When the emotionally abusive person goes silent in order to make you feel guilty and give them the attention they want, do they have a deeper motive of self-preservation?
When abusers use silence to control you, there’s a lot going on under the hood. In this episode, I share my personal history of using the silent treatment to control the people I claimed to love.
Let’s dive right into a question someone sent me. This person wrote, “Thank you for your podcast. It has given me so much relief so many times throughout the process of waking up to abuse.
“I have a question regarding the episode you created called ‘Should You Give Into Their Perception of You.’ You talked about how the abuser uses the silent treatment and that they probably have things they want to tell you but feel they can’t. I’ve heard you talk about this many times, and it’s very interesting and thought-provoking. It leads me to a question I’d really love for you to respond to.
“When you say that what they really want to tell us is probably something that may sound bad, selfish, or even mean, this makes sense to me because it shows how more covert abusers probably carry some thoughts and feelings that are very similar to the more overt abusers, who verbalize their thoughts and feelings more.
“So, my question to you is, what does the abusive person have to do to change on a deeper level, to change those thought patterns and feelings? Because I realize this is really what would need to happen, right? If the abuser decides to be honest and open instead of just treating you with the silent treatment, then that would probably feel even more abusive, right? Because the things they want in the relationship may be selfish and even mean, and the other person would feel even more abused.
“The abuser can even justify their silent treatment by telling themselves that they are ‘protecting you,’ right? Your thoughts.”
Thank you for sharing this. And yes, this is a deep question. In fact, it’s actually difficult to put into words exactly what needs to happen inside the emotionally abusive person to change this about themselves. The reason it’s difficult is that it’s a multi-step process. It’s very difficult to change something you’ve been doing most of your life.
As a former emotionally abusive person who really specialized, unfortunately, in the silent treatment, I understand what it takes to get from there to where I am today. How I got to this place in my life, instead of withholding love, withholding my thoughts, withholding my feelings, and what I really wanted to express, how I got from there to here is actually one step that I took.
I talk about this in an article I wrote a while back, but the one step I took was asking myself, ‘If the other person never ever changed, would I be okay with it?’ That was it.
For example, I didn’t like when my wife would eat sweets. So what? She eats sweets! Who cares? That’s how I feel now. It doesn’t bother me now. But back then? I thought, ‘Oh my God. If she eats, she’s going to gain weight, and I’m not going to be attracted to her anymore.’
So I would go silent because I really wanted to say, ‘I don’t want you to be fat and ugly.’ I hate to admit that. It’s embarrassing. I feel terrible for even thinking that back then. But that’s where I was. And that’s who I was. That’s what I was thinking. I didn’t want her to be “fat and ugly” because if she was, it would affect me, and I wouldn’t be attracted to her anymore. And I wanted to be attracted to her, so she “shouldn’t be doing those things.”
But I couldn’t say, ‘Stop eating junk food because you’re going to be fat and ugly,’ because that’s mean. Even I knew it was mean back then, but I thought those things. I had those thoughts. And instead of being direct and expressing those things, which, as this person says, would have been abusive as well, I went silent because I believed it was mean. I believe a caring person shouldn’t do that.
I was trying to be caring in my own dysfunctional way. I didn’t know how to be caring. I didn’t really know how to be supportive, so I held those things in. When I saw her eating junk food, for example (one example of probably many I can recall), I would get these thoughts and feelings, and then I would be afraid that she would become, in my words back then, ‘fat and ugly.’
I would get triggered by her behaviors. I would get upset and angry. And I didn’t want to show those emotions, so I would go silent. I went silent because the alternative was overt cruelty. Staying quiet, I thought that was better than saying those awful things.
The problem was, it’s toxic and dysfunctional to go silent because she had no idea where I was inside my head. I would just disappear emotionally. I would disconnect. I would be hurt. Inside me, I would be angry. I would be sad. I would be fearful. I was highly insecure.
That’s where I was. I was highly insecure because if she became unattractive to me, what was I going to do then? I felt stuck. That was my compounding fear – that I’d be stuck in a relationship with someone I was no longer attracted to. And every time I thought about her eating junk food or sweets, it just got worse and worse inside my head.
So instead of becoming overtly abusive and hurtful, I chose the covert route, which I always did because I preferred to avoid conflict. I chose to manipulate silently. I preferred to do what I could without actually saying what was on my mind.
It was very passive-aggressive, silent manipulation, silent control. And when I did that, she would dote on me more. She would try to please me. She would try to figure out where I was, and the secondary gain with all that is that I loved the extra attention. I loved being doted on. I loved that she gave me her focus, that I was her center of attention and not sweets and not other things that I was upset about.
