The Narcissist Silent Treatment: What It Is And How To Respond

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narcissist silent treatment

Silence is not always golden, you know. Especially when you would die to be talked to, to be heard, to have communication with your SO, and resolve conflicts in a healthy manner. But your partner decides to torture you instead by acting as if you do not exist. They make you doubt yourself. The rejection you feel forces you into giving in to your partner’s demands. Your partner gives you what is called the narcissist silent treatment, while you wonder what you did wrong.

What should you do when that happens? Should you bang your head against the wall that is their hollow chest and try to coax a word out of them? Or should you leave them alone, giving them exactly what they wanted, and allow yourself to be unfairly punished?

To understand this silent but blatant abuse it may help to go back to our conversation with clinical psychologist Devaleena Ghosh (M.Res, Manchester University), founder of Kornash: The Lifestyle Management School, who specializes in couple counseling and family therapy, on a narcissist partner’s behavior. Her insights can help us recognize what is narcissist’s silent treatment, the psychology behind the silent treatment, and techniques that can help you effectively respond to the silent treatment by a narcissist.

What Is Narcissist Silent Treatment?

It is not uncommon for couples to go silent on each other when feeling too overwhelmed to communicate. In such a scenario, silence is a coping technique or even an attempt at self-preservation. In fact, silence is often used by people for one of these three broad reasons:

  • To avoid communication or conflict: People sometimes opt for silence because they do not know what to say or wish to avoid conflict
  • To communicate something: People use passive aggressiveness to convey that they are upset because they do not know how to or do not wish to express it in words
  • To punish the receiver of silent treatment: Some people intentionally avoid speaking as a way of punishing the other person or trying to establish control over them or trying to manipulate them. This is where misbehavior crosses the line and becomes emotional abuse

People who use silence as a tool for control and manipulation do it to cause distress to the intended victim. Such people are clearly engaging in psychological torture and mental abuse. This abuser may either have been diagnosed with a narcissist personality disorder or shows narcissist tendencies, employing the silent treatment abuse in combination with other forms of abuse. This is narcissist silent treatment.

Related Reading: Relationship Bully – What Is It And 5 Signs You Are A Victim

How does it work?

A narcissist decides to use silence as a passive-aggressive technique where they intentionally withhold any verbal communication with the victim. The victim in such cases often has an empath personality type. Sent down a guilt trip, they wonder if it was something they did to deserve the punishment. Devaleena says, “Given that guilt-tripping in relationships has all the elements of psychological manipulation, it is undoubtedly a form of abuse. What’s more worrying is that it is rampant, and often unrecognized.”

When the victim pleads to be talked to or to be engaged with, it gives the abuser a sense of control and power over the victim. At the same time, the silent treatment also helps the abuser evade confrontation, any personal responsibility and compromise, and the arduous task of conflict resolution.

Psychotherapist Gopa Khan (Masters in Counseling Psychology, M.Ed), who specializes in marriage & family counseling, says for the silent treatment, “It is like a parent/child or employer/employee relationship, where the parent/boss expects an apology for any perceived wrong by the child/employee. It’s a power play with no winners.”

So how can remaining silent become such a dangerous tool? This study on social rejection shows that “people became more susceptible to a persuasive attempt after being ostracized, compared with after being included.” This is the exact psychology on which silent treatment by a narcissist is based. We are social creatures after all. A victim, on feeling excluded or rejected by their partner, gets easily manipulated into giving in to whatever demands are made from them just to feel included again.

It is manipulation. And a need for control makes abusive narcissistic silent treatment different and more damaging than plain silence or even emotional withdrawal. Let us look into it further.

Related Reading: Is Silent Treatment In A Relationship Emotional & Mental Abuse?

Silent treatment vs time-out

Silent treatment should not be confused with the idea of a time-out. People have various coping mechanisms when faced with confrontation. Taking some quiet time to find one’s mental balance before approaching conflict resolution is not only normal in a healthy relationship but also a productive practice. In that case, how do you differentiate between the abusive silent treatment and a healthy time-out?

Silent TreatmentTime Out
It is a destructive manipulative tactic meant to punish and cause distress to the otherIt is a constructive technique meant to calm down and prepare yourself to resolve conflict
The decision to employ it is one-sided or unilateral with one person being the perpetrator and the other, the victimTime-outs are mutually understood and agreed upon by both partners even if it is initiated by one partner 
There is no sense of a time limit. The victim is left wondering when it will end Time outs are time bound. Both partners have a sense of reassurance that it will end
The environment is quiet but the silence is laden with anxiousness, fear and a feeling of walking on eggshells The silence in the environment is restorative and calming in nature 
Ignoring your partner is different from taking some time in silence

Signs You Are Dealing With Narcissistic Silent Treatment Abuse

Even when you know one from the other, it can be tricky to differentiate silence from silent treatment, and both from narcissist silent treatment abuse. Because when it is happening to you, when all you want is to communicate, silence, no matter what kind, feels like a burden that is too heavy to carry and too complex to comprehend.

