The Silent Treatment: A Narcissist’s Trick of the Trade of Emotional Abuse

If you have encountered a narcissist in love, work or family, then you surely have experienced the dreaded silent treatment, a tactic used by psychological abusers (including extreme narcissists) to hold power and control in their relationships.

As written about extensively in the recent wave of articles on narcissistic abuse, an extreme narcissist is an individual, male or female, who targets other people for sources of narcissistic supply (or ego fuel) to fill their empty psychological voids. Most always, an extreme (or malignant) narcissist will engage in such emotional abuse tactics as gaslighting, hoovering, love-bombing, and the silent treatment, among others.

More specifically, in relationships with an extreme narcissist, the toxic partner (whether boss, lover, friend or family member) seeks to consistently take the position of one-up in which they are always in control and in power.

When the narcissistic supply source (a supervisee, family member, lover, friend) is providing “good supply,” (or ego fuel) they are placating the whims of the narcissist, providing adulation, praise, attention, disgust, horror, or any type of reaction that makes the abuser appear to be powerful and important. The extreme narcissist’s ego is soothed when sources of ego fuel are behaving appropriately, in the narcissist’s mind. It’s as if the extreme narcissistic were developmentally stunted at age five. Picture two children playing on a merry-go-round. As long as the narcissist is being admired for his skill riding the prettiest, shiniest pony, the playmate will continue to be “privileged” with the presence of the narcissist.

However, as is inevitable in any type of relationship with an extreme narcissist, the target serving the role of narcissistic supply will ultimately fail to provide “good ego fuel.”

Sooner or later, the lover/partner/family member/supervisee tires of the energy drain connected with supplying the psychologically impoverished narcissist. In time, “good” suppliers of narcissistic supply disappoint or even create what experts call a narcissistic injury in the narcissist. The target sets a healthy limit, questions the intentions of the narcissist, or requests a compromise, all of which are healthy communication tools. The narcissist, however, becomes enraged that his/her uniqueness is in question. Instead of taking constructive criticism, owning responsibility for his/her transgressions, and showing empathy for their ego supply source, the narcissist is incapable of compromise or any of the above healthy communication tools and instead lashes out at the mere suggestion of accommodating a healthy communication style. The target failed to admire the narcissist’s pretty pony and cowboy-style of riding on the merry-go-round.

Enter the silent treatment.

What frequently ensues in the relationship cycle with a narcissist is the pattern of idealize, devalue, discard, The narcissist’s ego cannot tolerate the idea that his core identity is not so important to his ego fuel source, such that others would question his omnipotence and entitlement. Therefore, the extreme narcissist feels threatened that that target (who is like a mirror, reflecting back to the narcissist that he exists), is ceasing to provide adequate narcissistic supply. The narcissist’s very existence is threatened on a psychological level, to the point that he fears complete annihilation of his central core identity. His ego is that fragile. The narcissist pouts, refuses to share his cowboy hat,  jumps of the merry-go-round, and runs off to the jungle gym, leaving his playmate mystified and spinning alone, dizzy with confusion. No more narcissist. Gone. Poof. In the wink of an eye.

The deployment of the silent treatment is frankly one of the most sadistic, cruel and immature forms of psychological abuse.

In order to usurp an albeit false sense of control and reclaim some stability of his fragile ego, the abuser suddenly cuts contact with the target. The extreme narcissist must reclaim control and power in the relationship, and the healthy boundary set by the target was unacceptable to the narcissist’s fragile ego. At this point in the relationship cycle, the abuser will cease responding to phone calls, texts, emails, social media and seemingly vanish from thin air. The narcissist will “ be gone” as a punishment to the target for daring to set a healthy limit or in response to a perceived criticism (which is often a request for compromise from the target). The abuser sadistically celebrates reclaiming complete control and power via the destruction of communication through silence. The extreme narcissist can see his playmate from afar from his vantage point atop the jungle gym, a new throne for him. His playmate is spinning with nausea, confused and worried, fearful and afraid. Where did her friend go?

