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The silent (but deadly) treatment

The silent treatment is not only silent, but can be deadly. Deadly, that is, to relationships. Deadly, more specifically, to the trust, love, safety, communication and intimacy that preserve and nourish relationships.

The silent treatment (also known as stonewalling) entails a partner’s (the silencer) passive-aggressively refusing to communicate with the other (the silenced). Unlike avoidance (a conflict-aversion defense), the silencer deploys the silent treatment with toxic purposes in mind.

The silencer’s aim is, above all, to silence communication. More specifically, it is to render the other invisible and, in so doing, induce in the “other” feelings of powerlessness and shame. (Note that the experience of powerlessness often evokes shame.)

The silent treatment is a statement of contempt, relating, “You aren’t worth the energy it would take me to acknowledge your existence, let alone your feelings or needs.”

The silent treatment tactically communicates, You have done something wrong, seriously wrong—wrong enough to warrant my repudiation of your existence.

Its message is menacing and extortive—menacing in its implicit accusation of guilt, and extortive in the lose-lose proposition it makes: either you confess to a “crime” (against the silencer) you may be unaware of having committed (a degrading concession), or, if you don’t, the silencer continues to blot you out.

The silent treatment is a technique of torture. This may sound hyperbolic, but human beings need (on the most basic level) recognition of their existence. The withholding of this recognition, especially if protracted, can have soul-warping consequences on personality. (Just consult attachment theory for proof of this.)

It is deeply disturbing to be silenced (stonewalled), especially by someone you love, or someone you believe (or want to believe) loves you. The silent treatment aims, therefore, to exploit a very deep, elemental vulnerability.

Understandably it is the kind of vulnerability from which one desperately wants relief. And the controlling, abusive silencer holds the cards—he can provide relief by deciding if, and when, to reinstate his recognition of your existence.

However, like many abusers, he may require something of you first–namely, your capitulation. From the silencer’s perspective, “capitulation” may involve his metaphorically bringing you to your knees, meaning he may demand that you appeal to, plead for and/or beg his forgiveness as a condition of his readmitting you into his good graces.

As noted, you may feel coerced into admitting something you didn’t do, say or mean. This, after all, is how false confessions occur: the accused feels so exhausted, disempowered and helpless to be heard against the monolithic accuser that, simply to escape the hell of being disbelieved, she relents (and confesses).

Or else she may begin to wonder, under the prolonged, accusatory assault, whether she’s crazy; whether maybe she is, in fact, guilty of a crime that not too long ago she was mystified and/or outraged to be accused of.

As I suggested in The Pathological Self-Confidence of the Sociopath, it’s not so hard to jar the confidence of, and foment doubt in, others. While we invest some degree of trust in our perceptions, that trust can be surprisingly fragile. Because we tend to be built with more uncertainty than certainty, we are prone, especially facing another’s prolonged, implacable invalidation, to feel self-doubt rising like flood-waters.

The abusive individual, whether narcissistic or sociopathic, exploits this natural psychological frailty. For this reason (and others) he will prize the silent treatment for its capacity to sow insecurity, dread, even terror, in its intended target.

(My use of “he” throughout this, and other, posts is a convenience and not to suggest that women are incapable of the behaviors discussed. This article is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)



634 Comments on "The silent (but deadly) treatment"

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  1. geminigirl says:

    Ah.,yes. The silent treatment.!!I know ALL ABOUT this one!My younger spath daughter,{now 44,} has been torturing me with this for 17 plus years!I still dont know why she cut me and my husband off.We have always been kind and loving to her, and her sister.When her first baby son was born, I BEGGED to be allowed to see him,-didnt happen.She now has 3 kids, aged 13, 11, and almost 2. Never ONCE seen any of them.In the past I have written cards, sent flowers, gift hampers for her Birthdays, she has never ONCE acknowledged any of it.The pain nearly crucified me, not now, Ive built up scar tissue, and now I am hopping MAD! at her appalling treatment of me, and the fact that her sister never once stood up for me.And david and I STILL dont know what we are supposed to have done, or not done. She is a total control freak, and a spath, I know that now.There is NO pain like the pain of being rejected by your own kids. I have a strong sense of Justice, and the injustice of all this would totally cripple me if it wasnt for the wave of furious ANGER that i am finally feeling,-about TIME !Now its ME doing the rejecting,as I REFUSE any longer to be bullied, gaslighted, stonewalled, used, abused, conned,suckered for money or lied to.FINALLY!!!IVE HAD ENOUGH OF ALL THIS SHIAT!!This pure cleansing RAGE is FINALLY coming out!! And I Know that I know that I know that they{th spath daughters} will NEVER do this to me again! NC for EVER.From now on, I intend to give my love affection& devotion to people who appreciate me and love me BACK!Like my new Iranian “kids”. Not cast my pearls before swine!Gem is hopping mad,”YEA Im mad as hell and i aint takin this shiat no more!”Love, Mama gem.XX

