Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Silent Treatment by Borderline Mothers

The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which contempt, disapproval and displeasure are displayed through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence. Additionally, the silent treatment is the cold shoulder, complete silence, distance, feigned apathy, and being ignoring. The goal of the  punishment is to make the victim feel unimportant, not valued, and not cared about. As a form of non-physical punishment and control, the abuser believes if she doesn't physically harm then she is not an abuser; however, the silent treatment IS emotional abuse. The silent treatment is a form of erasing someone from the abuser's existence without the benefit of closure or a good bye or a chance at reconciliation.

The Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) mother may rage when angry, but many times she may use silent treatments. The BPD mother uses the silent treatment to torture the child(ren) that she professes to love.  The silent treatment is a very narcissistic example of the lack of emotional regulation of the BPD. The silent treatment is control, and a safe means for them to avoid any  'uncomfortable' topics, issues in the relationship, or issues within herself; therefore, the silence is an abdication of personal responsibility. 

Kimberly Roth, the author of Surviving a Borderline Parent, encountered many children of borderline parents who said they felt crazy growing up. "They experienced a lot of inconsistencies—an action or statement that earned praise one day would touch off a three-day, stony silent treatment the next—as well as sudden outbursts and overreactions." So they never learn to trust their own judgment or feelings. The most important element to recovery, she says, is to accept that you're not crazy and that "it wasn't me."

Throughout my life, my BPD mother has used the silent treatment as well as other ways of ignoring me as a way of 'punishing' me. Starting as a small child, she would lock herself in her room for up to days at a time. She would not speak to my brother and me unless absolutely necessary. Thankfully we had my Dad with which to communicate and to care for us. She continued this pattern into my adulthood-- with the worst episodes when I lived with her as a teenager. The pain and shame and feeling of isolation was overwhelming. I tried to reach out to others during this highly emotionally abusive time (my step-father, my friend, my friend's mother) but was only subjected to my mother's retaliation.

As a teenager, I was banished to the basement for 90 days, only allowed to leave to perform house and yard work. During this time, my mother wouldn't speak to me. I was completely ignored and isolated as I wasn't allowed to use the phone. I tried to appeal to my step-father's common sense, but in the midst of telling my point-of-view, my mother arrived in the basement and told him not to speak to me. She called me a bitch, and they both left. So, not only did I not have her speaking to me, but she prohibited my step-father from speaking to me as well as my ability to talk on the phone to others.  

She also used notes to communicate during these silent treatment times. She wouldn't talk to me for a long period of time. Then she would start leaving notes for me around the house. Each note would get further and further off-base from the issue-- very bizarre writings. The notes would truly make me sick to my stomach as her illness was clearly apparent in these surreal and bizarre writings. Those outbursts and over-reactions that Roth referred to above were very apparent in these notes. More about this period of time: Run Forrest Run

When I went off to college, she became enraged because I didn't come home one weekend to see her. I tried to talk to her about the situation but she repeatedly hung-up on me. Instead, she used letter writing to communicate. She wouldn't talk to me on the phone (silent treatment), but she would send letter after letter-- each letter getting further and further from the truth and the issue.  She eventually wrote that she didn't want me home for Thanksgiving ... then Christmas... and then ultimately she put my possessions on the street. I never responded to the letters; however, the letters got so upsetting to my then boyfriend that he confronted her about her fabricated and distorted views. More about this period of time: Out of the Nest

By the time the information technology age arrived, her methods shifted from letter writing to emails. She wouldn't call me or my then fiance (now husband) back on the phone (silent treatment) but she would fire off a series of emails to anyone that she had an email address. Her lack of emotional regulation was very apparent as she fired off inappropriate and delusional emails to my work colleagues, collegiate colleagues, future in-laws, friends, and more. More about this period of time: Little Women 

Regardless if she gave me the silent treatment, left notes laying around the house, mailed me letters, or sent me emails, my mother has been incapable of honestly and openly discussing the issues at hand. The issues root to her fear of abandonment and rejection as well as her hypersensitivity to the topic of my Dad, her divorce from my Dad, and those she feels have hurt her. She has chosen time and time again to alienate herself from those around her by estranging herself from her daughter (me), her son, her sister, her father, and countless others. Rather than working through challenges, she claims the victim stance and retreats. And with the retreating, she comes ruthless with her words on paper.  

