The Silent Treatment: The Coward’s Way Out

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I have a question whose answer I probably should have learned years ago, but didn’t.  What’s the best, or least worst, way to break off a romantic liaison that’s lasted on and off for decades? I’m 72 and my lady friend is 66. I’ve been giving her the silent treatment for the past three months and she’s responded by not contacting me all summer.

I’m an Elder of my church and I know what I’m doing to her is wrong.  I don’t want to hurt her.  Her feelings for me are probably deeper and more loving than mine are for her, which are more sexual than emotional. Hers are both. I’m not sure I want to deal with the emotions she feels (when we were last together, she wept, which was a turn-off for me). If she didn’t love me, I’d want to continue a sexual relationship with her.  Or should I be more understanding of her feelings and not end it at all?  I’m in turmoil over this.

The last time I didn’t know what to do about her, when I was much younger, I asked my mother. I’ve been reading your advice column all summer.  Now I’m asking you.

I find it very hard to be a good person.

Penitent in Pittsburgh

Dear Penitent,

I’m glad you’re ready to seek alternatives to the silent treatment.  Most people who resort to it genuinely don’t know what to say, often because they don’t know what they want to do — and saying nothing seems like the path of least resistance.  The advantage, they think, is that at least they won’t say anything they’ll regret.

What they may not understand is that even though it appears passive and therefore neutral, it actively inflicts excruciating pain every single day. Speaking directly to your lady friend may seem difficult after three months of silence, but it’s the only decent thing to do.  It shows her the respect and empathy she deserves, and that you’d want from anyone in a serious relationship with you.  Perhaps you’ve been incommunicado because you’re uncertain whether you do want to break it off with her.  But the silent treatment is no substitute for communication. It’s cruel and unusual punishment

It is, I regret to tell you, for cowards who don’t have the guts, the decency, or the empathy to use one of the unique gifts of humanity: the power of speech.


As the great Neil Sedaka put it, for the first time in 1962, breaking up is hard to do. There’s a reason that a “break-up” includes the word “break”: it’s a fracture, a rupture, a shattering.  Not only is it difficult to accomplish, but it’s even more excruciating to be the target. Many people never recover from a heartlessly-administered split.

Breaking up in an empathetic way is one of the most difficult responsibilities we face in life.  Why?  Because breaking up is an act of rejection and abandonment. At its essence, it expresses the death of hope, the slough of despond. The musical chords have changed from major to minor:

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Breaking off a relationship is analogous to a death.  You’ll be telling her the relationship has died. You will have died in her life. You may not want to die in her life, and you may not want her to die in your life, either.  That may be one reason you’re in turmoil.

Breaking up is also akin to firing someone.  A pink slip, be it physical or metaphorical, is no way to end it. The movie Up in the Air showed the despair and rage that come with being fired, especially by a hired gun to whom your boss has outsourced the task.  This scene was deleted from the final version because of the spontaneous, strongly-worded responses of two of the fired employees.  It vividly portrays real employees’ reactions to being fired.  Being the casualty of a bad romantic break-up feels just as painful:


For those who can’t outsource firing or breaking up, there’s always the cruel course that Penitent in Pittsburgh has taken for the past three months. The silent treatment is surely the easiest way out for the emotionally lazy, the busy, and the careless — careless in The Great Gatsby sense of the word.  Along with Chinese water torture, the silent treatment is the ideal way to inflict the maximum degree of anguish while exerting the least amount of effort.

You do nothing. No calls, no emails, no texts, no letters, no explanations, no sense of responsibility.  Just a long, soul-crushing silence.  Too self-absorbed, too distracted, far too important to bother to be a decent human being. You figure she’ll get the message sooner or later. Why trouble yourself with the effort it takes to speak from the heart, face to face, when silence is so effective? Cruel, but effective. Unconscionable, but effective.  Despicable, but effective.

As Leonard Cohen wrote, “Hey, that ain’t no way to say goodbye.”

What, then, is the way to say good bye?


The answer to that question is a corollary of the general rule of life: always be kind.  Even when you break up with someone — especially when you break up with someone — you have a duty as a decent human being to do it with as much kindness as possible.

Since you’re lopping off an entire person from your lady friend’s life — to wit, you — try to be more of a surgeon than a butcher.  Understand that, like a surgeon, you’ll need a careful plan because you’re dealing with quivering human flesh and a beating heart — not a  slaughtered carcass on your well-worn chopping board.

It never fails to astonish me how people who attend weekly worship services live their lives on the days that are not the Sabbath in ways contrary to every tenet of Judeo-Christian ethical conduct. It’s as if they believe that by showing up at a religious service once a week they’ve earned a free pass to be as heartless as they like the other six days. What’s the point of weekly worship in public if not to be reminded every seven days of our absolute duty of kindness to our fellow human beings?

