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When a loved-one has traits of Borderline Personality

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Silent Treatment: When your partner acts as if you don't exist

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Ah, the "silent treatment" and that empty, trapped feeling we get when our partner chooses to ignore us.

Maybe you don't know what you did or perhaps you do and you thought that it was a disagreement that could be talked through.

Maybe they are just angry and you will be able to discuss the situation in an hour or two. Then again, maybe your near term plans are cancelled and you need to let others know. Maybe your relationship is over. Maybe.

Is this intentional punishment? Abuse? Passive aggression? Manipulation? Emotional overload? Learned helplessness? The answer is complicated - it can be any and all of this.
The one thing that we can all agree on is that it is frustrating and it is destructive behavior. 

Withdrawal Some (but not all), silent treatment is a later stage development in the communication breakdown between two people. There are stages in communication breakdown that start with intractable conflict and complaints - basically disagreements that the couple can't seem to resolve. This, in time, evolves to the point where one (or both) of the partners begins to feel contempt for the other and their attitudes about their partner change for the worse. As the divide widens, one (or both) of the partners becomes very defensive. In time this leads to a breakdown of basic trust between the partners, and increasing disengagement in the name of self-protection. Silent treatment can be part of this latter stage. For more on this, see our article on John Gottman, PhD model of relationship breakdown.

So, in this context, silent treatment passive aggression, emotional overload, withdrawal, or learned helplessness? Yes. It is a sign of a relationship in the later stage of failing. A good "tell" if this is what your are dealing with is to consider whether there has been prior unresolved conflict, and growing resentment, and defensiveness in the relationship. If there has been, then this is the large ball of twine that would need to be resolved to save the relationship.

Best reaction? See it for what it is - its about their feelings. Generally, give the person space and let them come back to you in there own time. When they do, listen and don't be defensive. It's good to consult with others about how to handle a specific situation as there are many factors that would influence your approach or reaction.

Power Is the silent treatment ever a power-play, manipulation, punishment, or abuse? Absolutely. Sometimes silent treatment is about tactic to win. One tell for this type of silent treatment is an effort to involve others in the process of isolating you. Another tell is any indication of satisfaction in isolating you. If this is the case, you are dealing with someone more focused on winning or being right, than on resolving conflict.

Best reaction? See it for what it is - its about winning, control. Generally, let the person have their silence - don't retaliate (lower yourself) and don't give in (reward bad behavior). Go forward without them and let them catch up when they are ready. It's good to consult with others about how to handle a specific situation as there are many factors that would influence your exact approach or reaction.
You aren't alone. Stay centered. Don't lose perspective. Others have experienced this and talking it out may lead you to effective ways to deal with your partner. Our message-board is active 24/7 if you would like to talk about it.

Skip (revised 12-12-16)

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  1. I believe silent treatment is punishment. What fortifies it more is when you can feel the burning eyes on your back all the time too.

  2. I hate when my partner does this to me. It is so painful and hurtful. I always feel like I am invisible. I finally figured out that what he is doing to me is considered emotional abuse, even though he isn't sayint a word, it is still abusive. I can't control what he does, so I now leave him alone and go about my business, letting him know that his tactics are boring to me and that I will no longer let him control how I feel with his childish tactics.

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Anonymous, I do think that the Silent Treatment can feel as if the person is punishing you, but I don't know if it is always conscious. In other words, the person can be so angry, can be "splitting" you so strongly that you definitely feel as though you are punished.. but the person is not intentionally trying to punish you. I'm not sure if I made that clear.

    Often in the Silent Treatment, the abuser does not look or stare at his/her partner... He/she ignores the person completely. It is as if the other person does not exist. But I can well imagine that some may ignore their partners while staring at them in anger (the "burning eyes" is such a good description) when they think the partner can't see them.

    People get mad at each other, that's normal in the context of any relationship, as long as it isn't continual. But the Silent Treatment is simply not the same as being angry.

  4. United, whether he is consciously punishing you or not, it is best to go about your business. If you feel that he is using deliberately manipulative childish tactics, it's good that you call him on it.

