4 Cruel Ways You Hurt Your Partner Without Saying A Word

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4 Cruel Types Of Nonverbal Communication & Body Language Cues That Cause Serious Relationship Problems

Every day you communicate far more to others than you ever actually say out loud. How? By giving off “vibes.”

Whether it’s the obviously annoyed sigh you toss at the barista who dared to take 30 seconds too long making your morning latte, or the long, lingering glance you subtly give the man on the train letting him know, "hello, there. I find you attractive," all day, every day, your body language sends out nonverbal messages to friends, family, and colleagues (as well as strangers) that communicate loud and clear: Leave me alone. I’m busy. I’m friendly. I’m scared. I want you. Back off, jerk!

This nonverbal communication, or your “vibes,” impacts your relationships in powerful ways, and can often cause relationships problems that seem to arise out of nowhere when in reality, they've been brewing all along.

Nowhere more so than in our intimate relationships, where we often use nonverbal communication in dishonest, cruel, or passive-aggressive ways to get what we want (or to punish our partners when we don’t).

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Think you’re not guilty of hurting your partner with your own “bad vibes”? Don’t be so sure. I wrote my book Rock The Boat to help couples recognize the four most common variations of how they use their energy in seriously unkind and unloving ways.

Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios?

1. You use the silent treatment.

Your partner takes an action or makes a choice … and you disapprove. So you send your sweetie a small, micro-aggressive energetic smack that conveys your contempt, lack of respect, and ultimate dismissal of them ... all without using a single nasty word or a negative tone.

Your partner, who is deeply attuned to your energy, immediately picks up that vibratory message in their body — and feels your vibe intensely, like a punch in the gut (literally, they’ll suddenly feel sick or nervous in their stomach). Yes, you said, “It’s fine. No big deal.” But your partner feels the disconnect between your vibe and your words... and it hurts. And, be honest, you meant it to.

Of course, when your partner reacts strongly to this wound from you, you feign ignorance, pretend you did nothing, and accuse them of overreacting.

Over time, most couples get better and better at this technique. You wound one another with the smallest movement, a slight change in posture, a look, or a minor change in their voice. That small, dismissive micro-aggressive gesture or facial expression conveys the message: I only love you when you do what I want. If you displease me, I’ll make you pay for it.

It’s the art of subtle cruelty; quiet violence that leaves no visible fingerprints. Your partner is left feeling attacked but can’t logically explain why or what happened.

2. You play the victim.

For those who like to maintain control without ever seeming controlling, the "victim vibe" is the technique of choice.

You tell your partner you want something and they don’t want to give it, whether that’s going to an event you’re eager to attend or make a purchase they find unnecessary. And so, you start in on them … arguing, badgering, sulking, wearing them down. Finally, they give in (usually begrudgingly or half-heartedly) and you get your way.

But that’s not enough for you — you want service with a smile! Instead of thanking them for acquiescing and then allowing them their honest feelings about how they came to do so, you retaliate by asking, “What’s wrong?” or “What’s going on?” and act like you’re the victim of their bad energy. Frustrated, they say, “This is what you said you want. But now that you’re getting it, you’re still complaining? Still not happy? What the hell is wrong with you?”

Congratulations, you got what you want by ignoring your partner’s feelings, but now you get to make them the bad guy by acting like you’re the victim.

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3. You're an emotional bully.

With this approach, you’re not taking no for answer and instead of using silence, you’re taking the opposite approach and upping the volume of your words.

The goal is to pour a ton of energetic intensity on your partner and create a pressure cooker effect. Put the energetic squeeze on them until you get your way. Bully them. Nag them. Over-explain your point. Lecture. Talk too loud. Talk extra slow like they’re a half-deaf idiot child.

The message is clear — you won’t back off or ease the pressure they feel until you get what you want. By overpowering, you hook all sorts of extra negative baggage onto what should otherwise be a simple message.

4. You keep your partner in the dark.

You give your partner only part of what you know they want or need, especially in conversations. You offer just a taste of it, to hook them, and then you energetically withhold the rest to ensure that you retain control. It’s a not-so-subtle power play made through your tone of voice, timing, and how much you do or do not engage with them.

And what is the “thing” they want and need that you withhold? Why, your love, affection, and attention, of course. Your withholding looks like this:

  • Your partner tries to tell you about his day, you listen briefly, then change the subject before he finishes.
  • Your partner asks to discuss something with you. You agree, but while she talks, you send texts, or surf the web, or check your e-mail or you interrupt the conversation to make or take a less-than-urgent phone call.
  • You pretend to pay attention, periodically saying “uh huh” and “okay.” But really you don’t give a rat’s ass about the conversation (what they’re trying to tell you) and you’re letting them know with your bored tone and indifferent questions such as, “Who are we talking about, again?”
  • You say the right words — “I’m sorry” or “That must really hurt” or “Go on, I’m listening” — but in a bored or uncommitted or uncaring tone.
  • You respond in an angry monotone, “Whatever. It doesn’t matter” or (the nastiest of all) “It’s fine.” Meanwhile, the vibe you send to them screams, Oh, I care, and it does matter — a lot. But right now I’m pissed as hell, so I’m going to pretend I don’t care and refuse to engage with you. You won’t be able to do anything about my anger. I’m going to make you feel it for a while. Until I feel better, I will make you feel bad.

So, how can you improve nonverbal communication in your relationship?

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The truth is — we all send out positive and negative vibes, occasionally without fully realizing it. When I call attention to one of these four toxic patterns emerging between one of my couples in a therapy session, the guilty partner almost always says, "What?! I didn’t say anything!" and hopes that their partner will cave to them or take their side.

But, let’s be honest (more often than we’d like to admit), we’re perfectly aware that our “bad vibes” are wounding or seriously distressing the other person.

And you likely know that you’re hurting your partner, too!

In these instances, what often happens is that the other partner finally calls their lover out on this unfair behavior. They straighten their spine and speak their truth.

This can blow the relationship apart—or it can blow it open and create an opportunity for growth and transformation.

But positive change can’t occur until both partners acknowledge and commit to changing the way they energetically wound one another without words.

So, if you recognize yourself in this article, I challenge you to find the courage to change your own behavior before your partner calls you out on it (or walks away from you entirely).

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Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy and domestic violence prevention. His book Rock The Boat is here to help you shift those “bad vibes” into loving energy.