The Silent Treatment – Effective, Appropriate, Biblical!

Sarah Beals posted a great piece on how to deal with difficult people. In How to Handle a Relationship You Wish Would Go Away, she discusses when to interact with difficult people and when it’s time to avoid them. There is a lot of wisdom in her post, both from Scripture and from her mom.

The same day I read Sarah’s post, I came across an interesting article on the value of giving difficult people the silent treatment. Entitled How to deal with jerks: Give ’em the silent treatment, it reports on some interesting research. While cautioning against turning the silent treatment into a passive/aggressive weapon, and noting the limited usefulness of the technique when it comes to significant or long-term relationships, the article gives some good insight:

The research reveals there are benefits to cutting off conversation with a person who is being obnoxious: It’s not as draining on your mental resources, you avoid conflict with someone offensive, and it’s much simpler than getting into a heated discussion.

I think those researchers are on to something, but I think what they are on to is thousands of years old.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him. (Proverbs 26:4.)

And Jesus said –

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. (Matthew 10:14 )

This seems harsh to us who have read that Jesus also wants us to love even our enemies. But there is a limit to how much time we are to spend with those who are hard to be with.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:17-18.)

You are not responsible for their actions or their response to your actions. All you are responsible is for your own actions in seeking peace with others. And sometimes that peace comes from separation. As Jesus said, it might even take leaving them behind as you move on.

Would this be a cause for celebration? More likely it will be cause for grieving. As Sarah said in her piece –

I vacillate between pitying them for their obviously miserable life and when I really stop to think about what their internal peace must be like, I feel compassion, but usually I dread them for making my life harder (selfish). I need to pray for them and myself … .

Prayer. That is a wise piece of advice she has there for us. And in it we will find we are able to focus more on Christ and what he has done for us, and we are able to leave to him what is going on in the other person’s heart.

After all, their hearts are not really our responsibility. Jesus is the one who is their Lord, not us. And likewise, we are not their Savior either.

But we can commit all of this to the One who is, and find peace resting in him ourselves.


Questions to ponder: How do you usually deal with difficult people? What effect do they have on you?

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36 Responses to The Silent Treatment – Effective, Appropriate, Biblical!

  1. janehinrichs says:

    This is really good. Thank you Tim. It is exactly what I needed to hear about certain situation in my life.

    • Tim says:

      I am so glad it came up for today’s post then, Jane. If it weren’t for the prompting I got from reading both Sarah’s post and that news article yesterday, we’d have had a post on Israelite festivals instead!

  2. Adriana says:

    This was helpful for me too, Tim. Thank you.

    And I’m also looking forward to whatever you have to tell us about Israelite festivals. 🙂

  3. SJBeals says:

    Thanks for sharing my article, Tim. Sometimes in our pursuit to be “right” and make things right, we forget that God values and promotes peace. Sometimes the most peaceful thing we can do is to not open our mouth. 🙂 Ask me how I know. lol

    • Adriana says:

      I’m impressed and challenged by your wisdom, Sarah. I love how your message promotes peace. I’ve always found that when I “win” I really lose.

      I look forward to getting to know you better through your blog!

      • SJBeals says:

        Thank you! Ah, yes…sometimes we win that particular “battle” but in the end, lose the war. There are very few things in life worth fighting that hard over. 🙂 Looking forward to knowing you as well. 🙂

  4. This topic is so important to our ministry and to our purpose – which is to reflect Christ and to give glory to God. So often we can bind ourselves up into ‘shoulds’ rather than respond humanly and compassion. Instead of being sucked into argument its a great reminder to us that even Jesus encouraged us to avoid confrontation with difficult people. I like what is raised too about compassion for them, but it’s in a healthy way – sometimes that means from a necessary distance. Thanks Tim and Sarah

  5. Jeannie says:

    This is a slightly different kind of example but I struggled with ending (or letting end) a relationship with a person who had high needs, that is, recovering from severe depression. She seemed to very much want a relationship with me, but then no-showed for 2 dates, at considerable inconvenience to me. It was also difficult because we didn’t have much of a past history together: there was no longtime foundation of a healthy mutual friendship, shared memories of good times, etc. that would sustain us during a period when she was unable to give to the relationship. And I had 2 kids whose needs at the time were quite high and I didn’t feel able to take on what essentially seemed to be another caregiving role. It was difficult, but I had to acknowledge that sometimes we are not called to a particular relationship even if the other person desires it and even if we feel we “should” provide help and support. And I knew that she did have other friends as well as a church community. But I didn’t explicitly end things; if she called and wanted to meet I just said I would contact her when I was available — then I simply stopped responding and didn’t initiate any further contact. I’m still not absolutely sure I did the right thing in terms of HOW I ended the relationship, but I’m sure the fact THAT it ended was right. Thanks for this post and the links; these are important subjects.

