Image taken from voiceofthepersecuted.wordpress
What is the “silent treatment”?
For me, it was a powerful weapon my father used on my brother, my step-mother, myself and family members. A way to control or manipulate us whenever he disapproved of something we did that went against his wishes, against his correct way of living and thinking. It was to force us to face whatever horrible affrontery to his moral standards. Often times, the “silent treatment” was doled out without anyone actually understanding what my dad was so upset about. As a child, I spent more time anxiously trying to figure out what I had done “wrong”, or how to conform to some mysterious set of standards, then actually understanding whatever “life lesson” I was supposed to be learning from the silence.
My dad absolutely knew what he was doing. When I was in high school, he admitted to my step-mother one day how he could wait out my silence towards him because he was the master of it. He had all the time in the world, he said. He didn’t understand that my silence was a teenaged protest against being emotionally abused. My silence was survival against him. It was a silence of non-conformity and of the right to individuality. Nonetheless, I had learned the lesson of his game of silence.
The “silent treatment” is about control and power. It’s about manipulation.
How can I get someone to do what I want? How can my silent anger make someone change to a standard I’m comfortable with and in keeping with my way–the right way? How can my ego be stroked as I reign on high? How can I keep my walls up, the lights out, my heart closed off and stay in control by forcing someone to conform to me? Surely, that person knows through my silence towards them, how wrong they are! Naturally, my silent disapproval will show them that what they do is unacceptable to me! Of course, my days, weeks, months and even years of silence will illustrate how I disapprove of their ways! I’m right! They’re are wrong!
The “life lesson” I learned was that silences were punishments. When I started learning about meditation and Buddhism, silences and spirituality took on a different shape. I could identify with spiritual silences as a child growing up in the Catholic tradition. Often times, there were moments of silences during mass. I didn’t necessarily understand what to do with these moments until I asked in church. “Consider it a moment of reflection, or a moment for peace, or a moment to consider your sins.” Only once I was told that it was okay to not think about anything at all, but to enjoy the moment of mental respite. This piece of advice was actually not given by someone in the Catholic church, but by a stranger at a Presbyterian gathering.
Things began to feel different for me when I encountered silence in personal relationships. I in turn, have used silence as a weapon to try and get what I want from someone else. My ex-husband was a recipient of many manipulative moments via my honed “silent treatment” skills. One day I woke up and realized what I was doing. We both had an a-ha moment actually, that our marriage had become an extension of our respective parents’ bad marriages. We were very lost as to who we were outside of reliving some other couples’ fights. There were other bigger issues that ended my marriage, but it was my first time being the emotional abuser with the “silent treatment”.
I’ve caught myself other times since my marriage of abusing my romantic partners with silence. I’ve become more and more attune to it over the years. Silence as emotional abuse and control is not where my heart truly lies.
Feeling comfortable with relationship silence as much as I am with spiritual silence is new to me.
What has transitioned, is the silence used by my partners for reasons that have nothing to do with me. It’s become an emotional trigger. Immediately I go to: What did I do wrong? How can I conform? I can be good! I can change! I’m a good person! It’s been a considerable emotional threat to me to feel this new use of silence. Only recently, have I begun to understand why it’s causes such emotional distress and anxiety. It takes a bit of self-esteem and self-compassion. When I look back at the emotional abuse of silence in my life, I begin to observe a lessening of fear. I’m learning not to give in to and cling to every little moment of fearful or anxious feeling. Could someone else’s need for silences actually have nothing to do with me at all? Can I still be deserving of all the good things in life: joy, laughter and love, amidst silence?
Letting go. I’m working on this and what it means for me to recognize when I am closing my heart off. When I cling to my fears like a life preserver. I’m practicing becoming an observer of my thoughts and feelings. A witness. Becoming sensitive to my closing heart and instead, reopen my heart, leaning into these intensely disturbing emotional moments. As I lean and let go, lean and breathe, I feel a shift– a sense of freedom. Observing that feelings shift constantly. Thoughts move continuously. I’m challenged to either sink into the safety of my protective walls or knock a wall or two down instead. As Michael A. Singer writes in The Untethered Soul,
“The way out is through awareness. Stop defining the disturbed mind as a negative experience; just see if you can relax behind it. When your mind is disturbed, don’t ask, ‘What do I do about this?’ Instead ask, ‘Who am I that notices this?'”