Monday 27 April 2020

‘Silent Treatment’ May Not Be About You

Picture of man and woman not speaking to each other.
Image Credit: The Independent
When discussing communication with people, there is almost a general consensus by discussants that the best way to solve a problem is by talking about it. It is believed to be the mark of emotional maturity to verbally resolve issues as amicably as possible. When someone is unable to talk about issues of discontent in the approved manner – calmly, without anger or rancor, or immediately – they are classified as either emotionally immature, abusive, controlling or a combination of all.

This makes sense. People should verbally communicate with each other when they have discontent or disagreement. They should be able to say that they are hurt or offended or abused and try to resolve said problem in the most peaceful way that they can.

But…what if they can’t? What if they cannot verbally resolve issues amicably? Or resolve it in the moment when they are hurting? Or any time afterwards?

This is one reason why many people adopt another method of communication: silence.

Growing up, I learned not to talk back to adults or people older than me. When I say learned, I mean ‘forced to adapt to silently accept the hurt’ that was dished out by older people to me: regardless of how I felt. So, no matter what anyone older did to me, I swallowed it and remained silent. This would have been great if I didn’t have such an effusive emotional expression and personality. You see, if I was happy, I was happy. You could taste the was that infectious. If I was sad, it could envelope you in its gaping chasm. And by god, if I was angry, it could consume you in its explosion. But with adults, I couldn’t express any of these emotions. So, I cultivated the silence that was expected of me in my interaction with older people.

With people my age or younger, I was myself. This means they got to enjoy my happiness, empathize with my sadness and suffer the searing heat of my anger. Let me describe this anger a bit. Have you seen Moana? Remember how Te Ka seemed to only see red haze, prompting her to destroy anything – and everything – in her way when she was in the power of her rage? Yeah…that is me. When I was hurting, I used to say the most hurtful thing that could come to my head as I lashed out. When that red haze came upon me, I didn’t stop until the recipient was eviscerated: figuratively.

With people who were strangers, I couldn’t be bothered with the repercussions of this action: they didn’t matter to me. Now, imagine if I did the same thing to the people who were close to me, who mattered to me. How would I come back from eviscerating a person and saying mean, hurtful things to them? What if they did something – like hit me in response to my ‘sharp mouth’ – and we could never come back from that? Because it had happened! I disagreed with a boy who was my friend and because of the things I said, he came to my house to beat me up. If not for other friends who were around, I would have been beaten to a pulp. With people I cared about, I knew the approach to communication had to be different. The closer a person was to me, the less likely I would want to lose them in a fit of rage. So, with them, I started to be silent when I was hurting. I would give us space, so I could put out the raging fire I was feeling. My motto was – and is – ‘We can come back from silence. We cannot come back from a heated back and forth where mean and hurtful things may have been uttered’.

In my first year in the university, some guy offended me on my way to my seat at the Faculty of Science Lecture Theatre – one of the biggest in the school with a seating capacity of around a thousand five hundred. That morning, the hall was packed full, with students spilling over and hanging on the windows and doors. I cannot remember what the guy did, but the haze thickened, and I had a full blowout. I kept going until the deafening sound of the silence around me cleared the haze. I turned around and watch as people literally shrunk from me.

Did I tell you the painful shame and regret that came after each of these blowouts? Nothing in my entire life compared to what I felt when I saw people shrinking from me that day. I was red with the remnants of the anger but especially from the debilitating shame I was feeling. As I took my seat with the full glare of students on me, I swore to myself to never lose my head like that ever again.

But the anger didn’t go. The rage kept pressing on my chest whenever I was hurt or abused or felt offended. So, I chose a less daunting expression: silence. This meant that the anger stayed longer but the aftermath was more rumbling mountain than erupting volcano. Oh! There were times when the anger still erupted, and I chewed down on people but for the most part, silence was my go-to reaction whenever I was offended: especially with my closest friends or people I was romantically involved with.

I have read over and again that silence in a relationship is ‘emotionally manipulative’, ‘abusive’ and ‘controlling’. In fact, I was talking to someone I had dated when I mentioned how we had had a seemingly perfect relationship and breakup. He mentioned that if we removed my emotional blackmail with silence, we could describe it as having been perfect. I was shocked! My emotional blackmail? How?! He explained that the ‘silent treatment’ was emotionally abusive to him and that many times, he just apologized so that we could have peace and I would get back to talking to him.

Because this statement was repeated by not just him but everyone I had ever dated, I took time out assess myself and ask this question: was I trying to emotionally abuse, manipulate or control the people I dated? The answer, as honestly as I could admit to myself, was no. For me, staying silent when we had a fight or disagreement was my way of preserving what we had. I didn’t want to blow out and say things that I couldn’t take back. And I sure as hell didn’t want to be beaten – again – for saying the things I was feeling. These two things are not things I thought two people could come back from.

