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.)