When you think of abuse, your mind probably goes immediately to physical violence, yelling, or intimidation. But an abusive relationship can also be silent. Some people use silent treatment abuse to manipulate and control their loved ones. This is a form of emotional abuse.
Continue reading to learn more about silent treatment abuse, including how to identify it in your life and how to get help.
When Is the Silent Treatment Abusive?
Emotional abuse is a series of behaviors and actions that are meant to erode a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. Over time, that behavior can make people more dependent on an abuser.
The silent treatment is when one person refuses to talk to or otherwise communicate with another. While it’s normal to cool down after an argument or frustrating conversation, the silent treatment is often used over a longer period of time and as a way for the silent person to punish or control the person they are ignoring. This is known as silent treatment abuse.
Emotional abuse is executed at least in part to exert control over a person’s behavior. Oftentimes, emotional abusers use their actions to make their target feel less than, or to make them more dependent on the abuser.1
Similarly, abusers can use the silent treatment to manipulate you into certain actions. For example, they might give you the silent treatment in order for you to give them sex or money. If a person is giving you the silent treatment to gain something for themselves, they are showing a sign of emotional abuse.
Taking some space after a heated argument is normal. In fact, it’s a healthy coping mechanism to ensure that you don’t accidentally do or say something hurtful. However, when the silent treatment stretches on, or is regularly used to avoid important conversations, it is no longer a healthy choice.
Humans are social creatures. Being made to feel excluded or ostracized has been used as a punishment for centuries. Being excluded activates the same areas of the brain that being a victim of physical violence activates.3 If another person is using the silent treatment to make you feel excluded, they are being abusive.
Ways to Resolve the Issue
Resolving someone else’s abusive behavior is never the victim’s responsibility. Abuse is never your fault, and nothing you say or do should elicit silent treatment abuse.
However, if it feels safe to do so, you can talk to your loved one about silent treatment abuse in order to help them understand the impact it has on you.
Calmly Express How You Feel
During a calm time—not when you’re being given the silent treatment—tell your partner exactly how it makes you feel. Let them know that it feels hurtful and abusive, and it’s a behavior that you need to work together to change.
Talk with your partner about rules for communication, especially during arguments. For example, it’s OK to take time to cool off, but set limits. You might decide that either one of you can call an hour-long “time out” from an argument, or that you’ll always talk to each other before bed.
Set boundaries around silent treatment abuse. Let your partner know what the consequences will be if they continue to give you the silent treatment. When your boundaries are violated, take action.
When to Seek Help
Professional guidance can help both victims and perpetrators of silent treatment abuse. If you and your loved one try unsuccessfully to change your communication patterns but still find yourself getting the silent treatment, reach out to a relationship counselor.
Other Signs of Emotional Abuse
The signs of emotional abuse are more nuanced than the sign of physical abuse. In addition to the silent treatment, emotional abuse can include:
- Name-calling, general meanness, and put-downs
- Controlling where you go, who you see, or what you wear
- Gaslighting, or making you doubt things you have experienced
- Threats, including threats that your partner will harm themselves or divorce you
- Any controlling behaviors
- Blaming you for their behaviors
- Making you feel bad for wanting or not wanting sex
- Inundating you with gifts or compliments as a means of control.
Silent treatment abuse is a form of emotional abuse in which a person refuses to communicate with you in order to control or influence your behaviors. Taking time to cool down after an argument is healthy, but shutting off communication for a long time, especially in order to control another person, is a form of abuse.
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