She focused on me; she put all her energy toward me. And so I was draining her by using the silent treatment. It’s embarrassing talking about this. It really is, but I have to be transparent about it. I think it can be helpful to know this point of view because some people do this as a method of control. And back then, I didn’t know it was controlling. I just thought, how else am I going to tell her this without getting her upset, without being a jerk, without being mean?
Not realizing what I was doing was probably just as awful. I mean, when you’re overt about how you feel, and you say, ‘Well, you’re just gaining all this weight, and you eat so much junk food.’ That is overtly abusive behavior. It is harmful. It shows the other person that they are unimportant, they don’t matter, and all that matters is that they do what you want them to do.
Reflecting on my past actions, I recognize that my attempts to change her were misguided. I tried to control her behavior by withholding love and attention, aiming to make her feel guilty enough to alter her ways. It was a selfish and toxic strategy, and that’s simply who I was at that time. Now, I see things differently, and I’m about to share why.
My realization dawned as my marriage began to crumble. We were separating, but I hadn’t grasped the gravity of the situation—I thought she just needed time to herself. In truth, she needed to escape from me, which, in hindsight, was a wise choice.
During the solitude that followed her departure, empathy finally took root in me. I pondered:
What would it be like to be in her shoes? What would it be her, witnessing me withdrawing into silence, feeling our connection fading—yet still caring deep enough to try and reach me, only to be met with a wall of indifference?
Trying to be her made me profoundly aware of the pain I had inflicted. It was heart-wrenching to realize that I had deprived someone so loving and supportive of the affection and attention she deserved.
The sickness in my gut was a physical manifestation of my guilt. I imagined myself in her position, enduring my emotionally abusive behavior, and it was nauseating. I finally grasped the extent of her suffering due to my actions.
And then, the pivotal moment: I confronted the possibility that she might never change. What if she continued to do everything that triggered me, despite my silent treatments and attempts to induce guilt? I laid out an undeniable scenario in my mind, one where her behavior remained constant.
“So, Paul,” I asked myself, “if she never changes, what will you do?”
I didn’t want to accept it. I insisted, “She has to change.” But then, I pushed further, “But what if she doesn’t?”
I was forced to face an uncomfortable truth. As someone who had been emotionally abusive in covert and passive-aggressive ways, I had to consider the reality of her never changing. What if this was who she would be forever?
Coming back to the person’s question, I realized that my goal had been to make her change through guilt. When I was silent, I wanted her to feel guilty enough to stop her behavior. It was incredibly selfish and toxic, but that was the person I was at the time. Today, I’m not that person at all. I’ll share with you what happened that changed everything for me.
I began to understand the impact of my actions. My marriage was faltering, and though I initially thought it was a temporary separation, it was actually a much-needed break for her to get away from me—a decision that was ultimately beneficial for her. So, she left.
In her absence, I had a moment of empathy. I wondered what it would be like to be her, dealing with my silence, feeling disconnected, and not understanding what was going on in my head. Despite caring deeply, I realized that she couldn’t reach me, couldn’t help me, and that must have been incredibly distressing. Experiencing this from her perspective was a turning point; it made me feel terrible for withholding love and attention from someone who didn’t deserve such treatment.
I started to feel physically ill when I thought about the emotional abuse I had inflicted. Imagining myself in her position, enduring my behavior, I felt sick to my stomach. I finally understood what she must have gone through because of my actions.
I had to confront the harsh reality that she might never change, and I questioned myself: “What will you do now, Paul?”
I didn’t want to believe it, but I had to face the possibility. What if she continued to be the person she was, with all the behaviors that triggered me?
I had to admit to myself that if she never changed, I might not be able to stay with her. The thought alone made me feel sick. I loved her, yet I was putting conditions on our relationship without realizing what real love meant.
Real love, I now understand, is supporting someone’s happiness, even if you disagree with their choices.
Looking back, I see how I made her life difficult when she didn’t conform to my expectations. I made her sad and depressed, and I have to own up to that. When I asked myself what I would do if she never changed, the answer was clear, albeit painful: I might have to leave.
I didn’t want to entertain that thought—I didn’t want to lose her.
But then, I had to ask myself if I was prepared to continue making her miserable for something that might never change. The internal debate was agonizing but necessary.
I was in disbelief having this internal dialogue because my previous mindset never allowed for such thoughts. I had never considered the idea of leaving someone rather than trying to bend them to my will. This was a pivotal moment for me—it led to a profound realization about my own boundaries and values and the importance of honoring them.
For instance, if I had a boundary against being with someone who consumed junk food, the old me would’ve criticized them for it. But the new insight was clear: if it bothers me that much, then I should leave. If I don’t like that she lounges on the couch all day, and these are my honest words from back then, then it’s on me to walk away. It’s her choice to live as she pleases, and if I can’t accept that, I should leave.
