Broken Daughters

Picking up the shattered glass of fundamentalism

The silent treatment


One of the things that bugged me the most about my Dad was the silent treatment. I know this sounds weird, but as a child I prefered a spanking, because that would end and only affect me. The silent treatment was something my entire family would suffer from and you never knew when it would end.

The silent treatment would usually follow when Dad wasn’t worshipped enough as the Lord of the house. Say mom spontaneously drove to town when Dad was at work to shop for a new jacket for one of us kids without asking him at least 24 hours prior.

That was the rule: Everything had to be mentioned to Dad AT LEAST 24 hours prior to doing it. Better would be 48 hours. If it was bigger things, you had to tell him up to 7 days prior to doing it (friends visiting, for example). The biggest problem with this was that my Dad forgot a lot of stuff or simply didn’t listen to anybody well enough to actually understand what was being talked about. You had to mention it again and again to make sure he remembered. But this could cause problems too! You had to word it correctly. You couldn’t say (on Sunday) “Dad, don’t forget I told you Wednesday I want to go shopping for a dress on Monday.” That was insulting to him because we questioned his mental abilities. Asking something like this would result in a very loud lecture about how he is NOT stupid, NOT deaf, NOT retarded and that he is VERY disappointed and ANGRY that we speak to him like this. The only way to really get out of the remind-daddy-of-something game was to put all the blame on yourself: “Daddy, did I mention I wanted to shop for a dress on Monday? I’m not sure if I did…” Then he usually remembered we actually had mentioned it before and he would rather calmly say “Yes you did. Sometimes I’m worried that you forget so much.”

If you forgot to remind him of something and he felt it was inappropriately close to said event, he’d get really angry. Say I told him on Sunday evening for the first time that I wanted to shop on Monday, he’d freak. He’d yell stuff like “Who do you think I am? Why am I NEVER told ANYTHING you plan? I’m the head of the house and you treat me like a family dog!”. He’d go on and on and on about it, and then suddenly… silence. Silence that could last for days and was directed at everyone in the family, not only the offender. My mom as well as all us kids.

The silent treatment meant more than just silence. It meant a complete absence of all family life.

I’m not sure about regular lunch and dinner customs in normal American families, but we applied European customs. That meant that the food wasn’t put directly onto the plates by one single person. All of the pots, pans, bowls and so on were put on the dining table and the rule was to serve yourself. In this set of dining habits, it’s very impolite NOT to serve yourself. Of course, small kids are served but everyone above 10 is to do it themselves. Of course you can ask people “May I have some potatoes?” because they sit closer to the potatoes and then have them serve you. But, say, wordless handing of the plate awaiting to be served is so beyond rude… It’s about as bad as eating from another persons plate without asking them. Just so you get the point. Well, if the silent treatment was in effect, my Dad refused to serve himself. Not only that, he even denied holding the plate up for mom to serve him. I can’t word just how rude that is in our family. He sat there, hands folded on the table, staring into the air. Waiting. My mom usually tried to ignore it and served the small ones first, but usually my dad was really quick to grab food and so it was obvious we were getting the treatment again. My mom then proceeded to take his plate and fill it. She’d put it back in front of him and he would start eating, staring at nothing else but his food. When he was finished, he stood up without waiting on the others – something that would result in a spanking for us kids! He went to sit alone in his office room and read all night till bedtime. My mom was left alone with the kids. When everybody went to bed, my Dad left his office and went straight to bed without just looking at anyone.

The silent treatment also meant that, for example, if you knocked at the bathroom door and asked “Anybody in there?”, no answer would follow. We could tell Dad was in there because the door was locked. There was also no family time, not even bible study. He didn’t say goodbye in the morning, or hello when he came home. He didn’t ask for anything, just hold out things to the next best person to be served, like holding up an empty cup in order to get coffee.

This form of behaviour made me incredibly angry. I was angry at Dad mostly, but I was also upset with Mom. Why on earth would she put up with that? Why would she still serve him like a slave? Why would she talk to him, hoping to get an answer, only to end up not even being looked at???

It made me so angry, so frustrated, I usually hid somewhere away from my entire family. My favourite activity was locking myself away in the bathroom. I’d be in trouble if my parents found out I did that without a real reason – we couldn’t lock doors unless it was an emergency. I couldn’t say it was to shower, showering for an hour would be considered wasteful and would get me in trouble, plus, there was no water running. So every time someone knocked on the door to be let in, the conversation went like this: “Who’s in there?” – “It’s me, Lisa.” – “Lisa, you’ve been in there for ages! Get out! I want in!” “I can’t!” – “Why not?!?” – “Uhmmm… I have diarreah.”