So, my mother's silent treatment was not merely the absence of speaking. She added the element of note writing, letter writing, and sending emails as a form of control. With these methods she was able to refuse to communicate until she was ready to stop punishing-- and then she was able to one-sidely present her compoundingly and exponentially distorted, convoluted, and fabricated point of view. She was vicious with her words-- and still is as my brother is still in communication with her and received some very scathing and ruthless emails and texts from her. When she disagrees with him, she will not speak to him on the phone, but she will send him texts with harsh profanity (telling him to "f*&k off" repeatedly for example) and telling him how horrible he is.

Her silent treatment has always made me feel not valued by her... unimportant to her ... and easily discarded. The fact that she can stop communicating with me so quickly and flip to denigrating me is amazing and tragic. She sings my praises for years to completely change her tune in a matter of seconds-- her over-reaction leading to estrangement, the ultimate form of silent treatment. And her outbursts switch from notes / letters / emails TO me ... to notes / letters / emails ABOUT me. My mother, with her silent treatments and estrangements, has left no ability to have closure-- ever-- with any of our issues through the years. Even after a silent treatment or estrangement ended, nothing that transpired ever was discussed.

For those of you suffering from the silent treatment, please do not internalize the abuse. Remember that the silent treatment is passive aggressive and by no means resolves any of the extenuating issues. Remember also that you are worthy of being recognized, acknowledged, respected, and dignified with a response. And remember that you are not crazy ... and that it's not you.


  1. Oh wow. This is my mother to a T!! And in all honesty, my father also.

    I am just starting to believe that I am not the crazy one. It's hard when you grow up being so easily ignored, devalued and discarded by the people who are supposed to love you.

  2. I'm currently getting the silent treatment from my grandmother, who I am pretty sure has NPD. She is angry because we saw my in-laws and not her, even though they drove 200 miles to see us. She said to me, and to my mother in law, "So glad (my husband and me) got to travel!", so she is pretending like she thinks we went back to our hometown. Because actually admitting that she's jealous about us seeing them at all would make her look bad, I guess. My husband doesn't understand at all why I am upset about it, since I've been trying to have as little contact as possible with her, but it just feels so. . . punishing to me. I know I'm in trouble. That old role I play starts to sneak up on me. I have the compulsion to do what is expected of me (beg for her forgiveness for hurting her feelings) just to quell the anxiety.

    I appreciate this post. This last round has been a poignant reminder that my relationship with this woman can never be healthy.

  3. Very powerful.My mother to a T .Even when my husband of 36 years died tragically she could not reach out or rise above her distorted belief system and offered no condolences verbally or in writing.

  4. Thanks for stopping by KB... my best to you.

  5. I am new to accepting the fact that my mother is truly BPD and that I am not the "ungrateful, selfish and worthless" she has always said I am. I just turned 40 and have two small children of my own who are starting to ask why 'grandma' never visits or why I do not have much of a relationship with her, and I have been struggling to explain that things are not good between my mother and I without vilifying her or making myself sound like a victim. This site has been incredibly helpful in bringing things into focus for me and has enabled me to feel (finally) as if I am not crazy, broken and alone in this because someone else has had these experiences with their own mother.

    To "Anonymous/KB" who mentioned that her mother could not even give her condolences on the loss of her husband I just want to reach out from the circle of humanity and say, "so sorry for your loss!" It is devastating to feel that, even when you are the one most in need of love and support, your mother cannot even give you the respect of acknowledging your grief. I am praying for you today - that the Lord will give you a sense of peace, protection from pain and purpose for the future. You sound like a very strong person!

  6. "This site has been incredibly helpful in bringing things into focus for me and has enabled me to feel (finally) as if I am not crazy, broken and alone in this because someone else has had these experiences with their own mother"... that's wonderful! So happy to hear... and thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate your comment and stopping by. Happiness, peace, and love to you!

  7. I am so incredibly happy to find this blog posting and this site. I have a mother who fits this personality, excluding the notes/emails part. I am 33 now and when my sisters and I were growing up, she and my dad fought constantly in front of us. We were often in the middle, being asked in a way to choose sides. Those who sided with my mother got the nurturing, rides to school, favorite meals, etc. Those who sided with my dad got free reign to stay out late, go to a friend's house, etc.

    This would not be a big deal if we were a typical American family but we are not- we are middle eastern (non-religious). Mom and dad don't believe in discussing our private lives or getting outside mental help (case in point- younger sister had eating disorder at 16- mom didn't see a problem. Sister is 29 now and STILL doesn't eat carbs).

