In this article, I go deeper into the silent treatment used by a narcissist. It’s a specific type of manipulative behaviour within a large box full of tricks and manipulation techniques a narcissist owns. It’s closely related to stonewalling and showing a lack of affection which I will also discuss.
This article fits in the phase of gaining knowledge about narcissism in order to recognize and analyze the behaviour of a narcissist. My intention is to emphasize that it’s important to, whenever ready, shift the attention from the narcissist to attention to yourself again. To ultimately do this, it’s necessary to first get more knowledge about narcissism and the extent to which possible narcissistic behaviour can occur.
When a narcissist uses the silent treatment this can be a very draining and painful experience. It’s a passive-aggressive tactic and can be very frustrating. When victim of the silent treatment you’re stuck in a game of manipulation instead of having normal healthy communication. Sadly, there will certainly be a lack of compassion, love and empathy in this relationship.
A narcissist doesn’t care about the feelings of others and might even like to play the manipulative game. It’s because a narcissist has no empathy and seeks for ego-boosting, appreciation, drama, and/or to feel better than others. This game is thus all about control, power and getting narcissistic supply. When given the silent treatment it basically tells you that someone doesn’t respect you or is unable to communicate in a healthy way. A narcissist will not fulfill your need for healthy communication and being treated as an equal in a relationship.
So how does the silent treatment work? Why does a narcissist use silent treatment? And how to deal with the silent treatment of a narcissist? I will go into these questions below and I hope this article is useful to you.
How does the silent treatment by a narcissist work?
The silent treatment is a form of abusive behaviour some narcissists love to use. The method is about gaining a sense of control by avoidance, silence and/or disempowerment. The silent treatment is literally a conversation or connection killer and is thus a very unhealthy way of ‘communication’. It’s similar to neglect and abandonment and a form of manipulation or inability to communicate in a healthy way.
As with most narcissistic behaviour, it has similarities to (excess) behaviour of children. For example, when children are angry or embarrassed they can use the silent treatment to get space or to push your buttons. When using the silent treatment they might feel a form of power or control over you. For a child, it’s normal to show this kind of behaviour sometimes but for an adult clearly, it’s not.
A narcissist is thus an adult that uses this immature method and doesn’t necessarily have to be mad or embarrassed to use it. Sadly, they could choose to do it consciously for varying reasons and therefore there is also no boundary to the length and intensity of showing this behaviour.
Using the silent treatment doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is a narcissist or a manipulator. It can also be a sign of someone that is emotionally immature. A person could be fearful of showing emotions or maybe someone doesn’t know how to handle conflict in a healthy manner. No matter what the reason is for using the silent treatment, it’s never a healthy way of communication.
A normal person will let you know something if they need some time to gather thoughts and tell you they will get back to you. They will say they need some space before they can talk about it, tell you they have trouble to open up about something or suggest to talk about it another time. This is not similar to the silent treatment because it’s asking for space which is healthy communication.
6 examples of the silent treatment used by a narcissist
There are a lot of forms of silent treatment which are all forms of disconnecting and ending communication in some way. It can be on a communicational level but also physically disconnecting or disappearing is a form of silent treatment.
Here are a few general examples of the silent treatment:
– Giving the cold shoulder and refusing to speak to you because you didn’t help with something.
– Ignoring you or only using one-word answers but not telling you what’s bothering them.
– Ignoring what you are saying and not listening or showing any attention to you at all.
– Ignoring you on your birthday. This can happen if you have a narcissistic parent, as they tend to ruin your birthday in some way because they can’t deal with the attention being directed at someone else.
– Showing a lack of touch or lack of affection.
– Disappearance without saying anything.
There are many forms and the extent to which the silent treatment occurs can differ. Some narcissist can disappear for a few weeks and pretend everything is normal when coming back. I will now go shortly into a few examples of the silent treatment used by a narcissist:
When a conversation is shut down and someone refuses to address your concerns this is called stonewalling. It’s withdrawing to avoid conflict and it’s a form of abandonment. It’s like cutting off the oxygen to your emotions and feelings. This could happen, for example, if you want to discuss something that happened or your doubts about something in your relationship.
