I am an expert at silent treatment. Something goes wrong, I shut down. Stop talking. Swallow my words and listen to the rage in my head. To be fair, I do this because I know myself. I know that I have a tendency to snap first, say something horrible and push, push away. I’ll say something I will really regret later. It’s best for me to listen to myself, process and then talk.
This shutting down though, it’s been called a form of abuse.
“The silent treatment is torture for people on the receiving end,” advice columnist Caroline Hax wrote for The Washington Post.
“It is abuse. I will not condone it, excuse it, soften my stance on it.”
Hax uses phrases like ’emotional abuse’. She says that silent treatment leaves others “dangling and waiting to be let out of jail”.
I understand this too. I’ve been in that jail (who hasn’t?) and it is awful and mean and can make you feel crazy. If you’re there for long enough, you’ll find yourself apologising for something you’re not sure you’ve done. There is nothing nastier than treating someone as if they don’t exist.
The answer, Hax says, is preparation. If you are like me, and you know you need a moment. That your body and emotions (and, most offensively, you mouth) will react strongly if you don’t give yourself time, it’s best to discuss this need with the person in question.
“[You could say] ‘Just letting you know, when I’m upset, I need time before I can talk about it’,” Hax explains. “Develop a code word even, a hand signal, anything that lets people know a silence is to restore you, not punish everyone else.”
‘Not to punish everyone else’. That is an interesting phrase and it makes me wonder about the intentions behind silent treatment.
Because surely these intentions, more than anything else, is where the ‘abusiveness’ can be found.
I can’t believe that using silence as a way to process hurt and anger is a form of abuse. Instead it can be a vehicle to a more constructive, positive conversation. This silence is reflective, not abusive.