understanding their point of view while being honest about how the silent treatment makes you feel.

To put this into practice, you might say:

Bae, I care about you and I really want this relationship to work, that’s why it hurts when you choose to ignore me instead of telling me what’s bothering you. When you ignore me because you’re upset, it makes me feel like you don’t care. I’m always here to listen but I need you to tell me what’s going on.

3. Suggest Next Steps

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

When I have to bring up any type of problem or issue in a situation, I try to always have next steps to bring to the table. This helps me keep the conversation focused and away from getting caught in the blame game.

Communicating after the silent treatment is sensitive ground to cover, so keep it simple and state your boundaries and avoid emotional minefields. Often, the silent treatment is an indication that one or both people need a little bit of space to sort things out.

Putting this all together could look like this:

“Hey, I noticed you’re not responding to me. I’m not sure why, but I’d like to understand. I know when I stop talking to someone it means, I’m angry, or upset, or sad. If you’re not ready to talk, or need space- I get it. The silence is hard for me- could you let me know? Maybe we can find a time to talk next week? But, I can’t continue with this relationship if you keep shutting me out.”

If you’re the person giving the cold shoulder, you can start a conversation like this:

“I know I’ve been quiet lately- and I know that’s not really fair to you. The truth is I’m hurt and confused and trying to sort some things out. I need some space. Not sure when I’ll be ready to talk, but I’ll be in touch when I am.”

Getting over the silent treatment isn’t particularly easy or pleasant. And yet, it’s work worth doing. Not only will it help you become a better communicator, it also helps you build a relationship based on trust and healthy communication.

Not to Burst Your Bubble, But…

Keep in mind that these communication strategies may not work on your partner if they are already aware that the silent treatment is an unhealthy behavior. We all do unhealthy things sometimes and it doesn’t make you or your partner a monster. If you’ve had a conversation about the silent treatment with your partner and the behavior continues, it may be time to consider leaving the relationship–because we all deserve healthy relationships.

Authored by William G. DeFoore, Ph.D.

The silent treatment usually hurts more than anger does. That’s why some people will try to get the silent person angry–just to get them to say anything at all! Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem , which is what we’re going to do here!

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

Nobody wants to be shut out, ignored, excluded or rejected. That is, unless you really don’t like the person who has shut you out–but if that was the case you probably wouldn’t even be reading this web page.

Our focus here is being shut out by someone important to you, where it really does matter.

You need to remember that sometimes people are silent because they just don’t know what else to do. It’s not always intended to do harm.

Keep reading for the rest of the story.

What Harm Does The Silent Treatment Cause?

In some primitive societies, ostracism (which is a total exclusion–as if the person did not exist) can lead to death in some cases. While shunning & ostracism probably won’t kill you, it certainly can feel bad.

The silent person might not mean any harm. This is very true. Sometimes the person being silent is just trying to protect themselves, or maybe trying to avoid showing anger.

However, here are some things everyone needs to know about this type of behavior:

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

  • It can be very passive aggressive behavior, intended to hurt the other person.
  • It can hurt more than anything else you could ever do, depending on who the person is.
  • Silent treatment to children is the most destructive of all, and should never be used as a form of punishment.
  • It can contribute to depression, anxiety and low self esteem if it lasts a long time and occurs on a continual basis.

The important thing to consider here is that your behavior can have a very strong impact on others. What you do and don’t do matters, especially to those close to you. Take responsibility for your behavior, and be aware of the effects it has on those around you.

What’s The Best Way To Respond To Silent Treatment?

Focus on yourself! It someone is not speaking to you as a passive aggressive way of hurting you, the best thing for you to do is to take really good care of yourself. Do things that are good for you, and keep your focus off of the other person and their behavior.

I also recommend you do the following things when someone is giving you the cold shoulder:

  • Move ahead with your own life. Do the things that are important to you, especially the things that make you feel good.
  • Do not give the same “treatment” back to them. That’s right, I do not suggest that you ignore them just because they’re ignoring you. While your attention to them will certainly be less than usual, just be kind and courteous to them.
  • Think kind thoughts of them in your mind. Every time you think of the person who has shut you out, send them love and appreciation, focusing on their very best qualities.
  • Remember that they wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t feel hurt or afraid in some way. Be kind in your mind.

I realize that this is a tall order. However, I happen to know that you are a brilliant, good person, and that’s why I know you can do this if you set your mind to it.

