This weekend I was speaking with an old friend about dating and relationships. He is in the stage of healing from a break up with a person who would “clam up” or employ the silent treatment when she wanted to move away from the connection. We discussed how painful it is to be on the receiving end of that type of treatment. It is one of the worst kinds of emotional abuse.
What is the silent treatment? Well, it’s a variety of things. It may be completely not speaking to someone for a period of time. This is not to be confused with enduring the end of a relationship. That’s the end of a relationship. It may not always be complete silence. It could just be a withdrawal of affection. The “treatment” is implementing an extreme barrier with someone and you don’t intend to end the relationship. It can be a form of punishment. It can be a way to create space between the two of you. It can be a default way of dealing with problems in a relationship especially if you don’t know how. The problem is that it is very, very unhealthy. It creates a dynamic where the controller (the person employing the silent treatment) withdraws their affection to get what they want. If the other person truly cares for the controller, they may end up groveling or begging or doing whatever they need to restore the relationship to its former state. But, it leaves that person feeling very icky. I’ve found that when I feel icky, it’s usually because I’m being manipulated and controlled. It doesn’t feel good.
The controlling person may not realize they are controlling. It may be the only way they’ve ever been taught to handle issues. They may be too anxious to discuss problems because, let’s face it, when you discuss something in a relationship, it may not always turn out like you wanted. Or, you may have to hear some hard truths about yourself. Or you may have to say some hard things. All of these things are difficult, and it takes some maturity and some trust to step into a problem and resolve it. Some people have never been given the practice it takes to grow up in that skill. Others don’t want to grow into it. For whatever reason, it happens a lot. I’ve experienced the silent treatment at work, with friends, with romantic partners and with family. Withdrawing affection, attention, and respect are acceptable ways of relating, and it eats away at our emotional health.
For the person that endures the silent treatment, it is really, really painful. I’ve been in numerous relationships where this behavior was used to control me and to manage the power dynamic in the relationship. In most cases, they did not have a desire to change. I interpreted it as they didn’t care for me. Because that’s what happens inside the person that’s left wondering what happened. I feel invisible. I feel as if my spirit – that was once acceptable and loved – has been extinguished. It’s not even that I feel unwanted. If I was unwanted that could be spoken, and I’d at least know how to deal with it. The essence of the silent treatment is that I disappear in the eyes of my friend. I am invisible. I don’t exist. I am extinguished. I am not heard.
I’ve learned that people that “clam up” when problems occur are controllers. Yes, you can ask for space if you need to sort something out. That’s healthy. There’s nothing wrong with needing space in a relationship. There’s nothing wrong with ending a relationship. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing what you want. The uncontrolling person would say what they need to a person they care about. By saying, “Hey, I’m confused right now. I don’t know what I want,” or “Listen, you are important to me, but I’m hurt and I need some space. Can we talk in a week?” you provide room for the other person to be who they are and to REMAIN in connection. Yes, it may hurt to have some space, but their spirit is not banished.
There are some people who use the silent treatment to control, and they are well aware of it. It’s a practice. There are others who don’t think they are using the silent treatment, but they are. They’ve moved away and shut down the other person in a relationship, but they give excuses as to why they aren’t available. Their discussions are short and devoid of the connection that once existed. They keep their spirits out of the interactions and go through the motions. And, if you ask what’s wrong, you might get an answer that nothing is wrong. In fact, you might be told that you are paranoid or needy or clingy or any variation of insults that further extinguish your needs and your spirit. The person that is experiencing the barrier of silence knows that something has changed. We all feel energy in a relationship. When it has moved, we feel it. And, if they are honest, the person employing the silent treatment knows that they have shut down. And part of being shut down is to tell the other person that their experience – their needs – are not important.
I have relationships with several people who employ the silent treatment on a regular basis. In most cases, they don’t know it. So, I try to help them deal with problems in a safe manner by making it safe to talk about things. I don’t always do it right because being the butt of the silent treatment is traumatizing to me emotionally. I wish I was one of those people who could just say that it’s their problem, but I’m not. It taps into my core issues and can send me spiraling. I have to do an incredible amount of work to get back to my normal self when someone I’m close to shuts me out. And it makes me question the long-term value of the relationship. I know my limits, and I know that I can’t be close to people that routinely traumatize me.
If you recognize that you employ the silent treatment on people you love, know that you are destroying your relationships. It may appear that because people stay with you that the relationship is still intact, but it is not. It is no longer a relationship. You are holding them hostage. You are controlling. You are causing pain to people that you care about. Stopping it might be as easy as saying, “I feel like I’m shutting down, and I don’t want to do that. Help me talk about it.” If you are in a relationship with someone that employs the silent treatment to exert their power in a relationship, realize this is not a relationship. It is abusive. Your needs, emotions, spirit and input are vital to a healthy relationship. By its very definition, a relationship is a connection. The silent treatment, “clamming up”, and shutting someone out are all disconnections, and they send a very hateful message. If you continue to accept this kind of treatment, you are rewarding the behavior. It is one of the worst kinds of emotional abuse.