The Silent Treatment – Harriette Barker, Ph. D, RN

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Domestic violence is often subtle and hard to detect.  It consists of a wide range of behaviors, which may be physical, emotional, financial and sexual.  Most attention is paid to physical abuse because evidence such as bruises, cuts, scratches and in a worst-case scenario, even death may occur.

Emotional abuse is subtle and is seldom reported.  Very few women or men would call 911 if their partner is talking down to or ignoring them.  Going into a shelter seems trivial because for many people emotional abuse is not the same as physical abuse.  There are no scars.  However, shelters do accept victims of emotional abuse.

Although an emotionally abusive relationship lacks physical scars, it damages the person’s psychological health, resulting in depression, anxiety, diminished self-esteem and self-worth.  Many victims do not know when they are being emotionally abused.  Some signs of emotional abuse are:  silent treatment, Jekyll and Hyde behavior, false accusations, sexual manipulation, constant conflict, emotional coldness, unsupportive, controlling behaviors, humiliation, isolation, encouraging dependency, lying and jealousy.

The Silent Treatment (cold shoulder) is a form of emotional abuse.  Although they may share the same living space, one partner ignores the other for days, weeks, months or even years.  He /she is excluded from any social interaction.  Life becomes an internal hell while a public pretense of normality is maintained.  The perpetrator of this controlling behavior is demonstrating his/her power to humiliate and attack his/her partner’s self-esteem and self-worth.

The Silent Treatment is a form of punishment.  Approval is withdrawn, and anger, resentment, hostility and fear may be generated.  Emotional distancing is designed to give your partner the message that he/she is not deserving of your love, companionship, intimacy, sharing or caring.

The cold shoulder has been described as the worst form of emotional abuse.  This passive-aggressive behavior is designed to hurt the other person by making him/her invisible.  It is It is disrespectful humiliating, stressful and devaluating in nature.  It may result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and issues with low self-esteem.   This treatment often comes out of the blue, the partner has no idea what will trigger this type of response.  One minute there is light and laughter the next cold, harsh, grating silence.

The Silent Treatment is not the best way to handle any kind of disagreements in a relationship.  One partner should not be trying to punish the other.  Initially, the person may try very hard to please and keep the relationship on stable ground.  However, repeated cycles of this treatment result in the relationship becoming toxic and disintegrating over time.   The victim becomes tired of the constant manipulation and stress that he/she experiences.

Reactions to this behavior vary.  The victim may respond with soul searching, feelings of loneliness, guilt, abandonment, headaches, fear, anger and resentment.  When this happens, it means that you are allowing the perpetrator to have control over you. The silent treatment is working.  But you can resist this by loving yourself.  Do not make excuses for your partner’s behavior.

How do you cope with this form of emotional abuse?

  • Do not become frustrated, angry or depressed.
  • Do not blame yourself.
  • Do not accept responsibility for your partner’s behavior.
  • Try to respond positively.
  • Express your concerns about the situation.
  • Encourage your partner to discuss the problem.
  • If there is resistance, try to focus on your needs.
  • Consider professional counseling individually or with your partner if he/she is willing.
  • Finally, you may have to save yourself by terminating the relationship if the behavior is repetitive.


October is Domestic Violence month.  If you or someone you know is being abused, encouraged him/her to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233

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