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Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in San Dimas, CA. She received her MSW from the University of Michigan (the top-ranked social work program in the country) and her B.A. in Psychology from UCLA (#2 in the country).
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  1. ahhh favorite of my ex husband…He did the silent treatment ALL the time – it usually lasted about 3-4 days. Of complete utter and total silence. HA – after seven years I was so angry one day i didnt speak to him…….it took him 4 bloody DAYS to realize!!!!!!!!!!!!! So funny!!!!! He thought he was giving me the silent treatment to make me behave – and when i started behaving and had learnt my lesson he would talk to me…….. you should have seen how ANGRY he was when he realized!!! 3 days – huh??? i was able to hold a REAL silence for a LOT longer. I had put up with abuse for seven years and he just went too far one day and my silence was not about control – it was about a very deep seated “knowing” that i deserved more than this and i didnt have to or need to have him in my life anymore. It was so peaceful. Scared the holy crap out of him as i dont play games and i dont manipulate and to find me silent gave him reason to PANIC. I left him. . …. I went to a counselor and they said it was the worst case of emotional and psychological abuse they had seen in 35 years of practice. Obviously silent treatment wasnt the only practice he had up his sleeve but it was a favorite he rolled out every three weeks like clockwork. A long long time ago now. xxxxx 🙂

    • I had similar experience with my ex husband of 7 years!Silent treatment..I left but now his subjecting me to the worst abuse through social media unfortunately people cant see through him they are supporting his tactics to abuse me using social media.I thought i was the only one going through this but looks like theres more like him.And i wonder how does one recover from such abuse?

      • Hello Sasham and Kerrie — thank you for your comments… I wrote an ebook called Soul Vampires: Reclaiming Your LifeBlood After Narcissistic Abuse : which goes into healing– I am currently writing a companion workbook which will include interventions. Please check out Shahida Arabi’s work on this publication (TMJ) and also Kim Saeed — excellent writers and advocates. There is a ground swell of healers writing and creating curriculum as we speak…don’t give up, know there is competent trauma-informed help and be discerning with whom you go to for support — make sure they know narcissistic abuse recovery. Kind regards in healing. Andrea

    • CoNGRaTuLaTiOnS!!! I found the silent treatment was more of a serious lack of anything in his head to say. Since he (all sociopaths) have no positive bonding emotions towards anyone, he had nothing to say unless he was directly dropping hints and directions for me to engage in some behavior that would benefit him – like one that I saw through right away: for me go to a park where he had visited and introduced himself to wealthy retirees, so I could befriend them too, say I’m his wife, so they trust him, so he could scam them! — I also put it together after he was gone that his silent days coincided with other scams – other women – he had who needed all his attention and energy. Or coincided with times he was cooking up some sort of caper to take something from someone. — I started staying silent. I stopped talking to him unless he asked me a question and then only answered in 2 -3 words. I started watching him while he was home without him noticing. It was like we were each alone in the room. He was so uninterested in me – like your husband – he didn’t notice I wasn’t talking! — That’s one of the ways I started to see what he really was, and how to handle getting him out.

  2. Awareness of Narcissism was needed in order to help people identify an insidious problem that may otherwise go unnoticed and continue to cause damage. However, it has become a catch all insult for practically any behavior and has now turned from helpful to damaging in itself. In fact, many victims of abuse exhibit the qualities that are now supposedly symptoms of narcissism. Ironically, one common suggestion in dealing with narcissistic abuse is to ignore it and not respond, which could also be interpreted by a narcissist as “silent treatment” which leads the narcissist to label the victim a narcissist.

    • thank you for your comment, Rachel. This article specifically address the silent treatment – which is different than going No Contact – the latter is designed to protect the survivor from further abuse. The former is a psychological abuse tactic designed to inflict pain in the target.

  3. If the narcissist can not have you , character assisnation, is always being deployed , i know for my life has been engulf by being empathic and caring , love is what i am , hate is what they try to turn heart into , i survived in love for self , and am now trying to save son , by lwarning how to expose and hold liable these creatures of no emotion or heart , dark black heart