Expert Speak

How silent treatment in a relationship is a form of emotional and mental abuse

To an outsider, one partner's silent treatment of the other may not seem very serious, but repeated occurrence may lead to a final breakdown of the marriage
couple stop communicating

The marriage was outwardly perfect, but she couldn’t take the abuse any more

I first encountered “Silent Treatment” when a client in her 40s simply broke down in a session and said she “could not take it anymore” and was seriously contemplating divorce. To the outside world, it looked like a normal, perfect marriage. An urban, well-educated couple, both doing professionally well, with a beautiful home, kids doing well in school, etc. To anyone outside, their marriage looked normal with no issues. There was no physical or verbal abuse in the marriage.

No one understood her predicament

As a 24-year-old counsellor, fresh out of grad school, this looked like a strange and drastic reason for my client to leave a perfectly decent marriage. I simply could not fathom why my client would want to leave a “healthy” marriage. As the sessions progressed, one could see the trauma the client faced due to the “silent treatment” and how damaging it was to the very fabric of a marriage. My client had reached a stage where she was crying and feeling stressed. Her daily non-verbal interactions with her spouse were taking a toll on her and she felt that she could not stay in the same house with her spouse anymore. According to my client, she felt like a trapped hostage, as no one, even her family and friends, could understand why it was such a big issue for her.

Related reading: The violence of silence…how lack of communication affects a marriage

Why it is important to talk in a relationship

Communication forms the basis for any stable marriage. When communication halts in the marriage, it leads to misunderstandings, mind reading and negative thinking on both ends. The spouse receiving the silent treatment starts to put their own interpretation to the situation, tries cajoling, pleading, even attempting silent treatment to teach their spouse a lesson. This “silent conflict” boils down to a power and control situation, and which partner will “bow down” first and apologise and normalise the situation. It is like a parent and child or employer/employee relationship, where the parent/boss expects an apology for any perceived wrong by the child/employee. It’s a power play with no winners.

Silence is a weapon in a power game

Silent treatment is the most common weapon used by couples against one another in a relationship and least understood. It becomes a tool to “control” and “punish” the other partner. Silent treatment is a form of emotional and mental abuse. It strips the person of their self-esteem, and creates guilt and feelings of unworthiness in the recipient partner. Sometimes couples go through days and even weeks of silent treatment. The behaviour can occur after a fight or suddenly with no apparent reason, leaving the recipient confused, and the behaviour can also end suddenly.

silent treatment couple
Image source

Related reading: No infidelity, no domestic abuse and yet am lonely in my marriage

A difficult form of interaction

My client revealed that her spouse would go days without speaking for days and one fine day, would suddenly start talking normally and pretend that nothing had happened. Or she would talk to her spouse and he would refuse to reply or acknowledge her presence. To avoid rocking the boat, my client would choose to go with the flow and the behaviour was never addressed out of fear that she might be subjected to the silent treatment again. However, after 15 years of silent treatment, it had taken a toll on my client and with the husband refusing to see it as a “problem”, eventually led them to separate, as my client had zero tolerance for such behaviour.

experts advice

It is normal for couples to be angry or even spitting mad with each other and not talk for several hours. However, dragging the silent treatment for days/weeks on end is considered a form of emotional and mental abuse. And this form of abuse tears into the marriage fabric; couples drift apart from each other and the “emotional connection “ in a relationship gets hampered.

The best option for couples is to agree to disagree. Take a few hours off from each other if required, but resolve any issue by the very next day or within the week.

Take a few hours off from each other if required, but resolve any issue by the very next day or within the week.

Related reading: How do I decipher my girlfriend’s hot and cold phases?

Maintain the flow of communication

Avoid silent treatment, as it is abusive in any relationship and creates tension in the marriage and family. The communication flow needs to be maintained at all costs to keep the relationship relevant and thriving.

If you happen to be the recipient of silent treatment, address the issue and talk to your partner about how it affects you and makes you feel as a person and how it impacts your relationship. If your partner does not acknowledge it as an issue, then it is best to seek marriage counselling or individual counselling. But first acknowledge to yourself, that it is emotional abuse and you are not responsible for your partner’s behaviour and you deserve respect in a healthy relationship.

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