Is the “Silent Treatment” a Form of Abuse?

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Reader’s Question

About two months ago my fiancĂ© of three years broke up with me for reasons unknown to me after he moved to find employment in another state. During the last two years of our relationship we fought continually. I was blamed for causing each and every fight. At the beginning, I didn’t believe that everything was my fault. But toward the end I started to believe that I was the cause of everything bad that was going on in our relationship.

During the last two years, any time I did something that my significant other did not approve of, he would give me the silent treatment. I would call him after a disagreement after giving him about a day or so to cool off, and he would simply ignore my calls, emails, and texts. This silent treatment would last for several days, ranging from four days to eight days. I would write him emails apologizing for whatever I did that made him ignore me (even though most often I had no idea what I had done). I would also call him a few times during the ignoring period sobbing and leaving him messages while I cried and apologized for whatever I did to make him so upset and would tell him that if he could just talk to me or tell me what I did I wouldn’t bother him for as long as he saw fit.

Being ignored would cause me immense anguish and physical symptoms. I couldn’t figure out how someone who says they love you could cause you pain and know it and continue to do it for years on end. I would ask him calmly, once he decided to talk to me, not to do it again because it caused me so much pain, but he would respond that it was me who left him no other option but to ignore me. Even the memories of the pain I felt while being ignored make me cry to this day; even though he and I are no longer together, I just don’t see how someone can be so cold. I really cared for him and told him I’d go to couples counseling so we could discover what it was I was doing that was making him have no choice but to ignore me, but he refused and stated that to ignore me was his only option. I feel like something is wrong with me, and the pain of being ignored still haunts me!

Even though our relationship failed, I still wonder if there was something I could have done to prevent it. The fact that he was not doing this at the beginning makes me question what I had to do with it. Is this treatment considered a form of abuse?

Psychologist’s Reply

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The behavior you describe is fairly classic passive-aggression. Passive aggression is aggression by “not doing” — and deliberately not communicating or giving someone the “silent treatment” is one of the more common forms of it. And passive-aggression can be one tool in an arsenal of weapons that people use to manipulate and/or abuse others. But just based on the information you describe, it’s impossible to say that with certainty. I have written at length about these issues in my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], my newest book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], and several blog posts.

What’s most important to remember, however, is how much it means to you to have others be open with you and to maintain a dialog with you, regardless of the problems you might be having. If an unscrupulous character knows this about you, then using the “silent treatment” will always be a potentially powerful weapon of manipulation and/or abuse.

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