Get your copy of this audio program now, and your self esteem will be so strong that nobody can ever manipulate you again by shutting you out!

Giving someone the silent treatment may not always be such a bad thing. It may actually be a good way to deal with someone who is acting like a jerk, a new study finds.

The research reveals there are benefits to cutting off conversation with a person who is being obnoxious: It’s not as draining on your mental resources, you avoid conflict with someone offensive, and it’s much simpler than getting into a heated discussion.

That’s because the silent treatment can speak volumes, even when someone is not saying a word or limiting their conversation to short or one-syllable responses.

From a psychological standpoint, this brush-off technique is largely viewed in a negative light. It’s considered a manipulative way to communicate dissatisfaction and a passive form of rejection.

But this new research has identified at least some situations when silence might be golden: When people are strongly motivated to avoid social interaction with an undesirable person, giving the silent treatment may be as easy — if not easier — than a conversation.

The silent treatment is not always motivated by an intent to harm another person or punish their behavior, said study author Kristin Sommer, Ph.D, an associate professor of psychology at Baruch College, City University of New York. “It may be used as a way to offset feelings of fatigue or depletion associated with the expectation of an unpleasant interaction,” she explained.

For this new study, published online in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the researchers ran two different experiments involving 118 college students. In each study, they asked participants to either talk with or ignore another individual, who was in on the experiment and told to act in a highly likeable — meaning polite, relaxed, and friendly — or a highly unlikeable manner — someone rude, prejudicial, and arrogant.

After four minutes with the “nice guy” or “jerk,” study participants had to complete a task that involved thought and self-control.

Researchers found that participants who ignored an unlikable person or talked with someone likable did better on the task than those who were forced to converse with a jerk or snub a nice guy. Rebuffing a likable person and exchanging pleasantries with someone obnoxious both took a toll. It left participants feeling depleted and their performance suffered as a result.

“Our findings suggest that the silent treatment may be used as a strategy for conserving mental resources that would otherwise be exhausted by interacting with someone who is inherently aversive to be around,” said Sommer.

These findings do not mean that you can now feel justified every time you give a cold shoulder to a spouse, family member, or best friend. The study only looked into its use as a short-term snub in a non-close relationship.

There is a greater potential for risks when using the silent treatment in close relationships.

“The use of the silent treatment may have save energy-saving benefits,” Sommer explained, “but these benefits may come at a long-term cost to a relationship.”

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

What is the Silent Treatment?

Who of us isn’t guilty of giving someone a strong dose of the silent treatment? Feelings bruised from words spoken or actions taken, we retreat into our silent world, all the while hoping our actions make our mate pay for the harm they’ve done to us.

Withdrawing is not something new. Watch your four-year-old pout and you’ll recognize the early signs of ‘the silent treatment.’ They refuse to talk because they’re mad. Truth be known, they’re really deeply hurt and make the decision to hurt back—and it works!

Many couples coming to work with us at The Marriage Recovery Center are disconnected, often by one or both partners choosing to use this immature behavior. Many have used this form of communication for years, with the patterns of interacting becoming ingrained.

Why do people use the Silent Treatment?

Why do we continue to use ‘the silent treatment’ if it is so destructive? It gets back to basics—‘hurting people hurt people’—and research shows that ‘the silent treatment’ is particularly effective in causing damage. No one wants to be on the receiving end of this form of treatment, and we all know it.

While not proud to admit it, I’ve used ‘the silent treatment’ in my marriage. I’ve rationalized it by telling myself I was just taking time to myself to think. While partially true, I knew my actions were also hurtful and did not quickly stop it. Perhaps you can relate.

To be fair, there are times when we must cool off, and this can actually be a healthy action to take. When feeling overwhelmed, it is important and even responsible to pull back, reflect and choose your actions carefully. If you let your mate know you are taking some time to consider how to effectively respond, they will likely be understanding and even appreciative.

Helpful Scripture

Scripture speaks clearly on this issue. The Apostle James instructs us: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). The Apostle James knew full well the lethal power of the tongue, but also seemed to know that there is a place for quiet spaces in a relationship.

The words of James are very apropos to relationships. We need to be slow to speak and slow to become angry. We must learn to be quick to listen. These are skills that are easier said than done and should never be confused with using silence to hurt.

