We need to talk about The Silent Treatment, the technique of sulking to make a person feel rejected and abandoned that so many abusers employ to crush their partners, children or other family members. The truth is that The Silent Treatment is a weapon that abusers use to wound you deeply – without the perpetrator ever having to lay a finger on you.
The Silent Treatment is toxic
So, the first thing that you need to acknowledge to yourself is just how toxic The Silent Treatment really is. It works to inflict emotional death on you by a thousand cuts. Each time you attempt to put back together the broken pieces of the relationship – and your self-worth – after The Silent Treatment the more fragile it becomes in all the broken places.
The Silent Treatment teaches you that you are never safe. At best, you are attempting to keep yourself afloat in an unsafe and unstable relationship. But any moment you can fall from grace into nothingness. The fall into nothingness, in turn, teaches you that you are nothing.
As a result, The Silent Treatment causes victims to experience massive distress. You learn the futility of ever voicing our feelings when you can expect them to fall, quite literally, on deaf ears.
The other side of the coin is that The Silent Treatment works wonderfully well for the perpetrator who can argue (truthfully for once) that they never said a word. After all, who could possibly blame them for retreating into wounded silence at something you said? Allegedly.
The Silent Treatment puts you in a cage
What practitioners of The Silent Treatment omit to mention is that they use their weapon to confine you in a cage of their making. Their silence denies you the knowledge of whatever it was that you said to cause so much – alleged – offence together with the opportunity to rectify your mistake.
“My” toxic husband (that possessive is always a nonsense, in no way are they actually “ours”) waited until the honeymoon to really implement The Silent Treatment. I write about that experience in my book, “Married to Mr Nasty”.
After he had tired of his first, full-blown 36 hour sulk, we talked about it – or, at least, I thought we talked about it. I also thought something had been learned.
In reality, nothing constructive was learned on my side (otherwise I would have left, then and there). “My” husband must have learned that the technique worked even better than he had hoped, given my level of distress. Certainly, he continued to use The Silent Treatment every six weeks approximately for the first decade of our marriage. Then he started to both escalate hostilities and speed the whole cycle up.
Still, for the longest time, I did not see what was going on.
What stopped me seeing it?
How could I possibly miss a thing like that?
I missed it for two reasons.
- My parents were also great practitioners of The Silent Treatment. Sadly, as we all know to our cost, the abuse that you grow up with feels somehow “normal” – even when one part of you is screaming that what is happening is crazy and wrong.
- The wasband was much more intelligent and emotionally aware than my parents (who were a tad Neanderthal). So, I could not believe that someone as wonderful and smart as I thought he was could stoop that low. I honestly believed that he was better than that.
I continued to believe that he was better than that (whatever that was) for a very long time. Despite entire mountain ranges of evidence to the contrary.
Every so often, my intuition would throw up an unwelcome, half-formed observation like, “He looks like an overgrown child the way he is strutting around.” But my well-honed denial reflex would kicked in and shriek, “No! That can’t be true. It must be your fault. What did you do wrong?” Then off I would go down the rabbit hole of what I’d done and whether or not it really was my fault.
The Silent Treatment is solitary confinement
The Silent Treatment works as a form of solitary confinement. Within the confines of your own home, the silence gives you plenty of time to obsess about your crimes and misdeeds. Eventually, however, the day dawns when you get sick to the death of the whole damned thing. Then you come to see The Silent Treatment as a welcome respite from your abusive partner’s bile.
Too many of us tolerate The Silent Treatment for far too long. When we tolerate it, we hand an abusive loved one a precious gift – a free pass to continue to behave as badly towards us as they please.
If we learn anything from an abusive relationship we need to learn to identify and say “No” to bad behavior. Preferably on Day 1 – or, if you really want to cover all bases, Day 2 – but never Day 300 or Day 32,995.
If you are currently in a relationship with someone who inflicts The Silent Treatment on you, you need to set some protocols in place.
- Ask them to confirm or deny. Whenever you see your partner disappear into The Silent Treatment, contact him in whatever way you find most convenient and say, “I notice that you appear not to be speaking to me. Please confirm whether or not this is the case?” You ask this NOT because you doubt your own powers of observation but to let them know that you are onto them.
- Tell them where you stand. However they answer, tell them as much – or as little of what follows as it is safe for you to do. “I just want you to know that I find severing communication infantile and unacceptable. If you choose to show up as non-existent in the relationship, I will accept that you have ceased to exist in the relationship.” No further clarification is required or need be offered. However, you know that until such time as they revert to tolerable behavior you will suspend all the activities that you routinely provide to support them and make their life more comfortable.
- Reassure yourself. Reassure yourself that you are not aggravating an already bad situation. You are not because they could wake up to the error of their ways – although the likelihood of this happening is infinitesimally small. More likely, they might back down for the sake of convenience or else sulk for even longer. Either way, it doesn’t really matter because the long-term solution doesn’t change.
The long-term solution
There is only one viable long-term solution. You have to walk away from this “partner” and this situation. Having a partner who “disappears” you whenever they feel that way inclined is no way to live. Nor is it a relationship blueprint that you want for your children. If you have managed to survive a toxic loved one’s absences within the relationship, you will thrive in their permanent absence.
The Silent Treatment is meant to “show” you how bad life would be without a toxic person in your life. However, sooner or later, it teaches you that they are the toxicity at the heart of your life. You can only be far healthier and happier without them.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
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