John Pavlovitz explains how the silent treatment adds worse insult than injury to a person. It adds invisibility.
Over the last few months as I’ve talked with people reeling from the devastation of fractured relationships, those standing beneath the painful fallout of lost and broken friendships, marriages, and family bonds; a simple but tragic truth keeps repeating itself:
Words can be really cruel, but they can’t hold a candle to silence.
The beginnings of the stories I hear every day are often so very different, but they all eventually resolve to the same place; stated or unstated disagreement—and then disconnection.
Once in possession of the disapproval of the choices or words or beliefs of another, the other person chooses not to yell or argue or confront, but simply disappears. They make no grand exits with impressive speeches, they just quietly slip away and go incommunicado.
Whether those delivering this silence realize it or not, it is frequently the most vicious kind of attack because it makes one person do the work specifically designed to be done by two. Not knowing the other’s heart and not having all the information needed, they alone bear the burden of determining whether to repair and rebuild that relationship, or to bury and grieve it.
It is a quiet that kills you; a violence inflicted with distance.
Silence leaves you alone with a massive, devastating, demoralizing space, and then charges you with filling it. You are forced to write the unspoken dialogue and craft the lost narrative of the old relationship, much like a forensic expert piecing together a complex, deadly story with only blood spatters and bone fragments. There’s just not enough to go by.
Silence gives you far less than you need to work with in order to fill in the gaps and determine the truth and to move ahead.
It is a devastating crime of omission.
Last year, when one of my more controversial blog posts received some widespread readership, two things happened among those close to me who objected to my words: some became very loud, (either privately or publicly), while others simply vanished. Where some engaged, others withdrew. Whether the latter’s disappearance was an effort to side step conflict or avoid public confrontation, or whether it was a calculated passive aggressive maneuver designed to teach me a lesson or make a point, the result was the same: It severed something that had been meaningful to both me and to them, and then left me alone to figure it out.
I hear that silence.
I notice the quiet.
I see the subtraction.
People always do.
It’s a message that comes as a profound absence; of social media comments and weekly calls and invitations for dinner; in faraway gazes that avoid your eyes and in kind words that no longer come.
That is why they write to me; because the silence screams so loudly.
Every single day people rip themselves open to someone they barely know, because someone close to them has ceased speaking and stopped listening.
Whether due to their lifestyle choices or their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs (or lack of them); or for their personal convictions or political views or public statements or past mistakes, the unspoken brutality is strikingly similar.
It leaves in its wake the same gory mess of doubt, guilt, self-hatred, self-harm, and unresolved questions.
It adds something far worse than insult to injury, it adds invisibility. It removes from someone their presence, which was the very food of that relationship.
To those who are starving someone with silence right now, I’m inviting you speak again.
Relationships of value are worth fighting for.
They’re worth the difficult exchanges and awkward conversations and heated words needed to try to rescue them. Love keeps seeking the words that will reach the heart. Silence in a relationship may indeed be the final outcome, but it should be one arrived at together. It should only come as a mutual surrender reached in a war that proves to have no other resolution.
When it comes to the people who matter to us, it is never good or right to turn a dialogue into a monologue, no matter how much we disagree with them.
To those who’ve gone silent in our lives: We hear it.
We would prefer to hear you.
Originally published: John Pavlovitz.com
Photo: Getty Images