The Silent Treatment: Are You Getting the Cold Shoulder?

What is the silent treatment, the cold shoulder? The silent treatment and cold shoulder as forms of abuse. And dealing with silent treatment.

The silent treatment is something that most people know about if, for no other reason, it comes up on the playground and in sitcoms repeatedly. The silent treatment, sometimes called "the cold shoulder," is the purposeful exclusion of one party from social interactions. In other words, when a person gives you the silent treatment they act is if you aren't even there. The silent treatment is so named because the person will not talk to you but, in reality, the person may avoid all interaction with you including being in the same room.

Roots of the Silent Treatment

The roots of the silent treatment come from early cultures where a form of punishment was being ostracized. Ostracism was initially a Greek word and was the procedure in which a person could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years. In many cultures, being ostracized meant almost certain death as people could not live without the protection of a society.

To this day, we understand that humans are social beings and find it very difficult to exist completely outside of social interactions.

The Cold Shoulder, Silent Treatment as Abuse

In modern day though, the silent treatment in a relationship is simply a person's way of exacting control over another person. The person giving the cold shoulder has all the power and creates a situation wherein all the attention is focused on him (or her), and what he perceives as being wrong. The silent treatment is often given as a form of punishment in a relationship and psychologists consider the silent treatment as a form of abuse.

The silent treatment is abuse because:1

  • It is passive-aggressive behavior intended to hurt the other person
  • It shows a lack of caring, a lack of respect and a lack of value
  • It can hurt the other person more than anything else you do, depending on the other person
  • It can contribute to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem

For many people, the silent treatment is the worst form of emotional abuse.

Dealing with the Silent Treatment

While a person's first inclination when dealing with the silent treatment may be to get more vocal, more frustrated and more upset, this isn't a helpful way to deal with the silent treatment. It's important to remember that while you might want to "fix" whatever prompted the silent treatment, you can't do that by reading your partner's mind. The situation can't be resolved until your partner tells you what is wrong.

When dealing with the silent treatment:2

  • Don't try to read your partner's mind – it's not your job and it's not fair
  • Don't give the silent treatment back
  • Let your partner know that you care about him (or her) and why he is upset
  • Invite your partner to explain what is bothering him

If the person giving the cold shoulder still doesn't want to speak, try to let it go as best as you can and do things that focus on you instead of on him. If you quit playing your part of the game by not focusing on him and not getting angry, he will have to change his own behavior too.

More comprehensive information on Dealing with Emotional Abuse.

article references

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2021, December 17). The Silent Treatment: Are You Getting the Cold Shoulder?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Last Updated: December 30, 2021

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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