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.
Silence leaves you alone with a massive, devastating, demoralizing space, and then charges you with filling it.
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.
Every single day people rip themselves open to someone they barely know, because someone close to them has ceased speaking and stopped listening.
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.
(Silence) adds something far worse than insult to injury, it adds invisibility.
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
But if you’re dealing with a narcissist who gave you silent treatment better let it happen. Get a life and never ever look back. It’s the best and happiest decision.
Absolutely powerful post. I had never thought of silence in this way before. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
don’t remember the psychiatrist’s name at the workshop I attended – do remember his words…”as heinous as this is going to sound, sexual, physical and emotional abuse are still some form of attention though extremely negative……pretending someone doesn’t exist is the worse form of abuse…”
My father wouldn’t communicate with my mother for a whole month one time when I was a young child. He would gesture towards his mouth when he was hungry, or tilt a pretend glass if he was thirsty. I remember thinking what is wrong with him?! These types of behaviors on top of physical violence towards us brought her to a series of nervous breakdowns for several decades of the rest of her life. But despite the beatings he gave her, this inflicted the worst pain on her. He was a minister. All his poor choice actions towards his family… Read more »
Silence is violence… a profound statement. I read the article twice and knew I had to take an action. Sometimes we are not aware of the far reaching effects of the kind of silence you describe.
“The person of Tao will eliminate all of the pain, all of the stress, anger and hatred if they decide to end the conflict with love. Be the one who ends, the silence, by saying we don’t agree but I love you. You will have moved someone from the place of ten thousand things to a place of God.”
I think this article presumes that the person subjected to the silence hasn’t earned the silence. By that, I mean that sometimes a person does something that seems to be deliberate, to hurt the other person, expecting an angry response in return. If a person goes silent in response, it ought to indicate only one thing to the other person: I’m hurt. If the person didn’t intend to hurt, then a question of “why the silent treatment ” is in order. THEN the silent party should make their hurt understood. If they MEANT to hurt, well, then THEY owe an… Read more »
For some people, arguing and debating are an energizing sport, and they are in it to win. They bring this into marriage. Anything you speak is wrong. Anything you say is grounds for massive conflict — they don’t have any personal boundary that ends a debate until/unless they feel they have won.
Silence can preserve the soul in a withering storm.
So then the silence breeds contempt…I have been subjected to this and it destroyed my marriage…If only I could have seen the signs and recognized the symptoms…I would have changed a lot of things…live and learn…but living with a ripped and torn out heart is hard ….thanks for the article and knowing I am not alone…
I have enjoyed and appreciated many articles written on this website, but this is the first one I have been so compelled to comment on. Your article is spot-on, perfectly expressing the pain and cruelty of a disengaging partner in the midst of emotional crisis or opportunity for communication and connection. THANK YOU so much for expressing the seriousness of this kind of relationship infraction, and the devastation it creates to both the ignored and to the relationship’s integrity.
It is definitely an underestimated violator in relationships of any value.
Some folks are so used to being confronted for all their lives that they feel convinced that this other must account. There are those who stonewall upon confrontations and get back like nothing happened later on. Such irresponsible people are better off without. I once dated a guy who seemed too keen on luring women unto him more so as a sport. I was one among his many trophies over time. I saw him try it right in front of me. I realized that I am not his doormat to see me objectified and I am not here to teach… Read more »
Maybe a time had to come when yelling arguing or confronting isn’t yielding anything … and you know these are done to people one loves and cares. Maybe silence is the last resort and that alone brings the lasting peace for acceptance has set in? Maybe someone needs to heal very badly because the earlier relationships have left them knocked out completely? In such cases, we must drop our expectations. I am not saying put up but if you like to be there and empower your friend to deal with their baggage, closures or even new better beginnings can happen.… Read more »
Dear John, This is a wonderful, insightful article… This brings on an onslaught of a flood of tears. How could you know all this ? I am recovering from one such painful situation now. Some of the fault was mine and I did not even get a chance to apologise .. I feel like posting this article to the person concerned, but I don’t have the guts to do it … I am just waiting for the time when things will be normal.for me again. But I don’t think I could completely heal ever again. Is it wrong of me… Read more »
If you have done your inner work and feel you have not done anything wrong, and decide to invite this other to give both a benefit of doubt, you already have done your part. If you have given an impression of being headstrong or has already proved ‘hopeless’ (for want of a better word) in a certain critical situation, the other may not care. And realization of our own dysfunct habits will show up: speaking for my revelations. In any case, none must be made to wait or hold the other with vengeful silence. A ‘no’ could be notified with… Read more »
Dear John, This sounds very mature. But isn’t it always a zero sum game? Both people stand to lose. Also escalation isn’t what the potential solution looks like. Some people just avoid confrontation. Others stonewall all your efforts to approach them, or to be a part of your life. Fear is the biggest precursor of silence. I mean, I’d feel afraid to express myself if I perceive being not understood or not cared for enough that words will bring about a change. Hence the silence. What’s the point speaking about how I feel or think when I feel you don’t… Read more »
For the most part, I agree.