This shift in perspective was the catalyst for a major change in my life. It made me accountable for what I allowed into my life, rather than pointing fingers and labeling others as wrong or bad. It brought the focus back to me, to take responsibility for my own life. If I have an issue with someone’s behavior, I need to look within and ask myself if I want to be around that behavior. Once I answer that, I must follow through with what I believe to be true.
For example, if it’s important to me that she doesn’t eat junk food and she won’t change, then what will I do for myself?
It’s not about changing or controlling her. It’s about making a decision for myself, knowing she will never, ever change. That’s when I finally got it. That’s when I realized that I needed to honor myself.
At that point, when I asked myself if I wanted to leave, and my answer was no, I faced a dilemma. What now? If I have no control over her actions and I choose to stay, then I must accept her as she is. If I stay, I can’t complain because it’s my choice. If I leave, that’s a choice too, but I didn’t want to leave. So, my only option was to accept her for who she is and what she does.
By accepting her, I accepted everything about her, even the things that used to trigger me. It was a moment of transformation, accepting that I couldn’t change her. And if I can’t change her, but I want things to change, then I shouldn’t be there!
I had to stop the covert attempts to control and start accepting her. I questioned myself, “Are you sure you can accept her?” even in hypothetical situations where her behavior might be extreme. Yet, I felt okay for the first time. I chose to love and support whatever made her happy, even if I didn’t like it, as long as I saw happiness in her.
That day, I felt elevated. By deciding to accept her, I changed. I still had much healing to do, but my perception of relationships and how to love someone shifted. She noticed the change in me, but by then, she had fallen out of love and sealed her heart shut. It was too late.
As I changed, she had already reached her threshold, the point where a victim of emotional abuse must protect themselves. She had to close her heart for good. Both the abuser and the victim need to heal, and while I made one significant change, my journey was just beginning.
I had to confront the fact that I was the common denominator in all my failed relationships. I had to take responsibility for my actions and the outcomes they created. It was no longer about blaming others; it was about honoring my boundaries and making the choice to either accept situations or walk away.
The ultimatum I gave myself was clear: accept her as she is or leave. Since I didn’t want to leave, I had to accept her. Now, acceptance comes easily to me because I’ve learned that when you accept and support someone’s happiness, it’s often reciprocated. Accepting someone’s choices and what makes them happy is a profound way to show love.
When you offer that kind of support, people gravitate toward you. They want to be in the presence of someone who champions their happiness. That’s a monumental lesson I’ve learned about relationships: the more I support my partner, the more they reciprocate. Our bond strengthens, and the relationship endures.
They, too, want to see me happy. This mutual desire for each other’s happiness was something I didn’t understand before. I’m not using my past behavior as an excuse, but I acknowledge that I was emotionally abusive. To transform into who I am now, I had to completely overhaul my life. I had to learn how to handle challenges and accept people for who they are, even when they do things that infuriate me. And this isn’t just about my current relationship with Asha, my fiancée; it’s about everyone I meet and know.
It’s a constant practice to become more accepting and to love unconditionally. But understanding boundaries means I don’t let people overstep. When they do, I’m able to assertively communicate that they’re crossing a line or treating me poorly.
There are certain people I’m not that friendly toward, but that’s because I know my boundaries. And I enforce them when needed. Moreover, I strive to be accepting and supportive of others’ choices and their pursuit of happiness.
Who am I to dictate what another person should be or do?
I’ve shifted from trying to control others to fit my ideals to letting them be themselves and accepting them as they are. It’s my hope that we can walk into the future together, hand in hand, because they feel the same about me. So, to the person who wrote in, your sharing is greatly appreciated.
I’m not sure if I’ve addressed all your questions, but I hope my personal history sheds light on why some individuals use the silent treatment as a manipulative tactic—to induce guilt or assert control. Perhaps they justify it by thinking they’re protecting you, but it’s more likely they’re protecting themselves. They don’t want to face potential confrontation or rejection.
When I was guilty of this, my own fears of abandonment and rejection were at play. I didn’t want to say hurtful things, but I also didn’t want her to leave.
It’s not so much about protecting you; it’s about them safeguarding their own feelings. They either accept you for who you are and find joy in your happiness, or they don’t. If they can’t accept you, they shouldn’t stay.
That’s the philosophy I’ve adopted:
If I can’t accept my partner for who they are, I have no right to be with them and potentially make their life miserable.
It might sound strange, but I’d rather see my partner happy without me than unhappy with me. Her happiness is my happiness.
Entering this relationship, I vowed never to revert to my old ways. I committed to accepting my partner fully because nobody wants to be controlled. People want to feel appreciated, validated, and loved. They want to know they can make mistakes and still be valued.
I send strength and healing to anyone struggling with this. Share this with others who might benefit.