In the Name of Allah,
the Most Kind, the Kindest
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Have you ever received the “silent treatment” from someone you love or respect? It’s not uncommon. A person, usually a family member, will become angry with you for a real or perceived slight, and instead of being able to open up and discuss it, they deliberately don’t speak to you for days, weeks, months, or more. I knew a mother who did this to her husband and children. One of the children, in turn, used it against her mother, husband, and anyone else in her life that offended her sensibilities.
It caused everyone pain, tremendous pain. This woman’s husband died while she was giving him the silent treatment. She hadn’t spoken to him for three days over a financial dispute. He approached her on the third day attempting to repair the rift and makeup with her. He asked her to go on a walk and assured her he’d make things right. His pleas were met with deafening silence. So he sadly went out on his own. Near his neighbor’s house, he had a massive heart attack and died on the spot.
The silent treatment is a type of emotional abuse used to manipulate the other person and establish power over them. Those who use it in this way will often speak to others but not the “object” of their scorn. This makes the silence all the more painful and isolating. It is a highly effective and insidious form of ostracism that makes the targeted individual feel bad. While the perpetrator’s abuse goes unnoticed. It is extremely stressful and associated with higher cortisol levels. It’s crushing, hard to interpret, harmful, and confusing. According to one study, the brain registers it as physical abuse. “Exclusion and rejection literally hurt,” said John Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale.
DISSOLUTION VS. RESOLUTION
How do we break the silence? Is it possible to resolve a family feud? First, it’s important to be clear about a few things. As my wise friend and yoga instructor, Jane Lockhart, shared in the issue on Collective Wisdom: “Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a person is to sever the relationship.” There are times when the dissolution of the relationship is far better, wiser, and healthier for all concerned. This often occurs after several sincere attempts to repair, heal, or work through the problem have been met with rejection, blame-shifting, contempt, criticism, defensiveness, or stonewalling. Or, when trust has been completely eroded and undermined by passive-aggressive or egocentric tendencies.
Staying in a relationship like this will only harm oneself. It’s like the iconic scene in Captain Marvel, in which, she breaks free from the Supreme Intelligence and unfleshes her full power and potential. She says: “I’ve been fighting with one arm tied behind my back. But what happens when I’m finally set free?” The people who were supposed to be her family had failed their sacred trust and only wanted to control her for their benefit. In this case, dissolution is a mercy and blessing. At most, one may want to maintain nominal ties but only if that doesn’t put you in harm’s way.
Conversely, if the silent treatment is not someone’s go-to defense mechanism and it is uncharacteristic behavior on their part it may be helpful to consider other factors that may be at play. Sometimes when a family member is going through a particularly dark period of their life, they may lash out at others. For instance, their contempt for a partner may transfer to those near and dear who are trying to help. They may project their feelings of unworthiness, anger, bitterness, and rejection onto you. It’s unfair and excruciating to bear. It may cause ruminations, and feel like your heart has been split in two. What makes this so difficult is that we’ve been characterized in the worst possible way. Our very identity and sense of self-worth have been called into question for no apparent reason or fault of our own. And attempts to repair, clarify the situation, acknowledge any shortcomings, and seek forgiveness are savagely rebuffed or met with utter silence.
At such times, it is important to create boundaries for oneself that allow for reconciliation, while not permitting harm to pass through its gates. One way to do this is to give space to the other person and the situation. Distance does make the heart grow fonder where there is genuine love between two individuals. Time is also said to heal all wounds, but this requires patience, reflection (as opposed to rumination), honoring your emotions, soliciting support, and making space for new activities and people. Lisa A. Romano, the Breakthrough Life Coach, offers her clients a powerful commandment:
“Thou shall learn to accept that others have a right to their own reality of thee, even if their reality is faulty, hurtful, discouraging, disapproving, shameful, and wrong. I shall learn to accept that I have no right to control how other people think, feel, and/or behave. I shall learn to honor how others feel, rather than engage in trying to change how they feel. I shall learn to walk away from people who fail to see the good in me.”
Lastly, vigorous exercise to music that pumps you up or affirms your worth, such as P!nk’s “F**kin’ Perfect,” may be just what the doctor ordered. Self-care at such times is critically important.
Relationships are complicated. We all have areas that need improvement. That said, no one should suffer emotional abuse or be subjected to the silent treatment by a loved one. If you are, and you cannot get through to the other person despite repeated efforts and attempts, it may be best to sever the tie or stay at a very safe distance. If your loved one is going through a major life-changing event and lashing out, then give space, focus on yourself, create healthy boundaries, read affirmations like the one above, and allow time and distance to make the heart grow fonder. It’s never easy to lose someone we love or to feel like we are losing them. As Luke assures Leia in Star Wars: Episode VIII: “No one’s ever really gone.” It’s just a matter of Divine timing, so “Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes around in another form”(Rumi).
PS. Kindly note that I write the newsletters from direct experience, extensive reading, and keeping in mind the requests, needs, and concerns of subscribers. This one was written for a dear friend who is also a subscriber. I pray there is benefit in it for all who receive it and look to readers for guidance and inspiration.