When I first began opening up about the abusive nature of my relationship with Randall, a question often asked was: “Did he ever hit you?”
It’s not surprising. Most people’s knowledge of abuse begins and ends with movies depicting a man beating his partner into a submissive corner. But no…he never hit me. Threw a drink on me once? Yes. Acted aggressively? Yes. Yelled and belittled and physically demonstrated violent behavior against inanimate objects or other people? Absolutely.
The worst thing he ever did though – the thing that shook me to the core of my being – had nothing to do with clenched fists or shattered paneling or holes in walls or reckless driving; it had everything to do with silence, and his ability to render me completely obsolete and irrelevant when he wanted to. Those were the moments that left the biggest scars over my heart.
It was quite the power move. The man I loved would remove all love, warmth, and affection from our interactions while making it clear that he would not ‘restore’ that warmth or affection until I had adequately atoned for whatever sin I was currently in purgatory for. (And it should be noted that most often this technique was brought out when I had the audacity to push back or refuse to admit I was ‘wrong’ about whatever the talking point of the day was. When talking over me, yelling, and otherwise browbeating me didn’t work, he pulled out the big guns.)
And it worked. It was as emotionally and mentally devastating as dropping a nuclear bomb.
I can still recall the more extreme times he used this technique. I can recall times when his normally warm green eyes would go cold, and he’d refuse to touch me…while at the same time giving warmth and kindness and praise to others as I watched. Smiling and laughing. Complimenting a friend on how loyal he was. Telling another girl/woman she looked ‘pretty’ or that he liked her makeup or her hair. Talking warmly about friends, family, or hell even his ex Blanche who he ‘appreciated’ being in his life. All as though to say “They are worthy, you are not”.
I recall how he would talk to Blanche in front of me with smiles and warmth, and then turn cold the minute he hung up the phone. Or talk badly about me to others, as though I wasn’t even in the room; complaining about all my faults and griping about whatever my latest mistake was, while ensuring I heard every word. And I vividly remember how if I tried to leave the room, the response would be “You can’t leave! You fucked up, man; now don’t be a pussy about it. Take your licks and deal with it.”
It worked. I’d stay; somehow thinking in my brain that staying was the key to making it stop. That was the key to ‘atoning’. After all, I wasn’t weak; I just had to show him that. Like he said…’take my licks’.
I remember going to sleep at night, and him rolling away from me so that not even his toes touched mine. He was a big man, and that back of his was as clear a ‘keep out’ message as The Great Wall Of China. An unmistakable physical rejection. “You are not worthy of love right now” is what his body language said. Which seemed unnecessarily cruel to me, because surely even in the worst of times your partner is worthy of your love, even if you’re angry with them; but when I’d attempt to point that out, his quick response was always that he was just being honest. And didn’t I want to be with someone who was honest about their feelings, rather than with someone who was fake?
Sure, I mean, when you put it like that………
…………no, actually, it’s still a fairly shitty thing to do to a fellow human being. I don’t care how angry you are. Because I’ve now had ample time to look back and assess, and talk to others, and feel I have a fairly thorough understanding of what falls within the spectrum of ‘normal behavior’ when angry with your partner. That doesn’t fall anywhere on that spectrum. But in the moment, before I’d gone on my Clarity Cleanse, I can remember how something in me would shrivel up inside in response to this treatment; thinking I must have done something truly awful to deserve it. Which meant I must be a truly awful person. Because surely only something awful would drive someone to treat a loved one this way, and surely only truly awful people do truly awful things.
Thankfully with the benefit of hindsight and clarity after the storm, I can say unabashedly that is completely, totally false. Not just false…it’s classically abusive. No fists necessary. Because it’s all about power and control. The person giving the silent treatment is declaring THEY have the power to inject and remove love from the relationship at will; therefore they control the relationship.
Power. Power, and the slow chipping away of a person’s sense of self. That’s what it’s all about. Moments like these would shock me to the core, and I would recoil and need days to recover from the trauma of it…withdrawn into myself to the point where I could barely speak to anyone. It’s what trauma looks like. And worst of all, it’s an invisible trauma; unlike a physical bruise, I couldn’t see these wounds, nor could anyone else, and didn’t fully understand them as a result. I just knew I was sad. And depressed. Feeling lonely and worthless. Assuming somehow it was my fault; because again, surely I must have done something awful to drive this man – who claimed to love me more than life itself – to treat me so.
