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Silent Treatment Trouble

One of the most common social signals I see treating overcontrolled individuals in Radically Open DBT is the silent treatment. A social signal is any behavior a person completes in the presence of another person (i.e. rehearse a speech, have a conversation, dance, etc.). Silent treatment is to be in another’s presence but not speak. It can be denied easily as not actually happening intentionally (plausible deniability): “oh I was just thinking” or “I don’t have anything to say” or “stop pestering me.”

Why the Silent Treatment Hurts Relationships
1 People cannot read our minds – While we might imagine that our partner, friend or family should know why we are upset, they often don’t. They might have a guess, but when we go silent, it’s impossible for them to know exactly. People CANNOT read our minds and therefore feel frustrated or hurt that we are not expressing ourselves directly.
2 We don’t get our needs met – When no words are spoken, others cannot work with us to fix problems. We end up perpetuating the cycle that we are usually trying to break by employing the silent treatment. If we think others SHOULD know, because the same situation has happened previously, then it might be possible we are not taking responsibility for how we contribute to the cycle.
3 People tend to withdrawal or pursue when given the silent treatment – Relationship dynamics of pursuer and the pursued pop-up strongly during the silent treatment, meaning one person runs away and the other follows; or one person runs away, the other doesn’t follow and the person that ran away to begin with feels like they should be pursued and comforted or apologized to. Either dynamic tends to alienate and isolate both parties.

How to Break Our Habit of the Silent Treatment
Start by asking yourself a number of self enquiry questions about the behavior:

– What is preventing me from being more direct and open about what I am feeling or thinking?
– Would I teach a child to behave similarly to how I’m behaving?
– Is the silent treatment in-line with my values and the person I want to be?
– What’s it like to be on the receiving end of silent treatment? Do I enjoy feeling that way?
– Do I feel closer or farther from the person I am giving I am giving the silent treatment to? Is that the relationship I want with them?
– What am I trying to control by giving another the silent treatment?

These questions are a quick check in with ourselves about why and if we want to stop the behavior.

Secondly actually go to the person and tell them you are doing the silent treatment and take responsibility for it. Most of the time people know we are doing it and won’t be surprised at all. They may be pleasantly surprised that we are outing ourselves and that we are trying something new. Tell them what you are trying to control (i.e. getting your way, stopping feedback from them, desire for appreciation, etc.). Then directly ask for your need to be met knowing that sometimes we don’t get what we want even if we are skillful. Listen to the other person’s needs. Being more direct may be inline more with who you want to be even if we have to compromise what we want.

For more on this skill check out Lesson 16 – Flexible Mind REVEALs – in the RO DBT skills manual.

Silent Treatment Trouble

Hope Arnold

Hope is a Radically Open DBT Supervisor and 1-day trainer for Radically Open LTD organization. As a self identified overcontrolled person, she works to help her clients learn to relax, take themselves less seriously and be the person they want to be. Perfectionism, anxiety, rigidity, detailed focus, risk aversion and loneliness are some of the areas that overcontrolled people struggle to navigate. In her writing Hope uses humor and real life stories to help overcontrolled individuals make the changes that will bring happiness to their lives. Hope is licensed as a LCSW in Colorado, Texas, and Virginia. She has a private practice in Denver, Colorado.

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APA Reference
Arnold, H. (2020). Silent Treatment Trouble. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jul 2020
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