Yes, that was my actual excuse and secured me the bathroom all to myself for at least an hour, sometimes two. While I was in there, all I really did was sitting on the bathroom floor with the small mirror in my hands. I stared at my own face, sometimes for minutes without a break. I waited until you get that feeling, you know, that you’re not looking at your own face anymore, but somebody else, and you can observe the whole situation from outside and feel really strange. I stared at the ends of my hair, cutting off split ends with a small pair of scissors. I cut my nails. I hummed melodies. I lay on the floor and dreamed about other place. Being on the beach in a bikini somewhere on a lonely island. Seeing historic European cities. Shopping like the girls on TV do in New York City. Sometimes, I played out entire scenarios in my mind. How I sit at a cafe with two girlfriends and we talk about our lives, or feelings, everything. Those two girls actually appeared very often, and they would always listen, always understand me, and they considered me their best friend. Once I cooled off in my bathroom (no worries, we had 2 bathrooms so everybody could still pee!) I went to my room or straight to bed.

I asked my mom a bunch of times why she let Dad treat her like that. Why she wouldn’t tell him that he acted like a spoiled little boy and not like the head of the house, she told me that women must ALWAYS be submissive. It was ok Dad did this, because she was his wife and she would be obedient no matter what. I feared to end up with a man like that. I hated my Dad so much for it. For showing us off like little circus monkeys, proving us that even without words, he can make us jump again and again.

I can’t tell you how many times my night-time prayer included stuff like “Please God, don’t let me marry a man who acts like this. Please send me a man who can at least fill his own plate, no matter what I did wrong. Please send me a man who can talk about his issues, and not ignore me for days.”


18 thoughts on “The silent treatment

  1. I cannot believe how much this reminds me of my own childhood. When dad was like this, we called it “walking on eggshells,” being so careful as not to upset him. I would be sick to my stomach from it sometimes. What I realized once I had my own children is that this form of punishment (not discipline, because discipline teaches, but punishment retaliates) is actually withholding love from a child as punishment. That is something that a parent has no right (biblically speaking) to do. A consequence, such as losing a privilege, timeout, or even a (reasonable) spanking is to teach and should be preceded, carried out, and followed with loving, RESPECTFUL behavior.

    When my husband or I have to discipline our kids, it’s over when it’s over, and we do not even mention the offense again (unless it becomes a recurring bad behavior or a habit). Things are right back to normal with our relationship to them (for our part anyway… sometimes we get a bit of silent treatment from the kids… but they are children so we should EXPECT that kind of childish behavior, LOL). I am so sorry you had to suffer through this kind of manipulation. I believe it was one of the hardest parts of my own chlidhood. I think that withholding love from a child is one of the worse forms of neglect, under the guise of “godly discipline.”

  2. Most American families (at least traditionally) serve food the way yours did. Mine did and the silent treatment was not tolerated to that degree. If you didn’t fill your own plate or be of an age where you needed help filling your plate, you didn’t get anything to eat.

    I can’t explain why your mother put up with his childish behavior. In my opinion, from your descriptions of him so far, your father was/is nothing but a bully. Only a bully would demand to be informed of everyone’s movements days in advance. Only a bully would rant and rave and show no one else any love and consideration. Your mother maybe a very sweet and kind person but she’s an enabler. Your father needs counseling and so does your mother. I can’t speak for your siblings’ state but if anyone is broken in that household, it’s your parents. You are certainly damaged, but you are not broken or you would still be there, still trying to tow the mark.

    • Totally agreed that Lisa’s dad is a bully and a narcissist. His behavior is seriously deviant and I don’t know if even counselling could convince him that the is not the center of the universe. Her mother is longsuffering and an enabler; but I don’t know that she could be anything but an enabler in those circumstances.

      • I won’t discount counseling simply because I won’t discount God’s ability to change someone–even someone who doesn’t want or see the need to change. Actually, there are two things her mother could do but probably won’t after 24 or more years of this. She could verbally refuse to tolerate it or she could take the children and leave him–both of which would be seen as gross rebellion in his eyes and probably wouldn’t work but it would at least change the odds in the household.

        Honestly, he should be hit with Ephesians 5:28-29 (Husbands love your wives and cherish them–my paraphrase) and Ephesians 6:4 (Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath.) Perhaps the children should make posters of those verses and hang them around the house. It’s a thought.

  3. Yeah, so can we say childish and obnoxious? I rent a room from my pastor, and if he ever did that to his wife, she’d be like, “Get it yourself.” She is a strong woman, and she is also submissive. You *can* be both, and honestly, that’s what I’d need in a wife…a girl who wasn’t afraid to give me lip. I just know my personality, and am comfortable with it. Honestly, I can’t think of any man I know who treats his family that way. I’m so sorry you had to be put through that.