2. Lack of touch and affection
A lack of touch or lack of affection is behaviour that’s closely related to the silent treatment and arguably a form of silent treatment. It is a form of physical silent treatment. This is a way to starve the other person’s need for affection. It’s ignoring that there is any affection and creating more distance, as there is no way to connect. Lack of touch can go hand in hand with the silent treatment. It’s fully depriving the other person of care and attention.
3. Silent treatment after a breakup
You could have had a long marriage and even children with a narcissist and they still are able to brutally discard you like you never existed. A narcissist is capable of disposing of anyone and they will not give a damn about it. It’s the cruellest thing as you have put years of effort, love and devotion into your relationship or marriage. Sadly, it can happen and it will require a painful process of healing.
4. Everyday silent treatment
The everyday silent treatment is the more ‘regular’ silent treatment within the interaction with a narcissist, a relationship or marriage. It’s a manipulative game of simply trying to get narcissistic supply by making you (emotionally) respond, feel anxious, wonder and doubt. The aim is to trigger your deeper insecurities and thereby getting attention and trying to control you. If the silent treatment doesn’t work a narcissist can change their strategy and attack you for ignoring them. They can blame you for not connecting and mirror the problem so you get confused.
5. Narcissistic sulking
Sulking could be seen as a form of silent treatment as well. The narcissist will be verbally quiet about being hurt, envious, frustrated or angry, but is openly showing these feelings nonverbally to you or others. A sulking narcissist is thus trying very hard to show their displeasure to you by their posture, facial expression, or body movements.
It’s quite similar to a pouting child and it’s a passive-aggressive method to gain narcissistic supply. Sulking seems to be mostly about revenge or punishing by making the victim ‘regret’ what they did or said.
As it’s very obvious unhealthy behaviour it’s not that effective when used often. The more intelligent narcissists, therefore, will prefer not to use ‘obvious’ sulking but will rather use more manipulative methods.
6. Silent treatment at times you need support
This is a very cruel and heartbreaking form of silent treatment. There might be a time when you were mourning or in a tough place. Some narcissists can specifically use these moments to pull away and emotionally abandon you.
They will not acknowledge your existence at these moments when you especially would need their support. It’s right when you need support and their love the most. They can even blame you for your behaviour of not being cheerful. It’s thus a very brutal form of silent treatment.
It’s because the narcissist doesn’t like the attention is with you and doesn’t care about the feelings of others. To support you a narcissist would have to be there for you and serve you. This doesn’t fit in their world which is only about them and lacks empathy.
The silent treatment is emotionally abusive behaviour
The conclusion is that the silent treatment used by a narcissist has many forms and is brutal and abusive behaviour. Personally, I don’t think it’s a subtle method but an obvious, brutal and immature method. A narcissist is able to use this method on a regular basis without blinking.
Silence can be very powerful when there is inequality in a relationship. This can be inequality in self-worth and attention. It might feel subtle when you are already in a place of a lot of self-doubts and when you are disconnected from yourself. In this ‘state’ you will become anxious and think about all the scenarios of what happened and what you possibly did wrong.
You are treated like you no longer exist. Any attempt or begging to make them stop the silent treatment, stonewalling and disappearing will lead to more inequality and more pain. You need to become less and less like yourself and disconnect with your needs to fulfil the narcissistic supply. It’s a devastating dynamic and eventually, you might be fully discarded and they move on to their next victim.
Five reasons why a narcissist could use the silent treatment
We explored how the silent treatment is used in various ways and now I want to go into the main reasons why a narcissist uses the silent treatment. After that, I will discuss how to deal with this abusive behaviour. Below are five reasons why a narcissist could possibly use the silent treatment.
1. Punishing you
You could have frustrated them, hurt their ego or you might just not do what they expect or want you to do. They might think they are losing control over you. The narcissist then wants to teach you a lesson. If this is the reason it’s a direct response to something you did or said.
It could be that you set a boundary, you said ‘no’ to something, or even something small as you didn’t answer them calling you. The latter would mean they want you to always be available for them. To solve this they seek an emotional response from you by giving the silent treatment. They hope you try to make contact, ask for forgiveness or become mad or emotional.
