What Happens When Someone Gives a Partner the Silent Treatment By Wendy Patrick JD Ph.D

What Happens When Someone Gives a Partner the Silent Treatment By Wendy Patrick JD Ph.D

Research on the frustration of “strategic ambiguity.”


  • The silent treatment involves strategic enactment of aloofness, avoidance, and dismissive behaviors.
  • The silent treatment is part of power dynamics within romantic relationships.
  • Being ignored creates “strategic ambiguity,” which can alienate and frustrate the recipient.

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Many couples can relate to the reality that silence is not golden, especially after a disagreement. Healthy communication repairs and restores relational rifts, while silence can be deafening in its destruction of interpersonal intimacy and trust.

Yet some punish partners with quiet displeasure, appearing aloof and emotionally unavailable. Research reveals the negative consequences of this passive-aggressive approach to conflict.

Silence Can Sabotage a Relationship

Christine E. Rittenour et al. (2019), in a piece entitled “Socializing the Silent Treatment,” examined the practice within families, shedding valuable light on how this method of communicating displeasure is used within relationships.i In the study, adult children participants reported that their silent-treatment behaviors were negatively related to their self-esteem, and their satisfaction with their primary parent was negatively related to that parent’s silent treatment. Yet the implications go much further.

Rittenour et al. noted that although interpersonal displeasure is inevitable, relationships can nonetheless be sustained and even enhanced when partners “warmly and openly” discuss discontent. They noted that although negativity stems from expressions of hostility or avoiding direct discussion of issues, covert displays of displeasure are problematic as well.

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The Severity of Silence

Rittenour et al. described the silent treatment as the “strategic enactment of aloofness, avoidance, and dismissive behaviors that discomfort and frustrate recipients.” They recognized that the silent treatment is motivated by a desire to create uncertainty within the recipient, who doesn’t know how the sender is feeling, which renders the silent treatment more challenging to handle than more obvious forms of expressing grievance or displeasure.

Rittenour et al. recognized the silent treatment as part of the power dynamics within romantic relationships. It has been described as a tactic of manipulation, creating “strategic ambiguity,” which can alienate and frustrate the recipient. It also has the potential to end relationships due to the negative experience of partners on the receiving end. So because we might expect anyone who intends to keep their romance alive to refrain from this behavior, Rittenour et al. recognized an established negative association between relational commitment and the use of the silent treatment.

Silence Harms Both Sender and Receiver

Rittenour et al. noted that while a partner who uses the silent treatment may suffer from poor self-esteem, decreased relational commitment, or lack of confidence, recipients suffer as well. Silent treatment targets report negative feelings and desire more direct forms of managing conflict out of frustration. Many partners would much rather talk it out than suffer tacit disapproval.

The Comfort of Conversation

Because relationships will inevitably involve some level of disagreement, healthy discussion can address differences, discord, and discontent. When each partner can verbalize thoughts and feelings with love and respect, they are spared the anxiety accompanying the ambiguity of silence. Choosing to talk rather than tacitly pout allows relational disagreements to be resolved more expeditiously, leaving more time for productive, satisfying, quality time.

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[i] Rittenour, Christine E., Stephen M. Kromka, Russell Kyle Saunders, Kaitlin Davis, Kathryn Garlitz, Sarah N. Opatz, Andrew Sutherland, and Matthew Thomas. 2019. “Socializing the Silent Treatment: Parent and Adult Child Communicated Displeasure, Identification, and Satisfaction.” Journal of Family Communication 19 (1): 77–93. doi:10.1080/15267431.2018.1543187.




Reprinted with permission from Psychology Today

Printed with permission:

Wendy Patrick 

Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D. is a career prosecutor, international public speaker, author, and media commentator.

Dr. Patrick is recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript and was presented by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court with the California Public Lawyer of the Year award from the State Bar’s Public Law Section.

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