Silent Treatment: How To Handle It & The Damage It Causes
To the person on the receiving end of the silent treatment, the effects can absolutely be hurtful and even detrimental to the relationship, depending on how severe the treatment.
Page cites research called the “still-face experiment1,” for example, in which mothers gave toddlers emotionless reactions and silence for an extended period of time. In this experiment, he says, the babies make constant bids for connection. They try, it doesn’t work, and the babies freak out and start crying. And eventually, they withdraw and pull into themselves.
“If you want to understand the effects of the deep silence, that’s kind of what we create with it,” Page explains, adding that there’s a reason solitary confinement is considered the worst punishment in prison.
In relationships between adults, he says, no matter the reason behind the behavior, the person on the receiving end is going to feel dejected, isolated, angry, and/or confused. “Extreme silent treatment is unequivocally a form of abuse,” he adds, noting that even subtler forms can still be harmful to the relationship.
And for what it’s worth, Page adds, couples who have a “low threshold for allowing conflict” (aka they would rather talk things out than let things fester) are actually happier in their relationships than couples with a higher threshold for conflict (aka they “let things go,” aka ignore problems).
“We often defer to silence and avoidance as a strategy to preserve the relationship—but it actually does exactly the opposite—and the other person experiences your silence as absence and avoidance,” Page explains.