2. Regain control and power
In arguments or in a relationship a narcissist might feel like they are losing control over the situation or the relationship. Some narcissists are great at gaslighting and manipulation in communication and could have less tendency to use the silent method. Other narcissists need this method to gain control because they aren’t able to do it in other ways. And some narcissists might use it for the sake of doing it (‘because I can’) and use both gaslighting and the silent treatment.
The aim will be to make you feel powerless and to control your behaviour. A narcissist feeds off the emotional reaction you might have in response to the silent treatment. This is all narcissistic supply.
3. To devalue you
Another possible reason is that they want to show that you are not worth their energy or response. You might not be their main concern at that time and they use the silent treatment to devalue you. By devaluing you their own value increases in their twisted mind. They can try to isolate you, cause loneliness, make you feel you’re the one to blame and/or that you did something wrong.
Devaluing is part of the narcissistic abuse cycle, which is a repetitive cycle consisting of stages of idealization, devaluing, and discarding. I wrote an article explaining these stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle if you want to read more about it.
4. Avoiding responsibility for actions
The silent treatment could also be used to avoid responsibility for earlier actions. It could be a response to you wanting to speak about their behaviour or your relationship. By using the silent treatment the narcissist tries to avoid taking responsibility for the past. It’s a distraction when you possibly discovered their lies.
5. Gaining new supply
There can be a very practical reason for the narcissist to use the silent treatment or disappearance, which is to gain new narcissistic supply. They use it to spend time with new victims. Sometimes they evolve and crave for new drama, excitement and supply.
If the new supply doesn’t work out they will try to come back like nothing happened. They can manage to do this often because of victims trauma bonding, having low self-worth due to the abuse, having fears and being stuck in the web of control. I wrote an article about the web of control of a narcissist you can read here if you want to read more about this dynamic of creating a dependency on them and isolating you.
How to recognize the silent treatment from a narcissist
Before being able to decide on how to deal with a narcissist you need to know whether you’re really dealing with a narcissist using the silent treatment. Therefore it’s important to first recognize what’s going on and analyze what happened and evaluate this. I will go into this and then I will talk about three phases on how to deal with a narcissist using the silent treatment.
1. Recognize what is going on
It’s important to first recognize what’s going on. Possibly write down and label their behaviour and also check your own behaviour. It’s good to ask yourself what happened and what might have caused the silent treatment without judging. Don’t spend too much time thinking about this as it might go into repeating thoughts and worrying. If you feel like you did nothing wrong after your reflection you can trust this feeling.
So you should question your intuition whether you did something wrong or did something offensive. When dealing with a narcissist you must trust your intuition. It can be hard to recognize you are not the one to blame because of earlier emotional abuse. This is because a narcissist can make normal behaviour abnormal by responding abnormal, and the other way around.
If you are here to read this it’s more likely that the other person is showing an abnormal reaction to normal behaviour such as saying no or setting a boundary. Remember that the silent treatment is an abnormal method in itself. Know that even if you did do something wrong, the silent treatment is an immature way of responding and using it should be apologized for as well. A narcissist will not apologize.
2. Analyze what happened and evaluate
What was the trigger for the other person and what happens to you when someone is using the silent treatment and is neglecting you? The chance is the silent treatment hurts more when you experienced similar experiences like this in childhood. These old feelings can make it very painful, fearful and make you anxious.
It can be helpful to label these feelings if the experience triggers memories. As a child, you don’t have a choice but as an adult you do. Even if it might not feel this way. When you are an adult your parents can’t do anything to you without your permission. You don’t have to allow it.
3. Evaluate what has happened and whether it’s acceptable behaviour for you
Do you want to stay in a relationship with someone using this method? Does this meet your standard of respect and treatment of each other? You can own your reality and stand for your truth. If you set a boundary and someone will punish you with the silent treatment, you can decide it’s not a relationship you want to continue. You want to able to set boundaries and you can decide it’s not okay to be punished for that.
How to deal with a narcissist using the silent treatment on you
I will now to go into three phases on how to deal with narcissists using the silent treatment.