  2. geminigirl says:

    This article is spot on, its passive aggression, its cruel, its sick, and its all about CONTROLand POWER over us, if we GIVE it to them,{the spaths}.
    been there, done that got the Tshirt, and I wont be buying into their sick mind games any more!NO SIR!
    Knowledge is POWER!!NC. FOREVER!
    TOWANDA!They are sick sick excuses for humans!
    Mama gem.

  3. Buttons says:

    {{{{{{Geinigirl}}}}}} Yepper, I’m turning in my membership card to the “Reject Your Parent Club,” too. DNA doesn’t “make” a family.

  4. alicia says:

    Thanks to all for the supportive feedback. geminigirl sounds just like what I’m feeling right now and almost every day since the very first time he rejected me and hurt me so badly because I rejected him…poor sick baby! I’ve been living 7 door away from him since Fall of 2004, and the second week I lived there he started to stalk me, harass me and RELENTLESSLY pursue me even though I told him I had a fiance, which I did at the time, but I WASN”T interested anyway, especially when he approached me for the first time, asked me my name, what apartment I lived in, why did I move here – and “tell me your life story” along with invites to his apartment to watch movies or go out some time as a friend…blah…blah…blah!!! He never gave up – NEVER!!! Unfortunately, my fiance, who I was with for many years, my BEST FRIEND, the BEST man I ever went out with in my life, was in a rehab facility at the time because he fell, broke his hip and wrist. I didn’t want to move here, but I had to go on disability for severe physical problems and severe depression and severe panic disorder…I couldn’t hold down any jobs for the first time in my life in my 40′s. The plan was to live here for two years, rest and heal as much as I could in a low stress environment. (I know this story is long, but I’ll get to the point soon, sorry again-I have nobody to talk to except all of you, and I’m so thankful to God for all of you, believe me, I don’t know what I would do, and I’m so thankful, very, very, very thankful that I found this website because I was at a very desparate place and so many people helped me and still do – help me hang on and support me, God bless all of you. Back to the plan of two years, that didn’t work out. I was looking for another place to live for Brian and I to live, he lived in another town and he was waiting to get on the dialysis list at one of the hospitals in the town I lived in and he used to, another sad problem for him…so many…too many for one of the BEST people I’ve ever met. At age 40, his kidneys failed and for him, it was all downhill from there – and – when he passed away suddenly from a heart attack one year after I lived here – that was the end of my life. The Monster pursued me even more than, wouldn’t even let me grieve, sat in front of my door sometimes when I would not answer the door because I didn’t want to talk to him. He lied so much before about how “he knew Brian, went to school with him, played basketball with him, etc.” Brian did not know him and told me to stay away from this nutcase because all he wanted was one thing, and I did stay away, he just kept bothering me and as I said, it got worse after Brian passed away. One day I was lying on my bed crying because I was so hurt, and the MONSTER was outside again, pounding on the door, yelling to open up and let me in so “he can