I’ve been thinking about the silent treatment recently, having just been on its receiving end. Wallowing is boring so I thought I’d think about it with a little more detachment.
Some background: I lost my temper not so long ago. One moment my anger was a hard little knot in my stomach and the next there were entrails and shit and blood spattering everything in sight. The issue itself was not very major, but it was a matter of principle. I felt sidelined by some relatives and, deeply hurt, lashed out in a way that I am not proud of. Words were shrieked over both ends of the phone. My cat cowered under the sofa and my baby, as a side benefit, was stunned into silence.
We didn’t intend to make you feel this way, they screamed. But you DID make me feel bad, I yelled back. You did you did you did. You were secretive, you excluded us, you who always insisted on acting as one big happy family. No no no, they said. You wouldn’t have been able to participate anyway, so we didn’t tell you. You are disingenuous, I spat, hypocritical. And then the phone went dead.
Well, the said event was a family vacation. Truth be told, I have a small baby and going on a whirlwind international tour was hardly possible. Still, I was enraged that my small family was not even told about this plan. I was constantly in touch with this trip’s organisers but they didn’t breathe a word of this to me until their tickets were in their hands. To add insult to injury, one of them rued in an email that it was too bad I couldn’t join. I hadn’t even been asked! Did they think I might spoil their plans if I was told? Show up uninvited to blemish their holiday photographs with my postpartum lard? Did they not know me at all? Their behaviour breached a familial code of conduct. The secrecy seemed deliberate and I could not understand why. They were nice people, I thought we were genuinely fond of each other, our relationship was generally smooth, so why this and why now? These were people who expected and were given frequent updates on our lives and emphasised how important it was to be a close family. I breached a code too. Instead of staying quiet, I unleashed my hurt in a less than ideal way.
So, should I have stayed quiet? Silence is golden, isn’t it? I beg to differ. In relationships, if silence is golden then dog shit should be selling for $1000 an ounce. After the fight, my husband and I both sent out emails explaining our feelings to our relatives. I even apologised for the discussion becoming too heated. The hope was that we could resolve our differences and come to a better understanding. After all, hadn’t they also professed their deep and abiding love for us and our child? If a relationship is worthwhile to all concerned then open and honest dialogue can solve most problems. Communication is key, we all know. Psychology 101.
Instead, we got the silent treatment. That’s power play 101 for you. They replied to none of our honest, heartfelt missives . We do not know their position, we do not know their reaction to our position, and now there doesn’t seem to be any way of bridging the gap. A problem that could have been solved with apologies and an open dialogue from both sides will now forever fester like the aforementioned dog shit. Yelling at people is immature and aggressive, but silence is even more so. It is fine to take some time out to cool down, but this is distinct from ignoring an argument altogether. Here is why using the ‘silent treatment’ as a way to avoid or react to conflicts is so futile and indeed, toxic:
1) It halts communication: Without honest communication, relationships may as well not exist. Sometimes, communication means dealing with conflicts. Relationships do not always play out according to a script in which everyone sticks to their roles. We might as well sit around the family table with talking dolls for company. Yes, sometimes silence can help keep appearances up, but it takes its toll. Silence can be the death of a wife who never raises a voice of protest against an abusive husband. In less extreme situations, it can result in living a lie just because the truth is uncomfortable. We all know the scenario: parents and children, husbands and wives who are virtual strangers to each other even if they are living under the same roof. It creates a culture of secrecy and resentment. Sometimes, you need to fight to make things right.
2) It is a damaging display of power: In giving someone the ‘silent treatment’ you are asserting power by taking complete control of a discussion. You shut people out, with the implicit message that they are not worth your while. By abandoning an issue that is important, you abandon the people who have the issue. You take away their power vis-à-vis their relationship with you. You put them in their place – and that place is always going to be very far away from you. Silence destroys relationships. This paper on the use of Silence in Discourse describes the result beautifully: This form of power is detrimental, as it not only is a form of ignoring a specific issue that possibly needs to be further discussed, but it is also a form of disempowerment to the other individuals of such conversations. The use of silence as an impediment of conversation or dispute weakens the quality of interaction, as well as the relationship between the disputers, which as a whole is a form of destruction.”
3) Silence is a form of emotional abuse: The silent treatment messes with your brain, seriously. Most people who dole it out don’t exactly rub their hands and say ‘let’s scramble xyz’s anterior cingulate cortex today’, but what they do know is the power of disengagement to seriously hurt those close to them. This neuroimaging study, among others, explains how ‘the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. ‘ This disruption actually causes pain to people. It’s that crushed feeling you get when you’re not invited to a friend’s birthday party or when your lover no longer takes your calls. Some people understand this very well and are adept at using silence as a tool of low-grade torture.
4) Giving the silent treatment gives you a forked tongue and horns: Seriously, when you’re the one doling out the silent treatment, your targets aren’t thinking of you as the silently suffering martyr. If they don’t think you’re just indifferent, they think you’re the devil. By presenting a blank canvas, you’re inviting people to paint you in the most unflattering light. After all, you’re not making yourself present to paint a clearer picture of the actual situation. Your intentions will not matter. Even though giving the silent treatment is an act of passive aggression and egotism, your behaviour may also be the result of a serious feeling of hurt as well as a fear of overt conflict. But unless you say so, no one will ever know. You will forever be misunderstood and will forever misunderstand those you once held dear. Ask yourself: Is it worth it? Rejection begets rejection.
5) Sage advice: The next question, of course, is, how should one deal with the silent treatment? The obvious first step of course is to initiate a conversation but if multiple attempts do not lead anywhere, you need to withdraw too. Silence does not truly indicate detachment or indifference. It is a tool that is designed to get a response out of you, be it guilt, grovelling or something in between. It is also usually a game of chicken. Don’t give in if your own convictions are at stake. If you are a people-pleaser like me, this can be hard, but it is worth the effort. And if there is no end to the silence? Use the enforced meditative space to evaluate your relationship and the motivations of the people in it. What if the silence ends but the original issue is not discussed? Not acceptable: conflict has a purpose and it can result in the growth of understanding. By understanding, I do not mean ‘agreement’ – I mean an authentic insight into and acceptance of another person. Pretending something didn’t happen is futile because the seeds of conflict are still there. No feedback? Just paint on the forked tongue and red demon eyes and get on with your life as happily as you can.