The act of ignoring someone: ‘A woman was shunned by her spouse for four decades’
Aura, a 43-year-old architect, had always had a difficult dynamic with her younger sister, Carla. However, their relationship reached a low point when Carla approached Laura for financial investment in her new business. “She requested £10,000 from me, probably because she knew my husband had recently inherited a significant amount of money. Despite several factors, such as my knowledge that her online boutique was destined to fail, I declined. Her response was explosive. She hurled insults at me and accused me of being unsupportive and arrogant.”
Following the storm came a period of extreme cold weather. For the past three years, Laura and her sister have not communicated with each other. Despite living close by and occasionally attending family gatherings together, Laura has attempted to talk to her sister but she avoids making eye contact. Initially, Laura was consumed with the goal of re-establishing communication, but now she simply avoids her sister like an awkward object in the room. Any necessary communication is done through their children, which may not be setting a positive example.
Julie Murray, a psychotherapist, explains that the silent treatment is different from other forms of ignoring or avoiding someone, like “ghosting”. She also adds that there is often a strong sense of shame associated with being on the receiving end of the silent treatment. It is a clear indication that there are serious issues within the relationship, whether it be with a romantic partner, friend, or family member. Being subjected to the silent treatment can lead to feelings of rejection, worthlessness, confusion, and loneliness. The closer the relationship is, the more intense these feelings may be due to greater vulnerability.
Vikram, 35, has experienced his mother’s intermittent silent treatment since he was a teenager. He describes her as overly involved and critical of his life decisions, and her way of showing disapproval is to stop communicating with him. When Vikram broke up with his fiancee, who his family adored, his mother refused to speak to him for half a year. Instead, they relied on his father as a mediator. Vikram finds the situation both painful and amusing, remembering how his mother would ask his father to ask him if he wanted soup during family meals. Eventually, his mother would break her silence, only for the cycle to repeat itself.
There have been numerous instances of the silent treatment since then, including when Vikram’s mother learned from someone else in the family that his new partner was expecting. “We had only shared the news with three people, wanting to avoid any commotion until after the three-month checkup. It was incredibly unsettling to be shut out by her during a time when my partner and I were in need of support.”
For 40 years, Kip Williams, a professor at Purdue University in Indiana, has researched the consequences of using the silent treatment. His interest was sparked during his time as a student when he watched a documentary called “The Silence.” The film follows the story of James Pelosi, a cadet at West Point who was shunned by his peers for cheating on an exam. Despite being cleared of the accusation, Pelosi endured 19 months of isolation, eating alone, living without roommates, and only being acknowledged at official events. Williams found the documentary compelling and as a social psychologist, he was intrigued by the impact of individuals on others. However, he noticed that there was a lack of research on the effects of ostracism – being ignored and excluded.
In today’s climate of cultural conflict, there is much debate about the existence of a “cancel culture” and its impact. As a result, exclusion and rejection are more prevalent than ever before. Williams points out that even entire nations can participate in this form of ostracism, as seen when certain UN member states refuse to acknowledge others. According to Williams, countries respond to being ignored in a similar way to individuals. They often resort to provocative behavior in an attempt to be heard and regain control. This dynamic also occurs within social groups, where a member may hold an unpopular opinion (such as Covid-denial or support for Brexit) and be shunned by the rest of the group.
Williams argues that experiencing silence can be extremely distressing because it jeopardizes all of our fundamental human needs, including food, shelter, and safety. This idea of a hierarchy of needs was first proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. Maslow believed that higher needs such as the desire for belonging and social connections, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose were essential for human fulfillment.
In a study published in Science in 2003, Williams and his team found that being ostracized activates the same brain regions as physical pain. They also tested the effectiveness of painkillers on reducing feelings of rejection and discovered that they can indeed be used to treat these emotions. This was supported by MRI scans of the brain.
According to him, engaging in a conflict with someone may not be ideal, but it still maintains a connection and acknowledges each other’s presence. Winning the confrontation can demonstrate skill. However, being ostracized can be even more troubling as it deprives one of their essential needs.
In contrast to typical human behavior, utilizing silence as a coping mechanism is not linked to any specific personality trait, but is instead triggered by specific circumstances. According to Williams, after conducting numerous interviews with individuals who have either given or received the silent treatment for extended periods of time, it was found that the motivations behind this behavior vary. In some cases, individuals may employ this behavior even if it is not typically a part of their coping strategies. For instance, one father shared that his son had said something extremely hurtful and he was unable to respond, so he resorted to complete silence. He stopped interacting with his son altogether, refusing to have meals with him or even look at him. This caused his son to deteriorate, but the father was unable to stop because it would mean admitting that his behavior was inappropriate. Instead, he fixated on the initial hurtful comment to justify his actions. Eventually, after a slow process, he was able to resume normal communication with his son. In more extreme cases, this pattern of silence can persist for a lifetime. One woman shared that her husband had given her the silent treatment for 40 years. In these situations, self-esteem and perspective can be lost over time. When asked why she stayed in such a relationship, the woman replied, “At least I have a roof over my head.”
