How do you deal with living with a narcissist who is giving you the silent treatment? Someone who will co-exist with you in the same house while literally ignoring you? What if that goes on for days? Weeks? The silent treatment can feel like psychological torture, and it can cause you to feel like you’re going crazy. This is why learning the truth about narcissists and their manipulative behavior is vital for those of us who are enmeshed with them.
Here’s the truth: living with and spending time with a malignant narcissist can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, at the very least. And, unfortunately, it can also lead to situations where you’re so focused on getting the narcissist to change that you overlook other important aspects of your life.
How do you deal with the silent treatment of a narcissist?
Not only is it emotionally exhausting, but it makes you feel like you’re completely worthless, and it can make you feel like you’re losing your mind! So what are you supposed to do when you’re the victim of the silent treatment?
Most experts will tell you that ideally, this would be a two-word answer: no contact. But in real life, things don’t always work ideally, and people sometimes need to live with narcissists – so let’s dig into this.
What is the narcissist’s silent treatment?
The silent treatment is a manipulation tactic where a toxic narcissist will stop talking to you for days, hours, weeks, or even months to punish you for some perceived slight. It can cause severe emotional and psychological damage if you don’t realize what is happening.
What is the goal of the silent treatment?
The silent treatment enables a narcissist can take the “spotlight” from you – even inside your own head. It is one way they can sort of become the center of your life. Their goal is to cause you to become so obsessed with figuring out what to do to resolve it that you might even stop thinking about yourself, which can lead to your boundaries being violated one by one until the narcissist has complete control over you. You would naturally stop attempting to take care of yourself in the process because you’re so focused on the narcissist.
Understanding the Narcissist’s Silent Treatment
Awareness is the first step on the road to healing from narcissistic abuse, and that means avoiding recreating the type of environment which will allow these toxic people to flourish in our lives again. Believe it or not, this is just one of the many signs of gaslighting and emotional abuse you’ll notice if you’re in a toxic relationship with an abusive narcissist.
And, in the case of a covert narcissist, you might often find yourself getting the old silent treatment – AKA the discard phase. So the first thing you have to do is to educate yourself about the situation. I always say that knowledge is power, and the first fact you need to know about this issue is exactly why narcissists give you the silent treatment in the first place.
Why Do Narcissists Give You the Silent Treatment?
It’s critical to recognize that while many people have times when they need to retreat to think about things, someone who cares about you will never use this abusive tactic to punish you. The silent treatment isn’t a tactic that a healthy person would use to manipulate you. Normal (as in non-narcissist) people don’t punish someone they love for THEIR bad behavior (such as being caught in a lie), but narcissists most definitely will. This should be a red flag for you.
According to Medical News Today, there are three primary reasons people use silent treatment: avoidance, communication, and punishment.
Avoidance as a Catalyst for Silent Treatment
The “avoidance” tactic is less likely to be used by narcissists but more likely to be used by someone who is afraid of conflict. It’s literally what it sounds like – you’ll find yourself hiding out and avoiding calls and contact with someone who is likely to confront or attack you – think of it as an attempt to steer clear of drama in a high-tension situation. In avoidance, the person using the silent treatment would be most likely.
Communication as a Catalyst for Silent Treatment
There are some times where people try to use the silent treatment as a form of communication. In other words, to get their point across, they are manipulating someone and attempting to communicate that they’re feeling upset or bothered by that person’s behavior.
A person may use the silent treatment if they do not know how to express their feelings but want their partner to see that they’re angry or upset. Many narcissists use this kind of silent treatment, but it’s not only a narcissistic behavior.
Punishment as a Catalyst for Silent Treatment
When someone uses silent treatment as a way to take control of you or to punish you, you’re dealing with emotional and psychological abuse. The “punishment” tactic is probably the narcissist’s favorite way to engage in the silent treatment. Unfortunately, narcissists also often use this type of silent treatment as part of an attempt to gaslight you.
