Sulking: getting the Silent Treatment!
Oh, he’s just having one of his sulks – best to ignore him.
If she doesn’t get what she wants, she goes into a sulk – forever!
There’s no point in trying to talk with them – they’re in a sulk!
Living, or working closely, with a sulker isn’t much fun.
It can be like walking on eggs. They like to control you by giving or withdrawing affection – so put just one foot wrong and you could be in trouble.
And there are so many ways to ‘put a foot wrong’.
Did you give them a ‘funny look’? Or not use the right tone of voice? Or forget to pay a compliment? Or laugh at the wrong moment. Or not laugh at the right moment.
You must stay alert
With sulkers, you need to be super-aware of their moods, moment by moment.
Otherwise, you risk upsetting or mistreating them e.g. “well, if you really cared I wouldn’t have to tell you how I feel – you’d know!”
What’s more, their rules-for-you are not reliable.
These can change unexpectedly – this is often as a way of keeping you on your toes – keeping you defensive. After all, if they clearly lay out the rules, you could stick to them and stay out of trouble.
But if the goalposts keep changing, you must remain alert…
And, of course, if you’ve ‘put that foot wrong’ you can’t defend yourself nor get an explanation.
Why? Well, they’ve gone silent and now refuse to communicate with you – so you must figure out what you’ve done wrong and then figure out what is the best way of making things up!
Psychologists often describe sulking as a form of passive aggression.
It’s probably more accurately described as ‘hidden aggression’ because the sulker will rarely admit to being angry.
Unlike the outwardly aggressive person, the sulker doesn’t rant, rave, slam or bang things – he goes silent. He denies and hides his anger and will often refuses to even communicate or engage with you.
He feels hostile or angry but hides this behind non-cooperation or non-communication.
Sulking: the silent weapon
Sulking is a devious way of manipulating someone’s emotions.
The sulker will invariably deny they are sulking.
That’s a given.
After all, being frank and open about your sulking wouldn’t work.
There is no point in saying to your intended victim “if you don’t do this I am going to sulk!”
Or “Oh, sorry I can’t talk to you now because I’m sulking to make you change your mood!”
Another thing about sulking is that, not only is it done sneakily but, amazingly, everybody else cooperates in not talking about it – even the person on the receiving end of the sulking behaviour!
There seems to be an unspoken agreement that nobody must highlight or spotlight or draw attention to what the sulker is doing!
It’s the dreaded ‘elephant in the room’ that we all pretend doesn’t exist.
Being on the receiving end of a sulk
The sulk is designed to make you feel guilty by making you aware that you have erred in some way; that you have strayed from the beaten track!
But, of course, your ‘error’ must not be discussed.
Nor will the Sulker admit they are sulking.
After all, it’s a childish behaviour and while many of us resort to it, occasionally or frequently, we’d never own up to being a sulker.
So, in true passive aggressive manner, a practised sulker does a lot by apparently doing and saying nothing.
And their main ‘silent treatment’ weapons are
- Avoid discussing the issue openly
- Avoid eye contact with your target
- Stay angry no matter how the target responds
- Have an audience – make sure they know you’re sulking
1. The Silent Treatment – Avoid discussion!
When you’re on the receiving end of a sulk, you’re shut out in the cold. In fact, with reasonably skilful sulkers, it’s difficult to have a discussion on what’s happening.
Yes, okay, well, a few sulkers will use loud sighs or demonstrative body language to let you know they’re in a sulk. But they’re in a minority.
The truly skilful sulker would never resort to such obvious tactics. They know the value of keeping things subtle.
Your questions or comments may, at best, receive monosyllabic and expressionless “yes, no, whatever you think, I don’t care, etc.” Sometimes you’ll even be denied words and instead get the occasional non-verbal grunt such as ‘yeh’ or “huh” or “hmmhs”.
2. The Silent Treatment: Avoid eye contact
The person who is sulking with you will invariably avoid eye contact. Not only is this a way of not communicating, it’s also a way of refusing to give you “strokes” i.e. you are being denied affection.
Avoiding eye contact aims to keep you feeling unsure and insecure.
This is because of the amount of communication we do through paying attention to eyes. (About 43% of our attention is devoted to watching eyes, according to Stephen Janik and Rodney Wellens at the University of Miami).
So by refusing to have eye contact with you, the sulker cuts off a huge amount of non-verbal communication.
They’re retaliating against how bad they think you’ve ‘made them feel’.
3. The Silent Treatment: maintain anger
The sulker recognises this is an emotional power struggle – to get you to relent, accept you’re in the wrong and offer to make amends.
But to do this they have to remain angry with you – and guard against any attempts by you to lighten the mood or bring warmth or affection back into the relationship. So they will reject your attempts to get them smiling or feeling warm or close.