    • Tim says:

      Not taking on another caregiving role – yes, that is an extremely important consideration. It sounds like your responsibilities were already taking most of your resources, Jeannie.

    • Tough decisions are never easy but knowing how conscientious and considerate you are I’m sure you handled it well. God gives us level of grace we need in all situations and I think He sets limits/healthy boundaries for us too.

    • SJBeals says:

      Jeannie, I feel for you b/c those types of things can plague us with guilt. In the end, it wasn’t a friendship. It was a mentoring relationship, if that. Sometimes for the sake of our kids, family, etc…we just need to step away and realize that this isn’t the “season” for high maintenance relationships. I have my hands full with my own 5 kids, then apart from them, 24 nieces and nephews, a youth group and church family. Peter always reminds me (with a graph–he’s an accountant) that my greatest area of responsibility is to the people who God gave me direct, intimate contact with first. (my kids, my nieces and nephews, my sisters, parents, and then out from there.) If you feel as though you have lingering guilt about the situation, perhaps drop her a “I’m praying for you” card to make sure she knows you care?

  6. Nancy Van Wyck says:

    Wow this one hit home. Theres this lady I have to deal with almost every day. She isn’t liked by very many people because she gets so nasty and know matter how hard I try she will come back with a nasty remark. Like one time I told her I was going to prayer meeting and that I would pray for her because of her bad back and she said well I won’t pray for you. I try to handle her with kind words but found I was getting upset so now I say hello and walk away. Thanks Tim for putting so much into your blogs as they really are helpful.

  7. Aimee Byrd says:

    This reminds me of John Tesh’s recent “intelligence for your life” piece I heard on the radio. He was talking about toxic people, literally–they actually make us sick, physically. Sheesh!

    • Tim says:

      That is such a good point, Aimee. These types of encounters can affect us physically. Then again, good encounters also have the potential for physical effects, although they’d be good ones. We all know how being with someone and sharing a good time makes us feel stronger and livelier!

  8. michellevl says:

    Silence is golden, and it can de-escalate a heated situation with a jerk. I’ve found that there are also relationships that need to be dialed down but not ended. Less talk, and less information exchanged can bring some breathing room into a not-so-healthy relationship. Like Jeannie, above, I’ve distanced myself from a few relationships. I am never quite sure I’ve done it “right” (is there a neat, clean way to do this, anyway?), but I am certain it needed to be done – for the sake of both parties.

    • Tim says:

      “Less talk, and less information exchanged can bring some breathing room into a not-so-healthy relationship.”

      Now there’s some wisdom I should embroider on a sampler and hang on my wall, Michelle!


  9. Pingback: Sunday Funnies – Google Oddities 3 | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  10. Jonathan Westbrook says:

    Women have to be careful about that one. In dealing with strangers who ‘demand’ attention on the street or public transport, you will always have to make the decision about whether cutting off or making polite or impolite speech is safer. Some men will escalate quickly if you don’t acknowledge them. Be safe!

    • Tim says:

      While this post is about dealing with people we are already in a relationship with, you’re right that dealing with strangers is a tricky business sometimes, Jonathan.


  11. Sandy says:

    At first, I didn’t understand what you meant, but I read the original article and agree. I don’t think I’d call it the “silent treatment” because that indicates a sort of purposeful retaliation in my mind. Its very difficult for me because a family member routinely ignores me and will never tell me what’s wrong. Eventually, I get a call where they finally yell at me over something I usually don’t even remember but apologize for because I probably did do whatever they said and I definitely don’t want to hurt their feelings.
    This time, they are ignoring three family members. Although I can see why they are upset with the other two (though not enough to completely ignore them over Christmas), I can’t understand why they are ignoring me, unfriended, and even blocked me on Facebook without warning. It’s a complete 180 from several months ago. They did pick a huge fight with me wherein they said I wqs the most selfish person they know, I’m just like a person who is best known to me as a physical abuser, and that I’m totally consumed with money. To me, it came out of nowhere- I didn’t know what happened. I thought it was going to get physical, but they apologized after I told them to leave and my kids and I forgave. I thought all would be okay, but since then, there were no calls and no normal emails, the last response I got was one that said they just needed some time and they’d address the issue later on. That was over a month ago. We were talking several times a week – and now nearly dead silence with no explanation or discussion. It really hurts my feelings. I don’t think it’s right, but I can’t make anyone talk. I’d rather have them yell at me rather than pretend I don’t even exist. Anyway- I do agree with what the article says. The motive for that sort of “silent treatment ” would be to keep peace, not punish.

