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How to recognize and deal with the silent treatment as emotional abuse

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LA Post: How to recognize and deal with the silent treatment as emotional abuse
April 15, 2024
Mia Wallace - LA Post

When couples come together, open and honest conversations build closeness and understanding. Silent treatment in relationships can spell the death knell to this bonding and companionship if communication between the couple falls through. However, many still fall into this harmful pattern—the cold shoulder, withholding words, refusal to speak. Purposely depriving your partner of words, often as punishment or to exert control, causes profound emotional pain that can tear even the strongest relationships apart.

This "silent treatment in relationships" may seem tame, but its roots are surprisingly cruel. In the 19th century, sailors used merciless silence to discipline misbehaving crew members on long ocean voyages. The writer Otis Ferguson called it "a process so effective...as to make strong men weep." What began as a harsh tactic at sea has now become a common way to subjugate loved ones, family, coworkers, and others.

Those on the receiving end of this sullen silence undergo excruciating inner turmoil. Anger and heartbreak give way to obsessing over the reasons for the slight until a hollow feeling of resignation takes over. Feeling alienated, sad, and depressed becomes the constant reality for the person being ostracized. The mind scrambles to justify the mistreatment, prolonging the searing emotional pain.

Researchers have identified two main motivations driving this icy conduct – punishing perceived wrongdoings and avoiding confrontation. Some people use silence when they've given up on repairing the relationship through words and discussion. Yet any perceived benefit of silence comes at a tremendous cost – it inflicts lasting anguish and betrays the foundation of trust.

Brain science reveals the sinister impact of being ostracized. When shut out, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—the brain region that processes emotional pain—fires intensely. The initial anger and sadness drain into a lonely sense of alienation and hopelessness. Moreover, silence seems to hinder rational thinking; studies show that the ability to think clearly and focus deteriorates significantly.  

Relationships shredded by the blade of silence rarely recover. The research found that habitual stonewalling – the refusal to communicate – undermines one's commitment to the partnership, leading to a breakdown in connection and an unraveling of the emotional bond. When words turn to frozen statues, the lifeblood of cherished intimacy runs dry.

Interestingly, those with healthy self-esteem often suffer most acutely from the lashings of silence, the threat of abandonment cutting deepest. Paradoxically, those already diminished may be more inured, clinging to toxic situations as a way to find refuge from the pain of mistreatment.

To break free from these chains requires first recognizing them as emotional abuse deserving of escape. Labeling it "abuse" can spark the self-reflection needed to catalyze change. Long-standing family patterns of silent treatment must be consciously interrupted; the indelible hurt of childhoods marred by parental cold shoulders must be processed to sever that cycle of violence.  

Rather than internalizing perceived slights, prioritize openness – voice your feelings candidly and urgently. Otherwise, bottled-up grievances may erupt as an explosive silent treatment. Unflinching transparency, even about raw emotions, cultivates intimacy and healing from the withering inflicted by sullen quiet. Letting pent-up aggression flow as honest expression is healthier than strangling it with forced silence.

Yet silence, separate from its punitive aspect, can open pathways to tenderness. Stillness can provide clarity, self-knowledge, and empathetic attunement when not weaponized as retaliation but as a contemplative pause. Spiritual practices centered on stillness, from monastic retreats to meditation, teach how to integrate the alienating void of silence into personal growth.

At its most toxic, the silent treatment in relationships violently unravels the very bonds its perpetrators claim to cherish. Escaping its grip requires recognizing the cruelty, rejecting its entrenchment in one's history, and anchoring in vulnerability and honesty. For when the flow of words freezes over, the soul's vital connections risk permanent severance—all for silence's twisted promise of control over a loved one's mysteries. The withholders of speech reject transparency while suffocating love's beauty, exposing the deep hypocrisy of their actions.

Nurturing true intimacy demands boldly revealing one's inner world, no matter how unflattering. It calls for patience and compassion in receiving a partner's candid, painful disclosures. These are the nutrients that allow closeness to flourish; starved of such sustenance, all that remains are the atrophied, resentment-hollowed caverns carved by silence. To retreat into the soundless void, whether inflicting cruel silence or walling oneself off, is to sever life's most profound connections.

For many silence-wielders, withholding words becomes a covert attack against those they claim to cherish most. Profound fears of vulnerability, of being truly seen, mutate into the impulse to psychically smother the other person. Refusing to speak becomes the final refuge, a desperate grasp at power over what evokes one's deepest insecurities.  

Yet in turning away, in freezing the warmth of mutual exchange, they only deepen the abandonment they dread. The silence meant to control suggests the self is unraveling – speaking to core beliefs of being unworthy of attunement, that intimacy only brings anguish. And so walls rise, icy fortresses haunted by the very isolation such defenses create.

Only when we excavate these root doubts, fears, and childhood experiences can the citadels of silence be torn down. By unfurling the pain, the old scripts that birthed such isolating urges, we can transform stillness from a weapon into a vibrant channel-enhancing connection instead of blocking it. Let the quiet be a spacious chamber, alive with our radical presence.

In this liberated stillness, we need not be isolated islands struggling to appear blemish-free but seamless conduits exchanging our essences in a fusion transcending spoken words. And when we do talk, our words consecrate rather than violate, distilled by the nourishing pause that preceded them. Thus, the silent treatment's oppressive pall gives way to reverence and the selfless contemplation that is love's radiant heart.

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