4. The sulk must be visible: Solo sulking doesn’t work!
It’s interesting that each sulker knows they need an audience.
Trying to do a solo sulk is pointless – people could easily forget you’re having a sulk and just carry on with their day. That’d wouldn’t achieve anything!
As the sulker, even if you slam the door and lock yourself away, you do need to let your target know you’re unhappy and upset about their behaviour.
To keep your victim on the defensive, you have to make noises or come out every so often – while still maintaining that hurt silence. Good sulkers like to stick around and observe their effect – they like to see evidence they are making you unhappy.
You must capitulate
A truly skilled sulker treats their sulking as foreplay to the main act and this main act involves some quite subtle manipulation.
The sulk, the initial withdrawal of affection or communication, is really aimed at softening you up, as the target.
It’s the beginning of a complicated manipulative strategy. It’s a way of wearing down your resistance so that you eventually give in, accept defeat – and ask for their forgiveness.
However, you can’t just give in and hope that will be the end of the matter. It’s not that easy: you have more work to do.
Their apparent willingness to accept your contrition isn’t what it seems.
In fact, it’s frequently an invitation to walk into a trap!
For a skilled sulker, your first attempt to patch things up – to atone for your sins – is likely to be rejected! The same can apply to your second or third attempt to receive forgiveness.
This is because you need to suffer more! You need to prove that you are sufficiently contrite.
And you must admit you were ‘in the wrong’ – and to be prepared to make it up to them in some way! And promise to be better behaved in the future!
Only when the sulker decides that you have showed enough contrition will they accept your apologies and your promises to obey the (unspoken) rules.
This is the official end of the sulk. You’re nearly there.
Now they get to be magnanimous and generous and smiley – they are ready for the ritualistic ‘kiss and make up’ stage.
You have been forgiven.
How to deal with a sulker
If you share your life with a sulker, accept they don’t meet you half-way – there isn’t much give and take. They usually require your complete capitulation.
Attempting to negotiate with a sulker can be frustrating.
Remember that the sulker has been giving people the silent treatment for decades – it’s been tried and tested and refined in different relationships, beginning with family life as a child.
It’s likely to be their primary way of controlling others.
1. Spotlight the sulking behaviour
When someone uses a tactic such as sulking, sighing, or the ‘hurt little girl/boy look’ there is an unwritten convention that we don’t comment on what they are doing.
So, one strategy is to turn the spotlight on them and their action:
Are you sulking right now to get me to change my behaviour?
I notice that since we discussed this a couple of hours ago, you haven’t spoken (or made eye contact etc.)
I notice you’re appearing angry – is that how you are feeling about what I said?
This is a risk strategy since it can likely to provoke a defensive or angry response.
But, if you repeat it for future sulks, it can reduce the likelihood of the sulking habit continuing indefinitely.
2. Be open about your feelings
Announce your feelings honestly.
Highlight their sulking factually and without blame or aggression. ‘I am feeling cut off. I am feeling I have done something wrong. I feel that I have upset you. And I’d like to talk about this and sort things out.’
3. Spell things out rationally
This is like No. 2 (previously).
You describe what it is like to be in your shoes when on the receiving end of a sulk, along the lines:
- I do something you disapprove of or that you are unhappy with
- You stop communicating with me
- We have a long silence
- I eventually ask for a truce – and apologise
- You reject this approach
- Later I apologise even more and promise to be better behaved
- You forgive me and we ‘make it up’ and are happy again
- This lasts until the next time you disapprove of my behaviour – when we begin all over again
This factual approach can work. Or it can backfire and result in more overt anger and longer sulking.
And you may need to make lots of different attempts to get them to level with you – probably over weeks or months.
4. Ignore their behaviour
There is one last-ditch approach – avoid engaging with their sulk.
Again, this is also a risk strategy because it depends on how much they require control of the relationship.
Here you refuse to play the game.
Instead, you act normally. You go about your daily routine and ignore the sulk in the expectation that they will tire of the long silence and begin communicating and exchanging thoughts and feelings.
As with 1-3 this can produce more overt anger and it will almost certainly require you to persist with the strategy over weeks or months.
The sulker is doing something that most likely worked once – when they were children.
Because it worked back then, they’ve got stuck in their passive aggression habit. It’s probably the only way they have of feeling safe and in control in a relationship.
If they felt safe, they wouldn’t need to use the aggressive approach. And if they felt safe, they probably wouldn’t need to control the relationship.
So if the Tips 1-4 for dealing with sulking behaviour don’t work, or don’t look like they will work in your case, you could try patience.
It can happen that, with time and as confidence in the relationship grows, the need to resort to sulking can become a thing if the past.
(This version 9 December 2022. Originally posted 22 September 2019.)