The best way to deal with a narcissist is to go no contact in order to save yourself and protect your energy. If you are able to do this right away, the best time always is now. If you need more time it’s important to not take responsibility for the behaviour of others and possibly learn about the grey rock method for dealing with narcissists when going no contact is not an option (right away).
1. Don’t take responsibility for the behaviour of others
This is an important phase for handling a lot of manipulative behaviour. It’s about not taking responsibility for the behaviour of others. If someone is using the silent treatment (or for example blaming or judging you), it’s a form of unhealthy communication. There are healthy ways to talk about problems and feelings instead of this person deciding to use immature and manipulative methods.
Don’t believe it’s your fault someone is using the silent treatment. It’s wrong to use the silent treatment to punish or control you. There isn’t any excuse for using it. A narcissist merely uses the method to control and not to work things out. So there isn’t any need to feel responsible for someone using the silent treatment.
If you did something to hurt someone you can think about this and take responsibility for your own behaviour. Even if you really hurt someone or made a mistake it isn’t an excuse to use the silent treatment. A normal person will at least tell you they need some time or space. If they don’t, this is a red flag!
Feeling responsibility and responding to the silent treatment would be rewarding this behaviour and would confirm it’s working great. The other person created a distance, which means it’s not up to you to close it. And honestly, I think you shouldn’t want them to close the distance either. The silent treatment is not acceptable behaviour but a manipulative power game.
Name the experience
You don’t have to respond to someone using the silent treatment but it can be useful to name the experience. Possibly try the next pattern, but know that when dealing with a narcissist there is no point in actually saying it to them. You can, however, say this to yourself as it might help with putting the responsibility back to where it belongs.
You could use the next pattern to name the experience:
1. You name the fact of what is happening.
2. You tell how it makes you feel.
3. You suggest how to go forward.
This could be something like:
‘I noticed you’re not responding to me anymore. Seeing this makes me feel anxious. I would like to know why you give me the silent treatment but only you can break this behaviour. I understand something is bothering you and I hope you know you can talk about it whenever you are able or ready to open up. I will give you space now but I will not take responsibility for your behaviour because I prefer open communication.’
The above example shows how you can put to words that you won’t take responsibility for the silent treatment being used. In a way, you put the responsibility back to the person using the silent treatment. You emphasize that you prefer communication and you are not responsible for someone using it. You could say it to yourself so you know you’re not responsible for this behaviour.
About going into communication
I think if you do decide to go into communication about the silent treatment the best method is to be as adult as possible. If you start with blaming or use a lot of emotion this might be exactly what the narcissist wanted. Therefore, put the responsibility at the narcissist and then observe the response. You want to show there is no control or power being regained and you show boundaries.
The question remains whether it’s useful to actually say it to the narcissist. The problem is that adult interaction is impossible with someone that only shows manipulative behaviour. There is no basis to connect on. In my experience, it will thus never be useful to go into interaction as it only allows many more manipulation tactics such as gaslighting, mirroring and hoovering. It only results in pain and your energy being drained. So I advise only using this method for yourself and start disengaging.
2. Disengage (grey rock)
It’s not always possible to go no contact right away which means you need to interact with the narcissist. You could start disengaging and use a form of the grey rock method. I have written an in-depth article about the grey rock method which you can read here. This is relevant when you going no contact with a narcissist is not an option (right away).
Here are a few things certainly not to do in response to the silent treatment:
– Don’t beg for anything. Don’t beg for their attention, love or communication.
– Don’t apologize for something you didn’t do for the sake of stopping the silent treatment.
– Don’t cry or show your hurting to the abuser. Don’t try to reason with the abuser. They know what they are doing.
– Don’t try to make the peace and make it all go away. Don’t behave like you have to make something right and pamper them. It’s not your mess to clean up.
When going into interaction you reward the narcissist by engaging with them. You can appear relaxed/positive or just very neutral and unappealing as a grey rock.
3. Use the opportunity and go no contact
We already know that going into real communication is in a way pointless when dealing with a narcissist. You can use communication to set boundaries and possibly create some space within the interaction with the narcissist. This is however still relative to the control that the narcissist has over you.
