Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment

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The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment

The silent treatment is a way to inflict pain without visible bruising – literally.

Research has shown that the act of ignoring or excluding activates the same area of the brain that is activated by physical pain.

The best predictor of divorce isn’t whether a couple fights – arguments are inevitable – but how a couple fights. The key to being closer in the good times lies in the way a couple treats each other during the bad.

The silent treatment can tend to present itself as a response more fitting of the ‘high road’, one of grace and dignity, but research has shown it is anything but.

Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University who has studied ostracism for twenty years, explains, ‘Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.’

The ability to detect ostracism is hardwired in us – it doesn’t matter if you’re being ignored by a group or a person you can’t stand, the pain still registers.

The silent treatment, even if it’s brief, activates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends or enemies.

The silent treatment happens when one partner pressures the other with requests, criticism or complaints and the other responds with silence and emotional distance.

Paul Schrodt, PhD, Professor of Communication Studies reviewed 74 relationship studies which involved more than 14,000 participants.

Findings from his in-depth analysis revealed that the silent treatment is ‘tremendously’ damaging to a relationship. It decreases relationship satisfaction for both partners, diminishes feelings of intimacy, and reduces the capacity to communicate in a way that’s healthy and meaningful.

‘It’s the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,’ says Schrodt. ‘And it does tremendous damage.’

It’s an incredibly hard pattern to break because both partners lay the blame at the feet of the other.

‘Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,’ explains Schrodt. ‘Both partners see the other as the problem.’ One partner will typically complain that the other is emotionally unavailable. The other will accuse his or her partner of being too demanding or critical.

When couples become locked in this ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern, the damage can be both emotional and physiological include anxiety and aggression as well as erectile dysfunction and urinary and bowel problems.

It doesn’t matter which partner demands or which one withdraws, the damage to the relationship is the same. It’s the pattern itself that’s the problem, not the specific partner. 

The silent treatment should not be confused with taking time to cool down after heated or difficult exchange. Williams suggests that instead of reverting to the silent treatment, try ‘I can’t talk to you right now, but we can talk about it later.’

Nobody engages the silent treatment expecting it to damage the relationship, and that’s the danger.

Generally, it’s called on as the weapon of choice because it’s powerful and it’s easy to get away with. There is nothing subtle about a physical or verbal lashing, but an accusation of the silent treatment, ‘Are you ignoring me?’ can easily be denied.

Silence can feel like a dignified, high road response but it’s not. It’s a way to inflict pain but without the physical marks. 

Being noticed is so close to being loved, that sometimes they feel the same.

Being ignored is just as powerful.

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424 Comments

Anna

I’m in a fairly new relationship. 9 weeks together.
My boyfriend was married for 14 years. He’s been separated for 1 year.
There are a lot of issues going on with his ex regarding their children. He gets so upset that he just shuts down. He only tells me little pieces. Ive always made myself available to him. We’ve had a few instances of him just ignoring me. The worst went for 3 or 4 days.

His kids don’t know about me and I’m fine with that as it is early days.

This past weekend we went away together. It was our first time sleeping together and it was special to me.
He got called to come home early due to an issue with his son. I was fine with that. I dropped him home no dramas.
I sent a few texts to check in. He has not replied. It’s been 24hours. I feel this is very hurtful especially as we’d just been intimate for the first time. I’m left here feeling like what have I done wrong? I feel that the silent treatment now is so inappropriate. He could text and say anything!!