    Mom has now deemed my older sister the best, never causing her grief, and really "needing her" as she has a 1 year old boy with her perfect same-nationality husband. Mom has no idea my older sister was going nuts after letting her live with her for 2 months (since my mom refuses to live with my dad for the last 4 years). I took burden of letting her live w/ me for 3 years and no one in my family helped (sister: "you wanted her to live with you, it was your responsibility") When I lost my job, and subsequently ran into a few months where I couldn't go out to the fanciest restaurant or buy my mom Louis Vuitton purses, etc. - the sisters and mom stopped talking to me. Mom seems to be nicer when I buy her things, but can snap into her silent treatment so easily even buying a gift can't stop it.

    She often plays the victim, acts like a child, "mom where do you want to eat- italian or chinese? Mom: "Whatever you want" Me "mom you pick (she says no) I say "don't you have an opinion? Mom: "No". Mom also loves coupling the silent/limited conversation treatment with childlike behavior when she is wounded, when I have supposedly been mean or rude to her.

    I spent many years agonizing that I was the worst child, until I saw her do this to my younger sister (still does treat her terribly and with a different tone altogether than our older sister). I don't believe I am such a bad person anymore because I am older, more mature and can identify these patterns that she exhibits towards me when she wants attention. She doesn't do any of this to my older sister. None of it! Perhaps because she is married and she feels awkward now that there is a man in her daughter's life.

    My mom has never spoken highly of my dad to us, causing all three of us to not speak to him. He was not perfect to us growing up (often absent, bad temper) but neither was my mom. My mom spent years trying to alienate him from us (she won't ever divorce him bc it's not right in our culture; instead, she is still married but talks bad about him to everyone of her friends and us). My dad has been trying to reach out to me for a few years, but I fear accepting a coffee meeting with him bc my mom and sisters will think negatively of me. In some ways, my older sister can be worse (so judgmental) than my mom.

    I am seeing a therapist (family does not know). She is helping but it is a slow process because there is so much. Plus, she is American and won't ever understand the cultural issues we deal with in our family stemming from my family's background.
    Thankfully I have a supportive boyfriend and friends who have helped me throughout the years and reminded me I am not crazy. It took all those years and just a 5 minute read of this blog to finally sink in that the problem does not lie with me.

    Truly - thank you.

    PS- if you can recommend any books to further read on this, I would appreciate it.

    Los Angeles, CA

  8. I hated the silent treatment!! What a cruel punishment! I truly suffered as a little girl... enduring 3-4 day "punishments" at a time. Usually trying the whole time to understand what I had done wrong! I remember being jealous of friends who got hit. How twisted.

    As I got older (into HS) it didn't have the same outward effect on me. I came to expect it and carried on as if nothing was wrong, carefree even, hehe.

    Ironically I'm the one who initiated no contact, silent treatment indeed. I sit here with 2 years of no contact approaching and I can't help but wonder why she wouldn't have tried to reach out to me and say "I'll change. You don't have to do this." But she didn't. This way she's the victim and I get to feel guilt over hurting the old lady who hurt me and caused so much angst in my life.

  9. I'm being "punished" right now with the silent treatment. She moved and didn't send me her new address. No emails. Doesn't answer her phone.

    This is all complicated because she's old and in terrible health. I am the only person in the family who speaks to her at all, and my contact is very limited. It will be a year of NOTHING and then I'll get a call from the hospital that she attempted suicide...again. Or stopped taking her medication and her kidneys are failing. Or she fell. Or whatever.

    I'm so over it.

    She will not allow me to be a good daughter to her. So, during the silence, I breathe easier.

  10. It is bittersweet to read these comments. I am 54. For most of my life I have accepted that I am the broken one. I now realize it is because if I believe that I can change enough to make her happy, then I will eventually have a normal mother/daughter relationship. That seemed easier than accepting that it will never change because she is the broken one and she will never recognize it. I have spent my entire life listening to her blame anyone and everyone for her disappointments. My intuition has always told me something was wrong but her personality is so strong and her manipulations so painful that it is easier to just agree than live with the consequences of being truthful with her. I know because invariably I will cross the line accidentally and end up suffering her rage or even more painfully, her silent treatment. 54 years old and I cry like a baby when she cuts me off. No one gets it, because she only picks on a few people, she did it to her mother, her husband and to me. My two brothers have somehow been wise enough and strong enough to have very definite boundaries when it comes to her. I walk into the trap every time because I feel sorry for her and feel that there must be some way for me to fix everything. It is a vicious cycle...

    1. Your post touched me. I feel exactly what you are going through. Try to follow your intuition-- and you can hopefully break the cycle. My thoughts go out to you-- hugs!