You might have a room to yourself but the narcissist still owns the house. It’s fooling yourself you are not in the web of control of the narcissist. Eventually, the only way to stop this control is by going no contact. You could thus possibly use the opportunity to go no contact.
Reflect on how it would be to not be in contact with this person. Does the contact bring you energy or does it drain your energy? If you’re dealing with a narcissist I can tell you it will be draining. You might feel less like yourself, have more doubts and even be gaslighted.
A form of gaslighting would be that the narcissist using the silent treatment might act as nothing happened and act like everything will just go on how it was before when going into contact again. This is a big red flag! I wrote an article about gaslighting if you want to read more about this specific kind of manipulative behaviour.
Setting a boundary in the level of respect and communication
You can choose a certain level of respect and communication you want. A narcissist will not meet those standards. You don’t want to hold onto someone that is abusive and for who love is conditional. I understand you feel love but that’s the love this person brought out from yourself. It shows how much you can give and love someone, which is great!
So next time you are getting the silent treatment, you could use that time to make it permanent.
A narcissist might try to win you back when you seem to take a distance and go no contact. When a narcissist tries to ‘hoover’ victims back into a relationship with them it’s called hoovering. They could try to show desirable behaviour to suck you back into the relationship or having contact.
It can be hard but try to not fall for the hoovering and thereby rewarding the silent treatment. Don’t accept brutal behaviour by silence or by just going on. You will learn how to walk away from people that drain your energy. Disengage, use grey rock, learn about narcissism and work towards no contact.
What if I can’t accept a narcissist out of my life?
There might be situations where you can’t accept the thought of not having contact with a narcissist. You might have an adult daughter or son who is narcissistic or has the tendency to show narcissistic behaviour. You possibly have grandchildren in your life that you want to see and therefore you would have to have contact with your narcissistic daughter or son.
Self-worth and confidence is the key to protecting your boundaries and not taking responsibility for the behaviour of others. Being independent and enjoying your company are strong antidotes to manipulative behaviour. You don’t have to walk on eggshells if you don’t want to. So work on yourself, your self-worth and setting boundaries and this will help you to protect your energy. You can read this article about self-worth, appreciation, ego and narcissism for tips on how to work on your self-worth.
Breaking free from the narcissist
The silent treatment is a massive red flag and a deal-breaker for most persons. If it’s a deal-breaker and you take action, it means you stand for how you think communication and respect should be in a relationship. This is great! The problem is that most do feel that it should be a deal-breaker, but to really get out of the relationship is not that easy when dealing with a narcissist. A lot of victims break up several times before the final breaking up.
Narcissists seem to go for you when you’re vulnerable or work hard to make you vulnerable. This means playing all kinds of manipulative games to reduce your self-worth, fade your boundaries and create self-doubt. It’s a trap that makes you cross your boundaries and ignore your intuition. From this position, it’s obviously very hard to escape a narcissist and it takes a lot of courage to break free. If you want to read about what to expect when you break up with a narcissist you can read this article.
Shifting your attention from the narcissist to yourself
A narcissist will not give any explanation for their behaviour. If you are dealing with a narcissist prepare to never have any explanation or an answer to why they behaved as they did. Don’t blame yourself if you are a victim of a narcissist. Start reading more about narcissism and try to work on shifting attention from the narcissist to yourself. You need to recover and heal. It starts with recognizing and trying to be kind to yourself.
Focus on positive energy and kindness. Focus on what brings you joy. Enjoy time with people that show real love and kindness, enjoy being in nature or doing whatever hobbies you like. Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself. Try to shift your attention from the narcissist to yourself.
You deserve a healthy relationship with healthy communication in which you are seen and treated with respect. You deserve someone caring about your feelings and showing kindness, love and compassion. I hope you know this and I hope you know you are enough!
You can start your path by trying to give yourself what you deserve and start moving with small steps in the right direction! I wish you strength and more kindness in the future!
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– In addition to this article, I’ve created a video about why narcissists use the silent treatment and how to respond on my Youtube channel.