We all withdraw from time to time. We all need moments alone. We all have arguments, storm off, get angry, indulge in short-lived punitive treatment.
The Silent Treatment can, superficially at any rate, be confused with any or all of the above. But it is none of them. It is far more insidious, deliberate, pervasive and damaging than a quick burst of fury or a brief sulk.
Sending to Coventry, as it is also known, is the deliberate, usually long-lasting punishment of another by ignoring that person, withdrawing love, warmth, eye-contact, words – and then waiting, hours, sometimes days, until the other one cracks and apologises, often for something ludicrously trivial or even for nothing at all.
It is a devastating tool in the great Armoury of Mind Games. Used often enough, it causes traumatising tracks to be etched into the brain – so that any silence, any apparent withdrawal, becomes terrifying and threatening, and leads to panic, self-blame and then grovelling apology.
It is a brilliant, inspired way of sowing mind-doubt into the fertile soil of another person’s psyche. It is cheap and effective because, with very little expenditure of energy – and none at all of money – one can immediately tweak someone else into doing exactly what one wants, just by turning one’s back and walking angrily away. And, because the ‘crime’ is often more a figment of the Ignorer’s imagination than anything based in concrete reality, the Ignored begins, very quickly, to feel that he or she must be truly wicked and insane to provoke so strong a reaction.
It also has a serious knock-on effect in all other relationships. Of course it does. How could it not? Things one learns very speedily to avoid with the Ignorer become taboo areas with other friends and relatives. Causing anger in anyone becomes so petrifying that the ignored will do almost anything to prevent it happening – and will constantly mollify, ameliorate, apologise unnecessarily, take the lion’s share of the blame in every disagreement and fail to stand up for him or herself.
It is, I believe, a twisted, borderline evil, training regime. It requires, I fear, an essential coldness of spirit, a want of the loving and protective instinct, a need for control which demarcates those who enjoy inflicting pain from those who do not. It is the realm of those who get a kick out of experimenting upon their fellow human beings; those for whom the only rights and privileges in life belong to them; those to whom other people’s humanity and feelings are not real, do not matter, are a tiresome irrelevance.
The desire to dominate in this way starts in childhood; of that I am sure. A child says to another one, ‘I am not speaking to you any more…’ and gets a tearful, pleading, promising anything response in return. How gratifying. What an ego-boost. And, yes, that free bar of chocolate will do very nicely indeed, thank you. Forgiveness may, of course, take a little longer; after all, one has to make sure that the little slave has really learned his/her place and will not renege on the unspoken deal in future arguments.
But, of course, children learn the Coventry Route through their parents, don’t they? And that lesson can work one of two ways: Slavish and unthinking adherence (out of self-protection and inchoate fury: Do unto others what is being done unto you) or a strong determination NEVER to inflict such horrors on one’s own children, friends and family.
The problem with the second option is this: The Ignored is likely never to have learned how to protect him/herself against those who use the Silent Treatment, and so is almost certain to ‘attract’ more of the same in future relationships, friendships or family groupings.
The other problem is this: Those trained by another’s malicious silence give off a signal that is almost as strong as musk. It draws in predators. And so the cycle continues, until the Ignored is finally able to say, ‘Nothing I have done deserves this kind of crap. There’s the door. Use it.’
Until, that is to say, the Ignored can say, ‘I am worth more than this…’ and genuinely mean it.