3-year-old Malaika walks determinedly through the crowd. “Daddy? Daddy? Daddy?” One of her dads spots her and scoops her up with great relief. Safe in his arms, she wails her distress at losing sight of them. He holds her close until she calms and wriggles to be put down. She runs around happily, secure in the knowledge that separation is soon followed by reunion.
Silence as abandonment
For infants, separation from caregivers is an immediate, life-threatening emergency. In a good-enough environment, babies learn to manage the nervous system stress of apparent abandonment through small separations and reunions. Young children explore and return to home base in a reassuring rhythm.
In abusive or neglectful environments, children learn that abandonment can happen at any moment and last for an unpredictable length of time. Their nervous systems remain on guard rather than returning to alert calmness.
When children need help, attention, or care, then silence becomes punishment. Their caregivers’ unresponsiveness becomes a judgment on their value in the world. They try desperately to be “good enough” to deserve care, rather than understanding that all children deserve care and attention simply for existing.
Qualities of silence
Silence between two people can be warm, inviting, and peaceful, or cold, forbidding, and hostile. Non-verbal cues and the joint and separate histories of the two people shape how silence is interpreted.
The silent treatment is intentional shunning to show displeasure. It is outright abuse when directed at a child, and rarely justified when directed at an adult. The silent treatment can be a tool for manipulation, or it can be an expression of fear and anger at someone who cannot be avoided.
Silence leaves us wondering about its reasons. Is the other person angry? Did we commit some offense? Are they busy? Struggling with their own issues?
When we lack full information about a situation, we unconsciously fill the gaps with our past experiences. As Malaika grows up, when someone ignores her or gives her the cold shoulder, her experiences give her the resilience to assume the behavior is unintentional, undeserved, and time-limited.
In contrast, someone with early experiences of abandonment and abuse will assume that silence is intentional, deserved, and permanent. The uncomfortable experience of being ignored in the present can trigger emotional flashbacks to the intense pain of being abandoned as a child.
Emotional flashbacks can be difficult to identify, since the emotions are re-experienced in the present. They are marked by
- Intense reactions to seemingly minor events
- Feeling like they will last forever
- Feeling physically small and helpless like a child.
Any emotion we experience is a valid, real reaction. It is not helpful or comforting to accuse ourselves of overreacting. If an emotion seems intense, endless, and overwhelming, we can ask inside if it is connected with the past. We can offer ourselves compassion for how much it hurts now, and how much it would hurt to feel like that as a child.
Responses to non-response
In the face of non-response, whether in person or to a message, we can
- Notice our first assumptions about the reasons for the silence
- Acknowledge that we do not have full information about the situation
- Acknowledge our responses to subtle non-verbal cues
- Choose to inquire, wait, or write off the interaction
Most positive reason
To help guide the choice, imagine the most positive reason for the silence. Perhaps the person is busy, or a message got lost, or they are thinking it over, or they believe no response is needed. In that positive scenario, does it make sense to reach out? In some cases, even the most positive scenario does not give enough reason to continue communicating with someone.
If we choose to inquire and receive a reassuring response, that may resolve the problem completely, or it may take time to fully repair the relationship. If the problem arises repeatedly, there may be differing rhythm of communication, or the person might be sending mixed messages about wanting to be in contact.
Waiting for a response can trigger anxiety and flashbacks after a childhood spent waiting to get away, to find safety. Without the rhythm of separation and reunion, there is no embodied experience of a wait being over.
Silence can be especially painful in response to vulnerable self-disclosure. The absence of a reassuring response can feel like judgment. We imagine the person might be thinking, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Checking in with them risks a withering blast of contempt.
The person’s silence lets us hear the Inner Critic‘s voice, and feel the part that believes its messages. In this difficult situation, bring in compassion. We can let the Inner Critic know that we hear its worry. We can let the believing part know that we hear its pain.
In dialogue with old pain
We are all in dialogue with old pain, including the person who is not responding. Their silence might come from fear, distraction, or dissociation. Silence might be their only available tool to disengage from a dynamic that is toxic for them (which is not a judgment on us).
Sometimes we are the ones not responding, out of busyness, inattention, reading email on our phones, or the need to create distance. We can acknowledge vulnerable messages quickly with an estimate of when we can respond more fully. In most situations, if we need more distance, we can kindly say so without further excuses or explanations. Our experiences with someone let us know when silent withdrawal is the safest course of action.
We can guide others by requesting an acknowledgment and response time for important messages. We can protect ourselves by exposing a small amount of vulnerability at a time.
If we find ourselves giving someone the silent treatment, we can search for alternatives, such as avoiding them entirely, keeping interactions brief and formal, or letting them know we need a break from interacting with them. We can seek out mediation and community support. We can take note of community structures that lack support for fractured relationships, especially those fractured by abuse.
Sitting with silence
Silence is ambiguous, mysterious, changeable, and powerful. Notice how you fill silent gaps. Do you take them in stride, like Malaika, or assume you are somehow at fault? When do you fall silent? How have you resolved painful silences in the past?
Pete Walker’s article “Managing Abandonment Depression in Complex PTSD” describes emotional flashbacks and self-abandonment, as well as some tools to manage and heal them.