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:

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 discovery concerning 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.