Silent treatment as abuse


It had been two weeks and counting. Rose and James were not on talking terms. Rose called it ‘nil by mouth!’ “It is so stressful. We have not been intimate the whole time. He pushes himself on me without uttering a word,” Rose explained.

Trouble started when Rose came home from a work function at 10pm one night. Her office had had a dinner party for retiring staff. James had a rule that they should always be home by 8pm. To add insult to injury, Rose had had a glass of wine during the function.

“You come home late and smelling of alcohol!” James shouted. “Who are these men you are having a good time with? You should decide if you want to be married or to move around with men.” Rose was hurt and unable to answer. She understood that James was unhappy, but the allegations and insults were unwarranted. She chose to look for an appropriate time to talk candidly about the need to be respected.

But that would mark the end of their talking. James went quiet and would not answer whenever she talked to him. He even refused to eat meals she made. Two weeks later, Rose could not bear the stress anymore.

The distance between her and James was growing by the day. And, to her amazement, James would still jump on her at night. She abhorred it.

“So this is the reason I am here. I need a key to unlock this man. I need intimacy to be loved and not sneered at,” Rose explained when she came to the sexology clinic, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Rose’s situation was a typical example of what many couples go through. One or both partners just go silent on each other! In some cases they will be silent and emotionally distant but at bedtime, want sex.

“It feels like being raped by a stranger because during the ‘nil by mouth’ episodes, your spouse is a stranger to you. You do not know what he is thinking and you are not emotionally connected,” Rose explained, “yet if you refuse to have sex the situation only gets worse.”

Refusal to talk to your spouse is psychologically traumatising. It is actually classified as a form of intimate partner violence, the psychological pain being more intense and harder to bear than physical pain. The longer the silence lasts, the more the suffering.

This is also the only form of intimate partner violence in which the offender also suffers. Nobody can remain happy by not talking out their problems. “Very true, the guy seems to be losing weight faster than me,” Rose interjected.


Just like other forms of gender-based violence, it is important to face and solve nil by mouth when it happens, and also seek to prevent recurrence. Sometimes counselling may be necessary to break the impasse.

Lessons on communication in marriage also help. Further, couples undergo sex coaching to prevent marital rape. They need to learn that psychological preparedness is important for healthy sexuality.

“You can only counsel people who are ready to seek help,” Rose said. “My husband is not that kind of person and things will get worse if I go home with such a suggestion.”

Under the circumstances, more definitive action was needed to solve the conflict. I advised Rose to write down her feelings about the situation. She wrote that she felt hurt, mistreated, angry, frustrated, sexually abused and of course, unloved. She had been unable to eat. Her performance at work had suffered greatly.

I asked Rose to choose from a range of actions on how to solve the problem. She opted to take a break from the marriage and move back to her mother’s house. She added this to her write-up. I told her to take the write-up to James.

“And even if you decide to open up and talk now, just know that it is too late; you will have to come to my parents and ask for my hand in marriage afresh and if they need more dowry you will have to pay,” Rose added.

Two days later, Rose called to report on how things had gone. From the clinic she had packed her belongings and left the house. After reading her note, James followed her to her parents’ home to plead with her. It was then that he realised the harm that his behaviour had done. He was lucky to be forgiven by Rose and her parents.

Ten years later, the couple has learnt to solve their conflicts without falling back to silence. They also came for sex coaching. It is unfortunate that James had to be faced with the threat of separation to realise that nil by mouth is harmful to marriage.