  11. I grew up in a home where my mom used the silent treatment on me from the time I was 12 years old. She would go weeks without speaking to me. She even did this to me on my birthday one year. My father totally enabled her with this behavior. That year with my birthday, she walked to the back of the house, and my dad whispered happy birthday to me, not wanting her to hear him say that. I was alone. My brother never seemed to encounter her wrath. As I entered adulthood, she still used the silent treatment on me, and I fell for it. I had my children in my mid-30's, and I think I really saw this silent treatment I dealt with, from an entirely different perspective. How could anyone do this to a child?? I felt my heart break all over again. I am now in my mid 40's, and a year ago had a disagreement with both parents. Here comes the silent treatment. I am done, I refuse to deal with it. It's been a year, and honest to God, it's been one of the most peaceful years of my life. People who have never dealt with this type of thing with their parents cannot understand, but unless you've lived it you don't get it. Thank you for this blog.

    1. I completely understand ("How could anyone do this to a child??") My thoughts exactly. And that they continue to do this into our adulthood... the abuse :/ I am proud of you for putting your foot down and refusing to deal with it. May you have many, many more peaceful years. My best to you.

  12. My mother is not talking to me. I've sent her two emails, letting her know my new address, sharing some important news, but no response over 2 months now. At some point in this "cycle" of ours, the lack of response will become MY fault because I eventually stop trying to engage. She flips into victim stating that I never contact her. Mother's Day is coming up. I don't know what to do.

    1. Let it go... move forward... seek positive rather than dwelling on negative. I think the cycle should stop, and if she is not responding, so be it. You can only control your actions and responses. You have sent two emails... you have reached out and done your part. Don't give her the power to 'flip to victim' by not being part of her toxicity. Accept how things are and free yourself from the ties that bind. I feel for you and wish you all the very best. Stay strong and believe in yourself. Hugs.

    2. Thank you for this response to the poster. It has helped me. However, I am somewhat financially depdendent on my PD mother due to disability, so I am not sure how it is going to go. I am sure she will still want to give me money as she has sent emails asking about money issues, but won't take my calls and is very business like about everything. I am going to work hard to see if I can make an extra $400 a month or live a lot more simply, because I certain don't want money from someone who just wants to bully me and when I stand up to her, pretend I have done the worse thing ever and punish me with silence.

  13. Wow! So glad I stumbled upon this blog.

    I'm currently in the middle of a silent treatment cycle, and have no idea what's going on. The only idea I possibly have is that perhaps she's mad I invited them up to see us this summer? (We live 1,000 miles away.) My mom HATES to travel to see anyone else, so in her twisted mind, she's LIKELY thinking that it's very insensitive of me to not recognize how much she hates traveling. On the other hand, we are a family of four, our two girls are under 6 years old, and we have no frequent flyer miles (unlike my father). The kind of trip she would prefer, which is that we come to see them but stay in a hotel, is out of the budget right now.

    The other possibility is that my mother is suffering some kind of emotional distress, and is being silent about it as a means of testing me. She believes we have a mental psychic connection, and that I should just "know" when she's feeling bad about herself and needs help without her having to say anything. (I only began to realize how crazy that sounds when I finally typed it out for a friend a few years ago.) I have learned that to "reward" this behavior by prodding her to tell me what's going on usually only results in rages at me or her wishing for death out loud to (hopefully) make me scramble around to get her feeling better again.

    It's a relief to read other people's experiences because, well, I'm not nuts! I did and still do experience a dysfunctional relationship with my mother! From being treated as an extension of her as a small child (I'm the only daughter, but have two brothers), to being raged at for trying to assert my independence, to being treated to a fantastic rage after the birth of my first daughter that--in truth--was more about my mother's feeling insecure than anything else, to being accused of selfishness and insensitivity, and to being told repeatedly that she and my dad (though she has a habit of lumping my dad in with her crazy to present a united front) expect more from me than my brothers because I'm a girl... I'm exhausted.

    This latest... whatever it is... is just another link in the chain. I have no time or energy to play guessing games with her, so I guess I'm just going to have to wonder without wondering too much. Does that make sense?