From your question, it sounds as if your lady friend has done you no wrong, nor been either cruel or unfair to you.  She wept, but that hardly seems a fireable offense. It sounds as if your reason for wanting to break it off is your increasing discomfort with her desire to be in an emotional love affair when your desire is for a dreamily-exciting, sentiment-free zone of sexual satisfaction.  You sound remarkably like an older version of the kind of man George Gilder described in his classic book on unattached men, Naked Nomads.


Your attitude toward her love for you may be related to a newly-discovered biological fact that’s the subject of a stunning, recent scientific discoveryconcerning the difference between men’s and women’s brains during orgasm.  Your situation sounds like a living, heavily-breathing illustration of these new findings.  A study by Rutgers University psychology professor Barry R. Komisaruk compared brain activity in women and men during orgasm.  His research revealed that while making love, and at climax, women’s brains are bathed in a pain-killing, defenses-lowering hormone that leads them (us) to fall in love with the person with whom we experience orgasm:

A key hormone released during sex is oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone.” This lowers our defenses and makes us trust people more, says Dr Arun Ghosh, a GP specialising in sexual health at the Spire Liverpool Hospital.

It’s also the key to bonding, as it increases levels of empathy. Women produce more of this hormone [than do men], although it’s not clear why, and this means they are more likely to let their guard down and fall in love with a man after sex.

However, the problem is that the body can’t distinguish whether the person we’re with is a casual fling or marriage material — oxytocin is released either way. So while it might help you bond with the love of your life, it’s also the reason you may feel so miserable when a short-term relationship ends.

Men, on the other hand, instead of getting a surge of bonding hormone receive a surge of … pleasure.

‘The problem is that when a man has an orgasm, the main hormone released is dopamine — the pleasure hormone. And this surge can be addictive,’ says Dr Ghosh.

That’s why so many more men tend to suffer from sex addiction.

A lack of a signal from a man that the woman is accepted and loved can often lead a healthily orgasmic woman to be unable to achieve climax with a man who doesn’t communicate enough acceptance and affection to allow her to lower her defenses sufficiently to relax.

As for your being “turned off” by her tears, a study in the January 24, 2011, issue of Science magazine (behind a firewall) found that

Emotional tears are thought to be uniquely human and have puzzled biologists and psychologists for many years. Using a double-blind study comparing female emotional tears with control saline, Gelstein et al. (p. 226, published online 6 January) investigated whether human tears may convey a chemosignal. Even though the tears could not be smelled, tears nevertheless decreased the sexual appeal of women’s faces. Female tears also lowered sexual arousal and reduced testosterone levels in men. A subsequent brain-imaging study highlighted differences in functional activation in the brain. Emotional tears thus seem to contain chemo-sensory signals related to socio-sexual behavior.

Once you understand that, you may want to re-think ending your relationship because her weeping was a “turn-off.”  All that means is that you’re a man.

If, after careful consideration of what you may lose — forever — by ending this relationship, you decide that you want to break it off, here’s my advice.


First, if you’re wondering why it’s so important to do this in a loving way, it may help if you imagine how she’ll feel about you afterward. Do you want to leave her with such feelings of anger and hurt that she’ll think, “What a total bastard he is”?

If your answer is, “I don’t care what she thinks,” no need to read further.  Just continue the silent treatment. There’s no hope for you.

If you do care, would you prefer that when she hears your name in the future, or reflects on you, she thinks, “What a great guy he is.  He treated me with great sensitivity and kindness and I’ll always think highly of him and be ready to help him in any way I can”?

I trust that your preference would be the second response. To achieve that, you’ll have to be gentle and non-accusative.  That is, you can’t blame her for being who and what she is.  That includes blaming her for loving you.  For most women, loving a man feels like a natural part of love-making. The recent studies of brain scans demonstrate that by experiencing love-making and climax with you, her loving you is part of basic female biology and neurology. This is the woman, after all, with whom you’ve shared a bed.  You’ve fallen asleep embracing her and awakened to her smile. You’ve already subjected her to a three-month silent treatment.  I, for one, see no reason to add insult to injury.

I suggest meeting her in public rather than where either of you lives. Perhaps there’s a restaurant you’ve frequented together that you both like, and where she’ll feel comfortable.  On the other hand, you should prepare her in advance so that she doesn’t anticipate that this will be just another in a series of enjoyable dinners with you.  And to say something as unclear as, “I have something important to discuss with you” could have the unintentionally callous effect of making her feel that a marriage proposal or a suggestion that you live together is in the offing.  It’s better to say something like, “I have some difficult news I want to tell you when we’re together,” or “I want to see you to discuss a painful subject.”