Research shows that both men and women employ silent treatment in a relationship to stop themselves or their partners from saying or doing something adverse. In a non-abusive relationship, the silent treatment takes the pattern of demand-withdraw interaction. 

  • Demand-withdraw pattern: This research study says, “Demand-withdraw occurs between marital partners, in which one partner is the demander, seeking change, discussion, or the resolution of an issue; while the other partner is the withdrawer, seeking to end or avoid discussion of the issue” 

While this pattern is unhealthy, the motivating factor is not manipulation and intentional harm. It is merely an ineffective coping mechanism. By contrast, in an abusive relationship, the intention is to provoke an action or a response from your partner or to manipulate their behavior.

Can abuse go undetected for years?

To recognize if you are a victim of narcissistic abuse, you must learn to watch out for the red flags. Here are a few observations that may make it easy for you. People suffering from narcissism disorder will use the silent treatment in the following manner:

  • They will not ask you or tell you that they need a break or a time out
  • You will have no idea how long their silence will last
  • They will only cut you out and remain in contact with other people, often rubbing it in your face
  • They might refuse to even make eye contact or allow communication through other means such as phone calls, texts, notes, etc, completely emotionally stonewalling you
  • They will make you feel as if you are invisible or do not exist. This will feel like they are punishing you
  • They make demands that you need to fulfill if you want them to talk to you again

Other things worth observing are not what your abusive partner does but what kind of emotional response their action elicits in you. Victims of narcissist silent treatment abuse often express feeling the following:

  • You feel invisible. Like you do not exist for the other person
  • You feel forced to change your behavior
  • You feel like you are held at ransom and must do what is asked of you
  • Ostracism is a universally applied tactic of social control. Feeling ostracized by someone you love causes low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and even self-loathing
  • You are tired of feeling anxious and insecure, like at the edge of your seat all the time
  • You feel isolated and lonely
Narcissist discard
Narcissist discard can be extremely humiliating to bear

How To Deal with Narcissist Silent Treatment Abuse

If it has become clear to you that you have been a victim of narcissist rage in the form of silent-treatment, then next comes the part where you learn of the ways to counter it.

1. Don’t try to reason with a narcissist

By now we hope you have understood a narcissist’s psychology behind the silent treatment. What you are witnessing is part of the narcissist discard and silent treatment cycle where they “discard” a person they think is no longer useful for them after putting them through the narcissist abuse cycle of appreciation and depreciation. The narcissist’s goal is to again look for a victim for a fresh supply of ego-boosting.

Understanding this will help you see how narcissistic behavior is reflective of the mentally ill narcissist and not of you. You need this clarity when dealing with a manipulative person. Consultant psychologist Jaseena Backer (MS Psychology) spoke to us earlier on this. She said, “Don’t be reactive. Stop matching a narcissist’s blows with equal fervor. One of you has to be mature about the situation, so move ten steps away and don’t fall into the rabbit hole of arguing with a narcissist.”

Devaleena too suggests, “It’s very important to know which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t. If you are trying to fight with your narcissistic wife/husband to prove your point, you will end up being physically or emotionally wounded.” We now know that it may be utterly futile to reason with a narcissist.

Related Reading: 30 Manipulative Things Narcissists Say In An Argument And What They Actually Mean

2. Set boundaries with a narcissist

There is a difference between not engaging with a narcissist and allowing yourself to be trampled over. Not arguing with a narcissist should not be misunderstood as bending over backward and taking the bullshit (excuse the word) they are dumping on you.

Devaleena says on the issue of boundaries with a narcissist spouse. “To be able to set healthy boundaries, you must establish with yourself what’s acceptable and what isn’t with regard to how other people treat you. How much disrespect is too much? Where do you draw the line? The sooner you answer these questions yourself, the sooner you’ll be able to communicate it.”

Is my husband a narcissist?

3. Be prepared for the consequences

If you are being pushed to your emotional limits, there should not be a doubt that you are in an abusive relationship. Take your time, but prepare yourself to walk out of this toxic relationship you find yourself in. Be prepared, you might even have to get a restraining order post-breakup or when you go no-contact with a narcissist.

Devaleena says, “When you’re married to a narcissist, it is very important to learn how to manage your expectations. Don’t confuse a narcissistic spouse with someone who keeps their promises, this person is going to hurt you consistently, often without even realizing it.”