Here are Five Steps to resolve “The Silent Treatment”

1. Confront the behavior.

Just as we would confront the four-year-old who refuses to talk, we do the same for the adult in our lives. We must do this carefully, however as we don’t want to give the pouter extra clout. We should simply acknowledge that they have withdrawn and we want to give them an opportunity to talk it out effectively. Offer them the opportunity to talk, OR to take an agreed-upon timeout.

2. Hold them accountable for withdrawing.

We must make it clear that we notice the behavior, and now invite them to speak directly to you about whatever is bothering them. Additionally, you note to them that their behavior is hurtful. While you cannot make them talk, you can let them know you notice what they are doing.

3. Share your feelings with them.

As you invite them to talk directly with you, let them know the impact their withdrawal has on you. You might say something like this: “I’ve noticed that something seems to be bothering you. You seem to have withdrawn. I want to invite you to talk directly to me about whatever is troubling you. I also want to let you know that I find your prolonged silence to be very hurtful.”

4. If your mate chooses to talk, continue to have a healthy dialogue about the issue.

If they choose to talk to you, share your appreciation with them. Thank them for sharing, reinforcing positive behavior. This will be a quick fix to a potentially troubling situation. If they continue to give you ‘the silent treatment,’ you have no choice then to give them the space they are creating.

5. Be ready for connection when they choose to reconnect.

At this juncture, however, they will need to take responsibility for withdrawing in an unhealthy way and for creating more hurt in the relationship. Hold them accountable for withdrawing and share that you are ready to reconnect when they acknowledge the damage they have done by giving you ‘the silent treatment.’

In summary, silence is a particularly painful weapon and has no place in a healthy relationship. Taking a time out, agreed upon by both people, can be an effective way to get space to reflect, pray and consider a healthy response. You should allow for ‘time outs’ and must agree that ‘the silent treatment’ will never be tolerated.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

We are here to help and offer phone/ Skype counseling on issues related to this article. Please go to our website, and discover more information about this as well as the free downloadable eBook, A Love Life of Your Dreams, including other free videos and articles. Please send responses to me at [email protected] and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/izkes

Dr. David Hawkins, MBA, MSW, MA, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has helped bring healing to thousands of marriages and individuals since he began his work in 1976. Dr. Hawkins is passionate about working with couples in crisis and offering them ways of healing their wounds and finding their way back to being passionately in love with each other.

By: Kratika Mon, 26 July 2021 5:16 PM

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

We all make mistakes and depending on who we’re dealing with, those mistakes can land us with being ignored. Everyone knows what the silent treatment is. I’m pretty sure everyone around the world has experienced it. But you might not know how to handle the silent treatment and survive. Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.

If this is your first time experiencing the silent treatment, let me tell you what you’re going to go through. Suddenly, the person you had a disagreement with stops talking to you and pretends you don’t exist. You basically become a tree. Silent treatment is usually the most common *and ineffective* way people fight.

You’re basically punished for whatever it is that you did. Now sometimes you deserve some time on your own to think about what happened, but, for most, it becomes an easy way to punish the other person and a go-to move in arguments.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

# Ask yourself why

Your partner isn’t giving you the silent treatment because they want to, they’re doing this for a specific reason. Now, you need to do some investigative work and ask yourself why they’re doing this. Many people struggle with expressing their emotions, so rather than talking about them, they shut down and create distance.

The silent treatment may be a way for them to protect themselves. However, it can also be used in a manipulative manner as well. They’re not getting what they want, so, instead, they give you the silent treatment until you give up. But let’s not jump to conclusions. Instead, ask yourself why they’re giving you the silent treatment. [Read: This is how you know there is manipulation happening in your relationship]

# Avoid allowing the silent treatment to get to you

It’s really uncomfortable when someone ignores you. They do it because they need a reaction. Whether they’re scared of confrontation or being manipulative, the silent treatment is meant for you *the ignored* to approach the issue. Now, you can approach them and talk about the problem, that’s fine.

However, don’t allow their behavior to get into your head. Don’t let it to take over and occupy your thoughts.

# Don’t react negatively

Many people react negatively when they’re confronted with the silent treatment. They become upset which makes complete sense. However, you need to confront the silent treatment in a different way.