  4. Oh my goodness, yes, that is exactly the way my dad used to act, and still does some times. He’d sit at the table staring (glaring) at his food, and then turn around and look out the window and not talk to us while the rest of us finished eating. Then he’d storm out of the house and go to the fire station, or work on the wood outside, or something, and ignore us. Didn’t answer texts or talk to us or anything. He’d treat us, particularly my mom, like dirt. This usually lasted for about three or four days. It was horrible. Very childish and silly. I wish my mom had spoken up more than she did, but I think she was afraid of what he’d do if she did. :-/

  5. I’m sorry.I had similar things go on with my parents, not to that extent though, and I know how much it hurts

  6. I think your mother misunderstands what it means to be submissive. I’m sorry to hear that your father made your childhood so terrible that you had to lock yourself in the bathroom just to escape all the madness and mayhem. I know you’re not into God and religion too much, but he heard your prayer about not ending-up with a man like your father. It won’t happen to you. {{Hugs}}

  7. To me that sounds like more than being childish or being a bully on the part of your father. It is emotional abuse.

  8. Oh my goodness, Lisa… {{hugs}}
    First of all, I’m so glad that you can recognize that this behavior is NOT okay, and see the emotional and psychological manipulation for what it is. Sometimes people stay in denial about this, which takes a LONG time to get over. Secondly, I used to sit in the bathroom too (we only had one :-/ ) and read. We had a small chest freezer in there and I would sit on top of it and enjoy peace and quiet for about five minutes at a time.

  9. Hmm… my family is /was Church of England and I am almost 57. My father being HOF never came into the scenario. However, just the time that was ie 50 odd years ago in the UK, men being ‘In charge’ was only slowly coming to an end. My mother also, having had a bully of a father herself, and a brother who was never shown how to wash a plate or anything domestic made sure she married someone who was NOT going to be like her father and that if she had boys she was going to make sure they did just as much around the house as the girls!

    However, Dad .. was still not that ‘helpful’ and was great at disappearing to the loo when the washing up was being done – and never helping. Mum … took the bull by the horns, and only washed hers and our [the children’s] plates – and put his in a washing up bowl in the garden. About a week later … he got to the table to find .. no plate/bowl or cutlery so no dinner – at least not in HIS place ! He had to wash up .. or starve. There were no take-aways in those days, or restaurants nearby … and even if there had have been there was no money for them! He did learn that lesson …..

    Your father I am sorry to say .. is mean by nature. Not just by ‘church’. THAT just gives him a ‘just reason’ to be so vile.

  10. I’ll probably end up putting more comments on blogs in the future, haha….. This is just disturbing. I feel like I’m reading blogs that I’ve posted with minor details changed.

    Are you familiar with Borderline Personality Disorder? This post reeks of it. Your father, I mean. Everyone MUST walk on eggshells with these types of people. I wonder: was he abused in any way as a child? People don’t generally have personality disorders for no reason. He may have had a heavy burden as a child as well. (this does NOT excuse what he did to your family)

    Looking at yourself in the mirror but not seeing you? That’s something that happens when we’re under so much stress that we cease to be one with ourselves. The true you is buried so far below the surface because to be your true self would result in various forms of abuse. So you shove who it is that you really are down to the recesses of your “soul” and put on a facade. Then you look at yourself in the mirror and you don’t really even know who you’re looking at because you are not you. I’m glad humans have imagination. No pun intended, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to be unable to escape to some imaginary place that’s not full of hurt.

    Maybe that’s just my experience, but it sounds similar to what you’ve gone through.

    Thank you for posting your experiences. It is nice to know that I am not alone in the pain the people who were supposed to protect me caused. Have you ever joined any support groups for survivors of “spirtual abuse”? (I don’t like the term, but it is what it is.) Sometimes I think about looking into it….

    My mother was very quiet as well. She didn’t start talking back until I did around the age of 11. I think my dad realized I could very well poison him or call the cops and they would believe me, so he didn’t dole out the (physical) punishment like he would’ve had I talked back at the age of 8. The psychological torture, however, was unrelenting. Couldn’t even walk past the man in a room without him stopping to berate me about something I had done wrong.

    Both of my parents are very obviously extremely mentally ill. The religion just gives them an excuse to believe everything is okay. And it means that no one is allowed to criticize them for their beliefs, even though their beliefs result in things that are possibly outlawed in the Geneva Convention….

    My mother finally admits to wanting a divorce, but she can’t afford a lawyer because she was never allowed to work. I do not answer phone calls from my ‘father’ and avoid contact at all costs. Because of this, he is convinced I have been brainwashed by my mother into not liking him. It’s like I’m not even a real person. Everything I ever did was always because of someone else. My thoughts were never given credit as being my own. Every joke I made that was funny just *had* to be stolen from somewhere. Bleargh. The fact that the man can’t even admit that maybe I actually hate him because he’s a piece of sh*t excuse for a human being says a lot about how huge his ego is.

