46: The Silent Treatment

The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment

Silence can feel like a dignified, high road response but it’s not. It’s a way to inflict pain but without the physical marks. Being noticed is so close to being loved, that sometimes they feel the same.

Karen Young

More than once I have written about my experience with the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic – like here, here, here, and here – as mentioned in Esther Perel’s book, The State of Affairs.

There are a few nuances but essentially it is a dynamic where one person in a relationship moves towards the other emotionally when there’s a problem, and the other person moves away when there’s a problem. It isn’t a pathology, it is a relationship coping skill fueled by a long list of emotional habits with clearly recognized biological drivers. One person rushes into the vacuum and the other rushes out. I liken it to a weather cycle with high and low pressures responding to the line of squalls coming between them.

In my case when the inevitable storm hit our relationship, energized by my secrets and escalating series of lies, I applied pressure to C to give me a chance. I brought high pressure. C of course, put off from the energy ran down the path of least resistance and tried to distance herself from the squalls.

This was the dynamic for the first ninety days until I was able to recognize that I am a Pursuer, and C (probably) is a Distancer. Once I recognized how my choices were contributing to C’s anxiety and distancing, I stopped Pursuing.

And while C rumormongered and triangulated, having others carry her anger to me, she wouldn’t speak to me. She did what she knew how to do: fall into her relationship pattern of securing Heroes, go silent, defend her actions through innuendo and third parties, and expect me to guess at the intentions of her mixed message.

This is her pattern. This is my pattern. I am committed to breaking the pattern.

The Pattern

The silent treatment, even if it’s brief, activates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends or enemies.

Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University

I’ve also written about her silent treatment here, here, and here.

I place the silent treatment here because, like my betrayal et al, C’s silent expectations were a constant companion in our relationship. She would withdraw and I would chase. She would hide and I’d pull her out. She would sulk and I would guess what was wrong. I was a puppy chasing C’s table scraps.

It made me assumptive, at times controlling, and in hindsight, often wrong. As I said to C more than once over the last year, “Please stop making me guess and speak to me.”

She didn’t.

This is why once learning about the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern I’ve been a little obsessed with learning more about this dynamic. It’s also why I know despite my heart’s intentions, I couldn’t go back to C as long as she doesn’t recognize the patterns.

I see this pattern throughout my life in my relationships with family, friends, and intimate relationships. In relationships I spent a great deal of time pursuing what others need and want, leaving little energy for me to lean into what I need and want.

Their silence physically hurts me, and like anyone in pain, I have often used people, places, and things to try and soothe the injuries. Frankly, I didn’t know I was doing this and just assumed I was doing something wrong when people around me seemed angry, sad, or unhappy. I assumed it was my job to fix their feelings and if I fixed their feelings things would be better and I would be better too. My well being, too often defined by theirs.

As such over the last year I’ve spent significant resource identifying relationships where I’m pursuing closeness, acceptance, forgiveness, sex, intimacy, jobs, partnership, and love in an attempt to fix what is happening internally with me. I realize it is very ingrained habit defining the way I approach loss, grieving, intimacy, and vulnerability.

A key lesson is what I struggle with cannot be fixed externally.

I’m Curious

We can learn to meet whatever arises with curiosity and not make it such a big deal

Pema Chodron

I have also seen where my relationships cycle through a sulking in silence and distancing in response to real, and imagined slights in an attempt to manipulate for a response that makes me feel better or lets me off the hook.

I’m curious about why I respond this way to silence and why I am drawn to relationships with women that emotionally shut down. I’m curious why I do the same at times. These are relationship and communication habits I am committed to changing.

Applying this insight I’ve written or called various people, all the way back to high school. I’ve contacted old girlfriends and friends I ghosted, simmered, iced, or leveraged other Best Practices of Shitheadery, and tried to listen and talk with these people like they are people I onced cared about.

One hung up on me, one called me out, and a few simply didn’t respond. One suggested I kill myself.

Two cried and thanked me because, like I felt with my ex, they too heard the Siren Call of Shame telling them my silence and abandoning them was about their value and love-ability. More than one thanked me and apologized for how they acted in the relationship.

The two that owed their part have also been in counseling or AA for nearly a decade.

One walked the trail with me for two hours, only for me to discover they were never a friend in the way I thought they were a friend.

It is fascinating to talk to these men and women and see how their lives are still living in the shadows of their family of origin damage.

For example, the daughter of an alcoholic is an alcoholic. The sex abuse survivor hasn’t had sex with her husband in a decade. The woman verbally and physically assaulted by her father married a man that sent her to the hospital too…and she sent him to the hospital at least twice. The woman whose father died in prison for child molesting married a convicted child molester.