For certain individuals, remaining silent may be a learned habit passed down from their family. According to Murray, those who frequently use the silent treatment may do so because they feel uncomfortable expressing their feelings or fear losing control if they do. They may not have the tools to effectively communicate their emotions.
Attachment theory has been a popular topic recently, and Murray mentions it in this passage. He explains that when a mother is emotionally stable, it creates a strong foundation for a secure attachment between the child and mother. This, in turn, allows the child to regulate their emotions better, be more mindful of how their emotions affect others, and have better conflict resolution skills. On the other hand, individuals with insecure attachments, such as those who are avoidant or anxious, may struggle with overwhelming emotions and have difficulty understanding them. This can lead to a fight or flight response or even a freeze response when faced with a threat.
Difficulty dealing with disagreements is often a factor. Gail, a 50-year-old administrator, describes her approach as “a more civilized way of expressing anger.” She gave her neighbor the silent treatment for periods of up to six months. “On the day we moved in, our children – ages five and 12 at the time – were excitedly running around outside. Our neighbor, who lives in a terrace house with tight driveways, came out and yelled at us for not controlling our children and not wanting them on her property. Later, she also complained when I put a nail in our side of the fence to hang a basket. This was the final straw. I tend to resort to silence in situations like this because I dislike conflict.”
In the past, I used to make sure my neighbor was not in her front garden before leaving my house, which may seem silly. However, when we got a trampoline, she complained about her privacy being invaded by our kids bouncing on it. This led to a period of silence between us. Despite this, we would still help her with her computer whenever she asked. But then she complained about our cats walking on her fence and damaging her trellis, leading to another period of silence. I would purposely avoid her when I saw her on the street. As time passed, the silences between us became less frequent and we got to know our neighbor better. We learned that she had grown up in a privileged life and was not accustomed to living in a small terrace house. When we eventually told her we were moving, I could see a hint of sadness in her eyes. We still send each other Christmas cards.
If you are being given the silent treatment, there are steps you can take. According to psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler, author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations, one helpful exercise is the “RAN process.” This acronym stands for identifying what you resent, appreciate, and need from the person or situation. Firstly, take time to write down everything that you resent without holding back. Next, make a list of things you appreciate about the other person, even if they may be challenging or annoying. Finally, write down what you need from them, such as an apology. By going through this process, you can become less reactive and potentially break the cycle of silence to have a productive conversation.
The phenomenon of digital silent treatment is increasingly common, as seen by Rozenthuler, where individuals purposefully refrain from liking someone’s celebratory post on social media due to feelings of envy. According to psychological research, being ignored can have a more detrimental impact than receiving a negative comment. This behavior is becoming more prevalent, potentially due to its convenience and the sense of powerlessness many people experience in their own lives. Witnessing others seemingly having an easier time can evoke strong reactions.
Whether online or offline, what can you do if you are the victim of someone’s deep freeze? “The typical response is to try to make yourself more likable and more acceptable in the eyes of the person who is doing this to you,” says Williams. “That can cause you to bend and change your behaviour and values to please them, which isn’t helpful. Or you might be triggered to lash out at them; or be provocative to force them to acknowledge you. We interviewed one woman who threw a marble ashtray at her husband just to get a reaction.”
There are alternative methods for resolving the impasse, depending on the seriousness of the issue. According to Murray, “Individuals often fail to recognize the impact of their actions, so one could begin by expressing how their behavior is causing distress and isolation.” Another approach could be to understand the emotional state of the other person. On the less extreme side of withholding communication is the sulker. We are all familiar with those who stew in silence for a period of time, audibly sighing and making it clear with statements like, “I am not speaking to you.”
Murray explains that the sulker desires to be understood by others, but takes no action to improve their situation. It is similar to being a baby and having all your needs met without having to ask. Sulkers have a subconscious desire for this type of treatment from others.
It can be challenging to handle a complete lack of communication between romantic partners. Murray suggests taking a step back and scheduling a time to reconnect. It’s important to establish an endpoint so that the silence does not persist for days or even weeks. However, she warns that if this is a recurring issue, especially with a spouse, and is used as a means of manipulation or control, it can be considered abusive and should be addressed promptly.
Certain names and personal information have been altered.
For assistance with domestic abuse in the UK, dial 0808 2000 247 to reach the national helpline or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the domestic violence hotline. For support in Australia, call 1800 737 732 to reach the national family violence counselling service. Other helplines outside of these countries can be found through www.befrienders.org.