  5. What do you do when you've tried counseling
    and you love the person more than your life? It is as Dr. Phil says the most insidious of control. His father role-modeled it beautifully and my father was physically and verbally abusive. I've tried everything to change it for 37 years. I'm financially dependent especially after the real estate collapse.

    I understand it's a karmatic relation-ship but I have good days and desperate days. I don't spend much time with him but it is very lonely. The physical relationship was always fantastic. He is very loving to a few friends and kind to the homeless as giving them food, water, etc. Helps people, very honest with integrity. Very generous to me financially, but never emotionally. It's just lonely. The best book I have read "The Verbally Abusive Relationship" by Patricia Evans. I study spirituality so I'm looking for an answer there.

  6. My partner of 11 months frequently ignores me. This used to cause me alot of concern and anguish, but now i know it is not him but his 'borderline'. I try to be patient, give him the space he requires etc. I know he won't answer the phone to me so i don't even try, and I know in a few days he will be over whatever set him off. I show him that i am here for him, and that i love him. I send him a text in the morning to say 'morning darling, thinking of you' and i send a text in the evening to say goodnight. i'm confident he will be back talking to me shortly. It is hard not questioning what is going on, not hassling him with phone calls and messages, but i find the more i hassle him the more he ignores me. It is almost like he is testing my love, to see if i will leave and abandon him like everyone else in his life has that was supposed to care and protect him.

  7. My ex-husband always did this. I would then get so upset and try anything to break the silence which ended up making me look like a lunatic. He would then say "look at how you're acting - and you wonder why I don't want to talk to you" It was horrible. He really thought that since he wasn't yelling or saying anything that his behavior was fine.

  8. The silent treatment, as far as I'm concerned, is not something I am going to react to anymore. Okay, i'm being ignored by the man I love. Okay, he has Borderline Personality Disorder... and possibly is being silent as a means to regain loss of control due to the vulnerability he feels for caring and loving me deeper and deeper... but the thing is, that defensive (subconscious) tactic he uses is not going to be tolerated by me. I am not going to pretend it's not happening, I'm not going to be disassociative and disassociate from my very human feelings of being hurt, and angry, and betrayed, that he is treating me this way. Instead, i am going to be 100% true to my self, honest and direct. I will give him his space.. but when he is back to being himself, I am going to take responsibility to establish firm boundaries with him and let him know that the "silent treatment" is not something he is allowed to do to me, if he indeed loves me and wants to be with me. I wish you all the best dealing with this... it is very emotinally torturturous for all of us that are dealing with loved ones that give us the silent treatment. Take solace to know you are not alone. Do not tolerate abuse for love. Instead, set boundaries, and take care of yourselves and your own emotional needs first and foremost. Please. Please. PLEASE!!! peace and love. Alexis

    1. I like how you expressed that. Much Thanks!

  9. This is a behavior of NPDs or BPDs?? I noticed I tend to do this, but because I´m so into my head, so focused on something that everything else gets fuzzy. I tend to this a lot with my dad, because he doesn´t give a damn about me or my life. Sometimes I just ignore him. Why should I give my attention to someone who doens´t care about me?? If it hurts him or not it doesn´t matter (although I know it does, he goes mad), I just do it. It´s the only power I have, my attention.

    I have some BPD traits although I don´t consider myself a full blown one. I´m not needy nor clingy, actually I´m pretty aloof and 'strong silent type".

  10. My husband does this every few weeks. We had a rough start to our marriage...primarily because of him ignoring me all the time and wanting to be with his friends instead. Sometimes his friends also gave him ideas to hurt me in every possible way. It took us more than two years to settle down as a normal couple. All that time he was only concerned about having fun and being with his friends while I used to cry, beg and ask for help from a few people around me. I was even considering divorce a few times but in my heart I still wanted the relationship to continue although it had become very abusive by then. After some time, we talked about it and decided to start life afresh and forget and forgive whatever happened between us before. We have made a good start as well but still occasionally he gets back into the same old mode and gives me that silent treatment....I can't for the life of me understand what went wrong to trigger his behaviour. He behaves perfectly fine with everyone else and ignores only me. If I ask him he either says "Nothing" or just starts repeating the old stories of our first married years and blames everything on me while portraying himself to be the innocent victim always. It is really frustrating that whenever life starts to look alright he goes off with his silent treatment to torture me.
    I didn't consider it before but now I am thinking that maybe he is a BPD....?????

