Lots of us will have experienced the silent treatment at some point in our lives, and it almost always hurts. A friend might stop having meaningful conversations and instead will only give you short yes or no answers to questions. They might refuse to make eye contact and not acknowledge you at all.
Being given the silent treatment can leave you off-balance, lonely, and unsure about how to repair your relationship.
This uncertainty is one of the most difficult things about being ignored. If your friend isn’t talking to you, it’s hard to know what went wrong or how to respond.
Why am I being given the silent treatment? Is it abuse?
As we’ve become more aware of mental health and abuse, more people are asking whether the silent treatment is abusive. The answer is “maybe.”
A friend might stop talking to you for several reasons, and only one of those is manipulation, control, or abuse. Here are some of the main reasons a friend might ignore you.
1. They are trying to hurt you
Some people use silence to hurt and control you. Whether from a friend, loved one, or partner, this is abuse. Abusers may also attempt to gaslight you by telling you that they weren’t ignoring you or suggesting you’re weak for being upset or angry about it.
Abusive ignoring often has several characteristics.
- It happens regularly
- It feels like a punishment
- You’re expected to show contrition to “earn” their attention back
- You avoid doing or saying things (especially setting boundaries) because you’re afraid of the consequences
If this is why your friend is giving you the silent treatment, it’s probably time to end the friendship. You might find our guide to ending a friendship without hurt feelings helpful.
2. They don’t know how to resolve conflict
Some people don’t know how to resolve conflict in a healthy way, especially if they grew up in an abusive environment. They might not realize that there are other ways to handle an argument.
This looks a lot like abusive silent treatment, but with some differences.
- It usually ends without more conflict
- They may apologize for hurting your feelings
- It won’t usually last very long
If this is why your friend is giving you the silent treatment, talking about it may help them learn and practice healthier ways to resolve conflict. These include:
- Agreeing to a short “time out” to calm down
- Writing their thoughts down to help them communicate effectively
- Practicing saying “I’m feeling hurt right now”
3. They struggle to communicate
Other people don’t mean to ignore you, but they struggle to communicate effectively. This isn’t really the same as the silent treatment, but it looks exactly the same when you’re on the receiving end of it.
Here are some signs that the other person is struggling to communicate.
- It’s usually very short. They’ll talk to you about other things soon afterward
- They may nod and shake their head, but struggle to use words
- They may be overwhelmed by their feelings
If this is why your friend isn’t talking to you, it can be helpful to talk through other ways for them to communicate. You might find this article on having difficult conversations helpful.
4. They’re trying to protect themselves
If you’ve hurt someone really badly, they might need to withdraw for a while to feel safe. Sometimes, abusive friends use this as an excuse. You will need to make a judgment as to whether they’re protecting themselves (which is healthy) or punishing you (which is unhealthy).
How to respond to the silent treatment
It can be difficult to respond to a friend ostracizing you with dignity. Here are some healthy, assertive ways for you to respond to the silent treatment from a friend.
1. Check your own behavior
If you’re not sure whether your friend is ignoring you because they’re hurt or because they’re trying to hurt you, think back through your last conversations with them. Consider whether you might have said something insensitive or hurtful.
Try to be as calm and fair in this assessment as you can. If you’re feeling defensive, you might not be able to see how you were hurtful. If you’re feeling guilty, you might blame yourself when you didn’t do anything wrong.
It can be helpful to ask a trusted friend for advice, but be careful who you choose. You might want to talk to someone who doesn’t know your friend so they don’t think you’re talking about them behind their back.
Remember, pulling away to protect themselves isn’t really the same as giving the silent treatment, but until they talk to you, there’s no way to be completely sure which one they are doing.
If you conclude that you have actually hurt them, you may want to read these tips on what to do when your friend is angry with you and ignores you as a result.
2. Apologize for things you’re not proud of
If you realize that you’ve hurt your friend, take a moment to apologize for your mistake. This can be difficult if your friend is giving you the silent treatment, but it’s worth doing.