    If only these Christians could stop obsessing over the Old Testament and actually pay attention to what that Jesus dude said about love and peace. Bah. Humbug.

    I do remember lying awake at night praying that I would die. And if I didn’t die, that I would at least avoid ending up married to a worthless god-obsessed psychopath like my mother did. I didn’t even know there were men who existed that weren’t manipulative, egomaniacal sadists. Had I not met my current boyfriend, I’d probably be dead or in a coma right now. if not for him, I’d have zero faith in mankind. I wasn’t allowed to play with friends barely ever (so I didn’t make many), wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers with family members, wasn’t allowed to visit alone with family, nothing. Such an existence convinces you that life is nothing more than what you see in your family and the people who treat you like crap in school….

    I think that what it boils down to is they’re control freaks. Religion gives them the illusion of control. They think if they just follow this strict set of rules, everything will go well. And if it doesn’t? It’s their own damned fault. It’s so sad. I was once told by my mother that one of the things she regrets most is not being able to afford to send me to Christian school anymore. Public school taught me to “think for myself”, which is of course, the worst thing imaginable for Christians, right? Ugh.

    We had the same situation in our house….sir Patriarch HAD to know what we were doing at all times. You’d tell him a million times, and if he didn’t remember you telling him? Well then you were a liar and needed to take a serious look at yourself and make yourself right in God’s eyes since you’re a filthy liar. Writing things on a calendar? Nope. Doesn’t work. Mr Patriarch would have to actually LOOK at the calendar. And that’s simply too much work for him. Much better to call your phone 20 times in 10 minutes demanding to know where you are and why you didn’t tell him where you were going.

    It’s a wonder any of us have survived. I’m glad we did though. And I’m glad that kids nowadays at least have the internet available at libraries. They can be exposed to differing opinions. It helps to break the spell.

    • Thanks for your comment, I love long comments haha.
      I don’t know what the deal with my Dad is. I don’t know much about his past, only the good things he told us. Admitting that he was hurt or abused in some way would show “weakness” in his eyes and you can’t do that in front of your children. Everything you wrote about your family sounds just like mine. We could be siblings really. I too was afraid to end up with a guy just like my dad which was very likely since it was his job to pick a husband for me, or at least provide me with a selection of guys he thought were appropriate for me.
      I’m too hoping that some girls will somehow have internet access and read some of the posts on these various ex-fundamentalist blogs. If all these blogs can get just one girl or boy to think about their situation and realize what they’re in, we’ve already accomplished something.

  11. My goodness, can I ever relate to this! My ex-husband was a master of the silent treatment. I even wrote an article about it at

    I am so glad to be out of that environment and to be setting an examples for my daughters, ages 15 and 12, to not allow someone to abuse them life this. In my case, it was usually just directed at me, but they could sure pick up on the tension.

    • I feel for you. I can only imagine how my mother felt being married to a man like that. My worst nightmare was a husband like my Dad. I’m thankful I didn’t go down that road and I applaud every wife who managed to get out of that hell of a house! That must take a lot of strength, something my Mom couldn’t do.

  12. Oh what a horrible time you had. In my own case it was my mother who was the silent one, and she could go for many weeks not speaking to someone. Plus when she wasn’t speaking to particlar people she often expected me to stop speaking to them also! Later when she decided to speak to them again, I was expected to turn around and be friendly with them also.

    It is only now, decades later, that I have clarified in my own mind what she was doing and how she controlled people with silent treatment.

    A few months back I followed some sound advice about what to do if your partner won’t speak to you, and how to look after yourself emotionally so that you don’t end up feeling desperate and depressed. I’ve learned that repettive prolonged silent treatment is abuse and I’m not just being over-sensitive.

    I glad to know you didn’t end up marrying someone who gave you the silent treatment. I did (although thankfully he’s not nearly as good at it as my mother was) but thanks to some articles I read after googling “coping with silent treatment” I know what to do and am able to deal with it so much better now. I so wish my father had know how to handle my mother not speaking instead of simply putting up with it, but no doubt he did the best he could.

    • Oh yes I know what you mean – I always felt like a traitor when I was speaking to one of my siblings in front of my dad when the silent treatment was in full effect. You feel like you’re betraying someone either way, and it’s kind of a threat all the time because you fear that no matter what you do, it will be wrong and you might end up getting punished for it in some way.

  13. What can you do when your sister, your only sibling, not only resorts to the silent treatment, but does so more and more often and for longer and longer periods of time? The duration so far this time is 14 months, but that is not a record. In prior years the silent treatment (she calls it the “I have nothing to say to you” condition) lasted several years.

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