Toxic Silence: Why Narcissists Go Silent and How to Cope

Written by Angela Atkinson

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.How to Survive a Narcissist Silent Treatment

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 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.

Related: Inside the Devalue and Discard Phase

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 to be codependent (or the victim of a malignant narcissist).

Communication as a Catalyst for Silent Treatment

There are some times when 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 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 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, the 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.

Get over your fears and get on with your life! Join my free 5-day fear-busting e-course.

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.

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.)

How to Cope with the Silent Treatment 

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.

Refuse to Respond

The only way to take back the power here is to refuse to respond. So, don’t give them the reaction they’re seeking or the narcissistic supply you usually would under these circmstances.

Instead, you go on about your life as though they aren’t there, or you do whatever you’d typically do, and you blatantly ignore his behavior, no matter how much narcissistic rage they spew your way.

Literally, act as though it is not happening and keep going. Your lack of response will bore them and they’ll look for another way to get to you. (This is why it’s important to ONLY use this practice on a narcissist who is not going to physically abuse you). 

Avoid These Behaviors

If you’re going to make this work and seem convincing enough that they’ll stop using the silent treatment on you, there are some behaviors you’ll need to avoid. That means:

  • Do not send texts trying to reason with them.
  • 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 the narcissist realizes they’re not breaking your heart, they’ll try something new. And while this will not solve your narcissist problem, it will stop them 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.

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  • Angela Atkinson

    Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own. Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves. Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.

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