  11. Ok me and my Girlfriend have been togther for 5 years, but we have broken up about 5 times. And eachtime we get back togther its the same old thing. We have a 2 year old child togther and that makes it even harder for me. The thing that gets me Angry the most is the Silent treatment. She comes home from work, says hello to her parents, her sister, her brother and my daughter, but totally ignore me. This happens everytime we get back together. There are months on end where things are great...we have fun joke and play(and you would think that LOVE IS IN THE AIR), but BOOM then she changes when I do something wrong. But know God forbide she ever mess up. And another it only me but whenever I broke up with my girlfriend I took time to greive and morn over the pain. But with her she jumped straight into another relationship on the rebound. If its not the silent treatment that hurts the most its that. And now everytime we get back togther I'm always questioning weither or not she really loved me since she tried to jump into a relationship so quickly after we broke up. Another thing that now since she is giving me the silent treatment who is to say that she isn't reconnecting with those rebound guys and using them to make her feel better. Thats the kind of stuff that has gotten on my nerves and under my skin. Am I the ONLY ONE...or and I just going CRAZY ON MY OWN? LOL

  12. I have been in complete insanity for the last 8 months over "silent treatment". I read this and a few other articles..I am shocked and so happy haha.. This is my first relationship and my boyfriend is the one you is killing me. We met through the internet and we talked constantly. After 8 months he moved in with me and thing are wonderful i couldn't ask for some one more fantastic. However, he goes silent on me when he feels i have done something wrong or just feels like torturing me. I use to go bananas man! I would cry for hours about the pain i had caused him and he would tell me a horrible story of his past and we would cry. Now I have become wiser, we were at a mutual couple friends home and all day he has been wanting a green tea i finally scrounge up change go buy it for him. When we get back to their house he doesn't want it at all, i assume because i had a sip before him. i whisper to him " have i done something wrong, how can you be upset" His reply is nothing not even a blink and some times he lashes out like if i poke him he bends my finger. i try to play it off because of the company and soon i just blow him off and play a game. My friend asks him a question and he answers, i was like cold blooded i have been trying to get him to drink that tea and say some thing but he punished me for 45. When we got home i talked to him about and googled " he wants to be silent am i being ignored? like am i crazy bitchy girlfriend that he makes me out to be. No, he just knows what control he has, for my sis and her bf, she crys over little things and he just upsets he enough to make her tell him to leave and it works for him. I have repeatedaly told him after i get really angry and yell at him that i am imature about his being quiet thing and ill be more mature next time. But it is true he gives me silent treatment and lets me beg and plead with him the whole day ending in sex and accomplishment for him how horrible im realizing this as i type..I never thought my one and only could intentionaly be cruel

