Answering as an Act of Love: Silence and Emotional Abuse

“My baby brother’s graduating high school, and my family would really like me to be there.”

She turns to look at me, frowning. She doesn’t say anything, just looks. She doesn’t have to say anything; I’m already coming up with the excuses I’ll tell my parents for not being able to make it.

Seven years later, and my baby brother doesn’t invite me to his wedding because of this exchange of words and silence. By this time, though, Hurricane Isabel has passed.

“I really want to go to his wedding,” I say.

“When do you want to leave?” he asks, already pulling up a Major Travel Website.

This story isn’t about getting my way, as much as it might seem to be. The fact that Jack prioritizes what’s important to me is a sign of a good relationship, but if my brother had been getting married this winter instead of this summer, I wouldn’t have been able to go. If I’d asked, though, he would have answered me. He might have said no, that we really couldn’t manage it (although knowing him, he probably would’ve told me that he’d make it work somehow); what’s important is not the answer but the fact that there is one.

Living in an emotionally abusive relationship, there’s a lot that doesn’t get said. There are questions that don’t even get asked, information that gets hidden. Asking a question or admitting to a truth is opening yourself up for bitter retribution. And if you ask that question, odds are you won’t get an audible answer anyway.

Painful silences are a red flag.  They don’t necessarily signal emotional abuse, but when you’ve gotten to this stage, there’s something profoundly wrong with the relationship.  Painful silences are the silences of words that need to be said, but I don’t want to have another fight. If there are painful silences in your relationship, your communication has been broken.  Counseling may help.

Fearful silences, on the other hand, are the silences of abuse.  I don’t want to get yelled at. This is the silence for which the phrase “walking on eggshells” was coined.  You want to whisper, because you know that it’ll be your voice that sets off the explosion, one way or another.

I’m sitting in silence now, working on this post, and it’s an incredibly different sort of silence.  It’s a comfortable silence, the silence of two people who are happy just to be sharing the same space, who don’t need to fill it with words.  I can sit in the same room with Jack for hours, not talking, each of us doing our own thing.  I take pleasure in being able to do that; to sit and write without interruption, to talk to people on AIM without someone demanding to know who I’m talking to, what I’m talking about, dictating my half of the conversation.

Even in this silence, we’re communicating.  I’m not afraid to break the stillness, to mark the room with my words, because I know they’ll be welcome.  I know they’ll be listened to.

This year I attended my grandmother’s funeral and my brother’s wedding.  Thursday night I’m driving to Las Vegas to spend Christmas with my mom, my aunt, and my best friend from high school.  I haven’t really spent time with her since the hurricane blew in; I hope that our friendship is storm damage I can repair.  None of these trips could have been possible during hurricane season, and now that she’s gone, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to spend time with my family.

My mom and I have a lot in common – we’re both strong, stubborn women who spent an absurd amount of time living in the path of a hurricane.  We’ve both moved to places with much better weather.  I learned a lot from my mom about how to live in a hurricane, and now I hope we can teach each other how to live without one.

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~ by Amber on December 21, 2010.

One Response to “Answering as an Act of Love: Silence and Emotional Abuse”

  1. Men who threaten to take away the kids are engaging in post separation violence. It is common for batterers to threaten to take children away from the battered woman by proving her to be an unfit mother. For this reason, some lawyers advise women not to tell courts or mediators about child abuse or domestic abuse because, by doing so, they risk losing custody to the alleged abuser!

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