As the old proverb goes, all that glitters is not gold, including when it comes to difficulty in relationships.

A few of the behaviours labelled as forms of abuse and signs of psychopathy or narcissism are, in my opinion, ambiguous. Silent treatment is one of them. Whereas it can certainly be used as a form of aggression or control, abuse recovery communities encourage people to generalise, excluding other interpretations.

The reason silence is seen as abuse in romantic relationships is the strong reaction it provokes in the partner, who anxiously awaits communication, seeming lost without his/ her significant other and agonising over what they might be thinking. When complaining, the partner is sometimes referred to as needy and feels insulted; compared to them the presumed abuser seems cold, unemphatic and unloving.

But is this any proof  of foul intentions? Why should one assume these people are even aware of the drama they cause? Who’s to say that instead of being – as portrayed – sadistic monsters grinning beside the phone with a stopwatch, they’re not simply incapable of dealing with the intensity of a situation and need some distance?

Believe it or not, some people are more aloof than others; they need more space, even if that might seem unreasonable.

Even when done for selfish reasons, silence is not necessarily meant to induce a state of despair in the other, to punish them or to control them – in other words to intentionally inflict suffering. Even if someone habitually fails to care about the partner’s feelings, it’s still not the same as causing them deliberately.

To elaborate on that, I would like to make a few points.

1.The partner’s reaction is just as significant as the silence itself, if not more.

If the partner carried on with their own interests in the meantime, focusing on other matters, the situation might be seen as an odd behavioural pattern, yet not abuse. I’m writing from experience here, not out of some desire to engage in victim blaming. When one becomes so  emotionally dependent on another person, to the point of their feelings becoming an unseen burden on that person’s back, it’s not only unfair but also unhealthy. It is not a sign of maturity or balance to be unable to detach mentally from the relationship and turn your attention elsewhere for a while. This strong, disproportionate reaction to someone’s distancing might just be the tip of the iceberg.

2. These patterns (of one ignoring and the other responding with neediness) are likely to be influenced by what both partners have observed in their homes while growing up.

Although the dynamic is sometimes reversed, typically, it is women who feel neglected and men who feel their partners are always dissatisfied with their lack of emotional support. There is a very interesting video by Teal Swan on the perpetuation of these patterns and the Oedipus complex, describing how girls go on to seek the affection of partners who are predisposed to ignoring them and how boys go on to seek caring yet nagging women they end up withdrawing from – and so the cycle continues.

People may develop automatic reactions to certain situations, as a defence mechanism. For example, when someone in front of them raises their voice, the response might be to walk out of the room, regardless of other variables. This might be very frustrating for the partner, who can’t get a point across as things always escalate and end in this manner before any resolution is reached.

3. Poor synchronisation.

It’s fair to say that disappointment is the result of the expectations we have regarding others, whether they have caused us to have them or not. The reason we place such emphasis on trivial matters, like a forgotten anniversary or a trip which never materialised, is the importance we give them, as opposed to their real importance, which might be as small as a grain of sand.

When for instance someone makes an effort to plan a special evening with their partner and instead of it progressing well, the partner is morose and withdraws, causing discontent – if not a fit – the only damage done is to the figment, to the expectation. Nobody owns another person, as to force a certain mood on them and instantly demand reciprocity in their emotional state.

4. Love is about giving. Even space.

When we feel lonely and misunderstood, it can slip our minds that the people we are unhappy with might themselves have serious problems, be very tired or otherwise unavailable. Sometimes, the last thing to help the situation is ceaseless complaining over matters they might not have the energy to deal with. Neediness does make people withdraw more.

If someone is quiet for long periods of time, it can also be due to an issue they are trying to work through, at their own pace.We often come across this statements in popular culture:

If he/she really loved me, whatever issues he/she had, we could work them out together. There’s nothing he/she can’t tell me.

Wrong. Again, nobody owns another person and the need to keep some things private (even take them to the grave) should be respected. There is nothing more annoying and alienating than being prodded by others to speak because of the role they think they must play in your life. People don’t owe others explanations regarding their moods or feelings, if they do not wish to give them. They also do not owe them a mask of jolliness in order to not ”bring them down”.

 

In conclusion, this matter is as complex as it is delicate. One should pause and think very carefully whether another’s actions are really designed to affect them, or are simply an expression of how the other feels at the time.