Beyond Words: Understanding the Silent Treatment in Relationships

Silent treatment is when one person withdraws interaction from another, refusing to engage, leaving the other person feeling like they've been shut out. The person on the receiving end of this can feel invisible, excluded, and insignificant. It is not great for relationships and can lead to their breakdown. Someone can use the silent treatment to control the conversation, conflict, or engagement.

If it's used to control, manipulate, or punish someone, it can be seen as abusive, causing lasting harm. The silent treatment might blame the other person, make them feel guilty, and manipulate and control. As a result, trust is broken, and the other person is hurt by feeling rejected. With this as the intention, this behaviour is toxic, controlling, and unhealthy. But what if you think you are the one giving your partner the silent treatment, and it's not at all because you want to be abusive or to hurt them? 

The silent treatment might be more like an unintentional silence, where you withdraw without intending to be hurtful or abusive. For example, when disagreeing with your partner, or even when they point out issues, it may leave your mind going into overdrive, jumping to worse-case scenarios, trying to work out what they mean. Are they angry and upset with you? Are they disappointed in you? They don't love or like you anymore.

A healthy relationship relies on open communication, and silent treatment, even when unintentional, can still hurt your relationships. It also has an emotional toll on the person receiving the silent treatment. It's worth reflecting when you find yourself withdrawing without intending to. This way, you can foster better awareness and communication. 

Communication strategies

  • Practise open expression of feelings and emotions in a non-confrontational manner. Using "I" statements helps to avoid sounding accusatory. For example, "I've noticed we haven't talked much, and it makes me feel..."
  • Create an open environment where expressing needs or difficulties is safe without fear of judgment.
  • Use positive language, focusing on the desire to improve communication rather than blaming the other person.
  • Show a genuine interest in the other person's perspective. Mirror back what they have said to show that you have understood (in counselling, we call this 'active listening').
  • Recognise and acknowledge differences in communication styles and preferences.
  • Frame it as a challenge to be solved together so you work collaboratively to improve communication.

Understanding neurodivergent perspectives: A nuanced approach

Neurodivergence encompasses a range of neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or sensory processing differences. When a person is neurodivergent, their brain functions differently from someone with a typical brain (neurotypical). It isn't a medical term, but it means that a person will have different strengths and challenges from neurotypical people. Because there is a vast diversity of experiences of neurodivergence, everyone has unique strengths, challenges and communication styles, including verbal and non-verbal forms of expression.

This article does not suggest that responding with silent treatment means you are neurodivergent. Still, it offers a lens through which to consider this. If you are autistic, for example, this is something you may experience.

If you are receiving the silent treatment from someone close to you, useful strategies may differ from those discussed here. Counselling may also benefit you by helping you work out their intentions. 

Silence through a neurodivergent lens

For some autistic individuals, silence may be a unique form of communication, and it is helpful to consider the intent behind the silence. Sensory sensitivities can impact and influence communication choices. For example, if you have sensitive hearing, being in a noisy situation such as a café or pub can be potentially overwhelming, leading to sensory overload. As a result, you might feel too overwhelmed to communicate effectively. Similarly, a feeling of overload can occur where there is perceived conflict. You want to respond, but your brain is going into overdrive, leaving you feeling frozen and unable to communicate. 

When feeling overwhelmed with sensory or emotional overload, an autistic person may withdraw to cope. This is sometimes called an autistic shutdown. On the outside, it might look like you are giving the silent treatment. Still, the intent behind this behaviour is fundamentally different. 

Coping strategies

  • Recognise when you might need some quiet time or are experiencing sensory overload. What are the signals or cues that you can start to notice? You might be hyperaware of every sound, struggling to concentrate, and feeling physically uncomfortable. Are there specific situations or places you know can be tricky due to noise, smell, or lights?
  • Communicate this proactively with close friends, family, or colleagues to prevent assumptions about intentional silence. Let them know that sometimes you might need to retreat when needed, signalling that it's not about avoiding interaction but managing sensory overload.
  • Let those around you know your communication preferences and needs during non-stressful times. Setting expectations in advance can help others understand your preferred modes of communication and reduce potential misinterpretations.

Everyone's experience is unique. Adapt strategies based on your preferences and needs.

Seeking professional help

When silent treatment becomes a persistent issue for you, and it is getting in the way of you having healthy relationships with the people who matter to you, counselling can help. 

If you are, or suspect that you are, neurodivergent, whether this is autism, ADHD or another neurodivergence, you may find your needs regarding counselling may be better met by speaking with a neurodivergent therapist. A neurodivergent therapist will likely have a deeper understanding of the unique challenges and strengths associated with neurodivergent conditions. 

You can search therapists who explicitly mention experience with neurodivergent clients and ask them about their experience, making sure they are neurodivergent affirming. Schedule initial consultations with potential therapists to discuss your needs, their approach, and how comfortable you feel working with them. It's essential to find a therapist who not only understands neurodivergence but also creates a supportive and affirming therapeutic environment. I am part of the neurodivergent community and welcome working with all neurotypes.

If any of this has resonated with you, get in touch. If you have any specific questions or if there's anything else you'd like information on, please let me know!