What to do when a family member gives you the silent treatment

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Family quarrels have been around forever. Remember Cain and Abel?  We all have moments in our family life when we disagree or have hurt feelings over something that happened between us and a sibling or parent. But what is the right way to handle these difficult times? Many families have a family member who gives them the silent treatment often. Some would say this is the way to go. Others would say do what it takes to reconcile.

Options like the silent treatment or doing what it takes to reconcile each come with their own issues. Just doing whatever it takes often encourages a lack of boundaries, and keeps the relationship in an unhealthy cycle. The silent treatment can be viewed as manipulative and disrespectful, which also keeps an unhealthy cycle going. What is the healthy path to mending a relationship? What do you do if a family member chooses to give you the silent treatment?

These steps can help you when you’re faced with the silent treatment

A family member will often stop talking to you because this is how they deal with their feelings being hurt. If this is being used as a manipulation tactic, you can deal with the scenario in a way that both respects the person, and sets boundaries for your protection. Taking a break to cool off, think and/or pray about the situation, and then come back to discuss, is a perfectly normal and healthy way to navigate a perceived offense. Long-term or indefinite silence, basically cutting one out of one’s life for no real reason, is never OK. It isn’t healthy, it isn’t loving, and it doesn’t respect or honor the humanity of a person, or the relationship. If you find yourself in a situation that resembles the latter, just know you are not alone.

There are ways to navigate these situations without encouraging a perpetual cycle of manipulation. Let me give you a scenario for reference.  Say your mother is upset with you for not doing something she wanted you to do, and she hasn’t spoken to you in months. Never mind that you normally communicate every day. You’ve reached out and have gotten zero response, and let’s face it, she has done this repeatedly in your adult life. But she’s your mother and you want a relationship with her. How do you have one without putting yourself in the position to continue to be manipulated?

when a family member gives you the silent treatment

Be firm in your stance against the silent treatment

State your feelings about the situation. Use a tone that conveys the importance of the offense, and also sets a boundary. “I do not know why you stopped speaking to me, and I am hurt by you treating me this way. It is not right to stop talking to your daughter/son indefinitely without explaining what the issue is, and I cannot tolerate it. We need to communicate about what happened.” If your mom (or whoever) still won’t acknowledge their manipulative behavior, or you at all, there isn’t anything you can do about that aspect. You can, however, stand firm in your stance so to ensure your emotional well-being, and that of anyone else in your family who may also be affected.

In these scenarios, considering specifically the well-being of your own children if you have any, should be top priority. You may have to engage in a difficult conversation with children who recognize what is going on. Help them to understand that their relative is mentally unwell, and is incapable of having a loving relationship with other people. They need to know that it does not reflect on them (the children) at all, and is in no way their fault. Be respectful of the relative. Don’t bad-mouth, while at the same time helping your children to navigate the situation. This will possibly include talking through their own feelings of neglect or hurt.

Reconciling with a silent family member, or not

After you set your boundary and affirm your desire to reconcile, you let it go. No one deserves to be treated this way, and the ball is now in their court to respond. When a family member gives you the silent treatment, and it truly is pattern behavior, you may want to consider no longer reaching out after the initial attempt. It’s OK to allow them their indefinite time out of your life. If months or years go by, and you are amenable to a reconciliation initiated by them, tread cautiously. These types of behaviors don’t just go away on their own. You might even be dealing with a narcissist.

Sometimes, you can’t have the type of relationship you want with a parent, sibling, or relative, and that is truly unfortunate. Recognizing that this behavior is a “them” problem, and not you, helps in healing from the hurt caused by long-term silence from a loved one. Forgiveness is key. But forgiveness doesn’t mean exposing yourself to continual hurt, especially if this is their MO for your relationship. Loving a manipulative family member does not require you to “set yourself on fire to keep them warm.” Sometimes, it’s best to keep your distance, especially if they initiate it. You can pray for them or wish them well, and live your life free from the drama and hurt they continually cause your family.

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