console me,” “I’ll be your best friend now.” All his words made me sick. Now up to this time, I thought he was a nice, caring person, just a bit crazy, he hadn’t really shown me his CRAZY SP side yet, just a persistence, annoying nuisance and I didn’t want to deal with him. We were neighbors and we talked occasionally especially when he followed me, saw me outside and approached me, but I still didn’t want to be bothered. One day he yelled outside (raged) “I CAN’T COMPETE WITH A DEAD MAN!” and left. Now, that I thought was SICK! This was in November. By June, the following year, I started drinking again, I was depressed, lonely, hopeless, etc…I was so drunk that I went home with him that night, not planning on doing anything, just to go there and hang out! Well, that was the beginning of the worst nightmare relationship, which I have NEVER in my life had. I didnt’ even know what a SP was. I know the first time, he hurt me, I left and so he hurt me even worse because I rejected him and that was our relationship for 5 years (3 if you count all the times we stayed together and were not fighting or when I had a PO on him, which he violated several times, but I only had him arrested twice because at that time, I was totally afraid of him – probably because of the physical abuse. The first time he hit me didn’t hurt as much as the first time he hurt me emotionally. This began yearly visits to the hospital for severe depression and two suicide attempts. I AM NOT GOING TO TAKE MY OWN LIFE FOR HIM!!! I WANT OUT OF HERE AND I WANT A BETTER LIFE. I WISH IT WOULD HAPPEN TODAY!!!
    As far as the POLICE, they do nothing!!! In six years, I can count on one hand, the police officers who helped me, ONE FEMALE TWICE!!! They say that they “hate him” and they call him all kinds of names, etc., but he has gotten away with everything!!! They’ve even written wrong information on the police reports which makes me look like the criminal!!! The Director of this place says “she has been trying to convict him for over 20 years.” None of know why he is still here, why he runs a MOTEL SEX there sometimes when his pimp brother/crack addict/alcoholic/woman beater and slicer/disgusting dirtbag stays there with the girls he finds on the street who are also on drugs and very vulnerable. He promises them help and guess where they end up – at the MONSTER’S house. Yes, I knew about this and yes, it happened at two different times and years that I knew of, the neighbors and the Director (his apt is directly across from their office)!!! But the excuses, you know, “we can’t prove it,” SICK, SICK, SICK! WHAT IS EVEN SICKER IS THAT EVEN THOUGH I KNEW ABOUT THIS AND SAW TWO OF THE GIRLS, SPOKE TO THEM, AND WROTE TO ONE IN PRISON, SICK ME, THE ONE WHO STILL HATES HERSELF TO THIS DAY, WENT BACK WITH HIM, OK, I DON’T THINK I WILL EVER STOP HATING MYSELF FOR THAT, ESPECIALLY THAT HE DID IT WHILE I WAS IN THE PSYCH WARD OF A HOSPITAL AFTER I ATTEMPTED TO TAKE MY LIFE BECAUSE OF HIM. NO CARDS, NO CALLS, NO NOTHING, JUST FORGOT ABOUT ME, AND THE NEXT THING HIS SCUMBAG BROTHER SHOWED UP WITH THE GIRLS (WHO YOU KNOW THEY DON’T HELP BUT THEY ABUSE). I WAS NOT AND AM NOT A PART OF THAT, BUT I FEEL LIKE I WAS BECAUSE I KNEW HE DID THAT, BUT AS SOON AS I CAME HOME FROM THE HOSPITAL AND HE SAW THAT I WAS DOING WELL, I LOOKED WELL (AND I REALLY WANTED TO STAY AWAY FROM HIM SOOOOOOOOOOO BADLY…I REALLY DIDN’T WANT