I just made up the term Silent Gaslighting because I think it’s a good way to explain what happened to me in the story below. If there’s a better term, just let me know.
My first brush with the silent treatment was back when we were dating. Of course, in hindsight, it was a red flag, but one that I was so baffled by at the time that I didn’t know what to do with it. The interesting part of it was that what made him so mad was that I didn’t trust him. I found this event in an old journal recently.
We went away with another couple to a ski lodge. After a long night of fun with friends we went back to our cabin. I was pretty tipsy and instead of ‘cuddling’ I was ready to sleep. I don’t know the details except that I barely remember him asking me if I trusted him and according to him, I responded “No” and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning I awoke to our friends knocking on the door because we had their skis in our cabin. It was my guy friend and his girlfriend and when he walked in, he asked about the many empty bottles on the fireplace hearth that were lined up. I hadn’t noticed them until he pointed them out to me. I shrugged and gave him their skis. Once he left, I looked and saw about 10 empty bottles that weren’t there the night before when we came home. My friend invited us to brunch in an hour at the lodge and I told him that we’d meet him there.
I woke up him up and explained how we were invited to brunch in an hour. I was excited to enjoy brunch at the lodge, but he wasn’t. In a clipped tone, he said we would be leaving and not going to brunch because he had to get home. I was disappointed, but didn’t think anything of it. I called my guy friend to let him know that we wouldn’t be at brunch and then proceeded to shower and get dressed. All the while the ex was ignoring me. I was confused, but I figured he was someone who needed quiet time when he woke up and remembered he’d downed all those beers too.
We got in the car to take the 2 hour drive to his house and he wasn’t talking to me still. I asked if he was ok and he didn’t answer. I was trying to figure out what was wrong. I asked about the empty bottles and he gave me a sneer. I figured he was hung over and didn’t want to talk about it. But he was being so aloof and standoffish that I didn’t know what to make of it.
“Are you not talking to me?” I asked, with no response from him.
“What’s going on? Are you mad at me?” He took his eyes from the road for a brief moment and stared at me with hard eyes. My mind raced trying to figure out why he was mad at me.
“Why are you mad at me?” I figured I might as well ask. I kept staring at him, willing him to answer. He stayed completely quiet with his eyes boring holes into the pavement in front of the car and began to drive faster.
“Please keep to the speed limit,” I quietly murmured. I couldn’t figure out what the devil was going on with him. He had never acted this way before.
“No I don’t. That’s why I’m asking you. Did I do something wrong?” No response.
“Can you tell me please?” The silence was deafening and finally after a long, long, long pause he answered.
“You know what you did.” Deadpanned. The words hung in the air.
“No, I don’t. Honestly. Why are you mad at me?”
“You hurt me.” He glared at me and I began to get upset because I don’t hurt people intentionally and I thought we had a good time the night before so I was confused. I began to apologize and try to smooth things over because he was obviously hurt and mad.
“I’m sorry that I hurt you. Can you please tell me what I did because all I remember is that we had a good time and then I was really sleepy when we got back to the cabin. Are you mad because I fell asleep and was tipsy? We were all tipsy last night. Please talk with me.”
“You said it. You know what you said.” He was looking straight at me with anger in his eyes, all while now driving way over the speed limit and scaring me. His clipped cold tone made me almost wish he’d still be giving me the silent treatment.
I stayed quiet for awhile. I didn’t know what to say. How was I supposed to know what he was talking about? Ok, I know I was tipsy, but I couldn’t figure out what I could have possibly said to make him this angry and hurt. We drove in silence for awhile until I began to cry quietly. Who was this person? He was always so kind, so nice, so much fun to be with, but this was like Jekyll and Hyde. We had been together for a few months already and I’d never seen him like this. I didn’t know what to do.
“Don’t cry.” It came out like a command.
I was afraid to talk. His tone was icy without any compassion. I tried to stop crying, wiping away the tears with my head down. He was still speeding, but not as badly as before, so maybe he was softening.
“Why won’t you talk with me? I’m sorry for whatever I did to hurt you. I would never intentionally hurt you and I don’t remember a lot because I was tipsy. I’m sorry for that. We didn’t eat a lot last night and I…”
“When we got back to the cabin, I asked you if you trusted me and you said no.” His words were delivered in a measured monotone as I sat stunned.
Of course I trusted him. We had been dating for a few months and I really liked him. Truth be told, I loved him. Everyone did. So, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know the context of his questioning if I trusted him, but I vaguely remembered although I was surprised that I had answered ‘no’ according to him. Because I did trust him, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone away to the ski lodge with him.
“Is that why you drank all of those beers?”
“You made me do it.” He was seething in a clipped tone and underscored it by looking straight at me with a venomous look.
I didn’t know what to say. I made him drink those beers? That was a lot of beer to drink by himself after what we’d had before we got back to the cabin. I knew he had a high tolerance, but still, that was a lot of beer. And how did I make him drink them? I was asleep! I wasn’t even aware. What was going on here? Why was he acting this way?
“I don’t know what to say except I”m sorry. I do trust you.” Entreatingly I reached out to touch him. His hand shot out and brushed mine away.
“Really, I’m sorry. I don’t remember that part of the night. I vaguely recall you asking if I trusted you, but I don’t remember saying no to you. I don’t know why I would have because I do trust you.”
I began to cry again. I couldn’t help it. He sat stoically driving in silence.
I repeated myself multiple times. “I’m sorry. I do trust you.” But he wouldn’t answer so after awhile, we just sat in silence.
When we finally reached his place, I got out of the car like a scolded child. I didn’t know what to say, so I simply got out, got my stuff out of his car as he came around to the trunk of the car.
“Thanks. It was fun until the end. I’m sorry,” I said as I looked at him.
He kissed me on the forehead and then whispered in my ear, “I know.” I turned to look at him again and he winked. Then walked into his house as I stood there transfixed in the driveway with my car just a few feet away wondering “What just happened?”.
Red flags, green flags, purple flags, all the flags but in a new relationship it is really hard to grasp that. I used to hate the silent treatment. Now I get what it is and just let it be. I can be silent too.
I like that – I can be silent too and now I get what it is…huge learning curve for me, but in hindsight I can see what I was blinded to earlier. Thanks Janet.
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The manipulation in this story is disturbing, and familiar.
I’m so sorry.
I will never accept this sort of behaviour again. The passive aggressiveness and cruelty is too hurtful.
My mom and my ex are both like this. I spent most of my life believing it was me, something was wrong with me. It also states killed me.
It’s not me. I know that finally.
Thank you Anne. I am sorry you understand, having had similar experiences. I always thought it was me as well, but I know it’s not. And I am grateful that I don’t have to be in that situation anymore with him. Hugs to you too!
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