We do what we know.

Once a Cheater Always a Cheater

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

Brene Brown
There Are Boundaries. Even in the Wilderness.

With my ex the silence of her distancing is a bit different.

First it is still raw. Secondly, in deeply meaningful ways, my relationship with my ex, and my community, mattered in ways I have never experienced.

Rural Wisconsin was the first place I ever worked to make a home. I was excited about living there. I was on the village board, volunteered in the community, started a community networking group, and I promoted the region, businesses, and community. I also spent significant resources promoting, cheerleading, and believing in my ex in and around the region.

More resources than I invested in myself. More than my ex invested in me.

As a result, the depth of grief and loss ripped through me in ways that surprise me still, in ways that still weigh me down.

Without exception the people I felt closest too at the time this began, froze me out. Overnight they stopped return phone calls and told other people to stop talking to me. They bullied, rumor-mongered, and lied about me based on what their issues told them about my behavior and not about what I actually did.

When they did write to me they simply accused me of things that never happened, motivations that didn’t exist, and half truth ghost stories. They projected their worse demons on my worst moments.

“Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate,” writes Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University, “and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.”

It is only through understanding of the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic, and the power of silent treatment, did I finally understand why the moment my ex started ignoring me, and friends ostracized me, did I feel both mental and physically anguish. I thought it was simply shame and humiliations. For months I thought it was just me being a weak cry baby. For months Flying Monkeys would write and tell me it was.

In reality, “the ability to detect ostracism is hardwired in us – it doesn’t matter if you’re being ignored by a group or a person you can’t stand, the pain still registers,” writes Karen Young, author of the The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment.

And there is pain.

The silence broke me in ways I didn’t realize I could be broken, tore open old injuries I thought were healed, and others I didn’t know existed. As my Good Doctor reminds me when we talk about grief and pain, “Sean, your ex’s silence isn’t a new injury, it is an old injury that never healed.. It’s an injury we all secretly carry in our own ways. Your grief isn’t simply about C, it’s about your life.”

I realize pursuing my ex, and others, is about trying to stop the pain and avoid the grief. When K called C it was the breaking of the levy of lies and secrets. Within in 24 hours I felt I lost everything I wanted in my life. As Pema Chodron describes when she talks about Maras,”We’re in no man’s land: we had it all together, working nicely, when suddenly the atomic bomb dropped and shattered our world into a million pieces.”

In many ways the pursuing of my ex was an attempt to make the pain stop. To pierce her silence was to know I still existed. It was to have my pain soothed. Let outsiders think what they might, but my whole life was wrapped up in maintaining my life with my ex.

The nuance of maintaining my life as opposed to living my life is not lost on me.

I never wanted to be anywhere else…even when I was.

Grief’s Weapon of Choice

Vengeance is a lazy form of grieving.

Esther Perel, The State of Affairs

With my ex, I made a different list and contacted individuals thanking them for their patience and friendship over the years but I understand for reasons our relationship is over.

From my perspective my reaching out to them has been an attempt at transforming the conflict, practicing new habits, and creating a parting that empowers me (and hopefully them too). There was a time these people and relationships mattered to me.

Too much at times.

Frankly, in the moment my fear of losing the approval and friendship of other people helped me justify and rationalize my lies and secrets. However, my commitment to living more authentically, vulnerably, and without shame or fear of being emotionally blackmailed compels me to make an effort to face these people.

I’m not doing this perfectly but I am doing it.

This week I came across another article discussing the relationship between the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic and how the silent treatment is used as a form of control. The silent treatment is “the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,” writes Paul Schrodt, PhD, Professor of Communication Studies in his review of 74 relationship studies involving more than 14,000 people.

I think it’s fascinating.

As I’ve talked to other people, in similar situations, on all sides of the issue, emotional ghosting and the silent treatment is the primary weapon of choice. “It doesn’t matter which partner demands or which one withdraws,” writes Young, “the damage to the relationship is the same. It’s the pattern itself that’s the problem, not the specific partner.”

Frankly, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to hurt others or be hurt like this now that I know what is it about. Becoming aware of the emotional and mental damage the silent treatment creates in individuals and relationships makes me responsible to not doing it.

What was once a habitualized weapon now becomes a choice. Moving forward I will choose differently.

Suggested Readings

The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment by Karen Young

Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language by Brene Brown

A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Associations with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes by
Paul Schrodt, et al

Pain of Ostracism Can Be Deep, Long-Lasting by Amy Patterson Neubert

Silent treatment speaks volumes about a relationship (USA Today)

How and why to ban the silent treatment from your relationship (Wall Street Journal)