She is so incredibly mad at me. She says I said something when we were at dinner with her family that I did NOT say, but she insists I apologize for it. Once I apologize for something I didn’t do, she’ll make me apologize profusely before she decides to show me any warmth. I just can’t keep doing that, but it might be the only thing that will restore peace in our home. By “peace” I don’t mean quiet. It’s very quiet around here right now because she won’t talk to me, look at me, listen to me or acknowledge my presence in any way whatsoever. And she hasn’t for a week. There’s just this dark, cold and angry storm I sense in her that feels ready to blow. But even a blow up would be some form of communication and would end the silent treatment she is giving me. I just can’t stand the cold. Feeling like I do not exist. That I don’t matter to her. Maybe I don’t matter.
Have you ever been so mad at your partner that you cannot talk to them or even look at them? Many of us have felt this way before, and have needed to take a short break from communication to allow our anger to subside. A timeout can be a positive thing in a healthy relationship. When we know ourselves well enough to know that our anger is too high and too strong to engage in loving conflict resolution. Taking a short timeout is the result of a good emotional IQ and shows healthy self-restraint. When we do this, it’s important to communicate with your partner to set their mind and heart at ease. “I want to talk about this with you but I can’t right now because I am too angry. I need a little time alone to process my emotions. Can we set a time to process this tomorrow?” A healthy timeout does not last for days or weeks (as it often does in an abusive dynamic) and is never implemented without lovingly communicating with your partner that you need a little time to ensure that you communicate out of love, not anger.
In an abusive relationship, however, the silent treatment is not about the individual’s need to regulate strong emotions and its goal is not to achieve a mutually submissive and respectful communication. Instead, the silent treatment as a form of abusive withholding is the abuser’s tactic to sweep things under the rug and place their partner in a downgraded position or erase them entirely for a time. There is nothing “mutual” about it. In fact, the abuser is not concerned about their partner’s perspective or feelings. Their selfish concern is to avoid all responsibility and to ensure that their partner wholly submits to the abuser’s position about the conflict. As a result, the silent treatment in an abusive relationship can go on for several days or even weeks until the victim gives in. Abusive withholding is extremely toxic and painful.
The victim’s desire is to resolve conflict and have warmth and some form of authentic connection return to the relationship. A little warmth would stop the fear that a blow up is about to happen. With a little warmth and connection, the victim could stop walking on eggshells and get a reprieve from the non-stop fear and anxiety that takes place when the abuser is withholding through the silent treatment. Inside, the victim begins to question their own reality. “If they are this mad, did I get it wrong?” “I don’t think I said what they say I said, but maybe it came off differently than I thought.” “Should I just apologize?” “I just want to be loved.” “Am I really so awful that they don’t want to talk with me?” The victim becomes desperate for connection and, oftentimes, gives in to the powerful tactic of withholding and attempts to redress the problem or apologizes (often profusely) for something they did not do. They desire to go back to the days when they fell in love and it all seemed so wonderful. They believe if they give in this one time, perhaps they can return to the honeymoon phase. They will do anything to resume what they believe is authentic connection and a sense of relational integrity and love.
Until they won’t. There comes a point in time when a victim is no longer willing to give in to the abuser’s tactics. When they have children, this often happens once the abuser directly harms the children. Other times, this comes after they have shared a little about their reality with someone outside of the marriage who is able to help restore some of the self esteem and confidence the victim has lost. Sometimes, it comes when a victim realizes on their own that they just can’t take it anymore and they need to leave before they lose themself completely.
Abusive withholding happens when an individual tries to control or domineer over another person by refusing to authentically communicate. Similar to gaslighting, withholding makes the victim feel as if they are isolated, ignored or do not have control over their own lives. One of the reasons it’s so damaging is because the victim cannot do anything to stop it. Any effort by the victim to restore connection is rebuffed by the abuser. Their only hope for relief is to either capitulate to the abuser’s demands or leave the situation completely.
As someone who is helping the couple or either individual, it’s important to learn the difference between a healthy timeout and an abusive stonewalling or withholding.
If you are speaking with the person who took the “timeout,” ask them what they did to make sure their partner recognized that the timeout was to calm their own emotions and was not retaliatory in nature. Find out what made them feel like they needed this time and what they did to help regulate their emotions during it.. Learn from them how long the timeout lasted and whether they had any communication with their partner and what it consisted of during this time. Finally, ask them how they resumed connection and resolved the conflict afterward. Their answers to these questions should highlight for you if they are operating out of a healthy place or as a means to put down, punish, or otherwise maintain power and control. If the latter is taking place, it’s important that you confront the abusive behavior and tell them withholding through stonewalling or the silent treatment is abusive and not an acceptable way to treat their intimate partner. To find out more about how to confront an abuser, see The M3ND Project’s Accountability Model of Courage.
If you are speaking with their partner, listen carefully as they share their story with you. Whether you believe they are an abuse victim or not, we recommend you us The M3ND Project’s Healing Model of Compassion to help you respond compassionately as they share with you what happened. By listening carefully to their whole story without interrupting, making assumptions or passing judgment, you are likely to get all the information you need. It would be helpful to know how often this happens in their relationship. Perhaps ask them, “Has this ever happened before?” You’ll want to know how long the timeout lasted and whether their partner helped them to understand that their need for a timeout was for them to calm their emotions so they could return to lovingly resolve the conflict between them. A simple question like “What did they say before they stopped talking to you?” should give you the information you need to assess the situation. Whatever you do, make sure not to interrogate them. If possible, try to understand how their partner resumed connection with them. Perhaps say, “I’m so sorry this happened. Were you two ever able to resolve the original conflict?” By just listening carefully to this person’s story, you will learn a lot about what’s really going on behind the scenes.
If you suspect abusive withholding is taking place, it’s important that you take the time to validate the victim. You can do this by making sure they understand that the silent treatment their partner has been giving them is not okay. Assure them that it is not their fault and no matter what happened between them, their partner’s response is destructive. It’s important that at this time you do not use the term “abuse,” as it is unlikely that the victim is ready to define what they’re experiencing as abusive or to see themselves as a victim. With proper validation and confirmation that what they are experiencing is not healthy, they will gain clarity about their situation and begin to regain strength and a positive sense of their self-worth. These will serve as healing balms to them, helping them to take the steps they might need to take..
If you have been experiencing withholding within your relationship, we encourage you to get help. If possible, reach out to a licensed therapist specifically trained in emotional abuse and trauma. If you cannot afford therapy, we recommend you find a domestic violence agency within your town that might offer group classes or individual therapy at reduced rates or for free. The more you learn, the stronger you will become and the more equipped you will feel to handle your personal circumstances.
Finally, we encourage each of you to join M3ND in one of our upcoming virtual training cohorts. Sign up today to receive notice when registration for our next training opens. In the meantime, join us monthly for free training intensive on various topics related to emotional abuse and trauma. Please also consider making a donation today to help supply training to those most in need. Click Here to Donate.