  13. I am writing this because I am now receiving the dreaded "silent treatment" from my older BPD sister.

    Yikes I say! She won't return my calls. I just don't exist in her life. Well, this episode has lasted for over two months. I scratch my head and still have a hard time with this disorder. What did I do to deserve this?
    After being on the phone wishing her a Happy Birthday and later during our conversation telling her a story that I got $10.00 off my recent haircut, she suddently got silent over the phone. Wow. A mood switch! I was then"walking on egg shells" feeling that dread. YES that dread. My God,I was not entering the dog house, I was in the dog house....without a bone!
    I was the little sister that took care of my older sister's needs. I was always fearful that she would commit sucide when I was younger (she did attempt at age 17). She was in such mental pain.
    Back in those early days,I was seen in her eyes as the savior. We had a close bond. I can say now that we were co-dependent. She made me feel special. She said that I was her hero. I just wanted to absorb all of her pain.
    Once I got older, she replaced me with her husand. Yes, we all grow up and it would be natural for her to find a husband. But it was the way in which she handled our "break up". While living with my sister in an apartment, she just told me one day that she would be leaving in the middle of the month to move in with her man. I was tossed out like garbage as I recall. I was hurt beyond belief. It was like she switched off. Where did she go. I was suddenly nothing to her.
    But wait.... it was the best thing that could have happened to me since I was unaware of her BPD way back then. It was not until my early forties and one smart husband that helped me realize this personality disorder.
    Now that I understand it better, it is learning to deal with this type person.
    My advice is that for those of you who are single, do not have children GET OUT of the relationship. I often question myself on my "current" fears that I still have with my BPD sister. Even after knowing what I know now about BPD, I am still afraid of her. I am working on myself now. My thoughts are if you continue in this type of relationship, knowing that you are being abused with the silent treatment...why do you stay? My husand has said to me it is because you become addicted to the good in the BPD. I was addicted for years. BPD can make you feel great!
    But all good things come to an end. There comes a point where you have to ask yourself what is wrong with you that you are so addicted to this type person in the first place. Yes, they can be good. I understand they can be excellent at sex, make you feel like your walking on the moon.
    But as all the professionals say out there. when the bad out weights the good, most people leave.
    And beleive you me, the bad can be BAD.
    I feel fortunate to have a smart man that helps me with her personality type. I am glad that I learned about my sister's BPD.
    I feel more free of my sister since I now understand that I never existed in my sister's mind. My husband tells me that you never had her anyway. My feelings never mattered and they still don't. It is all about the BPD feelings, not mine. I am useless to her b/c I no longer am needed by her. She only calls me when "she" has a crisis. I have been replaced by her family who, poor souls have no idea what they are dealing with.
    If you can stand living in a relationship, knowing that you don't exist in their eyes. Great. You are more of a hero than I could have ever been.
    One last thing, I never grew close to her family because she fed them lies about me. I really became the villian to her, and her family. You could say she had a BPD "split". I went from suvior to villian. In being with someone with BPD, you gain nothing but pain.

  14. I’m going thru that right now, is been 4 days and my partner of 6 months is still ignoring me. I don’t know what else to do. I’m hurting so much inside and I try talking to him and asking him how long his going to be ignoring me or pushing me away. He doesn’t know...

  15. I think I'm a BPD. Not diagnosed. There's a guy at work who I became upset with and was giving him silent was to punish him but also in a weird twisted way it was to get him to come and apologise he was going to miss me and realise he needs me. Now I think he flipped the tables. He has started to give me silent treatment. But doesn't ignore me completely. We work too close and it would be really awkward since ppl think we are friends. But I know. When he says bye its now bye guys. We no longer go get coffee in the kitchen together. We've stopped our little political chats. But if I email he will always answer straight away. Always polite but cold. I'm going out of my head. This has definitely backfired. Maybe he realised what I was? This is painful. None of u look at it from the BPD point of view. I want so much to connect with him I alternate between extreme elation when I see him and within a few hours I'm considering quitting my job cos I feel so powerless to grab his attention and go back to how it was just a few weeks ago. I thought he was a narc at first cos I was so drawn to him and he seemed to do the intense stare thing. Was so charming and I felt more alive around him than I have in years. I'm finding out this is quite common. Us attracted to narcs. I don't know what to do. I'm not sleeping. I'm barely eating. I'm not in a romantic relationship so I have no 'right' to get this upset. Maybe he read all ur advise on no contact. Thanks a lot lol

  16. Really tis sucks Some peoplec are being selfish and selfcentred. You cant be silent for many days its being inconsiderate you will end up being alone if you dont want to compromise in a relationship.

  17. Im currently going through that now and Im not going to allow it to happen. Im going to express my feeling to him in person. there is no need to prove muscularity in a relationship. Im going to tell him how his behaviour is affecting me, seriously this emotional abuse has to stop.