Am I wrong to feel like this? What should I be doing?
I did send a message today and told him how I was feeling. No reply. He’s just vanished. Also I am not a dud in bed so it can’t be that! Lol

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Jacqueline M

Ive been with my boyfriend for 10 years. Yes theres occasional fights and quarrels which is normal. But I feel like something is very wrong this time. Last friday he took me to my graduation office to obtain some paperwork and he was going to help me pay for it. And we always try to help each other out especially with school. So on the drive there I told him to switch lanes on the freeway but then later realized he was in the right lane and told him “oh my bad I forgot this lane is fine too”. He then got sarcastic and said “really ? you came to school during summer practically every day and you cant remember what lanes get there?” I didnt respond because it was sarcastic and almost scolding. I hate the scolding. So we get to campus and finally park right in front of the graduation office and he tells me to go ahead with his little nephew of 3. So i went…. He called me and said “where are you?” I told him I came to the office, and he said “How are you going to pay?” and I said I came to make sure it was the right price. He immediately hung up on me. When i came back down complete silence. The car ride home silence. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and now today and nothing. I called on Wednesday and he surprisingly answered and tried to make small talk to see how everything was going with him and he just answered with one responses. I asked him why he hadn’t been replying to my messages and he said “Because I didnt want to”. Then i proceeded to ask if we could hang out this week and he said “idk idk idk”. He seemed annoyed by me calling and obviously didnt want to talk to me but this seems so childish and completely uneccessary and I dont know what to do. Please someone help

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Mechelle

I appreciated your article, thank you. Your article helped me to understand and put words to something that I could not understand very well. I knew that the treatment that I was receiving was not my spouses cooling-off period, but did not know what else it could be.

I have been married for 27 years and have always been on the receiving end from my husband. The reasons and scenario are always the same: There is disagreement, I try to explain my plight and he does not let me talk, he talks over me, he walks away, and the silent treatment begins, for days or weeks, until he needs something. Then he acts as if nothing happened at all, life is normal to him.

In the past I tried the normal, give him his space and then try and talk about it, let him know it hurts me, but I learned that the process would just begin again.

I hope to continue learning more about this, how I can respond appropriately, and decide what I want to live with.

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Vee

A coworker and I started talking back in January 2019, it started really organically, I could tell there was attractiveness between eacho other, with really strong eye contact and little gestures and teasing. We made plans to hang out and long story short a horrible incident happened in early Feb where she was on her way to work driving and a man had walked onto the streets out of no where and was killed. When i found out about the tragic news my heart sank, cause shes is the most innocent person ever shes a vegetarian and wouldn’t even hurt a fly. As days/weeks went by i sent her texts and letting her know i want to be there for her and be her support system to help her get through the whole tragic. We started seeing each other, slowly dating. She wasn’t being as reciprocating and it was just really hard for her and i understood it but i also told her we dont have to rush into a relationship but that’s where we’re leading towards, i wanted to tell her this so we can all be on the same page and not just it being 1 sided. Next day she texted me saying she wants to just be friends and shes not ready for a relationship and dont want to lead me on and its really difficult for her emotionally to get into a relationship, i told i totally understand and i will give her time and space to heal. That being sad i stop talking to her because i didn’t want to get more attached and me telling her how i felt about her just made me feel like i was shot down. A month later she texted me and we talked a for a bit and she told me when i said lets be friends i didnt mean for you to ignore me, and i told her why i didn’t talk to her was because i was hurt. It caused us to get the silent treatment and i noticed towards the end of June she was giving me the cold shoulders really bad. I texted her saying i know you probably hate me and etc but it doesn’t have to be awkward at work and its unhealthy. She replied she doesnt hate me but lately shes been really mad at me and herself, we set up a meet up to talk everything out. After the talk i found out she sees me as a liar, and a person that she let in and i ignored her when ive told her ill be there for her and her support system but i stopped talking to her after she kind of i would say friendzoned me i was hurt and i felt it was best to just let her be, i know im a dicked for ignoring her, but i didnt know what else to do. And i was also disappointed at the fact that we didn’t even get passed the dating stage and won’t be able to see the better side of the relationship and its all tremble down. I am still unsure of what to do after the talk we’re better at work now but not texting anymore, we decided to be friends and friendly to eachother but im still unsure of the situation if i should still talk to her slowly and take things slow, and i keep telling myself to just give it up and move on but im getting anxiety something keeps telling me to text or talk to her still and now we’re at the silent treatment where its just work, and i can tell its one person respecting the other persons boundaries. Sorry if this is really confusing, but i am just typing this from what im feeling, ive gotten passed these similar situations with other women before but with this one im deeply hurt because it was never my intentions to hurt her i only wanted to see us together and be happy, everything flipped upside down and now im just consider a liar and it really hurts when i know i wanted to be that boyfriend for her but it wasn;t what she wanted at the time. When i was unsure about the whole thing i asked her do you like me? cause she never said it to me but i knew all the signs and eye contact and flirting texts and talks lead me to ask her out, im just so lost and confused please help anything or opinions to help with my anxiety i never cried but after a night of a few drinks last friday night i found myself tearing up beacuse of this, and i really do want to move on but i dont know if im over thinking it or its my gut instincy telling me not to give up on her.