Mental preparation will also give you the courage and strength to walk out and protect not only yourself but possibly your dependents and loved ones from a narcissist’s rage. Preparation will give you bargaining power when discussing boundaries with a toxic partner. This will help you enforce these boundaries and the consequences of stepping over them. Some ways of doing so are:

  • Ignore your narcissistic partner until they apologize
  • Block them and be unreachable
  • Stop talking to them, being nice to them, or being available to them when they misbehave
  • Walk out/cut off ties if that’s the last resort

Remember, no one, absolutely no one in this world is indispensable or irreplaceable. Do not be afraid to walk out of the relationship to protect yourself.

Related Reading: Expectations In Relationships: The Right Way To Manage Them

4. Take care of yourself

Taking care includes everything you can do to not only protect yourself from a narcissist’s direct wrath but also empower yourself. This will allow you to speak up for yourself when needed and not seem weak and vulnerable to a narcissist. Things you could do to build back your confidence are:

  • Journal to manage your emotions
  • Spend positive time with yourself by engaging in hobbies and travel
  • Self-love and self-care may be your best friends
  • Foster other strong relationships in your life
  • Don’t shy from seeking clinical care

Additionally, you are going to need help and support from your family members and friends. made it pretty clear when speaking to us on life with a narcissistic spouse. Devaleena says, “Build your support system, your cheering squad, your own pack. It’s almost a necessity to have people around you who you can trust when you’re experiencing narcissistic marriage problems.”

Emotional-abuse

5. Seek professional support

Ignoring silent treatment by a narcissist and maintaining your distance can be extremely difficult. Professional guidance can be invaluable for a person’s mental health when dealing with toxic people. Mind you, we do not recommend couples therapy to people in abusive relationships because an abusive relationship is not simply a “relationship that needs work”. We strongly believe that the onus of misbehavior and abuse lies with the abuser alone.

We do, however, believe that the person on the receiving end may benefit immensely from individual therapy. Therapy can help restore your lost confidence. It can make you see that you are not responsible for your partner’s misbehavior. It can assist you in recognizing your boundaries and empower you with tools to enforce them. Should you need that help, Bonobology’s panel of experts is here to help you.

Counseling on abusive relationships on Bonobology.com

Key Pointers

  • A narcissist’s goal is to exert power and control over their victim. For that, they often use the silent treatment.
  • Your narcissist spouse will ignore you completely to give you the silent treatment, withholding emotions and verbal communication, to punish you or make you feel guilty, or to pressurize you into giving to their demands
  • The narcissist abuse cycle includes repetitions of appreciation and depreciation of the victim and then the ultimate phenomenon of throwing away what is not needed anymore called the “narcissist discard”.
  • Simply ignoring the narcissist silent treatment is one of the most important steps in claiming back your power
  • It is also essential to lay down your boundaries, follow through with them, and be prepared to walk out of the relationship to protect yourself

Keep yourself safe from harm’s way. Verbal abuse and emotional manipulation and neglect can be traumatizing enough for the victim. But physical violence should be a strict no-go.

If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

For anonymous, confidential help, 24/7, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

FAQs

1. Why do people give silent treatment?

People give silent treatment for three reasons. They want to avoid confrontation, conflict, and communication. They wish to communicate that they are angry without having to say so in words. Or lastly, they give the silent treatment to “punish” the other person, intentionally causing them distress, or putting psychological pressure on them to manipulate them into doing something.

2. Is silent treatment abuse?

Yes, if the silent treatment is given to gain psychological power and control over someone, or to cause them pain and harm as a way of punishment, or to force someone into doing something, then it is a form of abuse. 

3. How can a narcissist change?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). It is characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, a sense of self-importance, and a lack of empathy. It is very difficult for a narcissist to change because they do not believe they are wrong and do not seek self-improvement. 

4. Do narcissists return after several months of the silent treatment?

Yes. Many narcissists will return much earlier than several months of the silent treatment. The time could vary from days to weeks to months, depending on the narcissist. A narcissist will return whenever they start craving attention and feel the need for an empath to boost their ego. Narcissists feel entitled to the love, admiration, appreciation, and service of their partner who generally is an empath by nature.  

5. What happens if you don’t reach out during the narcissist periods of the silent treatment?

If you don’t fall for the narcissist’s bluff, you take away their power and gain the upper hand. If you don’t reach out to them or plead with them to talk to you, if you don’t look fazed by their misbehavior, you take away the very power and control they are trying to hold over you. You render their powers useless, and in a way, force them to respect your boundaries and back off.  

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