  18. I have been going through the silent treatment for 14 weeks now and it hurts like hell, im thinking she may never talk to me again

  19. i've been with my gf for 4 years and just moved across the country.She said she loves me and will move out here when I am financially ready to move her out here,but two days ago we were fine on the phone, she told me she loved me and wanted to be with me and said she'd call me back. Well she never called back and I called her work yesterday to see if she was okay,when she hear my voice she hung up. I am so hurt and confused and dont know why she is completely avoiding me now, i have no clue what went wrong. This has happened before when i went away for a month.I don't know what to do with myself and just want her to call me...i don't know anyone where i have moved so this makes it even harder. Any suggestions would greatly be appreciated

  20. OMG! I've been searching the internet for other people in this kind of relationship, and how to deal with The Silent Treatment. My partner is doing this too me right now, it makes me feel so helpless because when I try to talk to him to work things out he doesn't respond. He does this too me every few weeks, its like walking on egg shells alot of the time. We have a 17 month old son together, and when he got me pregnant we werent technically a couple, and so I find myself thinking that he is only with me because we have a child together. This kind of behaviour makes me feel so worthless, and I cant stop crying. I try to be strong but its hard. Such a childish act but it still hurts!

  21. Dear All89 - i dont know if you ever got a response to your problem - but I'm telling you to MOVE ON - it is NOT LOVE! It may take some time to get your self-worth back after four years of hell your gf put you through - but YOU CAN DO IT! Horrible behaviour on HER part and dont let anyone or anything stop you from admitting this to yourself. You are not to blame - never have been. You will find good people in time - people who wouldnt even DREAM of treating you like that. Dont worry if you are feeling unsettled just now - moving does that to all of us. You will make a good life for yourself whereever you are - but not with someone like your, (i hope ex?), girlfriend. Go forward, (if you haven't done so already), find happiness for yourself. God speed.

  22. feeling ignored is the worst feeling ever, especially if you are in along distance like me. I'm also going through that s#it now.
    I've decided to just give him space, maybe that's exactly what he wants.

  23. Shall I give my silent treater the same treatment or continue as normal. ie kiss and say goodbye in the morning. Appreciate your advice.

  24. It's a control trip. And, it's rude, immature, and obvious sign of self righteousness. They have little to no communication skill and fragile egos. This is their way of avoiding having to explain themselves or understand you.

  25. So my "partner" decides to go away and says I can't come with him cause I'm too volatile and embarrassing. Openly socialises with everyone else. Tells me I have to call him while he is away, that he won't spend any money on recharging his phone, yet still calls others from payphones whilst away. Now after waiting for hours calling him last night, I finally go in touch and he say's sorry he didn't answer his phone he was "busy" at a bbq with comrades. I get upset that he didn't let me know what was going on and he hangs up on me, telling me i'm abusing him. Now he has had his phone off for days and has made no contact with me. We only just got back together a few months ago, and this is the way he treats me? silent treatment all over again. I love him, and he is walking all over me like a doormat.

  26. In my point of view, it is not correct to apply the silent treatment when your partner acts as when you dont exist, Share the feelings, Happy Belated Birthday wishes to Both .. , have a nice day

  27. I've been married to a man who has done this for ten years. It's not love, he's not with me for love and I've allowed it. I need to get out of this abusive relationship.

  28. Hello, I have bpd traits and I do this by accident. When I am scared, feel rejected or hated I retreat within myself. It's not an attempt at punishment, I just don't have the resources to reach out in the face of negativity. I'm terrified of what might happen. I know being quiet only makes it worse but sometimes I just need the other person to show me that it's okay, that they love me still. I really need patience from a partner :(

  29. I receive the silent treatment also.Now I just am getting to be the same as he is.However it is to keep me from saying and reacting verbally to his silence.At times i want to just lay down and die.I have allowed myself through trying to please him to have no family and or friends.I am at my wits end. yes I have left but it seems he always had a way of drawing me back. mainly with lies:(

  30. I believe my wife is BPD and despite repeated attempts to be a good communicator, no matter how much I try, she will turn right around and do what I ask her not to. After so much hurt, I do turn to the silent treatment and I can say for me its not punishment, it's because there is no point to continue to repeat myself over and over to no avail. So there's nothing to say. Her response is instead of engaging (trying to communicate) is to leave.