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Why the Silent Treatment Is a Tactic of Abuse and Control

... and how to respond to it.

Niklas Hamman/Unsplash
Source: Niklas Hamman/Unsplash

Refusing to listen, talk or respond to a partner is sometimes called “the silent treatment.” Many people cut off their partners emotionally to hurt, punish, or manipulate them. Some people even refuse to acknowledge their partners’ existence for hours, days, or weeks on end, making the partners feel as if they are somehow less than human, like a ghost:

Nina could never tell what would set off her husband, Ray, and make him refuse to speak with her. Nina first experienced Ray's silence when they were dating. Ray felt that Nina had looked too happy while dancing with a male friend, so he walked out of the club without saying good-bye, and refused to speak with her or even acknowledge her for weeks.

Over the years, Nina learned to cope with Ray's cruel silences, continuing to prepare his meals and wash and fold his clothes even as he ignored her for long periods. The silent treatment usually ended with Ray grabbing at Nina brusquely for sex at night. The next morning, he acted as if the break in their relationship had never happened and refused to discuss it.

Being ignored is especially difficult for a person who is isolated by abuse and coercive control, and depends on the abuser’s approval to feel worthwhile and safe. Many abuse survivors say they hated the silent treatment more than the insults or yelling. When they were shouted at, at least they knew what was on the abuser’s mind, and could better assess their own and their children’s safety. Stone-cold silence can reinforce feelings of vulnerability and fear.

Hostile Withholding Is a Form of Gaslighting

When angered by their partner, some people turn a little cold. They may be "correct" in their responses, not outwardly mean, but still treat their partner like someone they barely know, or like a neighbor or colleagues at work. This is crazy-making because when confronted, the person acting cold will deny it. "What do you mean? You're imagining it!" Or—in another phrase that is often used to convince victims that they are the problem, "You're hysterical over nothing."

Some abusers engage in what may appear to be a “milder” form of the silent treatment, in which they do not maintain total silence but still cut off their partners emotionally:

Sara knew when her husband, Reggie, was angry because he would put on “a serious face” that communicated to her that she should be especially submissive and not approach him. He spoke to her without smiling and with a cold, impersonal tone. She knew that Reggie was deliberately trying to make her feel bad. Reggie often exploded in anger following a period of silence. Sara said that the hostile withholding made her extremely anxious; she redoubled her efforts to make Reggie feel better, silencing her own needs and desires.

Responding to the Silent Treatment

If you or someone you care about is being subject to the silent treatment, the following steps may help:

  • Avoid becoming isolated: Maintaining relationships with family, friends, neighbors and coworkers will make it easier for you to weather the storm of your partner’s moods.
  • Maintain a rich inner life: Engaging in hobbies, reading, and art projects can help you stay strong and stable while facing silent hostility from your partner.
  • Remember yourself: One of the problems with being in a relationship with an abusive and controlling partner is that it can be difficult to remember who you are. This is called perspecticide. Do not allow your opinions, desires and goals to be erased.
  • Seek professional counseling: A therapist who understands control and abuse can help you understand what you have been through and face the challenges ahead.
  • Decide on your limits: Recognizing that the silent treatment is just one tactic in a controlling person’s toolbox, decide what your limits are. If you feel like the situation is harmful to you or family members, find a domestic violence advocate who can help you plan a safe way out of the relationship.
  • Consider ending the relationship: You do not need to stay in a relationship where your partner is mean or cruel to you, whether it is through the silent treatment, verbal abuse, physical or sexual abuse, economic control, or some other means. Contact your local domestic violence agency, speak with an advocate, develop a safety plan, and map out a future for yourself where you can be free.

Time-outs vs. the Silent Treatment

It is worth noting that sometimes counselors teach people who have been abusive to take a “time-out” so they can calm down and gather their thoughts before reengaging with their partners. Done properly, the person will ask if it is okay to take a time-out, and then will go for a walk, exercise, meditate, or read a book, for example, so they can return to the conversation in a calmer and more productive way. Taking a time-out should lead to improved communication and collaboration, whereas the silent treatment is an assertion of dominance and control. The person who is being victimized can tell the difference.

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