TO COME BACK HOME. ONE TIME I STAYED IN BED FOR ABOUT 3 MONTHS, HARDLY ATE, HARDLY DRANK ANYTHING, ETC. AND I ENDED UP IN THE HOSPITAL AGAIN. SINCE I GOT INVOLVED WITH HIM, I HAVE BEEN IN THE HOSPITAL 3X IN 2007, 4X IN 2008 AND MANY, MANY, MANY TRIPS TO THE ER, THERAPISTS, PSYCHS, MEDS, MEDS, MEDS, WHICH HE USED AGAINST ME, LIED TO THE POLICE AND OTHER PEOPLE THAT “WHEN I DON’T TAKE MY MEDS” OR “I TOLD HER NOT TO DRINK WITH HER MEDS” AND ALL OF A SUDDEN HE WAS TELLING THE POLICE AND ANYONE WHO WOULD LISTEN THAT “I WAS PSYCHOTIC, LOONEY TUNES, HOMICIDAL, SUICIDAL, THREATENED TO KILL HIM AND HIS FRIENDS, ETC………..” – NONE OF THIS IS TRUE!!! EACH TIME HE WOULD DO THIS, TREAT ME THIS WAY, IT WOULD HURT ME SO BADLY, I WANTED TO DIE AND I ISOLATED, AND I WANTED TO CHOKE HIM, BELIEVE ME. HE RUINED MY REPUTATION AND BROUGHT ME DOWN SO LOW AND STILL IS. SO YES, HE IS STILL WHISTLING, TRYING TO OPEN UP MY DOOR, ETC… I CHANGED MY NUMBER 3X AND I’VE TAKEN OUT ROs and POs – POLICE DO NOTHING AND I’M STILL TRYING TO GET OUT OF HERE, BUT I HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO AFFORD ANOTHER RENT. SO MUCH FOR 2 YEARS OF REST, LESS STRESS AND PHYSICAL, MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL HEALING. UNFORTUNATELY, ALMOST 6 YEARS LATER, I NOW HAVE MS IN ADDITION TO THE LUPUS AND RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS I CAME HERE WITH. ALL THOSE VISITS TO THE HOSPITAL, THE THERAPY, THE MEDS…SO MANY MEDS…HAVE NOT HELPED ME ONE BIT!!! I SUFFER (ACTUALLY FEEL SO SICK IN MY SOUL SOMETIMES BECAUSE I HAVE BIPOLAR DEPRESSION NOW ALONG WITH HORMONES ALL OVER THE PLACE, FIBROMYALGIA, CHRONIC FATIGUE, CHRONIC INFECTIONS, AGORAPHOBIA AT TIMES, AND A LOT OF OTHER ANNOYING ILLNESSES, WHICH KEEP ME IN THAT DEPRESSING APT AND THAT DEPRESSING PLACE. I’VE TRIED TO MOVE OUT OF STATE TO LIVE WITH ONE OF MY SISTERS, BUT BECAUSE I AM SICK MOST OF THE TIME, I HAVEN’T MADE IT THERE YET BECAUSE OF ILLNESS AND ALL THE MONEY I SPENT AND SPEND ON DOCTORS AND MEDS, ETC…………WHAT REALLY MAKES ME MAD, VERY, VERY MAD, AND WHEN I THINK OF IT, I WOULD LIKE TO CHOKE HIM…IS THE FACT THAT MOST OF THESE MEDICAL BILLS I HAVE ARE FROM GETTING INVOLVED WITH HIM!!! HE KNEW THAT I COULD DIE FROM LUPUS IF I GOT TOO STRESSED OUT AND IT HIT ONE OF MY ORGANS…HE JUST DIDN’T CARE. SOMETIMES HE DID AND HE WOULD TAKE CARE OF ME. THAT LASTED ABOUT 5 DAYS UNTIL HIS MOOD CHANGED AND I COULDN’T REACH HIM BY PHONE. HE KNEW ALL THE TIMES I WAS IN TOO MUCH PAIN TO WALK OVER TO HIS APT AND HE GOT AWAY WITH A LOT…IT GOES ON AND ON AND ON…AND I’M SO SICK OF WRITING ABOUT THIS FREAK AND I KNOW YOU’RE ALL SO SICK OF HEARING ABOUT HIM!!! SO YESTERDAY, I SAW HIM AND GUESS WHAT HE DID AS I WALKED AS FAR AWAY FROM HIM AS I COULD – WHISTLE HIS STUPID SONG, AND TODAY, JUST BEFORE I WALKED INTO THE LIBRARY TO USE THE COMPUTER, I WAS WALKING HERE FROM A STORE, I SAW HIM COMING MY WAY AND STARTED FREAKING OUT AND LOOKING AT THE SKY, EVERYWHERE BUT STRAIGHT AT HIM. ONCE HE SAW ME, HE TURNED RIGHT AROUND, WHICH IS NEW FOR HIM. YESTERDAY HE WHISTLED, TODAY HE DIDN’T. I CAN’T FIGURE THIS GUY OUT. I FELT REJECTED AS USUAL EVEN THOUGH I DON’T WANT HIM TO BOTHER ME – HOW SICK IS THAT? MAYBE SOMEWHERE INSIDE OF ME I DO WANT HIM TO BOTHER ME BECAUSE IT GIVES ME ATTENTION OR I THINK HE CARES. IT IS ALL SICK AND I HATE MYSELF MORE THAN I HATE HIM. I TRY SO HARD TO NOT HATE MYSELF AND FORGIVE MYSELF, BUT