Instead of becoming angry or upset, approach them in a calm manner and let them know that you’re available if they want to talk to you. That way, you acknowledge that something is wrong, but put the ball in their court when it comes to talking about it. If something is bothering them, they should come to you and express it.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

# Eventually, talk to the person about the silent treatment

If they’re not willing to confront you, then you should confront them. Give them enough time to approach you though.

If you decide to talk to them, do not approach them aggressively. Instead, be completely calm and ask them if they want to talk. If they do, then talk to them calmly about the incident and why they’re giving you the silent treatment. Ask them what they were feeling and what they need from you. Then, you tell them how you were feeling and what you need from them.

# Remind them of how it makes you feel

In the conversation, remind them how their behavior affects you. The silent treatment isn’t effective when it comes to communicating because it’s doing the complete opposite. You’re not talking to them when they’re giving you the silent treatment so how can you resolve anything? Remember to use “I” statements and express how they make you feel.

# Talk about your boundaries

It’s time to create some boundaries. I know, who likes boundaries? But honestly, they’re there for a reason. If someone starts with the silent treatment, it’s emotionally harmful to you and them. So, you need to state your boundaries.

Are you willing to put up with this behavior again? If not, then tell them that, in a nice way, of course. Being shut out won’t result in a positive relationship.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

Having to endure the silent treatment isn’t fun for anyone. It makes you feel invisible, unworthy, and maybe a little bit sad or angry. Nothing but negative feelings arise from using the silent treatment. Using words (or lack thereof) as a weapon against others is unfair. Here are a few reasons why narcissistic people use silent treatment and a few ways for you to respond:

It Puts Them in “Control”

When you have problems with a self-centered person, it’s no surprise that they like to be in control. Social Worker and Psychotherapist Andrea Schneider says that narcissists will often demand that you apologize for your actions before they’ll speak to you again. “Because no further communication can ensue unless and until the narcissistic person decides to give the target another chance, a false sense of control is nurtured,” Schneider says.

It Makes You Feel Wrong

“The point of the silent treatment is to make the victim feel confused, stressed, guilty, ashamed or not good enough,” Mental Health Coach Darius Cikanavicius says. It makes you want to meet the needs of the abuser in the hopes that they may speak to you again. According to Cikanavicius, the result of the silent treatment is exactly what the person with narcissism wishes to create: a reaction from the target and a sense of control.

It Helps Them Avoid Compromise

Cikanavicius also says that enduring the silent treatment from someone makes you want to avoid all future conflicts with them. It makes you lower your boundaries and shows them that they do not have to compromise anything to get your attention. Schneider says that sometimes, a person with narcissistic qualities will decide to abandon the relationship when his or her partner presents an ultimatum or attempts a resolution that requires compromise.

How to Respond

Schneider, Cikanavicius, and Health Writer Ann Pietrangelo all share keys ways to respond to a situation where a person thinks they are controlling you with the silent treatment:

  • Ignore it until it’s blown over.
  • Offer solutions.
  • Don’t accept emotional abuse.
  • Remember that you are not alone.
  • Understand that this person has not developed the ability to express a high level of empathy, reciprocity, or compromise.
  • Stand up for yourself.

What Not to Do

Along with some tips on how to handle the situation, Pietrangelo provides a list of things you shouldn’t do when faced with the silent treatment:

  • respond in anger, which can just escalate things
  • beg or plead, which only encourages the behavior
  • apologize just to put an end to it, even though you did nothing wrong
  • continue to try reasoning with the other person after you’ve already given it a shot
  • take it personally, as you’re not to blame for how others choose to treat you
  • threaten to end the relationship unless you’re prepared to do so

When your partner gives you the silent treatment, what it means and what to do.

How to confront someone who's giving you the silent treatment

Your partner, once again, forgot to do the dishes in the morning, and when you get home that night, there’s a sink full of dirty coffee cups, glasses, and plates. This violation of the arrangement you have with your partner to share the household chores makes you furious because it seems to be part of a pattern. You let out your feelings in a slight fit of rage, and it seems to you that your wrath is well-justified. What happens next, though, is something you wouldn’t have expected. On previous occasions, your partner apologized and vowed never to do this again, and you kissed and made up. In this instance, your partner turns and walks out of the room, shuts the door, and doesn’t come back out until it’s time to go to sleep. Not a word is said, and the silent treatment goes on until well into the next day. Your texts go unanswered, and it isn’t until dinner that your partner finally starts to speak again.

