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Is the Silent Treatment Abuse?

A woman who's getting the silent treatment abuse from her partner looking upset and stressed out at the dinner table.

One minute your partner seems fine and the next, not so much. The only answer you can get out of your partner is an, “I’m fine” but they don’t seem like they’re fine. They seem angry, but they won’t tell you why. You’re on edge, never feeling safe or comfortable around them because it feels like you did something wrong and you don’t know what. You’d do anything to go back to normal.

This is the silent treatment. And it’s a game that’s played far too often. It’s also a form of emotional abuse.

What is emotional abuse?
Before we get into the silent treatment, let’s break down the term emotional abuse. It’s a term that gets thrown around sometimes, but it’s never something to be taken lightly. Emotional abuse is any attempt to control a person in an emotional or psychological way. While physical abuse controls a person through physical violence, emotional abuse is often harder to see but can be just as psychologically damaging.

There are many examples of emotional abuse. If a person attempts to prevent their partner from seeing their friends, that’s abuse. If a person threatens to leave their partner to get their partner to change their behavior to something they’d prefer, that’s abuse. If a person tries to call their partner out on their behavior and their partner makes them feel like they’re insane, which is called gaslighting, their partner is being abusive.

What can often be one of the hardest aspects of emotional abuse is that the abuser often has no idea that they’re doing. They convince themselves that their victim needs them to control their behavior, as if it’s for their own good. In a lot of cases, emotional abuse has been normalized, which can especially be seen with the silent treatment.

How is the silent treatment abusive?
With a lot of emotional abuse, it’s a bit easier to pinpoint why and how it’s abusive. Of course it’s abusive that your partner doesn’t want you to see your family. That seems somewhat straightforward. But how is it abusive when someone you love won’t talk to you about something?

As humans, we need human interaction. Some interaction is bad, like your boss yelling at you in front of your team. Other interactions are good, like coming home to your partner at the end of a long day who wraps you in a hug. We rely on them to provide certain things, like love and support. With the silent treatment, all of this is stripped away.

Your safe place is gone. Those bad interactions are now occurring in your own home. Your stress level is through the roof. You don’t even know what you did to make this happen so you’re walking on eggshells to try to prevent is ever happening again. You’re being conditioned to do what your partner wants, at the expense of your own sense of self and happiness.

Around your partner, you become more submissive, less likely to argue even when an argument needs to happen, and more likely to allow any form of abuse to continue. All because you’re desperate to get that connection and communication back from the person you love.

Why is this still a thing?
It’s easy to make excuses for the silent treatment. We often hear things like, “Maybe he just isn’t ready to talk yet,” or, “Maybe she just needs some time to herself.” Both are totally reasonable things. But here’s the thing. If you do need a break or time to think over what happened before talking to your partner, your partner deserves to know that. It doesn’t take much to say, “Hey, I don’t like that this thing happened and I need a little time to think it over.” Otherwise your partner is left in the dark and you’re causing them pain. In this case, you might not even realize that you’re giving them the silent treatment. So reassess your actions and do right by the person you love.

But sometimes people do give the silent treatment and they know full well what they’re doing. A lot of us found out about this manipulative method thanks to media. It’s a ridiculously common film and tv trope that’s often played for laughs. It’s been in everything from Roseanne to Scrubs to South Park to Rick and Morty. To hear something talked about so cavalierly, it can normalize it.

It’s important to know that it’s not normal to issue any form of punishment on a friend or partner. If there’s something wrong, the best thing to do is quite the opposite of the silent treatment. Talk it out. Even if you think you’re talking to much, it’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate.

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