My parents weaponized silence when I was a child and I'm still trying to get over it


*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events I witnessed firsthand; used with permission.

I have a trigger around silence.

Not your run-of-the-mill pause in the conversation kind of silence. Or the in-between-your-ears-thinking-to-yourself sort of silence. I’m not talking about the doing-your-own-thing in the same room with someone else type of silence either.

Those types of silences are healthy + normal.

But I’m talking about the I’m-mad-so-I’m-not-talking-to-you kind of silence. Or the you-should-know-how-I-feel-without-me-telling-you type of silence. The sort of silence that punishes and hurts the person on the receiving end — that’s the silence I have a problem with.

My uneasy relationship with silence began in my childhood.

I can still remember how the tension between my parents would hang in the air like stale cigarette smoke in a casino. Silence was the delivery method my mother used to convey upset or hurt feelings. Most often, her irritation was aimed at my father. And of course, he would respond in kind, with less potent but equally deafening silence.

My sisters and I were the casualties of their war of speechlessness. When my parents were in this state, dining together at the kitchen table, where we shared most of our meals, was agonizing. The sound of chewing and swallowing was amplified by a gazillion when silence was screaming in both directions.

And while I hate the brutality of toxic silence, it is one of the sharpest tools in my hurt-feelings wounded child arsenal. That’s right, when I feel slighted, I can stonewall with the best of them. And although I have done enough of my own work to respond differently, I still possess the instinct to shut down and bite my tongue until it bleeds when I am upset.

Unfortunately, we have all done a spectacular job of normalizing weaponized silence. It happens in the workplace, all the time. And in homes, regardless of culture, gender, or spiritual practice.

Weaponized silence is commonplace between lovers, friends, and family.

Wordlessness may seem innocuous because we have been told, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But all too often, silence is used as an instrument to manipulate behavior.

The silent treatment can cause irreparable damage to a relationship. So why do we do it? Because it’s a coping mechanism. For many of us, it’s the thing we know how to do when we feel threatened. Stonewalling is a default response to discomfort.

It’s essential to learn new ways of dealing with familiar pain.

Otherwise, you run the risk of destroying viable connections.

Of course, there are times when silence is desired and necessary. Both my partner and I often need time to process before we can confront challenges in our relationship.

“I am going to take a pause to sort through my feelings because right now, I don’t have the language to express myself.”

Letting the other person know what’s going on is a courtesy, and it also wards off ambivalence. Because not knowing is torturous. And you know what happens when we don’t have enough information, right? We make up stories, which are seldom true but feel like gospel. These stories can make matters worse. And before you know it, you’re dealing with ten things instead of two.

But I digress…

The point I’m making is, communication is more than the things you say. It’s also the things you don’t say. Your body language, energy, and intention have an impact. And there’s a big difference between not having anything to say and shutting down.

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Intimacy & Relationship coach, writer, and creator of The Sensuality Project. I specialize in Relationship-ing (it's a verb).

Los Angeles County, CA

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