Remember, giving people the silent treatment is toxic, but so is refusing to apologize when you know you’re in the wrong.
Try sending an email or a letter with your apology. You can apologize via text, but a toxic friend might leave your apology unread as more punishment. Emails or letters allow you to send your apology without giving them power over you.
If you are not used to writing letters, this article on how to write a letter to a friend step by step might help you.
What if your friend won’t accept your apology?
Remember that you’re not apologizing to make them talk to you again. You’re apologizing because you didn’t live up to your expectations of yourself. This is about you deciding that you want to make amends. Apologizing for your mistakes improves your self-esteem because you’re living according to your values. It can also help you shed lingering feelings of guilt and shame.
If they choose not to accept your apology, that’s OK. You know that you’ve made an effort to put things right.
3. Assess whether this is a one-off
If a friend gives you the silent treatment as a one-off, it might be that they’re having an especially hard time. If this is the first time they’ve done it, try to stay calm and talk about it later when they’re able to have a meaningful conversation.
If they regularly use a passive-aggressive strategy to deal with conflict, however, you may want to take a different approach. Remember that giving a friend the silent treatment when you’re upset or frustrated is unhealthy and immature.
4. Ask yourself whether they are punishing you
A good guide to whether your friend is displaying toxic behavior is to ask yourself whether their silence feels like an attempt to punish you. If someone is trying to protect themselves or dealing with something difficult, it will often feel different than if they’re using the silent treatment as a way of controlling you.
If you feel like you’re being punished, that’s a sign that there’s something unhealthy going on in your friendship. Friendships based on mutual respect (i.e., healthy ones) don’t include one person punishing the other.
5. Try not to guess what they’re thinking
One of the painful things about being given the silent treatment is that you’re left wondering what the other person is thinking or feeling. This can lead you to come up with lots of scenarios and guesses about their version of events.
The trouble with this kind of thinking (which psychologists call rumination) is that you never know whether you’re right or not. You just keep going over the same ground again and again without any new information. This usually leaves you feeling worse.
Trying to suppress this kind of thinking rarely works, but you might be able to distract yourself. When you find yourself ruminating on what your friend might be thinking, try saying, “I’m worried about my relationship with my friend, but dwelling on it like this isn’t helping. I’m going to read a book or watch a movie instead.”
Try to avoid habits that increase your rumination. For example, running might leave you too much time to think so try playing tennis with another friend instead. It might also be better to watch movies that don’t remind you of your friend.
6. Don’t look at your friend’s social media
When a friend, partner, or coworker stops talking to us, we can be tempted to look at their social media to see what’s going on. That’s understandable. When we have very little information, it’s natural to look for any clues we can.
Looking through someone’s social media (especially if they’ve blocked you or you have to use a secondary account) doesn’t help to resolve the situation.
If the silent treatment is part of an abusive pattern of behavior, they may post things that are designed to hurt you. They might include subtle digs or even say cruel things about you directly. Avoiding their social media removes one tool they have to hurt you.
If the silent treatment isn’t part of them being abusive and they’re struggling emotionally, it might be best to respect their privacy and their boundaries. Social media stalking someone who is trying to find space to work through things can be intrusive and unkind.
Usually, it’s better to avoid their social media feed until you’ve sorted out the relationship between you. It’s also almost never helpful to post publicly about their behavior. Conflicts in friendships should be resolved between the two people directly, not through social media or intermediaries.
7. Explain to your friend how you feel
Rarely, a friend might not realize how much ignoring someone hurts. Even if they did know, it can be healthy for you to tell them the effects that their actions have had on you.
Telling your friend that you were hurt by their silence can make it easier for you to set and enforce boundaries in your friendship if they give you the silent treatment again.
8. Listen to your friend’s explanation
When someone starts talking to you again after ignoring you, it can be tempting to ignore what they have to say because you’re still hurt. If you want to maintain a friendship, it’s important to listen to what they have to say.