    • Tim says:

      Sandy, I am so sorry for all you’ve gone through. That type of passive/aggressive silent treatment is in no way Christ-like. (As you discerned from my post I’m really talking about when it’s best to stay silent, not how to use the bad klind of silent treatment.) I’m praying for God’s peace in your family, and that God will protect you and your children.


      • Sandy says:

        Thank you, Tim. I appreciate your prayers and encouragement. It has been nine months and nohing has changed, but I am growing from it. Specifically, I have cared too much about this relationship. I’ve given too much mental and emotional energy to it. Honestly, that’s idolatry. I’m finally at a point where I’d like to have this resolved, but if they never speak to me again, it will be okay and I’m not overly disappointed nor will I be angry. God can use what feels or actually is wrong to bring good. Thanks again.

  12. This post recalls a couple of conflicts in my mind. Good fodder for a post of my own…

    Also, our church is working through The Peacemaker by Ken Sande in all the Sunday School classes for all ages:
    I read part of it years ago and it really helped me to understand my contribution to a conflict I was having at that time. Wow, did I ever want to *not* acknowledge my own culpability! And how much more at peace I was when I acknowledged it and apologized. Praise God that He is a God of reconciliation and peace.

  13. redapemusic says:

    Thanks Tim! As someone who is on the receiving end of the “silent treatment”, because of my current position I now see the error of my ways! I have tried communicating with my spouse, and I admit that this has always been rather difficult, however I now realize that it has been a futile attempt. Who knew that all I needed was a little emotional abuse to show me what a miserable person I am!? Well, for one my spouse did because I must say that they are fairly effective at giving me the “silent treatment”. Anyway, had I read this blog sooner, I would have realized that what my spouse was trying to communicate with me through the “silent treatment” was that any further communication between us is pointless! I can not wait until I am able to relay this newfound insight to her and her family, they are also very adept at giving each other the “silent treatment”. Through this new knowledge, I believe that I should be able to save us and them from anymore strife, conflict, and “silent treatment”s in the future! Go me!

  14. redapemusic says:

    I understand that in this article you were speaking to a different issue than what I and some of the other commenters referred to. However I think that it is important that what you are actually describing should be termed as something different. The silent treatment is actually a method of psychological harm intended to inflict hurt onto someone else, while what you were largely speaking to is a type of self protection or conflict resolution. Typically, if a person is avoiding some potential harm or attempting to deescalate a potential negative situation, they make clear there intentions and ensure that the other party knows under what circumstances the communication can be restored. On the other hand, when giving the silent treatment, the party that is issues out the treatment does their best to conceal any intentions seemingly in an effort to obscure the all aspects of the conflict. I think that this small difference is all that is needed to show that the two phenomena are really separate and distinct actions.

    • Tim says:

      You’re right, they are completely separate and distinct. I also think that the passive/aggressive type of silent treatment is never appropriate. Using the words “silent Treatment” in this post’s title is supposed to be thought provoking, not a sign of support for the harmful tactics you have had to endure. I’m glad you saw my intent by the time you read through it all.


  15. janehinrichs says:

    Tim, it is so cool to see this was originally posted back in 2013 AND I commented on it then and am commenting on it now. I have no idea what the issue I was dealing with back then was. I know I am at a different place in my life and I like how I read this and got something new out of it. A person I love is dealing with the negative consequences of someone else’s gossip habit. After much prayer and thought my husband and I think the best way for us to handle it was to just say nothing at all — not what you were talking about. But silence can often be the best answer to many situations when confrontation will not be received well.

  16. B. Baldwin says:

    To me the article appears to say that if you don’t like the political, social, or religious
    attitudes of another person, it is best to separate from them using “the silent treatment”.
    I find that to be very self-centered and certainly not Christ-like.

    • Tim says:

      If silence is used in a passive/aggressive manner, it certainly is not Christ-like (as mentioned in the post above). But if instead someone knows when to talk and when not to speak up, then it’s completely in line with Scripture (Ecclesiastes 3 comes to mind)

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