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When Silence is Not Golden

Too often in couples therapy (or when an individual complains about their partner), I hear a statement that generally goes something like this:

“I tried to talk to her about how I was feeling, but she just ignored me. She literally refused to respond. She wouldn’t even make eye contact.”

“I asked a question and he just looked at me. Didn’t say a word, just stared at me. Eventually I just gave up and walked away.”

“… and please don’t tell me that we just need to talk. Ugh. Everyone I’ve spoken to says we just need to talk, to really talk- but how do you talk to someone who won’t say anything back?”

One client recounted the story of attempting to talk to her husband about how hurt she felt that he completely ignored her birthday (but spent $600 on himself). When she asked why he hadn’t gotten her so much as a card, or even wished her a happy birthday, he stared at her, silently, in defiance. She decided that this time, she was going to wait him out rather than walk away. 20 minutes later, he was still staring, silently- and she gave up.

Sounds crazy, right? And the reasons I’ve been given for this type of behavior have run the gamut from “I didn’t know what to say” to “I just didn’t want to talk about that.” And while I can certainly understand both of those feelings, I need to be really clear here about one thing:

Ignoring your partner in this way is emotionally abusive.

This is not how you treat someone that you claim to love. It is not. Not ever, for any reason. It. Is. NOT.

Research shows that when you ignore your partner in this way, the same area of the brain that activates when you are punched in the face lights up. The. Same. Area. Your brain interprets being ignored as physical pain. This is why it is abusive, and this is why it is never okay. It is never okay to purposefully and intentionally hurt someone you claim to love.

If both partners are willing, this behavior can be helped in couples’ therapy. But if your partner is unwilling to change, you need to give serious thought to whether the relationship should be continued. Emotional abuse often escalates to physical abuse and is not something that should be ignored.

Have you experienced this? What was the outcome? Share your experience in the comments below!

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