Passive manipulation between loved ones

Here’s what to do if you are often subjected to the silent treatment by your loved one

Woman with a post-it on her mouth

So what’s going on when someone chooses to give you “the silent treatment?” Is it that the person is just angry and needs to cool off? Or is there, as Sherlock Holmes used to say, “… game afoot?”

Being a simple Zen guy, I believe, “what’s going on?” questions are best resolved by just looking at… what’s going on. Let me be clear. I have no faith in what people tell me is going on. I’m talking about action—what observably happens.

When I was younger, I had a bad temper. Over the years, I learned to bring it under my control, and then to get the anger out through, for example, hitting a heavy bag. On the rare occasions that I get angry now, I might say, “You know, I need to get quiet for a bit, and sort myself out.” I then add, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes, and we can talk this through.”

So, is this the silent treatment? Well, if I come back after 10 minutes and talk through the issue, clearly this is NOT the silent treatment. In other words, choosing to take a short break from talking to avoid saying something stupid is not an issue. It’s a technique designed to prevent you from saying un-helpful things.

The “what’s going on?” test is this: I say I’ll talk in 10 minutes, and after 10 minutes, I talk. See? Simple!

The mark of relationship excellence is each person’s willingness to talk through every issue that arises. This is only possible if both parties agree to talk, not to play games.

The real silent treatment is a power play—a game to manipulate the other person into doing things your way. People manipulate because it works. If I have a need or a want, and I discover that stopping talking causes a person to cave in and give me what I want, why wouldn’t I do it?

People use manipulative behaviour because of a fundamental misunderstanding—they believe that the pain they feel inside is somehow being ‘caused’ by another, and therefore, must be ‘fixed’ by another. And, of course, there’s always someone to blame when things don’t get better.

Here’s the internal process, and the choice point between real communication and manipulation:

Let’s say I have an empty feeling inside.

First, I analyse my feelings. Let’s say I decide that my feeling of emptiness means I am unloved. No problem, so far.

Second, I make a choice. I either think,

a] “Wow. Do I ever feel empty and unloved? What can I do to be more open, inclusive and loving?” If I choose this mature path, I am being self-responsible.

Or I think,

b] “I’m hurting because my partner/brother/sister does not love me enough.” I then think, “If I can make my partner do what I want her to do, then I’ll feel loved!” This path leads to attempts to get my partner to admit guilt, and to start behaving properly, [to do what I want her to do]. Here, I feel that my empty feeling is caused by an external lack.

The silent treatment is passive manipulation—yelling, demanding, withholding are active approaches. All are detrimental to building a deep and meaningful relationship. Ideally, both parties should decide to stop playing games and learn to communicate. Sometimes, though, only one person wants to do things differently. Then what?

If you are subjected to the silent treatment…

Remember, people use manipulative behaviour because it works. When it stops working, there’s not much point in engaging in it. Unfortunately, if you want to stop another person from using a manipulative behaviour, asking them to stop won’t work. [You’ve tried that, right?]

The only way to end the use of the silent treatment is to stop caving in when the person tries to manipulate you in this way. But here’s the kicker. Do it gently.

If someone stops talking to you, say to her, “So, I can see that you are choosing to upset yourself, and you’re giving me the silent treatment. In the past, that’s clearly worked for you, and you got your way. I just want to let you know that I respect your choice of not talking to me, and I’m just going to go about my business like normal. What I want you to know is that I am not going to cave in to this game. Yet, I’m willing to talk it through until we are both satisfied, any time you want to.”

And then, you live your life, carry on one-sided conversations and be polite. In most cases, this will eventually result in a conversation about this issue, which gives you both the opportunity to resolve it. Eventually, the silent treatment will not be used because it has stopped working.

Now, you may think this is impossible! But just answer this question: how do you feel when you give in? And isn’t the silent treatment being used again and again? When you give in to manipulation, you reinforce it. Say this out aloud: “No one can manipulate me into doing anything. If I give in, I made a choice. And I taught the other person how to behave with me the next time.”

The only choice that has a chance of working is to absolutely and completely stop reacting to manipulation. Period.

To repeat, the first step is to stop acting like and seeing yourself as a helpless victim of another’s manipulation.

The second step is to make the better choice: to not cave in, ever, to manipulation, while continuing to offer the alternative suggested above.

The third step is to observe what happens when you stop giving in. In the vast majority of cases, the manipulating stops, and dialogue starts. Eventually, you reach an understanding.

In some cases, not reacting to the silence makes no difference, and the relationship becomes nothing more than attempts at manipulation with no response. Some people choose to stay in this dynamic; most leave.

It’s a natural tendency to use a relationship as a way to escape personal responsibility for where your life is. It also accounts for the inordinate amount of misery many feel. Learning to step out of games and manipulation is the first step in discovering how truly open and powerful a relationship can be.

It all begins with you, taking personal responsibility for where you are, who you are, and what you are feeling. It begins as you let your partner [or loved one] know [and show him/her by your behaviour] that you accept responsibility for your life and actions, and that you expect them to do the same.

When you get tempted to blame, stop yourself. When confronted with manipulation, smile and say, “Nope! Not playing.” And you invite dialogue. You stay engaged because you choose to, not out of force or habit.

Change the world you live in by controlling the only thing you can control—your own actions.

This was first published in the February 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Wayne Allen
A retired psychotherapist, and the author of 5 books, Wayne's approach to writing, life, and living comes from his love of Zen. He teaches living in the now, and taking full responsibility for "how everything goes." Wayne emphasizes wholeness, peace, and clarity of thought. His books, resources and other writings are available at