Silent treatment is one of the most anxiety-provoking relationship dynamics.
Make sure you practice self-care in face of someone you love ignoring you; the experience can affect and disrupt your entire nervous system and create reactivity.
Why does the silent treatment hurt so much?
As social creatures, we depend on the response of other people to emotionally connect. Our biological programming tells us to look for safe people to bond with in the world.
For example, when mothers ignored their babies for even a couple of minutes during the landmark “still face experiments” in 1975, the infants quickly became disoriented and visibly distressed.
On a visceral level, we face similar impacts when someone ignores us as adults.
Between romantic or married partners, people refer to the silent treatment as “stonewalling,” which means “a persistent refusal to communicate or to express emotions.” This creates one of the most destructive patterns in relationships.
The silent treatment creates isolation and destroys connection, so relationships in which one or both partners regularly shut down and stonewall the other don’t tend to last.
Silent treatment creates an absence of information and therefore uncertainty on the receiving end. This evokes a sense of unease.
When someone ignores you, your mind automatically tries to fill the void by coming up with possible explanations for the silence.
When this happens, it’s normal to search for reasons. After all, you want to read the situation so to regain a sense of control and determine your next steps.
However, your unease will color your inteprations, making you focus on the negative spectrum of possibilities. This includes being rejected, disliked, abandoned, or unloved by the person ignoring you.
In response to the distress you feel when being ignored, it’s common to do any or all of the following things:
1. You might shut down too to protect yourself from getting hurt
2. You may get angry and attack in order to provoke some kind of response from person who is ignoring you
3. You might overcompensate with attempts to cater to and please the other person
It’s important to recognize the mind’s vulnerability and our tendency to project our worse fears on others in order to stop ourselves from acting on these thoughts.
While it may seem as those the person you love is ignoring you on purpose, underneath the surface there is often a more vulnerable reason for their silence, which they may not even be consciously aware of themselves.
Silent treatment is a protective shield behind which difficult emotions such as overwhelm, hurt, sadness and fear often hide — resulting in someone finding themselves at a loss for words.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of the silent treatment, the best way to respond in order to reconnect in the midst of your loved one’s shutting down is with caring curiosity towards them.
Before engaging with the person who is ignoring you, however, it’s important to reestablish calm and connection within yourself first.
Here are three steps to follow when responding to the silent treatment:
1. Practice loving kindness toward yourself.
2. Cultivate loving kindness toward the person who is ignoring you.
3. Seek clarification from the other person with genuine curiosity and kindness.
In some situations, it will turn out the person is ignoring you on purpose after making a conscious decision that they need space from you. If so, they may not respond to your inquiry about what is going on for them.
In such cases, it’s best not to pressure them for a response, but to instead invite them to reconnect with you and let you know what’s going on for them when they feel ready in their own time.
Focusing on facts in this way will reduce the chances either you or they will take such things personally or as a threat.
Finally, remember that you can rarely be certain someone is ignoring you on purpose.
Often times, the reason is simply information overload, stress and overwhelm.
Attributing intention to someone else’s behavior is often nothing more your own mind’s projection.