Margo knew she messed up but she wasn’t sure how. Her husband’s complete silence towards her over the last few days was a signal that she made some sort of mistake. The problem was, according to him, she made daily errors in judgement, so she was completely in the dark.
Did she drink too much at her husband’s office party and say something embarrassing? Or perhaps he is upset over the new pile on the kitchen counter? Could it be that she spent too much on groceries because they are trying to eat healthy? Or did he see her sarcastic text message to a friend about how she was in the doghouse with him again?
Normally, Margo would just confess to everything, apologize, and beg him to start talking again. She hated the silence. He would reluctantly accept her remorse, lecture her about the incidents, and then slowly reengage. Unfortunately, within a couple of weeks the same cycle would repeat but not this time.
This time, Margo decided she had enough. She was done being treated like a child. She began to see how he used silence as a way to control her behavior and get her to accept excessive responsibility. In the beginning of their relationship, she saw his uncommunicativeness as sophistication, now she saw it as manipulation. But she needed to understand this subtle abuse tactic better. Here are the many ways the silent treatment is used to abuse others.
- Ignoring: Giving a person the “cold shoulder” or ignoring is done by dismissing the person or even disregarding their existence. It is used as a way to devalue a person and establish a hierarchy of superiority in favor of the abuser. For instance, paying no attention to a person as if they were not present, discounting a comment as if it was not heard, forgetting about an event as if it was never scheduled, or looking down on a person as if they are stupid.
- Evading: Instead of flat ignoring a person, an abuser might evade, stonewall, or shirk from communication. This is done by giving one word answers to open-ended questions, refusing to look in the eyes of a person when they are talking, giving vague responses when asked for specifics, mumbling under their breath, or deflecting a response by changing the subject. An abuser uses these tactics to render a conversation meaningless and cause the victim to feel dismissed.
- Subverting: This done to undermine a person’s power and put them in a state of destabilization where they are unsure of themselves. This looks like no acknowledgement of quality work, blindly removing areas of responsibility, resetting of expectations without informing, or quietly sabotaging any success. In most cases, this is done in a cunning and crafty way that the victim is unaware of the shift until it is too late to handle.
- Rejecting: In an intimate relationship, physical refusal of affection is a subtle form of rejection. This can be done nonverbally by pulling away from touch, turning a cheek when being kissed, moving further away when physically close, and giving non-responsive hugs. It also includes not engaging in sexual behavior, minimizing the importance of sexual contact, and snubbing any type of intimacy.
- Quarantining: Quarantining or isolating is a form of physical and mental abuse where a person’s social activity is restricted. This is done to cut them off from family that might rescue them from their abuser. An abuser refuses to engage with extended family to limit where the victim has access. Then the separation is justified by saying, “They don’t like me,” “They are trying to destroy our relationship,” or “They don’t really care about you.” This subtly expands the silent treatment to include the unknowing participants of the victim’s family.
- Shunning: Taken to the next level, shunning involves isolation from an entire community. In this case, an organization, religion, or group of friends is both knowingly and unknowingly engaging in the silent treatment. The abuser accomplishes this by going to the group of individuals and spreading lies or rumors about the victim. Usually the statements demonstrate an inconsistency with the belief system of the group. For instance, the abuser might say to a religious organization that the victim no longer believes in God or that their behavior is not consistent with a believer. This puts the victim in a defensive position where they cannot recover easily.
Understanding the different silent treatments abuse tactics was the beginning of the end for Margo’s relationship with her husband. Once she full understood how he had manipulated her, her family and her friends, she decided to leave.