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The Silent Treatment - emotional abuse and its impact

Most of us have heard the idiom, “Sent to Coventry,”  meaning to ostracise someone or act as if they don’t exist. Knowing that city well, I’ve heard a number of explanations as to the origin of this phrase, all linking back to an historical event involving war. For those who might be interested, click on this link.  http://www.coventry.org.uk/sent-to-coventry/

   In my counselling and training practice over the years, I have come across a number of people who have suffered from the effects being on the receiving end of The Silent Treatment. This is a form of passive-aggressive abuse equivalent to a toddler holding its breath until it gets what it wants.

I’ve seen this behaviour in two year olds in supermarkets who collapse on the floor, to act out an almighty temper tantrum as a way of getting the parent/guardian to buy the forbidden item on the shelves. Too embarrassed to address the issue properly, the parent gives in, reinforcing the idea that bad behaviour brings rewards.

  If this behaviour isn’t corrected, it becomes destructive, long lasting, blame driven and eventually abusive towards anyone who doesn’t “dance to their tune.” Think temper tantrum throwing managers.

   The silent treatment is a way of controlling and showing contempt for another whilst acting blameless through what is known as the sin of omission. I didn’t do anything!

  This extreme form of manipulation instils fear, guilt and obligation in the intended target. I’m not talking about healthy periods of quiet time when two people are getting on with their work or who become so engrossed in their hobbies they lose awareness of those around them.

  There might be somebody in your workplace who includes everyone in their coffee chats except you. You get the “cold shoulder” and have no idea what you’ve done to deserve it. Nothing. Think of a family member who talks to everyone at the birthday party except you. Their plan is to make you feel uncomfortable and want to leave. If you do, they’ve won. Ok, so one excuse or reason might be you’ve upset them but if this behaviour goes on for more than a few days and your efforts to communicate to resolve the issue are ignored, then you are getting the silent treatment. These are powerful mind games and your mental wellbeing can be seriously affected.

   The abuser delights in turning the tables on you, saying, ‘She’s not been well, or ‘You know I’m going to get round to finishing the bathroom.’  I came across a horrendous situation of covert abuse when a husband and wife agreed on the refurbishment of a bathroom. Half way through, he went on a go slow. Only the toilet was installed with the bath and shower still in its packaging in the garage for weeks.

   The silent treatment includes refusal to finish tasks, thus causing distress, not addressing issues of serious financial matters resulting in serious consequences and doing what my ex-husband used to do, wait for guests to arrive for a dinner party then go to bed.

  Out of all the forms of abuse I endured for twenty years, this was the worst. I used to beg him to talk to me, try to sort things out but all I would get back was a knowing smirk. He knew that I was suffering and got a kick out it. His family thought I was the one being abusive. He was their golden boy and believed all the tales of woe he told them.

  As time passed, things got much worse.  For two years he lived in the house, in one room, without speaking to me or his children. His plan was to drive me out or under.      He achieved neither. Having his day in court so he could denounce me as unfit, unstable, un… everything else was all he lived for in the end. This is how far some people will go to achieve their desire to control and inflict psychological injury.

   When he was finally ordered to leave the house by the court because of his abuse, he ignored the order and at the point of being removed by the bailiffs, he walked down the drive one minute before the order expired. He’d made plans to return to his own country and told nobody, not even his own family. It played out exactly as he wanted as in nobody and nothing, not even the law, would tell him what to do.

   So what did it do to me?  It caused irreparable damage to my psyche in the form of post- traumatic stress disorder or as I prefer to call it, combat stress. My optimistic, lively personality morphed into somebody who cowered at the slightest noise – weird considering the house was silent like a churchyard for two long years – and who feared my own reflection which I saw as a reinforcement of the person he said I was. Truth was convoluted, upside down, inside out yet I had to keep it together for the sake of my children who had suffered in a way that didn’t become clear until many years later.

  Every day I live with some horrific memories, the worst being conned into visiting his family in the Middle East then being told we couldn’t go back to the UK.  Our passports were confiscated. During the two months I battled to get us home with the help of his mother and sisters, (for ever grateful to them), he disappeared to his cousins or his friends, ignoring our existence, showing no empathy for our anxiety. No, he relished it. It was my own, “Not without my daughter” moment. Fortunately I spoke the language well and knew how to work within the cultural and religious restrictions.

   Other days I am dogged by insecurity,flashbacks and a crazy  sense of guilt that I couldn’t fix things between us. No matter how much professional help I’ve had, it made little difference but the good news is when I become a novelist, I found a certain catharsis, writing about characters with  dark emotions and behaviours. It is through writing that I am finally on the road to recovery, seventeen years later.

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