‘Cold’ and ‘Milder’ Forms of Silent Treatment – Hostile Withholding
There are other forms of the silent treatment, of course. For example, according to Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., sometimes people will not cut off communication completely, but they’ll change the way they’re interacting.
“Some abusers engage in what may appear to be a “milder” form of the silent treatment, in which they do not maintain total silence but still cut off their partners emotionally,” Aronson writes in a Psychology Today article.
“When angered by their partner, some people turn a little cold,” she says. “They may be ‘correct’ in their responses, not outwardly mean, but still treat their partner like someone they barely know, or like a neighbor or colleagues at work. This is crazy-making because when confronted, the person acting cold will deny it.”
The Psychology of the Silent Treatment
In general, silent treatment can be intentional or accidental. However, sometimes it is used as a form of social control. At other times, it may indicate that the person has no respect for your value as a person and regards you as less than human. Regardless of its intent, using silent treatment toward others can have devastating consequences. And when it comes to narcissists using this tactic – it is always about manipulation and/or punishment. So let’s discuss why narcissists are so prone to using silent treatment as a way to manipulate and punish you.
See, whether they recognize it consciously or not, narcissists are wired to sort of “push your buttons” to get what they want.
Now, you might wonder which button they’re trying to push when they go silent, right? You might be surprised to find out that it’s not about making you crazy from lack of communication or pure boredom – instead, it’s about playing on your own worst fears.
And, I’m betting, one of your worst fears is the fear of being alone in the world with no one to help or support or be there for you. Am I right? And I’m guessing that if you’re currently involved (or were previously involved) with a narcissist, you’re thinking of all kinds of little things the narcissist did to play on your fears.
So, by verbally and emotionally “cutting you off,” the narcissist offers you a taste of what life might be without his charming godlike awesome self (did you detect that bit of sarcasm there??).
So, that’s the why – the narcissist ignores and belittles and devalues you because it plays on your fear of being alone. He hopes that in enacting this silent narcissistic rage against you, he will force you into submission and into being the good little narcissistic supply he needs.
The silent treatment works particularly well on sensitive, empathic people (who are often quite attractive to narcissists) because we are wired to respond to and attempt to soothe the emotions of the people around us, especially those we love. Do you feel me?
How Do You Beat the Narcissist’s Silent Treatment?
Okay, so how do you deal with this behavior without completely losing your mind? The good news? You don’t have to take it lying down, and there are ways you can beat the narcissist’s silent treatment.
- If you’re staying in the relationship because you have no choice, you can play the game. In order to do this, make sure you take care of yourself and that you don’t allow yourself to become overly isolated.
- Keep in mind that one of the narcissist’s playbook moves is to isolate you from others in your life – the silent treatment will make you want to oblige in some cases, and you might even end up isolating yourself.
- Find something that you enjoy to engage you, and don’t be afraid to sort of enjoy the break from their drama, if at all possible.
But in the end, the best option is to leave, go no contact, and move forward.
With that said, we all know that sometimes it’s easier said than done – and we all have our reasons for the choices we make and for why we “don’t just leave already if it’s so bad.” So, as always, I want to say that if you are being physically abused, none of the following is relevant, and I want you to get help now – stop reading and start packing, sister.
Make No Mistake: The Silent Treatment IS Abuse
The fact is that the silent treatment is painful, and it makes you miserable. As someone likely codependent, you may feel that you need to fix whatever you did wrong to get the narcissist to be nice to you again. But the truth is that this is precisely what the narcissist wants – for you to bend over backward trying to appease them. All the while, the narcissist has no intention of allowing that to happen – they will only stop using the silent treatment when it is convenient for them, or they want or need something from you.
But if you work on your self-esteem, and you learn how to set proper boundaries, and you recognize that you are worthy of love and respect – you’re already on your way to learning how to disarm the narcissist‘s silent treatment. You don’t just have to accept it and carry around this false hope that the narcissist will change one day. (Chances are, they won’t.)