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Vee

She did answer and said she do like me she just wasn’t as reciprocating and that what made things difficult for us or for me at least. Sorry forgot that part.

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Alma

I’ve been in a relationship for 10 years, out of which 6 we lived together – I never felt love like this, we fit great in all possible ways, he made me laugh, I felt safe and protected. And then life hit. He is a freelancer and he started lacking work, so all the financial pressure was on me. Plus the house stuff – which, honestly, he didn’t touch much, also him being a foreigner he kind of used it as an excuse of letting more for me to sort out. I never minded that – but now I see it was a mistake. We used to attend these expats meetups and made new friends. Including a girl who loves hockey (he’s Canadian). He met her only two or three times last year. Then, in the beginning of this year, while I was having weekly business trips, he started going out with her for a coffee. I am not a jealous person, I trusted him – besides, I was certain there mare more important things keeping us together, so I didn’t mind. But then, the |Thursday coffee became also a Sunday coffee, which bothered me. But hey, 2 or 3 hours didn’t mean much. Then I noticed small chats on FB – which grew longer, and I started to be annoyed. I said that out loud – to no avail though, and besides, I kept on being busy and I admit my attention to him got reduced, because I was so occupied with so many things and in the evening I honestly wanted an hour or so for myself. In the beginning of April she had an operation and my partner went ballistic with worry. Hey, is a friend, is normal to worry – and I held his hand and morale… Long story sort – the last week of April was madness. I was so furious and every time I tried to speak to him (with or without fury), I got nothing. Well… I did get something… on the 30th of April, when he moved out. Just like this. Only a “I can’t deal with you when you’re like that and I am going away for a couple of days”. Still, a week later he took all his stuff. He said he didn’t sleep with her while being with me – and I kind of believe it (or so I am telling myself). Still, the emotional betrayal is worse. However, in 10 years we never fought – not once. There was this rule of never going to sleep upset on eachother. There was also the rule of if there is a problem, we’ll discuss it. This one was broken – by him, who made me promise it over and over again. Since then – we have a pet (a rabbit) that he visits every week. There are a million little things that puzzle me: when you get a new “toy” you should be glowing and do whatever you can to be with that person as much as possible. Still, the few times I saw him, he looks worse than the last. When he visits the bunny, he spends long hours with him. I went out on a Sunday trip – he came at 8.00 AM (??) and left around 22.30. I don’t get it! I tried to discuss it with him – well, in the first weeks it was kind of impossible, because I was sick to the core, having panic attacks several times a day and being pretty much completely nonfunctional. Oh, I forgot to say he left 2 weeks before my 50th birthday! He wanted several times to go out for coffee or lunch, he came to help me set up the new washing machine… Now I see that he can actually do the dished (which he never did before) and buy groceries for the bunny without complaining. It all hurts – I see it was my big mistake to pamper him endlessly and forget about myself. But no matter what I do, he doesn’t speak – because he hates any type of confrontation. I need a reason, an explanation, something… I want him back, but I honestly don’t know what to do. There were moments when I was calm and able to explain my side – and other moments when I was pretty much “bitchy”. And I hate it! I don’t understand how at 53 y.o you can throw yourself into a relation with someone you can’t know properly in a month… is it a proper base for a lasting thing? With someone 13 y.o – and honestly, the “clingy” type? For the past few days I am giving him the silence treatment – no reply to FB messages, no posts on FB (that’s how he found out I threw up my back once and the next day he ran to me with a brace and painkillers), no reply to phone message (he announced a visit to the bunny on Monday, if it’s ok with me and I didn’t reply). I know how hurtful it is – and I am aware I push him further away, but I really don’t know what else to do. I still want him back – and on the other hand. I don’t know how to move forward.

