The Quietest, Possibly Most Destructive Of All Relationship Habits

It's about revenge.

couple in bed Stivog / Shutterstock

Recently, Myleik Teele and I spoke about the perils of the silent treatment, which seemed to resonate with a lot of you. Today, I’m sharing some more thoughts as a follow-up to our conversation about one of the most destructive relationship habits.

What is the silent treatment?

RELATED: Groom Asks If He’s Wrong For Kicking Gay Brother Out Of Wedding Because He Wanted To Wear A Rainbow Suit

According to the basic definition, "Silent treatment (often referred to as the silent treatment) is a refusal to communicate verbally with someone who desires the communication."


This type of behavior is the quietest, possibly most destructive of all relationship habits.

Essentially, the silent treatment is about avoiding contact with someone, typically when you feel that you’ve been wronged or disrespected.

The communication strategy is often used to punish or provoke a reaction in the target. That is, if you feel hurt by a friend’s comment, you might then employ silent treatment as a way to remove your presence from this person in an attempt to punish them. Your motivation may also lie in the desire for the target to respond in a way that affirms that they were hurt by your silence or missing presence.


Often the silent treatment is about enacting revenge on someone who hurt you. And while revenge might sound dramatic, when we are hurt by someone and then choose to hurt them that’s exactly what we’re doing — getting revenge.

And, let me be clear we all have our moments in relationships like this. After the fall, we are human. The best we can do is learn about ourselves and how we might be using this poor communication tactic and try to do better. When you know better you can do better.

What the silent treatment is not

Many people confuse setting boundaries with the silent treatment. Therefore, to better understand what the silent treatment isn’t, it’s helpful to better understand what boundaries are.


Boundaries, in healthy communication, are intentional blocks to prevent ongoing hurt and abuse. An example might be ending a phone call with someone who is calling you names or otherwise being verbally or emotionally abusive. That’s not the way to handle arguments in a relationship.

RELATED: Man Wonders If He's Wrong For Changing The Locks On Girlfriend's Sister & Refusing To Let Her Move In

Setting a boundary could also look like communicating to your partner that you need a time out to discuss your relationship concern at a designated time later. By contrast, ghosting is an example of an unhealthy and abusive boundary, especially in the context of an ongoing relationship. It’s the silent treatment for the digital age.

Our relationships are best served when boundaries are communicated assertively and with full transparency. Moreover, setting a boundary means you have to let the other person know that you’re setting the boundary and adjusting the relationship.


If you’re not communicating the need for a boundary explicitly with your words then that boundary setting is actually the silent treatment and it’s more harmful than you think.

I often get asked the question, “Well what happens when you communicate with someone over and over again about a boundary that they keep crossing? What if they don’t listen?!”

You might tell them about your need for space and they just don’t listen. Or, they keep doing the undesirable behavior and you’re frustrated and fed up with the nonsense. It’s easy then to go silent and just opt out. After all, we can only take so much!

In those moments, I think it’s important to not only ask “why is this person doing this?” but more so “what makes me continue to put up with this?”


RELATED: Man Asks If He's Wrong For Arguing With Wife Who 'Embarrassed Him' By Not Cleaning Before He Had Friends Over

Talking about your true emotions is incredibly difficult. It’s hard work. There are times that I still struggle with sharing how I feel with those around me.

The thing is, we only hurt ourselves when we don’t express what’s really going on in our hearts and minds. If we rely on silent treatment to communicate hurt or anger we are not at our best. We can’t have the best relationships possible if the silent treatment is always on deck as a tool.

Pushing through the fear of vulnerability is necessary to combat the silent treatment and the way it damages our relationships. Being assertive and forthcoming is always the healthier route in communication even when the allure of the silent treatment and emotional refuge calls to us. It might work for the moment but it will never be productive in the long term.


This is not an indictment, but a call to action.

We are human, therefore we are not perfect. It’s okay to have slip-ups and find yourself getting silent when you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotion. Do what you can to catch it and practice sharing your need for some space.

The silent treatment is opting out of communication. It only builds resentment and destroys relationships. Every healthy relationship, whether it’s familial, platonic, or romantic requires communication. So the next time when you feel yourself leaning into the silent treatment ask yourself, am I at my best? How can I communicate better?


We’ve all got room to improve. Staying silent won’t help.

RELATED: Man Asks If He's Wrong For Missing Son's Graduation To Attend Stepdaughter's Birthday Party

Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC is an NYC-based therapist, blogger, and mental health advocate. He is the Co-founder of Viva Wellness, a health center that offers holistic health services to clients which includes counseling, relationship coaching, health coaching, and nutritional counseling.