How to Disarm the Narcissist Who is Using Silent Treatment
Picture this. You’re getting the silent treatment again, a painful part of the discard phase that everyone who’s ever been in a narcissist’s cycle of abuse can recall. Maybe you’ve been accused of being selfish or of ignoring the narcissist’s emotional or physical needs, of being dishonest, arrogant, lazy, or any number of other insulting descriptives.
(But, for the record, what’s happening most of the time is projection—narcissists project their inadequacies onto their victims. So, as usual, it’s all about the narcissist, not about you.)
Assuming you’re going to play the game, this is what you do to cope with the silent treatment.
The next time you’re confronted with the icy, hateful silent treatment for yet another perceived infraction, please come back here and reread this article. And I want you to remember that this is a game of control – the narcissist believes he can control you with his lack of communication and concern.
The only way to take back the power here is to refuse to respond. Instead, you go on about your life as though he isn’t there, or you do whatever you’d typically do, and you blatantly ignore his behavior, no matter how pissed off he gets.
- Do not send him texts trying to reason with him.
- Do not post whiney crap on your Facebook page for all to see.
- Do not allow him to know that he is affecting you in any way at all.
- Do not give him what he wants when he behaves this way.
When he realizes he’s not breaking your heart, he’ll try something new. And while this will not solve your narcissist problem, it will stop him from enacting the silent treatment for long. More information on narcissists and the silent treatment is in this video.
When the Silent Treatment Ends: Beware the Hoover
One last tip: when the narcissist decides the silent treatment is over, and they need your narcissistic supply again, they will do anything in their power to “suck you back in,” a move we call “the hoover maneuver.” Don’t fall for it – it’s not going to get better, and they’re not really planning to change. In fact, the moment you relent and allow the narcissist back into your heart and life – they’ll go right back to the same old behavior.
This video might help.
Have you ever had to deal with the narcissist’s silent treatment? What did you do to cope?
Start Getting Help with Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Today
Online help is readily available for survivors of narcissistic abuse. Here are some options to begin healing from narcissistic abuse right away.
- Sign up for our free email newsletter service that includes a free guided recovery experience via your inbox.
- Start your narcissistic abuse recovery here with our free narcissistic abuse recovery support system and program.
- Think you might have C-PTSD, but you’re not sure? Then, take our free C-PTSD Self-Assessment.
- Join one of our free online narcissistic abuse recovery support groups!
- Join one of our private small coaching groups!
- Get private, one-on-one narcissistic abuse recovery coaching or counseling.
- You might enjoy my book, and Your Love is My Drug: How to Shut Down a Narcissist, Detoxify Your Relationships & Live the Awesome Life You Really Deserve, Starting Right Now.
- Get a therapist who will work with you online. Check out our guide to finding a therapist or psychologist who understands narcissism and narcissistic abuse.
- Are you married to a narcissist? 12 easy ways to spot
- Toxic Love: 44 warning signs that you’re being emotionally abused
- Narcissistic Abuse and Gaslighting: Reader Shares Decade-Long Survivor Story
- Toxic Relationships and Narcissism: Stages of Gaslighting
- How Self-Proclaimed Narcissist Sam Vaknin Gaslighted Me on Facebook
- Love a Narcissist? Stop Gaslighting in its Tracks With This Foolproof Trick
- Divorcing a narcissist? Drop the tears, think straight, expert says
- Free Help for Victims of Narcissism and Gaslighting
- Are you being gaslighted? 10 things you need to know if you love a narcissist
So how do you know if the relationship is really emotionally abusive? When it’s physical abuse, it’s often pretty obvious, but emotional abuse can be incredibly hard to detect, especially if your victimizer is a narcissist.
On the plus side, there are plenty of warning signs.
If your significant other is a narcissist, he (or she) might engage in certain narcissistic behaviors and types of manipulation, such as the ever-pervasive gaslighting tactic that is the bane of so many victims of narcissistic relationships.
How to Know if You’re Being Emotionally Abused
Does your significant other:
- Isolate you and prevent you from spending time with friends or family members?
- Force you to account for your time when apart from him?
- Act really jealous and possessive sometimes?
