Writings from Christine

The Silent Treatment: The Subtle Art of Abuse

by on May 29, 2018

silent treatment1Margo knew she messed up but she wasn’t sure how. Her husband’s complete silence towards her over the last few days was a signal that she made some sort of mistake. The problem was, according to him, she made daily errors in judgment, so she was completely in the dark.

Did she drink too much at her husband’s office party and say something embarrassing? Or perhaps he is upset over the new pile on the kitchen counter? Could it be that she spent too much on groceries because they are trying to eat healthily? Or did he see her sarcastic text message to a friend about how she was in the doghouse with him again?

Normally, Margo would just confess to everything, apologize, and beg him to start talking again. She hated the silence. He would reluctantly accept her remorse, lecture her about the incidents, and then slowly reengage. Unfortunately, within a couple of weeks, the same cycle would repeat but not this time.

This time, Margo decided she had enough. She was done being treated like a child. She began to see how he used silence as a way to control her behavior and get her to accept excessive responsibility. At the beginning of their relationship, she saw his uncommunicativeness as sophistication, now she saw it as manipulation. But she needed to understand this subtle abuse tactic better. Here are the many ways silent treatment is used to abuse others.

  • Ignoring: Giving a person the “cold shoulder” or ignoring is done by dismissing the person or even disregarding their existence. It is used as a way to devalue a person and establish a hierarchy of superiority in favor of the abuser. For instance, paying no attention to a person as if they were not present, discounting a comment as if it was not heard, forgetting about an event as if it was never scheduled, or looking down on a person as if they are stupid.
  • Evading: Instead of flat ignoring a person, an abuser might evade, stonewall, or shirk from communication. This is done by giving one-word answers to open-ended questions, refusing to look in the eyes of a person when they are talking, giving vague responses when asked for specifics, mumbling under their breath, or deflecting a response by changing the subject. An abuser uses these tactics to render a conversation meaningless and cause the victim to feel dismissed.
  • Subverting: This is done to undermine a person’s power and put them in a state of destabilization where they are unsure of themselves. This looks like no acknowledgment of quality work, blindly removing areas of responsibility, resetting expectations without informing, or quietly sabotaging any success. In most cases, this is done in a cunning and crafty way that the victim is unaware of the shift until it is too late to handle.
  • Rejecting: In an intimate relationship, physical refusal of affection is a subtle form of rejection. This can be done nonverbally by pulling away from touch, turning a cheek when being kissed, moving further away when physically close, and giving non-responsive hugs. It also includes not engaging in sexual behavior, minimizing the importance of sexual contact, and snubbing any type of intimacy.
  • Quarantining: Quarantining or isolating is a form of physical and mental abuse where a person’s social activity is restricted. This is done to cut them off from families that might rescue them from their abuser. An abuser refuses to engage with extended family to limit where the victim has access. Then the separation is justified by saying, “They don’t like me,” “They are trying to destroy our relationship,” or “They don’t really care about you.” This subtly expands the silent treatment to include the unknowing participants of the victim’s family.
  • Shunning: Taken to the next level, shunning involves isolation from an entire community. In this case, an organization, religion, or group of friends is both knowingly and unknowingly engaging in the silent treatment. The abuser accomplishes this by going to a group of individuals and spreading lies or rumors about the victim. Usually, the statements demonstrate an inconsistency with the belief system of the group. For instance, the abuser might say to a religious organization that the victim no longer believes in God or that their behavior is not consistent with a believer. This puts the victim in a defensive position where they cannot recover easily.

Understanding the different silent treatments abuse tactics was the beginning of the end for Margo’s relationship with her husband. Once she fully understood how he had manipulated her, her family, and her friends, she decided to leave.

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Posted under: abuse Writings from Christine

4 comment on The Silent Treatment: The Subtle Art of Abuse


    I am looking for any and all resources regarding divorcing a man like this and learning how to co-parent with him. I am still easily sucked into his abuse cycle. I do better when I go no contact but it has been difficult since we have children. I am really struggling with letting go. He has clearly moved on and I cannot seem to let go of the fantasy of what I wanted in our marriage. I used your abuse checklist and discovered that he has/had abused me in each area of abuse. There is no reason I should want to still be with him but I find myself missing him and wanting our family back together. I am broken-hearted that he is with someone else and living a secret life. He wants to co-parent with me and be friends but hasn’t acknowledged any of the horrible things he has done. He has made a big giant mess of our family, started a new one, and still wants to parent with me. I am so confused and hurt. I don’t want to be around him because all I think about is the pain and suffering he has caused. I am angry that he has moved on with someone else and seems to feel no pain and remorse for the loss of our family. Thank you for your website and podcast. So completely helpful.


      I’m so sorry to hear your story. The best revenge is for you to move forward in a healthy manner.


    From my own experience of being on the receiving end of the silent treatment from my now ex-husband, I have found this mode of silent abuse to be a learned behavior from his parents. It seems that forms of abuse can be generational, repeating the cycle from one generation to the next until the “chain” is finally broken.

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