It’s powerful. Incredibly powerful. This kind of treatment can leave anyone with even a shred of sensitivity devastated to their very core; the abuser using the most beautiful of emotions – love – as a weapon. Suddenly love and affection are put on the same level as biscuits in a dog treat bag; doled out when you ‘deserve it’ or when you’ve ‘earned a reward’, and then withheld when you’ve been a ‘bad girl’ by peeing on the floor. It’s so twisted. Love should never be a weapon. Love should just be love. And the use of it as a weapon of abuse is in my opinion one of the cruelest, coldest, most evil things a person can do to another human being.
I think about all the times I’ve been angry with others in my life. I think about all the times I’ve been hurt or betrayed or let down. And there have been some EPIC moments, let’s not kid ourselves about that. (Hell, HE did some pretty cringeworthy things to me, if you want to talk about betrayal and what falls under the umbrella of ‘truly awful’.) Yet not once did it occur to me to treat a person like they were nothing. Not once did I think it was okay to ostracize them, embarrass them in front of others, or render them voiceless and powerless in their relationship with me. No matter what, I would always try and acknowledge their voice; their right to speak, and their right to feel. Even if I disagreed wholeheartedly, or was bitterly disappointed or let down or hurt by something they had done…I still acknowledged their right to EXIST. Their right to be human. To be fallible and to make mistakes. And in the worst scenarios, when I really didn’t want to talk to them…I told them as politely and kindly as I could that I just needed some space for a little while. I didn’t just turn off my feelings or my affections like a light switch.
And that is ultimately the power of the silent treatment, when utilized by abusers; the silent treatment in essence takes away your right to be human. Your right to exist. Your right to have a voice. To have feelings. Your right to be loved. It all becomes about them. About their needs. Their wants. Their emotions. You don’t matter at all.
It says “beware…because if you make the wrong mistake, I’ll turn off my feelings for you and you’ll be left completely alone, and there won’t be anything you can do to get my love back until you please and appease ME”. It leaves you terrified to make a mistake. Walking on eggshells, and yet thoroughly convinced it’s YOUR fault life is that way. They hold all the cards, and the only way back through the door of love and appreciation is playing by their rules and giving them what they want. Maybe you’re not letting go of that infidelity you just discovered fast enough. Or perhaps you aren’t warming up fast enough to that new friend they brought into your home. Or maybe you are being ‘unreasonable’ about how uncomfortably intimate they still seem to be with their ex. The scenarios are endless…and the point is they hold the key to it all.
(And it should be noted by the time the abuser starts doing this, you’re so thoroughly down the rabbit hole you probably didn’t realize you’d handed them that key in the first place. All you know is you’re in pain, and somehow it’s all your fault, not theirs.)
To me it’s the cruelest form of abuse. The silent treatment is powerful. It’s not a joking matter. And it leaves wounds unlike anything you can comprehend, because it sends the message that you are not worthy of love. And even if it’s only ‘temporary’, that’s an unacceptable, devastating message. Your life partner should treat you with respect above all others. Should have more patience for you than for anyone else. It shouldn’t be the opposite; where they seem to give the best of themselves to everyone else, and give you the coldest, harshest treatments imaginable.
I’ve had to give myself daily affirmations since I first came out of that relationship; affirmations of self-love and self-worth. Reminding myself I’m worthy. Reminding myself I deserve to be treated with respect.
I never find jokes about giving someone ‘the silent treatment’ to be particularly amusing; because to me, it’s no laughing matter. I don’t believe in “kicking a partner to the couch” if he’s messed up, because that is using intimacy (or rather withholding it) as a form of punishment. If I have an issue or a problem, I’ll talk about it. But I don’t ever believe in the practice of withholding love or affection. If you’re truly in love with someone, and they’re truly your partner, it should never be about ‘punishment’…it should be about communicating and partnering to work through disagreements.
Meghann Andreassen is a businesswoman, author, and personal success coach who contributes to this and other blogs on a regular basis. To learn more or to work with her personally, contact her through her website for a free consultation.
**Names and other personal identifying information of some individuals referenced throughout this blog have been changed to protect their identities