"Sure I sometimes give my partner the silent treatment and now I'm being told it's abuse."

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.

But I’ve also had silences where I’m sulking, wanting attention.

Silences where I want the person to guess what is wrong.

Silences where I am trying to add to the drama. Or prove a point (I’m good at trying to prove points).

I’ve been on the receiving end of silences that are manipulative. That have made me squirm and question myself. And then things have returned to normal, without any mention of the torture that has passed. Sax refers to these silences as a form of gaslighting.

These silences are not so well-intentioned. These silences make me understand why silent treatment might be a form of abuse.


Women share their experiences of emotional abuse. Post continues below video.

“It is cruel to slam the verbal door without explanation,” Hax writes. “You also need to continue speaking to the person on a logistical level. No acting as if the person isn’t there.”

“Choosing not to talk about it is okay, but only to give you time to sort yourself out. Get back to speaking regularly as promptly as possible,” she continues. “When you do feel better, don’t just flip a switch and act as if nothing ever happened. People deserve closure — “Thank you for giving me time to think about this; I’m ready to talk about it if you are” — even if you ultimately both decide it’s best not revisited.”

Types of silences aren’t something we often talk or think about. But it’s important to be aware of them. Of the reasons why were are withdrawing and the effect this might have on our partner.

I’m happy to develop a system of communication with my partner and friends where, if I need a minute, I can say so and they will understand. I think “preparation” is a great idea.

But I will also think twice next time I shut down. I will ask myself about my intentions and what I’m trying to achieve by going quiet and filtering my responses. I never want my words, or lack there of, to be seen as a form of abuse. Sometimes the line is easily blurred.