If she’s at all curious, she’ll ask if your health is all right or whether a member of your family has died, and you’ll reassure her on those grounds, but under no circumstances should you make clear in advance that this will be a goodbye dinner.  That must be done in person.  If she responds, “So, we’ve come to the end?” Say, “I want to talk to you in person, I don’t want to discuss anything further on the phone (or via email, texting or ‘chats.’)”

As difficult as it may be for you, you’ll inflict less pain on her if you take full responsibility, placing the entire burden for the break-up on one of your flaws.  You could say something like, “From the beginning, I’ve thought of you as a great person, a smart, fun, sexy woman.  I’ve been attracted to you from the day we met.  I’ve always felt a real bond with you. But we’ve talked about our goals, and I know you want a relationship with me that you can depend on, and I’ve come to realize that I can’t give you the caring relationship you rightly want and you highly deserve.”

If that doesn’t fit you or your circumstances, then discuss a different flaw of yours that, you will tell her, has already begun to  gnaw away at the relationship, and will ultimately destroy it.  You might say something about how loving and loyal she’s been but that you cannot in good conscience accept her love and loyalty when you know, in your heart and mind, that you aren’t going to be as caring as she deserves.  In fact, you could say that if you were selfish, and didn’t care about her feelings, you would continue seeing her, but that you possess not only a sexual organ but also a conscience. Above all,

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Your goal — if you decide to break it off — is to extricate yourself from the relationship without leaving her distraught or feeling that she played her cards all wrong.  Perhaps she did. She apparently loved you and let you know it, despite your lack of love for her. But why inflict additional pain on her if you can end it without causing more anguish by forcing her to re-play each minute you were together in an effort to discover what she should’ve done differently?  That’s consigning her to the torment of the damned. I would think that she’s had ample opportunity to re-examine all that transpired between you and that she wishes she hadn’t wept in your presence.


She may well ask, “Can we still be friends?”  The answer to that depends on whether you want to be friends.  If you don’t, I wouldn’t slam the door in her face by saying, “No, we can’t.”  I’d suggest a softer landing, such as, “I’ll always value your friendship.  But for the next few months, I think we should go our separate ways because I’m afraid that if we’re together, we’ll — or I’ll — continue to behave as I have with you.  I think I need to take some more time off and then, afterward, I’d like to be friends and stay in touch.”

Resist the temptation, especially if she hasn’t asked, to ask her whether you can still be friends.  You may think you’re offering this option in a spirit of generosity, but it won’t be received in that way.  You may be telling yourself “I believe it’s the gentlemanly thing to do.”  No, it isn’t.  You’re just trying to reassure yourself that she won’t go away furious at you.

This is self-protection masquerading as civility.

What you’re trying to do by asking if you can still be friends is to keep the break-up from being messy.  But by definition it is messy.  Even exquisitely-performed surgery is bloody.

In the fullness of time, she may contact you or you may contact her in an attempt to create a friendship from the shards of this break-up, but to request it immediately is selfish.  It will not reassure her that you still harbor affection and respect for her.  She will feel it as an unfair imposition — that you want it both ways.  You want the reassurance that she’ll continue to be there for you, and the freedom to abandon her as your lover.   That’s being a jerk, not a mensch.

If you eventually contact her before she contacts you, and she fails to respond, give up.  Don’t continue your pursuit of a “friendship.”  If she doesn’t respond, bow out.  If you want to get back together romantically and she doesn’t respond, bow out. This is precisely why you shouldn’t act precipitously now, because if you do, you may be burning a bridge to one of the few people on the planet whose loyal affection and warmth you know you can count on.

If you can, emphasize that you’re sad, too.  Say that this was a very special time in your life and that you’ll always think warmly of her.  Leave her with at least a shred of self-respect.  Make sure she understands that you’ve thought long and hard about this and that you’re convinced this will be best in the long run, although very painful for both of you in the short run.


Don’t even think about having sex with her first and then telling her that it’s over.  For that degree of pure, unadulterated selfishness there should be a special, everlastingly flame-licked sector in Hell designated for men who indulge in a farewell act of intercourse when they know it’s the final one and their partner doesn’t.  This is nothing but exploitation.  I mention this because you wrote to me, “I find it very hard to be a good person.”  Helpful hint for future reference: good people don’t exploit others just because they can.  Especially women who love them.


Before you do any of this, make certain that your reaction to her tears and to your summer of silence don’t lead you to make an irrevocably self-wounding or self-destructive mistake.  You may live to regret cutting off a woman who’s been part of your life in such a loving way for so long. Ask yourself whether you’re ready to say adieu or whether, deep in your heart, you might feel this way instead:

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Don’t do something you’ll regret forever and will never be able to undo.  It could well turn out that, when you meet her to break it off, you’ll feel like this.

If you do, pull back from the precipice and recognize how lucky you are.

– Belladonna Rogers

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