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When most people think of abuse, images of domestic violence come to mind. However, there is a much more subtle form of abuse that takes place in many marriages and intimate relationships today that also deserve recognition. Emotional abuse is difficult to overcome because it is often impossible to identify. While domestic abuse is tragic, there is no denying the bruises and broken bones that occur as a result.
Read a Sample from My Book
Trick #1: The Silent Treatment (Pages 3-7)
Let’s say that two six-year-old children are playing a game and a dispute breaks out because one of them feels that the other is not following the rules. The one making the accusations stomps off, arms folded across his chest. “I’m not talking to you!” he declares. The bewildered playmate is sad and wonders what she did to make her friend treat her like this. She doesn’t remember breaking any rules and just wants her friend back. Childhood squabbles being what they are, the incident is quickly forgotten and the game resumes.
Now imagine the above scenario again, but this time the players are a husband and wife who have been together for fifteen years. The issue at hand is more serious than a board game, but the childish behavior is exactly the same. The husband is playing the part of the angry child who walks away and won’t communicate, while the wife is just hurt and confused. I don’t have to imagine it because I lived it. Welcome to the sad, lonely, and confusing world of living with someone who uses the silent treatment as a method of control. I am listing this abusive tactic first because it is the one that my ex-husband used most frequently and the one that hurt me the most. I call this type of person a stonewaller.
Stonewalling and the silent treatment both refer to the actions of a person wishing to convey his displeasure with you by refusing to speak to or look at you, leaving the room when you enter it, or speaking to others in the room while ignoring you. In my case, my ex-husband could exhibit all of these behaviors for several consecutive days. The tension in our home was unbearable, and our two young daughters took it all in. He would talk and laugh with them like a normal father while turning his back on me as if I didn’t exist.
More often than not, his stonewalling didn’t stop until I apologized for what I would perceive to be my shortcoming. He would never tell me what I had done to supposedly offend him so much. If I asked, I only got ice-cold silence and a glare in return. I would be emotionally devastated because I just wanted to communicate to resolve the problem. He could hold out until he broke me, and that was exactly his goal. By the end of a prolonged silent treatment, I would be so physically and emotionally exhausted that I just said what he wanted to hear in order for it to end.
The stonewaller may not say anything verbally, but his actions clearly express the anger and aggressiveness he is feeling within. Rather than promoting open communication between spouses to resolve differences, the stonewaller turns the situation into a power struggle. To him, it is all about winning. If he pouts and refuses to talk to his partner, she will eventually become exasperated enough to drop whatever issue she was trying to address. In this way, he manipulates her into doing exactly what he wants. In my case, that was to never bring up problems or expect accountability from him. I was also never to question his extreme selfishness or sense of entitlement.
For the One Who is Being Ignored
The partner of a stonewaller can’t survive long-term without suffering serious repercussions to her own mental health. I struggled with severe depression because I knew things were terribly wrong in our marriage. We could never discuss our issues, and so I assumed that I was the problem. I lived in constant fear of saying the wrong thing and being subjected to days of the silent treatment as punishment. I was very serious and rarely smiled. He never said the words, but I certainly got the message that he must always get his own way.
However, not too many people could see through him or guess how we really lived. My ex-husband was not only a stonewaller but a narcissist as well. Like all narcissists, he could be charming and would stop at nothing to bolster his public persona as an all-around good guy. The majority of people in our lives believed it, including me because I had not yet identified his narcissism and all its traits as the root of our problems. I perpetually berated myself for being unhappy and wondered what in the world was wrong with me. I mean, I was married to such a nice guy, and he was so patient to put up with me. Oh, how I roll my eyes at the way I used to think.
My anxiety over our relationship was not limited to my waking hours. Panic attacks would grip me in the middle of the night. I would wake up with a racing heart, gasping for air, sure that I was a few seconds from death. However, what was worse than the anxiety was the confusion that comes from living with an emotional abuser. You’re never sure of what is true because he determines your reality. In spite of the fact that my ex- husband never laid a hand on me in anger, my behavior around him resembled that of a physically abused person. Psychological and physical abuse can trigger the same survival instincts in its victims.
Why Being Stonewalled Hurt So Much
Everyone needs to be loved unconditionally and to feel validated. Your spouse is supposed to love you more than anyone else. When he deliberately ignores you, it says that you are just not that important. Marriages can’t survive this type of emotional battery. Over time, it erodes intimacy, trust, and happiness within the relationship. If the two of you decide to salvage the relationship, the stonewaller must be willing to submit to intensive counseling in order to understand what drives his deep need to control. He must also be committed to making changes in the way he communicates with his spouse. The relationship needs to be a give-and-take one, and the need to control can never enter the equation.
This did not happen in my first marriage. The changes my ex-husband attempted were superficial and only to appease me. On a deeper level, he did not understand how his own behavior was destroying our relationship. After several rounds of therapy on both of our parts, nothing had really changed. He still employed the silent treatment tactic whenever he was upset with me. In the final months of our marriage, more days than not were filled with total silence. I began to dread him coming home and would plan to be out of the house whenever possible. I needed to be around people who recognized that I was an important person with thoughts and opinions of my own. On a typical day, within thirty seconds of him coming home I knew how he would treat me the rest of the evening. His mood—and my reaction to it—set the tone for our entire family.
Something inside of me snapped during the last episode of stonewalling. I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent. I could not last another day being treated like that. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership, but I lived with an overgrown child who demanded that he be catered to and who made my life a living hell when I didn’t see things his way. It was a horrible example for our two children, and that is what finally gave me the courage to leave.
If you are in a relationship with someone who uses the stonewalling strategy, know that it is emotional manipulation, and it is not normal or healthy. Some of the excuses you may hear include that:
Not speaking to your spouse for days is not blowing off steam. It is punishment, pure and simple. If you want the relationship to survive, the person who stonewalls must be willing to get help. If he refuses, you need to decide if the behavior is something that you can live with or not. In my situation, it literally took a physical breakdown for me to see that my ex-husband regularly engaged in psychological torture. Even so, it took another fifteen months of soul-searching to make the decision to end the marriage.
I am not in a position to give people advice one way or the other. I just know from experience that living with an emotionally manipulative person is confusing and overwhelming. My only desire is to give you the awareness you need to make an informed decision on your own.