Silence can sometimes be better than conversation, especially if you and your partner need to take a break from an argument and just cool off. When one partner refuses to speak, however, the silence can seem unbearable, especially if it continues. In the dirty dishes scenario, it would seem like your partner is resorting to silence as a way of getting back at you. Perhaps you’ve been unreasonably making demands or failing to fulfill your end of the housekeeping bargain without realizing it. Or it’s possible that your partner feels resentful over some more deep-seated issue. New research on silence in the workplace can help shed light on what causes people to use this communication strategy as a coping mechanism when things aren’t going well. Using this research as a base, you can gain some insight into how to handle the silence that occurs in close relationships.

Karim Mignonac and colleagues (2018), of the University of Toulouse (France), examined the process of “navigating ambivalence” in the workplace. Their study focused on the ways that employees use cynicism and silence as stress-busting strategies when they believe their organization doesn’t support them. Their study is based on social identity theory, which proposes that “individuals are generally motivated to maintain or enhance perceptions of their self-worth.” In the workplace, social identity theory implies that you want to feel cared about by your employer. You also feel pride in your organization, if you feel that it is a well-respected one (think 5 stars on Yelp). When you feel valued, and feel that your organization is valued as well, you can hold your head up higher, and from a practical standpoint, you’ll work harder and be more productive.

When you feel, instead, that the outward image your company projects conflicts with the way they treat their employees, this will create a state of ambivalence. For example, imagine that you work at a company that advertises itself as being socially responsible, but when it comes to protecting their employees from harassment or unsafe working conditions, they fall far short of this idealized image. It’s also possible that your company treats you extremely well, but it has a far from perfect reputation in the community (think 2 stars on Yelp). In a relationship, you can feel a similar type of ambivalence if everyone thinks you’re a happy couple, but you feel constantly berated by your partner. Alternatively, you may feel loved and valued by your partner, but to the world, you seem to be a 2-star couple, because no one ever invites the two of you out for dinner or to parties. The conflict between outer and inner regard creates problems for your social identity, as you don’t feel that your relationship is one that confirms your sense of self-worth.

The result of ambivalence created by such conflict is, according to the French research team, cynicism. They define cynicism as a state marked not by any particular emotions, but by “beliefs that their organization lacks integrity and, even more specifically, their beliefs that organizational choices are inconsistent, unreliable, and based on (concealed) self-interest.” Again returning to your relationship, you’ll feel cynical about it if you believe your partner doesn’t really care about you. This cynicism, in turn, is what prompts the silent treatment. You will withhold “your ideas, information, and opinions” as a way of reducing your state of dissonance. In relationships, as in the workplace, this means that if you’re treated unfairly, you’ll use the passive-aggressive state of silence in an effort to defend your sense of self in a way that is less risky than speaking out about the unfairness. You can’t get in trouble, so this reasoning goes, for what you don’t say.

Across a set of three studies involving part-time students in management degree programs, Mignonac and his co-authors established a relationship between organization ambivalence and the use of silence by employees. The situation was far worse when the external prestige of the organization was high, but the support of employees was low than vice versa. Silence, assessed by items such as the frequency of withholding ideas and thoughts, was similarly predicted by a combination of these two organizational factors.

Now let’s look at what happens when you face the silent treatment in your home life. The University of Toulouse study suggests that people will react with silence when they believe they’re being treated unfairly, a treatment that conflicts with how the relationship is perceived by outsiders. Your partner may feel not just resentful to you for being overly demanding, but also cynical about the outward image you project to friends and family about what a great partner you are, when in fact, there are real problems in terms of the support you provide when your partner needs you. The situation with the dishes isn’t just about who does what in the house, but about how much you allow your partner to feel a sense of self-worth and pride as a person. The underlying issue of self-esteem, and how much you allow your partner to have that positive identity, is what creates the sounds of silence when something goes wrong.

To sum up, if your partner gives you the silent treatment more than you feel is reasonable, look inward at how much support you provide for your partner’s self-worth. Both you and your partner need to feel this deep sense of value to have a fulfilling relationship that lasts over time.

Mignonac, K., Herrbach, O., Serrano Archimi, C., & Manville, C. (2018). Navigating ambivalence: Perceived organizational prestige–support discrepancy and its relation to employee cynicism and silence. Journal of Management Studies, doi:10.1111/joms.12330