Then again, there’s ways at least two sides to a story.
If your partner just doesn’t listen to you, either by repeatedly proving not to pay attention to what you say or by a constant smattering of “stream-of-consciuosness” not giving you room to get a word in edgewise
I agreed with DCW, Ruth, Ruby, and Luzy’s comments.
” someone close to them has ceased speaking…”
If this happend to me I would interpret is a an end to the friendship or an end to the relationship.
But I do not at all see at as violence.
This person is finished with me. I see it as a signal that the relationship has ended.
it is impossible to punish me with silence, because I will simply leave that person alone.
I agree Silke. Silence means the end for me. If people aren’t healthy enough to have conversations or closure, it just means I need to move on to people who aren’t silent. I really don’t see it as abusive except in relationships with spouses or children where a life has been built around a relationship or commitment.
Silence is two-way too. I was shown not the door but absence with a notice. It took me a few years but I saw my fault. I was shown the door because the wife of a researcher decided to not only disagree but also see her husband drop the idea of conversing any further with me. The lady had every opportunity to walk away, leave alone disagree. I have no respect for those who don’t have the guts to say goodbye. These junkies will waste time when all is ok. I walked away giving no explanation but with a notice.… Read more »
Dear John, Thanks for this article. However, it has got me thinking: Perhaps this has got something to do with the fact that I grew up in a different environment, where most people around me tend to avoid conflicts through silence. As much as I hate it, sometimes I do it too – and in fact, I’ve begun to do it more often nowadays. It’s not just happening to relationships, like you’ve written, but also friendships and your connection with your own family. I’ve been taught that when it comes to family, we all should always try to get along,… Read more »
Thanks for a very thoughtful article on a very real issue. I recently experienced this exact situation when, after eight months of a seemingly great relationship, my girlfriend decided to withdraw and became silent. My pleas to explain why, and respect the relationship by talking about it, went largely unanswered. The pain of not knowing why, or not discussing the cause, is very difficult to process because of the emotional void that is created. If only those causing the pain by being silent would be the ones to read this article…
Wow!! All I can say thank you, I’ve felt this from my last relationship and guess why it didn’t work!! Right on!! And I felt that I was the only one who wanted it to work when he would disappear or give this silent treatment, thank you for making my feelings feel validated.
However, when you go silent because the other person is abusive, manipulative and hurtful and there is no reasoning, it is a healthy silent. I did it once to someone who was hurtful and every contact he did had to come with an insult and humiliation. Then if I responded or call out his behavior, he will start an argument – It felt draining. One day, I just stopped answering his calls, texts, etc. it was liberating.
I had to rip myself away from family because they are abusive. It was liberating because having to defend myself was exhausting.
I couldn’t agree more! Sometimes there is no reasoning with someone, or the situation may be so toxic words only exacerbate the situation. Yes, some silences are healthy and the most effective means of removing a destructive person from your life.
John, thank you for a thought-full article. I agree that relationships of value are worth struggling for, and that ceasing communication is very often the same thing as ceasing relationship. Your article makes me wonder about the motivations of The Silent. Some probably mean to inflict injury and invisibility. I wonder, though, if others are maintaining quiet because they are afraid of the endless fallout–verbal abuse, criticisms, emotional pain, confusion–that came before The Silence. John Gottman’s 35+-year research on married couples showed that when one partner began to stonewall (using silence rather than engagement during difficult conversations), it was the… Read more »
I’m glad I read this and the comment above . It gave me a lot of insight. I have been “stonewalled” and I’m telling you nothing screams I don’t love you or I’m done with you more than that. He had always said I just needed space.Regardless, I would never ever do that to someone since I know what pain if brings. It still feels like an ending to me when it’s just a break for the other person which in result stunts any relationship growth.
Sounds like silence could be a domestic violence issue. Might be difficult to prove.
Jeez. Silence is not violence unless it was caused by a broken jaw. Violence is violence. Everything from a dirty look to having to read Ovid in a classroom is being called violence today. It isn’t, and it minimizes the very real psychic and physical trauma of violence to claim it is.