By Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD
Refusing to listen, talk or respond to a partner is sometimes called “the silent treatment” or “hostile withholding.” Many abusers cut off their partners emotionally to hurt, punish or control them. Some abusers 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:
Zaraiva[*] could never tell what would set off her husband, Juan, and make him refuse to speak with her. Zaraiva first experienced Juan’s silence when they were dating in Mexico. Juan felt that Zaraiva had looked too happy while dancing with her male cousin, so he walked out of the dance without saying good-bye, and refused to speak with her or even acknowledge her for weeks.
Over the years, Zaraiva learned to cope with Juan’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 Juan grabbing at Zaraiva 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 have said enduring insults or shouts was somewhat less damaging than the silent treatment. When they were shouted at, at least they knew what was on the abuser’s mind, and said they felt better able to assess their own and their children’s safety. Stone-cold silence can reinforce the feeling of powerlessness and fear.
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 in any way. He spoke to her, unsmilingly, and with a cold, impersonal tone. She knew that Reggie was deliberately trying to make her feel threatened; Reggie often exploded in anger following a period of silence. The children noticed when their mother was being shut out in this way because sometimes their father treated them similarly. Sara said that the hostile withholding made her extremely anxious; she redoubled her efforts to make Reggie feel better.
Tips for 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 in the face of 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 psychotherapist who understands the control and abuse you have suffered 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.
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.
The silent treatment can be a form of emotional abuse. Learn other signs of this type of abuse in “How to Recognize Emotional Abuse.
[*]Last names withheld to protect survivor.
Editor’s Note: Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.