  14. "I'm exhausted"... I hear you! I pray you find peace. My best to you <3

  15. When I left my husband at the age of 40 my mother did not speak to me for 2 years . Once I phoned her to suggest having a coffee only to be told , "I want no relationship with you . You have hurt me ! " Although at that time I was unaware that she had a BPD I knew intuitively that when I left my then husband , I left my mother . He tried to control me by joining forces with my mother on whom I was for so long so dependent ! Children of such mothers never get a chance to develop a healthy self esteem . We are again on speaking terms but I know how toxic she can be and keep contact to a minimum . I can barely be in the same room as her ! Looking back on all I had to endure as a child- being called 'evil' - I know I was emotionally violated ! My teens were a nightmare as I was not allowed to individuate and acted out terribly - that I eventually finished university and have been married now to a medico who had her number from day one these past 24 years and cannot be manipulated by her wiles is a blessing . The only thing I know with absolute certainty is that she will never change -

  16. Wonderful, wonderful comments. The only explanation I have for my Mom's "silent treatment" is her lousy, Cinderella childhood treatment from her mother (my g'mother). Now, at 54, I allow her to have her 'tantrum' and be silent - I just ignore her back. If/when she attempts communication, I respond with 'her' 1, 2 word answers. "Tit for tat" after all these years. Tired of the guessing of what did I do/what happened to tick her off. She is a yo-yo, up and down all the time. Over 40 years of this > time to end it, at least on my part.

    1. I am almost 50 and I finally stood up to my mother and now getting the silent treatment. But from what I am learning, it is best not to start anything or beg for a response or denigrate myself over it all. Just curious what happens now that you don't play the game. I am kind of doing tit for tat as well just to mirror how she is treating me in case there is any chance for her to get it how it feels. Probably not, but when she sends these short business-like emails over money dealings, I reply just as short. Anyway, it feel awful.

  17. Thank you for this article. I am in the middle of another silent episode with my mother. Her silences started when I was 12 and they're still going - I'm 38 now. The periods last for a minimum of 3 months and can extend to 12 months. If it helps at all, every time she has an episode, I develop new insights into the impact this disease has had on my life. Best wishes to all who contend with this illness.

  18. This is my mother to a T. The last straw was when my half sister's children were taken from her. I was not the screw up she kept telling everyone else I was, and when my sister turned out to be the "bad" one, that just could not be. My mother filed a CHIPS petition against me to get custody of my daughter. The judge actually stood up and yelled at her, telling her that my child needs me and I am a good and willing mother, so why bring this to court. When the case was thrown out, she ran. It's been over 2 years since we have last had contact. I have attempted to email her, while making it clear that everything that is happening is her own choice and her own doing and I bear no responsibility for her actions. She has missed out on my wedding. She has missed out on my son's birth. She is missing out on my daughter. When my daughter was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, she hurriedly sent an email to my daughter's father's parents but STILL did not reply or step up. I feel depressed a lot about it, but at the same time I know I did nothing wrong.

  19. The silent treatment is something that I am nauseatingly familiar with since childhood, with my mother. God knows how much damage has been done.

    It took me years to establish a healthy emotional view of myself, and the journey was long and painful but all in all, well worth it. Growing up, being financially independent and having the resources to move myself away from all this was key. Also getting hold of knowledge - as much knowledge on the subject of emotional abuse and self-healing, as is possible. And finally, years of meditation and mindfulness.

    As a teenager I had no such means, and there were long periods when I felt that everything was hopeless, that life was not worth living. The sad thing was that each step I took was accompanied by huge doses of self blame - I never had the capacity of awareness to understand that none of this was my fault, that I was (and still am) deserving of love and respect, that it was not me, it was her.

    Each time my mother used the silent treatment on me, it was like a slap in the face. But somehow, (and fortunately) i knew instinctively that I had to get away from all this for my own sanity's sake. Over a span of 30 years, I went from begging for her attention and love, to distancing myself emotionally from her so that her silent treatments (yes, even till now, they are still ongoing) no longer sting, and no longer have an effect on my sense of self worth. As much as I mourn for the loss, I think it has finally brought me peace and sanity.

    To all other victims of such emotional abuse, I say that we are all survivors and fighters. So much resilience is needed, but life on the other side of the abuse is beautiful. For those still going through this abuse, I recommend this book: Mothers who can't love, by Susan Forward.

    Be brave, and keep moving forward. Lots of love x

  20. When I confronted her with her manipulative use of the silent treatment,she countered:

    "I can't help it--I just shut down when I'm upset!"

    As you pointed out, playing both the victim and the aggressor.

    Later, when I emailed articles proving how dysfunctional her use of the silent treatment, she responded with:

    "Stop bullying me!"

    Sigh. Again, I'm not sure if she truly sees herself as the victim or she is merely taking that position to avoid accountability.

    Finally, after she sent emails demeaning me and calling me crazy, depressed, paranoid, unstable.

    I reminded her that her use of the silent treatment is not her word against mine. She brags about it, others have seen it and have been the target as well.

    "If I say I am sorry, I will never hear the end of it!"

    So as you nailed, fear of rejection and the need to stay in control is paramount.

    Thank you for this blog!!!