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JoAnna D

Live life with no Regrets..Take care of you…you can’t be there for someone else if you are not there for yourself first..if you want to go have coffee then go have coffee with or without him even with someone else..it’s ok to not answer everytime, you are allowed your feelings too. Only you can set your limits… Pick and choose for yourself..and if you find you want time with him. Then spend time with him.. Simply Love to be Loved in Return . To thine own self be true…

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Isabel

@Alma
I hope you will not grow aggrieved with me for commenting on your lines not knowing each other in person, but all you wrote stirs such rhymes with my life…
Oh Dear, you don’t know to which extent I can comprehend this, both the betrayal issue and the silent treatment.
Suffered both, the betrayal in my previous relationship (engagement!) and the silent treatment from the victim’s side, in my childhood.
With all my heart, I would like to encourage you to move forward.
Past is past, both of you made mistakes but clearly he made muuuch bigger ones. Cheating on you with that other one was the largest faux pas at all. As you write, emotional betrayal is even worse than physical. Nothing, I repeat, nothing, no mistake from a person can ever justify a betrayal. You do not deserve this.
Free yourself from the captivity of this man. A vivid relationship includes confrontation sometimes (this means that you are not with the carbon copy of yourself but another also interesting and unique personality with their own values!), if he refuses to undergo confrontation it means for me that either he cannot tolerate human personality differences or he does not deem the relationship important enough to invest the psychic strength and time and energy to deal with the problems, both of which are a deadly demeanour.
Yes, Dear, you forgot yourself in this process. Resume the control over your own life. Set your boundaries, saying NO is a very basic, strong, efficient and protective thing. I am aware that 10 years mean a long invested time, but this man apparently cannot give you the stability, faithfulness, peace and future perspective you need.
Stop the silent treatment. It is humiliating and toxic and leads nowhere. I completely understand what a humiliation you were exposed to by this man, but you are a much better person. So do not stonewall by your silence. It only aggravates the problem.
If the situation offers, speak up. Honestly. Show who you are, how do you feel, how this story left you, what it did to you, your self esteem, and show your needs and your interests. Do not feel embarrassed. Up to now, you went to great lengths to please this man, without communicating what is good for you.
Now it is your turn. Tell everything. Or, if the situation does not permit talking, finish the relationship altogether with silence and as much grace as possible.
Heal. Embrace who you are. You are worth it. It is time to let him realize whom he had lost.
You have nothing more to lose. (You have already lost him who was anyway not worth you.)
First be good to yourself.
Know whom you deserve. Someone who genuinely loves you, cherishes you, respects you, someone who – for the sake of the relationship – is willing to address problems, who is faithful to you, who would rather suffer harm than to harm you in any way. Sadly, this man lacks all these qualities. But there will be out there someone who contains all these characteristics who deserves you. You will find him after you have healed.
You are much better and stronger. You deserve someone much better.
I wish that you can get free and become happy again in your life.
Although we do not know each other, I send you warm hugs and my best wishes.
Isabel

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Don

I wad friends with this girl for over 25 years. For the first 10 years we was just friends very good friends. Then things got sexual and towards these last 5 years it all went to hell. And just like a snap of the fingers she started all the clasic things that is done to ruin the relationship. All of a sudden she had to work so much, and then cant get a hold of her by text and she stop calling and would only communicate through text, ignoring me for days or weeks , and if i were to ask her whats up with all this distance should started saying to me that i am the one with the problem she doesnt think there is anything wrong. It went from her saying yes i would marry you to this. And here is why , she met one of my friends and started having an affair with him. So 9 times out of 10 unless your a jerk in the first place it all stems from them cheating. So dont rack your head wondering what the hells going on because that is the last thing that your going to be dealing with. The hurt is hell someone that has always had your back is now stabbing it. I rather her just tell me she was sleeping with someone else , dont even need to tell me who rather than put me through hell. I am still heart broken and lost. Good luck to all who also had this happened.

