The silent treatment is a passive aggressive way to regain control. It usually but not always starts with a fight or disagreement. The target defends themselves or tries to have a normal conversation about issues in the relationship and the other person doesn’t want to hear them. They want to focus only what is wrong with you. It’s so much easier for them to expect you to change than for them to work on themselves. And honestly, when dealing with someone who likes control. The ones who micromanage and have OCD tendencies, there is a need to be perfect and present themselves as perfect and their life as perfect so how could they possibly admit fault? If they did, their perfect world would not be perfect. At best the silent treatment is an immature behavior used by spoiled brats and manipulative individuals. … The silent treatment is not blatant; it’s insidious. The only person who really feels the silent treatment is the target.
It’s a game of cat and mouse. One never really knows how long the silent treatment will last. The abuser is always waiting for that response when the peace maker, because most targets are peace makers, comes forward and wants to talk or apologizes to move life into a more normal state and make it tolerable. When you do that, you give them back their control and their life is good again. You feed that need to be right and on top. However, if you don’t feed into it, remember they need their supply so they will either turn it on the children or someone at work to gain some control or they will “come to their senses” and say things like “I don’t want this for us. I want us to be happy. etc.” What is happening here is they are going in the back door to regain control. They are basically lying to get you back to where they are most comfortable, controlling you and making you the one with all the issues. Emotional abusers like this have learned to maneuver their environment to get what they want. It is second nature to them because that need for perfection is so prevalent.
My ex could serve up the silent treatment like nobody’s business. Sometimes it was because I stuck up for myself and other times I had absolutely no idea why I was getting the silent treatment but he did it often. It could last a few days or sometimes weeks. I noticed that the more I didn’t let it bother me, the more calls I got from his employees about his behavior at work and the kids’ suffered more but there came a point when the kids needed to see him in action and I had to use it as a teaching moment because what I was hearing from my boys was “Why don’t you stick up for yourself?” What I also heard at times was “Mom, just don’t respond.” I allowed them to have some of that control. I took their cues as “I can deal with this today. I cannot deal with this today.” And there were times I did not care what they said, I had to do what was right for me.
I think the hardest part, and it took me way to long to figure this out, is I wanted him to understand what he was doing to us by not communicating. I wanted him to see that my concerns about the issues he brought to the relationship were valid. I learned later, in marriage counseling, he was NEVER going to accept the need for him to change. He was so broken by his need for perfection that I was never going to be perfect enough, he was never going to give up the idea as in his mind that he was perfect and no matter what we were facing, the world was going to think we were perfect damn it! Our children could not be sick. If they were sick, they were not perfect. Our house was lived in so it was far from perfect but the outside looked perfect so everyone thought it was perfect on the inside. We had to present as this perfect family who ran a Mom and Pop business but the reality was he didn’t want me in the business. He just wanted me to clean the business. Why? Because if I helped, he lost control. He paid the bills. Why? Because if I did it, he lost control and I knew how much money there was. He micromanaged every thing but me and I was a thorn in his side because I refused to be micromanaged and to allow him to micromanage the kids.
It has been scientifically proven that living through the silent treatment triggers the same areas of the brain that are lit up on an MRI as with physical pain. That is because we are wired to be a community and live as a tribe. When we are ousted by silence, it is painful. How many times have you had a headache or some other physical ailment? It is the stress at home most likely coming out as we try to maintain peace for ourselves and for our children.
When we experience the silent treatment our natural tendency is to blame ourselves. We will look for things that are wrong with ourselves to justify the treatment. We think maybe we aren’t physically attractive any more to that person or maybe we really are the bad person they think we are deep down. I remember thinking, “How can he see me that way? How can I prove that is not who I am?” I was never going to be able to. It took me a long time to realize it was how he felt about himself and 6 years after divorce, while he has made some changes, he will never truly change and it still saddens me. He lost one woman he asked to marry him and he very possibly will lose this next beautiful soul because he cannot hide who he is forever.
The silent treatment is a form of aggression as well. Taking it out of the context of personal relationships, the surgeon general reported a correlation between social rejection and adolescent violence.
The problem is if you get angry, you are made out to be wrong and crazy. They turn it around. They will usually start yelling or what I like to call posturing. It’s a means to intimidate you. In the end, the children of parents who are in a cycle of the silent treatment are often the targets of aggression and anger and the abusers need to control some aspect of their life. They will turn it on the children.
The emotional attention we finally get from the narcissist is actually similar to the emotional rush of gambling. You become invested in that machine and you just keep putting nickels into it. The same happens when they finally relinquish the silent treatment. It motivates us to continue that emotional investment even though the return in the long run is not going to be worth it. They will never get help. They will never understand. It makes those of us who see their good qualities sad that they will never live to their potential but if I have learned one thing from this experience, it is they do not change much and the happiness is a facade. They can never be happy in their soul because perfection cannot be obtained. We have to walk away understanding that the need to appear perfect is an illness and we don’t have to buy into it or live it.
Everyone will engage in the silent treatment on occasion. We may not be ready to talk about how someone hurt us or we may be feeling a certain way that we can’t quite explain yet but usually those of us who are not doing it for control reasons will say, “I can’t talk right now.” Purposefully shutting someone out is a form of emotional abuse. It is a tactic used purposefully to throw someone off balance. To shake them up. Make them conform to what you need. It is used by narcissists as well as other psychological manipulators.
Targets are often tempted to reach out first. Unfortunately this will be seen as weakness by the narcissist/abuser and they will consider themselves the winner in a game you weren’t really asked to play. It gives them their control back.
There really is no right or wrong way to deal with the silent treatment. It’s abuse. It further detaches you from your partner and will continue to be an ongoing issue as they lose more control over you and other aspects of their life.
What you can do when you are experiencing the silent treatment is to reach out to friends and loved ones. Talk to them. Socialize with them. It will help lift your spirits. Talk with someone who has been in an abusive relationship because they will have a better understanding of what you are experiencing. Being around others who love and care about you will make you feel loved and connected.
The bad side of staying in an abusive relationship is the effects on the children you are trying to save, and the wasted time hoping the abuser will see the error of their ways and understand. It keeps you from truly enjoying the life you deserve now. It keeps you stuck in a hopeless situation. I had to come to terms with the amount of time I wasted in my life thinking this person was going to change. Lasting change in narcissists/abusers is a myth. They cannot nor do they have the emotional maturity to sustain change.
Hopefully, when you connect with others outside of the relationship, you will see and feel the friendship, love and community which will help you have a sense of belonging and hopefully that support will help you leave the abusive relationship so that you can live your life happy and loved.