Silent treatment

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Silent treatment (often referred to as the silent treatment) is verbal silence imposed onto another. It may range from just sulking to malevolent abusive controlling behaviour. It may be a passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval and contempt is exhibited through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence.[1] Clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker identifies it as a form of manipulative punishment.[2]

Origin of term[edit]

The term originated from "treatment" through silence which was fashionable in prisons in the 19th century. In use since the prison reforms of 1835, the silent treatment was used in prisons as an alternative to physical punishment, as it was believed that forbidding prisoners from speaking, calling them by a number rather than their name, and making them cover their faces so they couldn’t see each other would encourage reflection on their crimes.[3]

In personal relationships[edit]

In a relationship, the silent treatment can be a difficult pattern to break because if it is ingrained, relationships may then ultimately fail.[4]

The silent treatment is sometimes used as a control mechanism. The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive action where a person feels bad but is unable to express themselves. Their being 'silent' is never a silent act. It generates what the sulker wants − attention and the knowledge others are hurt, plus a feeling of power from creating uncertainty over how long the ‘silence’ will last.[5]

Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger and frustration.[6] The consequences of this behavior on the person isolated by silence are feelings of incompetence and worthlessness. [7]

In the workplace[edit]

Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests that "using the silent treatment to ice out & separate from others" is the fourth most common of all workplace bullying tactics experienced, and is reported in 64 percent of cases of workplace bullying.[8] The silent treatment is a recognized form of abusive supervision. Other forms include: reminding the victim of past failures, failing to give proper credit, wrongfully assigning blame or blowing up in fits of temper.[9]

In the media[edit]

  • Shirley Ann Millard Mr Toad Gets the Silent Treatment (1999)
  • J. Demetrio Nicolo The Silent Treatment (2004)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Silent Treatment
  2. ^ Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). Whos Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation. ISBN 0-07-144672-9. 
  3. ^ London's Most Notorious Prisons
  4. ^ USA Today (August 3, 2014) Silent treatment speaks volumes about a relationship
  5. ^ Petra Boynton The Telegraph (26 Apr 2013) Silent treatment: how to snap him out of it
  6. ^ Gregory L. (2009) Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse
  7. ^ url=
  8. ^ Top 25 workplace bullying tactics - Workplace Bullying Institute
  9. ^ James Larsen Abusive Supervision Article No. 309 Business Practice Findings

Further reading[edit]

  • The “silent treatment”. Its incidence and impact. Paper presented at the sixty-ninth Annual Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL. Ferguson, M., and .. 1997
  • Kipling D. Williams Wendelyn J. Shore Jon E. Grahe. The silent treatment: Perceptions of its behaviors and associated feelings - Group Processes Intergroup Relations October 1998 vol. 1 no. 2 117-141
  • Zadro, L., Richardson, R., & Williams, K. D. (2006, January). The antecedents of interpersonal ostracism: Do individual differences predict propensity to be a target or source of the silent treatment? Presented at the 7th annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Palm Springs, CA.
  • Grahe, J. E., Shore, W. J., & Williams, K. D. (1997, May). Perceptions of the behaviors and feelings associated with the “silent treatment.”Presented at the 69th Annual Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.
  • Faulkner, S, Williams, K., Sherman, B., & Williams, E. (1997, May). The “silent treatment:” Its incidence and impact. Presented at the 69 th Annual Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.[Summarized in New Scientist, 1998, April, p. 18]

External links[edit]