Your friend might have been silent because they expect to be listened to. This often happens if someone is ignored as a child. When they feel strong emotions, they can shut themselves off and stop talking. Asking what they were thinking and feeling (and really listening to the answers) can let them feel safe enough to talk to you next time.
9. Talk about what happened
Rebuilding trust in a friendship after being given the silent treatment by making sure that you talk about it. Your friend might want to pretend that nothing happened, but that’s unlikely to fix anything.
Try saying, “I know it’s uncomfortable, but we need to talk about last week. I felt…”
When someone uses silence to control you, you’ll often feel scared to talk about it directly. You might be worried that they’ll ignore you again. Refusing to acknowledge that they weren’t talking to you, giving you the silent treatment again, or telling you that it’s all your fault are all signs of a toxic or abusive friend.
10. Suggest ways your friend can ask for space
If your friend really didn’t mean to hurt you and just needed space, try suggesting ways that they can let you know. Explain that this helps you because you don’t worry and might also make them feel better about the situation.
You could agree on an emoji that they could send to let you know they need space or any other sign that makes sense to both of you.
This article on what to do when friends distance themselves from you will provide you with some more guidance on this.
11. Build your support network
Having a supportive circle of friends and family can help keep you grounded when a friend ostracizes you. They can help remind you that you’re a good person and that you don’t deserve this.
Surround yourself with people who remind you that you’re worthy of kindness and respect. If you have pets, spending time with them can also help as they’ll often give you unconditional love.
What not to do when a friend gives you the silent treatment
There are some natural responses to someone giving you the silent treatment that are not helpful. Here are some things it’s best to avoid if your friend isn’t talking to you.
1. Don’t plead, beg, or grovel
If your friend isn’t talking to you, don’t give them the satisfaction of pleading with them. Instead, calmly tell them that you’d like to talk and that you’re willing to listen whenever they’re ready.
2. Don’t force a confrontation
Becoming angry or trying to confront them won’t build a lasting friendship. It’ll probably just lead to more conflict. You can’t force someone to talk to you. If they’re not ready, try to let it go for now.
3. Don’t blame yourself
You can’t control how other people behave. When a narcissist gives you the silent treatment, they’re often hoping that you will blame yourself. Even if you have done something to upset them, you haven’t made them ignore you. Try not to take all of the blame onto yourself.
4. Don’t try to become a mind-reader
People who are giving you the silent treatment will often suggest that you should know why they’re not talking to you. This isn’t true. You’re not a mind-reader, and trying to guess what they’re thinking is exhausting and upsetting. Communication takes effort on both sides. Don’t try to do all the work yourself or you may end up in a one-sided friendship.
5. Don’t take it personally
When a friend stops talking to you, it’s hard not to take it personally. Remind yourself that they’re choosing how to act, and it says more about their character than it does about yours.
This can be difficult if you’ve been given the silent treatment before, especially by your parents or a boyfriend or girlfriend. If being ignored is a pattern in your life, consider therapy to help you work through your deeper feelings.
We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and are cheaper than going to a therapist's office.
Their plans start at $64 per week. If you use this link, you get 20% off your first month at BetterHelp + a $50 coupon valid for any SocialSelf course: Click here to learn more about BetterHelp.
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6. Don’t assume you have to forgive
We’re often told that we have to forgive others and that it helps us move on. That’s not always true. No one is entitled to your forgiveness. If being given the silent treatment hurts you, it’s OK to say goodbye to a friendship.
Do both men and women give the silent treatment?
It might be a stereotype of mean girls in high school, but someone giving you the silent treatment could be a man or a woman. No one should be using the silent treatment as a way to control or punish friends.
Why does being ignored hurt so much?
Being ignored or ostracized doesn’t just hurt emotionally. It also activates areas of the brain associated with physical pain. Researchers suggest that this is because being socially included was important for our ancestors’ survival.