Most of us dread a confrontation. The idea of having to really go out on a limb and address negativity… yuck. It’s nerve-wracking, and anxiety-inducing.
But what about when something bad happens, and it’s totally ignored?
The silent treatment is awful. It’s manipulative, and demonstrates a lot of problematic tendencies. But there’s a subtler nuance — a cousin, perhaps — of the silent treatment: the pretending-nothing-happened.
When something goes wrong, and instead of addressing it, one party just pretends it never happened at all and goes on, as normal. You feel obliged to just… go back to how things were. Be someone who upholds the peace. And pretend your feelings were never hurt, or those bad words were never exchanged. A relationship-specific amnesia takes over.
What are the consequences?
It’s one thing to hold a grudge. Holding a grudge often takes work. It takes energy. And holding onto hatred is often said to be harmful to the holder. So plenty of advice says let it go.
But what about the other end of the spectrum?
When someone pretends nothing ever happened, or seems to just ignore you, the immediate repercussion is doubt. Did they just ‘let it go’ as in rising above it, moving on ‘better’ than you did, or are they secretly still holding onto it? What did they think or feel about it? Will you ever find out?
Pretending nothing ever happened denies both parties of clarity. Ignoring you also leaves you in the dark. You’re unsure where you stand, and unsure of what comes next. It robs you of the chance to forgive, or be forgiven.
I knew someone who had a particularly destructive habit of saying “talk later” right in the middle of a discussion, effectively closing everything down and trying to regain control, in a very manipulative way. By doing that (and then never actually talking or picking up the discussion later on), our interactions then only resumed when enough time had passed for him to want to resume talking to me, and when he felt he wanted to change topics. By pretending we weren’t ever in the middle of something, communication became solely about his ability to control what was being said between us.
That’s the saddest repercussion of all: it shuts down honest and real communication. Without this, exchanging true feelings with someone becomes pretty tough.
Why is it happening?
People give the ‘silent treatment’ for all kinds of reasons, and pretending nothing happened is an extension of this. In particular, this kind of behaviour speaks to a kind of avoidance of confrontation that goes above and beyond valuing intimacy. In other words, the person who does the ignoring would much rather avoid than invest in a connection.
This could be for a lot of reasons, not all nefarious: they might be ultra scared of rejection, or have difficulty expressing their emotions. They might be unaware of how they feel, and in need of time to think about it.
But another explanation for this behaviour can be something far more sinister, like narcissism or manipulation. People who routinely ignore you, whenever it suits them, are doing so as a method of controlling the conversation and ultimately the relationship between you. They want to be the puppeteers of your relationship.
It can demonstrate a lack of maturity, or sense of responsibility for one’s own actions. It can also demonstrate a person with toxic relationship habits.
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There’s no need to immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion. But it is worth just observing and taking note of how often it occurs, when it occurs, and how it makes you feel.
What can you do about it?
How important is the relationship?
Start by determining the nature of the relationship. How important is this relationship to you? It’s an important place to start, because it’s good to determine whether this is something you want to push to work through or not.
How important was the issue?
This refers to whatever it was that triggered the ignoring/pretending in the first place. Was it a disagreement, that they have chosen to just skim over? If it was, what was it about? How likely that this issue could crop up again? Chances are, if you were hurt by it, you might benefit from a discussion. In which case, the issue is important to you.
Whether or not it is important to them is not the question right now — if you need closure, it is important to know that, and know your needs from the relationship. If you have a healthy relationship, it is about give and take.
If you say to them, “Hey, this thing that happened? I really need to talk about it.” Their reaction could go many ways. They might dismiss it as unimportant, they might get angry, they might ignore it all over again, or they might engage, since you’ve brought it up as important. If they don’t want to engage, it’s worth asking why. Do they not understand that this is a need of yours? Do they care more about ignoring the issue than getting closure? Probe a little. If there is a genuinely good reason, you might not have the chance to close the issue. This is something only you can reflect on — whether or not a non-answer is enough for you.
What if it just keeps happening?!
So, what if they ignored you out of nowhere, and now you’re not sure what it was that caused them to do so? Well, that’s the uglier possibility. Someone who ignores you out of nowhere, routinely, is not handling communication very well. They may be trying to punish you or control the scenario, but not in a very mature or kind way. In this case, it is worth approaching directly when you feel okay to do so — if they never respond, then clearly they found something in your behaviour so unacceptable that you may not have the chance to work through it. That is a huge shame, but makes some sense depending on what happened.
On the other hand, the person who then pipes up when they are ready and then randomly ignores you, without any trigger to do so, is going to be tougher to talk to. They need to understand that the behaviour is controlling in a negative way.
So: Is this person someone who routinely ghosts or ignores you as it suits them? If so, how does that make you feel? Do they know how it makes you feel — have you tried to tell them?
What if you don’t get any clear response or can’t make the discussion happen?
It’s worth contemplating this: if you really can’t get to a conversation, what does this mean for the relationship? Would it signal a major rift, or are you just as happy to pretend nothing happened and move on?
Think about how the ignoring really makes you feel. If you don’t mind or don’t care, that is one thing, but chances are it is having an effect on your relationship with that person — whether it’s an overt effect or not. Perhaps you trust them less, or open up with them less often. That’s fine, not all relationships are created equal.
In the end, it is up to you to determine how desirable the relationship is for your life. How much effort, how much energy, will you give it?
If you’d like to give it more, or you do value it highly, it is worth determining what your real needs are in the scenario, and figuring out a way to articulate them.
Are you able to articulate your needs?
It will not be easy, but the only way through this sort of behaviour is to ensure you bring it up, and point it out, and discuss it. They may ignore you for a while — it may take time to actually get to the conversation. But when the opportunity does arrive, it will take courage to say, “So, what was that about?”. Understanding your needs is important here, and if you aren’t sure, it’s worth reflecting on.
Maybe you do already know why the ignoring has come about, but it is important to have the discussion anyway.
Do your best to organise time to talk. Find a neutral place where you can chat, and it won’t feel uncomfortable or pressured. Try to do this face to face if possible. Be as clear as you can about how the situation made you feel. Ask the person questions, directly. Approach with an attitude of openness and make sure to frame the discussion as out of love for the person, not hostility.
Directness will be a little confronting for someone who has taken extreme lengths to avoid communication in the past. Keep this in mind. It will take time, it will take patience. And it might be a surprise to you too — they may have ignored you, because you said something really hurtful, or are being too intense. Sometimes, people get overwhelmed and simply react. Keep in mind that it might have also been something you did, and you need them to clarify what and when in order to grow yourself.
Every relationship has its quirks. But they aren’t so cute if they actually start to upset you. If someone is hurtful, ignoring the problem won’t really solve it. If you have hurt someone, you need to know in order to make change.
The out-of-nowhere ignorers are the scariest, and to them I say it’s time for a dose of reality. If you care about your relationship with someone, you can’t just ignore it forever and hope it all will be okay. It probably won’t be. Without a discussion or an acknowledgement, the chances of having the same or worse happen again is high. Because you never knew what was going on in the first place.
Friendships cannot be controlled by one party. They are about an exchange, a mutual respect. Figure out your needs, assert your value, and nip the bad behaviour in the bud.
Have you ever been deliberately ignored by someone? How did you deal with it?