Now, were there instances where my silence was anything more than taming the anger? Yes. The only other reason I would go silent was self-preservation. If I felt I had been hurt way more than I could continue to allow, I would cut a person from my life and that could be inferred from my silence. I still have a problem communicating my hurt or angst to people older than me or in positions of authority. Because of the dynamics of the situation, and the ingrained rule not to talk back at adults – and also people in authority – I rarely ever verbally address hurt emotions caused by people in this category.

I have spoken to some people who tell me the same thing about choosing silence as a means of communication. They have shared the very same desire not to cause harm as a result of what they may say. The general consensus is again, ‘We can come back from silence. We cannot come back from a heated back and forth where mean and hurtful things may have been uttered’.

There is another group of people who would rather remain silent than verbally communicate their hurt: those who are pathologically afraid of confrontation. These ones are not worried about saying the wrong things. They are worried about their partners saying – or doing – the wrong thing in response to their verbal communication. Imagine interacting with someone who constantly negates your experience or reaction or who tries to switch the blame back to you every single time. That knowledge can make people silent when points of hurt becomes repeated. They are sad, but they know their partner would not understand or change. So, they keep quiet.

Whenever I see people talking of silence in communication, I sometimes want to scream that 'what you perceive as ‘silent treatment’ may not necessarily be about you!'. It may just be the way people process the emotions that they are feeling. But people don't want to hear that. If we are being honest, they are more worried about how a situation affects them than the person they are interacting with. An example is, though I expressed my process to everyone I ever dated, when we had a fight, they conveniently forgot how I preferred to deal with my emotions and required that we used their process: just as I conveniently did the same. The general rule of thumb for most people is that they want people to react to them like they themselves would react to others. So, if A wants to talk about issues in the moment, they want B to talk about it in the same way: regardless of how B would prefer to handle the situation. And if B wants to take a couple of days to ease out the anger, they expect A to understand that they need time away to process their feelings. Most times, A and B never agree that they approach communication from a selfish point where they aren’t really considering the needs of the other person in the relationship. It is always about ‘me’, ‘what I want’ and ‘how I want it’.

Guess who is always pressed to change their method of communication though? The ones who are silent. As expressed in the opening paragraphs, people think verbal communication is the best form of communication. I agree. But people should also learn to ask some questions when others are silent with them: why can’t they talk to me? Why are they unable to be vulnerable with me? Is there something I am doing to exacerbate this? Are they afraid of me or my reaction? How can I help?

Because people haven’t considered the underlying issues that may cause others to give them the ‘silent treatment’, all they see is emotional manipulation, abuse or control. Which means that they take a moral high ground where they think they are better or more mature because they are able to communicate verbally. And it shows in subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - insults that trigger even more silence. The ripple effect of this is, when people feel pressed to change, they become unwilling to. Simple disagreements become heated arguments that lead to sour relationships and in many cases, a catastrophic end to said relationships.

When I had this conversation with the ex I mentioned, he told me he saw the situation in a different light now. He admitted misunderstanding my response to our fights and wanting me to respond to him as he would have responded to me. He hated to fight and loved to resolve things immediately when these fights happened. With our conversation, he realized how much harder it must have been for me when I couldn’t talk about issues. He told me what could have helped was my telling him I was hurt, and I needed time to process the hurt. He would have known that I still cared about him but in that moment, I couldn’t analyze the issue without losing my head. And I agreed that was a better way to handle the situation.

These days, I try to verbally communicate my emotions to people. I am taking the steps to meet people halfway. If I do this and the situation escalates, you can see the frustration from trying not to trip over my geyser points. This is usually expressed in how heavier my stuttering becomes. If I think I am being misunderstood and see that the red haze is becoming too thick for any clear thought, I express why I can’t continue the conversation and clam up until I am in the right frame of mind to resolve issues amicably. It is hard, and sometimes all I can do to hold myself from causing lava to fly everywhere. But I have found that when someone is willing to meet you halfway, there are no airs about who communicates best, who is more mature or emotionally intelligent. What matters is the preservation of self, the other person, and in addition, the relationship that two people show they want to work.

Now that all that has been said, it is important that I add this: silent treatment can be emotionally abusive. It can be a form of abuse. It can be a desire to control another person. It is the same way that verbal communication can be all of these and more. Yeah! You didn’t think about that, right? What I hope we can do is give people the benefit of doubt when they express their emotions; verbally or in silence. Think… why do they act this way? Why are they too eager or unable to be vulnerable with me? Are they deliberately trying to hurt me? Is there something I am doing to exacerbate this? Am I a safe space for the expression of their emotion? How can I help? This way, people who care about each other can work together to determine the half-way mark, the type of communication that best works for them and how to effectively care for each other.

So, when you are in the heat of that argument or misunderstanding or disagreement, countdown from five…and give your person the benefit of doubt. In many cases, they don’t want to hurt you; deliberately or otherwise. Give them a chance to prove that.


  1. I enjoyed reading this piece of work and alot of lessons were learnt

  2. This is a great piece.