- Make excessive and unreasonable demands for your attention, even to the detriment of your other responsibilities?
- Make everything “all about him?”
- Make you the scapegoat for all the arguments or problems in the relationship?
- Consider himself the “boss” and insist on making all the decisions in your relationship/family/life?
- Snoop through your stuff? Does he refuse to allow any privacy? Does he go through your mail, hack your email or Facebook account or go through your personal belongings?
- Get excessively angry without warning or over tiny things?
- Have the whole “Jekyll and Hyde” deal happening – where one side of him seems charming or even sweet and loving, while the other is mean, spiteful and downright hurtful?
- Play games with your head? Tell lies in order to confuse you or blame you for something you didn’t do?
- Become overly critical of everything about you when you don’t do what he wants?
- Take control of everything in your life, such as your finances?
- Feel entitled to everything from your attention and UNCONDITIONAL respect, regardless of how he treats you?
- Feel entitled to your financial or other kinds of support?
- Cause damage and/or give away/steal your personal property?
- Harass you whenever you’re away from him because you have to be (such as work or school)?
- Make threats about how he will “ruin you” or otherwise cause trouble for you at work, to your family or to others?
- Say overly critical things about your body and appearance?
- Have weird sexual issues?
- Become excessively pushy or forceful about sex, or even hurt you during sex?
- Become angry or sullen (or even display narcissistic injury) if you don’t go along with his sexual demands?
- Drink excessively or take drugs, and then blame his awful behavior on alcohol, drugs or his own history of abuse or tragedy earlier in his life?
- Pressure you to use alcohol or other drugs, even when you say no?
- Cause you to become anxious about confronting him about literally anything?
- Threaten you with physical harm or make you feel afraid of how he will react when you speak or act in general?
- Manipulate you with the constant threat of mood changes and impending narcissistic rage?
- Make you feel like you’re always “walking on eggshells” or living with constant stress, anxiety or generally in fear?
- Withhold affection in order to punish you?
- Give you the “silent treatment” when you don’t do what he wants?
- Humiliate you?
- Expect you to ask for permission to do stuff, as though you’re a child?
- Threaten to hurt himself when he doesn’t get his way or if you threaten to leave?
Physical Abuse: DO NOT WAIT!
Listen, emotional abuse is awful and can make you completely miserable. But physical abuse is a whole other ball of wax. While you should never stay in an abusive situation, you have to remember that when physical abuse is a factor, there is absolutely no fixing it – and your life could literally depend on you getting away safely.
Ask yourself, does your significant other:
- Physically abuse you in any way? Push, shove, grab, punch, hits or strike you with hands or fists?
- Threaten or assault you with weapons, such as household objects or knives?
- Blame you for his abusive behavior, saying things such as “look what you made me do,” or “well, if you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have had to hit you?”
If so, there is no time to waste – get help and get out before it’s too late. Here are some resources for you.
Sexual Abuse: GET OUT NOW!
According to Dr. Phil, the following are signs of sexual abuse. If you’re being sexually abused, you can’t wait – you need to get out ASAP. If you don’t have any support (which is unfortunately common for victims of narcissism and abuse, since abusers often isolate their victims), start here, and check out these resources as well.
You are being sexually abused if your partner:
- Views women as objects and believes in rigid gender roles.
- Accuses you of cheating or is often jealous of your outside relationships.
- Wants you to dress in a sexual way.
- Has ever forced or manipulated you into to having sex or performing sexual acts.
- Held you down during sex.
- Demanded sex when you were sick, tired or after beating you.
- Involved other people in sexual activities with you.
- Ignored your feelings regarding sex.
More Resources for Victims of Narcissists
Visit the QueenBeeing Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Resources & Support Page
If you’re in an abusive relationship with a narcissist, you might want to read one of these books.
- Take Back Your Power: How to End People Pleasing, Stop Letting Life Happen to You and Start Getting What You Want
Are you experiencing (or have you experienced) emotional abuse in a toxic relationship? Find out for sure by taking this quiz.