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Michel

Today is June 9, 2019

I am 31 years old and have been with my husband for almost 8 years, (married for 3).

We have been through many hardships in the last three years of our marriage.

And just like all of you, my beautiful man gives me the silent treatment.

Any time we fight: it’s because I started it, he says. Any time we fight, it’s because it’s my fault, he says.

I cry. He ignores.
I call. He ignores.
I text. He ignores.

Since we’ve been married, this has been the biggest fight to date: I asked him if he was talking to another woman because he seems MORE distant than usual. (He has two jobs and ignores me now more than ever. But my fear and insecurities though maybe he found joy through someone else.) We spoked. Moved forward. Even was intimate that weekend.

The following Monday, he woke up and didn’t speak to me.

Stopped calling me weeks ago before all this, hence why I was worried if he was talking to someone else.
Never checking in or saying hello in between his jobs.

He didn’t speak to me the entire week (which he does OFTEN because of our situation).

When I confronted him, I was physically shaking, I had tremors in my hands and my heart felt like it was going to fall out of my behind.

He was so upset.
He yelled.
Cursed.
Told me I’m always the problem and he does nothing wrong and he doesn’t know what to do.
(((Giving you the short version btw!)))

And when I cried, he walked away.
When I tried to continue the conversation, he scuffed and laughed and said, “See you never listen. You don’t respect me. I told you I don’t want to talk or listen to what you have to say. And you’re still f_cking talking to me.”

I’m always crying.
It’s always my fault.

At this point, I’m waiting for him to leave me because I can’t muster the courage to leave him.

I’ve been out of town since that argument. He hasn’t called me once. And when I finally called him, he hung up on me after 60 seconds of being on the phone with me.

My heart hurts.
I’m scared our relationship will end and it cannot be saved.

But at the same time, I’m aware if it happens, than that’s God protecting me from a lifetime of trauma.

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Rick L

Hi there, I am not going to chastise you , berate you for wanting this guy, nor pretend to be the Professional who can help you with your issues here.
My heart breaks for you as I gripped every sentence of your story.
If you don’t have any close confidant with supreme stability and wisdom in their own life, I strongly recommend you prepare and depart from this man as quickly and quietly as you can. Your life depends on your own survival and clearly you have no place whatsoever in his heart to continue playing to his mind game.
I must ask, WHEN IS ENOUGH ENOUGH for you to be his laughing stock, punching bag of humility and pitiful doormat?
This is NEVER going to work, get better by a long shot so I implore you to cut ALL TIES PERMANENTLY AND DO IT NOW. Your time is up and I don’t want to frighten you but once he PERCEIVES, doesn’t even have to be real, Once he PERCEIVES you are a threat to any other woman he’s in love with, you might face severe LIFE THREATENING SITUATIONS. YOU DESERVE a beautiful, caring relationship with a much better man. I don’t care if you think he’s the best looking, richest guy, very interesting or intelligent, he clearly sees you as a piece of garbage to be thrown out to the dogs. Yes, hurtful a I’m sorry but I want you to GO RIGHT AWAY FAR AWAY FROM HIM. He will so regret losing your love someday if you will not get weak and run back to him at the slightest moment of attention he shows. It’s at the moment darkness but only ahead is coming the bright light to lead you into safety and comfort… and getting your mind and soul back on track. Great luck and DUMP YOUR GARBAGE and only then you will begin to heal.

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Belliana A

U and I clearly married the same man. Mine would go
3 wks w/o speaking to me. I took a few trips during which he N-E-V-E-R called.

All my friends are apparently romantics and said he was sure to come join me and we could get things patched up.

Ha!

Surely u already know he never joined me.

