The silent treatment goes by many names: shunning, social isolation, stonewalling, ghosting. Although psychologists have nuanced definitions for each term, they are all essentially forms of ostracism. And the tactic is nothing new. Ancient Greeks expelled for 10 years citizens who were thought to be a threat to democracy, and early American settlers banished people accused of practicing witchcraft. Religions have frozen out individuals for centuries: Catholics call it excommunication, herem is the highest form of punishment in Judaism, and the Amish practice Meidung. The Church of Scientology recommends total “disconnection” from anyone deemed antagonistic toward the religion.
“My research suggests that two in three individuals have used the silent treatment against someone else; even more have had it done to them,” Williams said. Experts told me that although they need more data to know for certain, instances of the silent treatment have likely increased over the years as new forms of communication have been invented. “Every new method of connection can be used as a form of disconnection,” Williams said.
Ostracism can also manifest in lesser ways: someone walking out of the room in the middle of a conversation, a friend at school looking the other way when you wave at them, or a person addressing comments from everyone in a message thread except you. “Partial ostracism,” Williams told me, might mean monosyllabic replies—a terse period at the end of a one-word text message. But in serious cases, ostracism can take a heavy toll whereby victims become anxious, withdrawn, depressed, or even suicidal.
“Because we humans require social contact for our mental health, the ramifications of isolation can be severe,” Joel Cooper, a psychology professor at Princeton, told me. “In the short term, the silent treatment causes stress. In the long term, the stress can be considered abuse.”
Read: The particular cruelty of domestic violence
Although a perpetrator might use the silent treatment in many different scenarios, this is what every scenario has in common: “People use the silent treatment because they can get away with it without looking abusive to others,” Williams explained, “and because it’s highly effective in making the targeted individual feel bad.”
The silent treatment is a particularly insidious form of abuse because it might force the victim to reconcile with the perpetrator in an effort to end the behavior, even if the victim doesn’t know why they’re apologizing. “It’s especially controlling because it deprives both sides from weighing in,” Williams said. “One person does it to the other person, and that person can’t do anything about it.”
The silent treatment might be employed by passive personality types to avoid conflict and confrontation, while strong personality types use it to punish or control. Some people may not even consciously choose it at all. “A person may be flooded with feelings they can’t put into words, so they just shut down,” Anne Fishel, the director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, told me. But regardless of the reason for the silent treatment, it can be received by victims as ostracism.