I JUST CAN’T DO IT. IT IS SO HARD TO LIVE HERE, GO THROUGH HIS CONTINUAL HARASSMENT, ESPEICALLY WHEN HE AND HIS LATEST VICTIM FIGHT OR HE GETS IN THE MOOD TO BREAK THEM ON ME OR AT TIMES, SHE DOESN’T GIVE HIM WHAT HE WANTS SO HE THINKS HE IS GOING TO GET IT FROM ME – THAT IS ONE THING I KNOW THAT IS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN – NEVER AND I CAN SAY THAT WITH HONESTY AND NO DESIRE WHATSOEVER…BELIEVE ME…THERE ARE REASONS AND MORE THAN JUST WHAT HE DID TO ME ALL THOSE MONTHS CHEATING ON ME WHILE HE WAS “LOVING ME.” I WON’T EVEN GET INTO THAT, BUT THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES TO MY ACTIONS. I GUESS THAT IS MY PUNISHMENT AND I HAVE NOBODY TO BLAME BUT MYSELF AND AGAIN THE SICK THING IS THAT I DON’T CARE. I FEEL AS THOUGH I DESERVE IT AND I DON’T CARE WHAT HAPPENS TO ME. NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES PEOPLE TELL ME THAT I SABOTAGE MYSELF AND GOD FORGIVES AND I NEED TO LOVE MYSELF, I CAN’T, I’VE TRIED. MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I LIVE HERE AND I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT HIM AND HER TOGETHER. I RUMINATE. THE CONVERSATIONS PLAY OVER AND OVER AGAIN IN MY HEAD. THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS I WANT TO TELL HER, BUT SHE DOESN’T LISTEN OR CARE FOR SOME REASON, SHE HAS BEEN WITH HIM FOR ALMOST TWO YEARS, MAYBE THIS IS “THE LOVE OF HIS LIFE” AS HE REFERS TO HER, NOT EVEN A MONTHS AFTER HE WAS CALLING HER THAT. WELL TODAY WHEN HE SAW ME AND IMMEDIATELY TURNED AROUND, MY BIG MOUTH AND MY VINDICTIVE, ANGRY, HURT, ANGRY, LONELY, TIRED SELF SAID TO HIM SOMETHING LIKE, “DON’T WORRY, I DON’T WANT TO SEE YOU EITHER AND DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME TALKING TO YOU BECAUSE I WOULDN’T WASTE MY BREATH ON YOU (AS I WAS TALKING – SICK) AND ANYWAY, YOUR’E NOT SUPPOSED TO BE WITHIN 100 YARDS OF ME.” (I DIDN’T TAKE OUT A RO ON HIM YET!!! THEN MY IMMATURE HATEFUL MIXED UP STILL WANT HIM A TEENY TINY BIT TURNED AROUND LOOKED AT HIM, GAVE HIM THE FINGER, SMILED AND WALKED AWAY. HE HAD THIS SADDEST LOOK ON HIS FACE AND LOOKED LIKE HE WAS GOING TO CRY – I’VE SEEN THAT LOOK BEFORE – THE ONE WHERE HE LOOKS LIKE HE FEELS SORRY THAT HE HURT ME, REGRETS US NOT BEING TOGETHER AND THEN ONCE HE GETS ME BACK TERRORIZES ME, THE LOOK OF CONCERN 0R THE BEST ONE – “I’M SO SAD, FEEL SORRY FOR ME.” HE IS A JERK AND I DO HATE HIM, BUT AS I SAID I HATE MYSELF MORE BECAUSE AFTER ALL THIS TIME ALMOST 2 YEARS OF FEELING LIKE I’M OVER HIM AND I’M SO GLAD TO BE OUT OF THAT SICK ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP, THERE ARE TIMES I REALLY WANT TO LET HIM IN MY APT WHEN HE WAKES ME UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT OR GET TOGETHER WITH HIM JUST TO TALK – WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH ME??? THE ONLY ANSWER I CAN COME UP WITH IS THAT I AM SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO LONELY AND JEALOUS (YES JEALOUS) THAT HE HAS SOMEONE AND HE ALWAYS GETS SOMEONE – ALWAYS AS SOON AS HE DROPPED ME OR I DROPPED HIM AND HE IS THERE WITH HER AND I THINK ABOUT THEM AT HIS PLACE, WHICH USED TO BE KIND OF MINE, AND MAYBE HE IS WEARING ME DOWN. WHY HE WHISTLES AND STILL BOTHERS ME AND THEN THE VERY NEXT DAY TURNS AROUND WHEN HE SEES ME, I DON’T GET IT, BUT SICK, VERY SICK ME – IT BOTHERS ME!!!!!!!!!!!

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