Dear Sweet Sister in Tortured Silence, your friends can’t tell u the truth, as they see ur shattered heart: ur husband is having sex with other women.

U don’t have to have “the strength to leave.” Just as u r, weak, crazy, and, heart busted wide open…leave. No one exiting a marriage under ur circumstance is strong. We do it anyway. U get stronger After you’re gone. U r weak frm being abused 😭

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Flora K

Can u please help me?

It’s about my friend/crush…

The 1st time we met was when we both were assigned to help in charity work for our church… And then we soon got closer to each other.. We would always say hi and smile to each other when we were at school..

1 year later… Our church decided to bring the youths to join an outing (somewhere)… And there was this man who was a pervert…

My friend/crush couldn’t stand it anymore when he saw me crying because of that perverted man!… And he said in front of all my friends.. ‘Don’t worry, I’m here to protect you’… My cheeks were flushed and I was embarrassed…. So my friends decided to call it a night.. He even walked me back to my dorm…
The next day he even asked this ‘hey kim.. If u’re still scared, u can sit beside me in the bus’
Oh God I was so happy that I said yes instantly….

But then after the trip,… He treated me as an outsider… Like a transparent glass😢…

Idk why is he treating me like that… Someone please help me😭😭😭

Btw… Before we went back home… I saw the perverted man said something to him that made him sad the whole day and even ignored me for the whole day until now…

Just why? 😭

What do u think that perverted man said to him to cause my friend/crush and I to become so distant like this?

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KC

I’ve been with my guy for 6 years and I don’t know how I can love him even more. He is the one for me. A few weeks ago, he invited his ex and her family over. Long story short, I felt like a guest in his home and I thought they were both inconsiderate in the position they put me in. I can understand that he may feel that I’m critical of his “friend” and feel unsupported but I’ve never been mad at him for the times that he’s seen his other friends before. I truly felt that in that moment, were he made to choose, he would’ve chosen to keep his friendship with his ex rather than his relationship with me. Today is day 5 of no communication. I feel like a well-wrung rug. I’ve cried more than I’ve slept and go about my day trying to pretend that everything is okay but I’m dying inside. He has made no effort to try to fix us nor has he made my position in his life clear. I am heartbroken and don’t know how to proceed.

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Claire s

Hi,
I received the silent treatment from a colleague from September 18.
I fell out with colleague A over something before I went on holiday for a week.
Low and behold when I came back the colleague A who I fell out with left.
I was given cold, icey states from this colleague B who gave the silent treatment.
It lasted on and off until up to now. The silent treatment stopped if she wanted to tell me off for something then resume.
I never knew quite where I was.
Then the other day I was confronted by her asking why I had been silent and could I be her friend?
I rejected this offer due to being spoken about behind my back, ” that Claire is being immature, rude and avoiding me when I enter a room.”
It was not me Claire who was doing the avoiding it was my colleague avoiding me.

I told her straight I didn’t want to become her friend if she kept using the silent treatment on me.
Colleague B said if that’s the way you want it.
No more icy cold stares, or avoiding me. Just left to my own devices.
I tried many times to communicate with her during this silent treatment to no avail.

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Erica

My fiancé is doing the same to me. We got in a huge fight over nothing the other night, he said some really nasty, demeaning, and verbally abusive things to me. He also said that he’s done with this relationship. Now it’s day 3 of the silent treatment. We own a home together, but he walks by me like I don’t exist. He is sure to be overly affectionate to the dog in front of me, I guess in a sick way to show me he’s treating the dog better then he’s treating me. I’ve tried talking to him, he says “I said everything I needed to say”. So now what? Am I supposed to live in silence? This is gut wrenching. Wondering if I’ll have to sell my beautiful home, wondering how my son will be effected, wondering who gets what and what will I do. Do I have to start my life over? His silence speaks volumes, however, I just don’t know what is happening. Last he spoke he said he hated me and regrets our relationship and that we are over. Now he walks around as if I’m not there? If you really want us to be over then let me know! I’m the type of person who NEEDS to resolve things right away, this is pure torture.

Reply

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