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

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.

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

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.

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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 appears 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.”

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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 idealizing, 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 off the merry-go-round, and runs off to the jungle gym, leaving his playmate mystified and spinning alone, dizzy with confusion. No more narcissists. 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.

66 thoughts on “The Silent Treatment: A Narcissist’s Trick of the Trade of Emotional Abuse”

  1. Avatar of LLS

    My daughter in law has been abusing me this way for 6 years…It was difficult to get my family to believe me as they all thought I was the problem…but finally their eyes have been opened and I feel like a new person and starting to feel like my old self…she nearly drove me to suicide!

  2. Avatar of Kerrie Randell

    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 🙂

    1. Avatar of sasham32

      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?

      1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
        Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

        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

    2. Avatar of Jennifer Smith - True Love Scam Recovery

      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.

  3. Avatar of Rachel Anne Marie

    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.

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      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.

  4. Avatar of Wilie Heade

    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

  5. Avatar of Wilie Heade

    Narrissism is a plague , infection that is consuming 60 percent of population, mental disorder and disease is humanity’s biggest threat , nothing will get the changes needed without somehow dealing with menral issues .

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      yes it is very immature. Like a 5 year old pouting because he/she couldn’t get his/her way. Best to move on from people who can’t have adult conversations and compromise.

  6. Avatar of Rosalyn Berlfein

    I often wonder if lack of communication skills leaves one to use “silence” as an out (not that it’s acceptable). It makes me sad to label someone a Narcissist, but perhaps, it is what it is 🙁 but when you know someone can effectively communicate, but chooses silence, then emotional abuse is the residual they leave behind and perhaps Narcissist behavior is part of who they are.

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      In the silent treatment, the extreme narcissist (and other types of emotional abusers) deploy the silent treatment to regain control and power in response to a perceived slight to their ego. The silent treatment is designed to render the target “invisible” and not worthy of communication…it is a sadistic action… the narcissist knows they are causing harm and pain when using this tactic. Best for the target to move on, go No Contact and protect themselves from further abuse.

  7. Avatar of Dee Es

    Narcissists may be usually practising the silent treatment. But it’s important to keep in mind that anyone who goes silent in a relationship may not necessarily be a narcissist.
    There are people who love with all their heart, and for a long time, but become tired one day because of the insensitivity of the person they loved. The day they feel convinced that their partner will never understand them, they don’t leave, nor do they plot revenge. They become silent.. and they have the right to. Because every giver feels tired of giving one day if the receiver keeps on receiving continuously without willing to return at least some form of understanding…

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      There is a difference between the emotional abuse tactic of Silent Treatment by narcissists and emotional abusers and the healthy boundary of No Contact by an abuse survivor. No Contact is designed to protect the abuse survivor from further abuse by cutting off contact from an abuser. The silent treatment is a tactic used by abusers to inflict pain and suffering in their targets and reclaim control and power.

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      Yes — females can be narcissists, just as males can be. I used “he” for simplicity sake in the article…

  8. Avatar of Manny Cruz

    Let me guess, this article was written by a woman who usually stands in front of her partners not letting him go when he needs to go, so she can make him talk after she made him feel like shit about something she really knew was gonna pissed him off!

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      Not sure where you made that assumption. Not that it’s any of your business, but I am happily married and in a healthy relationship.

  9. Avatar of Andrea Schl

    if I´m not interested in the person they can ignore me all they want and i wouldn´t even notice. If I am interested and they do that I would interpret it as genuine disinterest from their side and stop investing in the relationship.

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      I think you are talking about “ghosting” in dating relationships…that’s different than the silent treatment by emotional abusers. Ghosting is fading off when someone decides not to continue’s immature and rude, and it is like the silent treatment but the intent is different. usually the person doing the ghosting has decided they aren’t interested in continuing a dating connection with someone. The silent treatment is generally used in established relationships by emotional abusers who intend to attain some level of power and control by inflicting silence and emotional suffering on their target. Ghosting can feel like the silent treatment, and it is shady behavior at best.

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      If it is the silent treatment in full force, by a narcissist or emotional abuser, it is a sadistic and cruel emotional abuse tactic designed to cause pain. A healthy person would let their significant other know they need a break to think things through and that they will get back with them….a healthy person does not abandon without a trace and refuse to respond to attempts to compromise in a healthy manner. An abuse survivor will go No Contact when he/she deems necessary when an abuser continues to cause pain and harm by contact or the silent treatment, thereby reclaiming their own personal power and healing.

  10. Avatar of Mindy Ross-Mahar

    I remember being very hurt by people who would give me the silent treatment, now I could care less, so I guess I have learned a valuable lesson from those cowardly control freaks.

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      I am glad you are feeling well and have begun to reclaim your power and healing.

  11. Avatar of Crista G McKendree

    One of many tactics – My Mother was a narcissist sociopath plus I married one. 53 years of each of them taking turns abusing my emotions and mind. Will take the rest of my life to come to terms with it all.

  12. Avatar of Tamara Bam Bam

    Horrific emotional abuse 🙁 im back in silent treatment AGAIN. seem to go from forever and always to fuck off and die in just few hours and here I sit thinking what the hell happened now!

  13. Avatar of Susana Dias

    “The deployment of the silent treatment is frankly one of the most sadistic, cruel and immature forms of psychological abuse.(…) And in the end, no contact with a psychological abuser is healthy for a survivor.”

    1. Avatar of Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
      Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

      if you are asking me, the author, it’s really none of your business. But I will respond without hesitation that I am fortunate to be in a very healthy long term relationship. I work with many abuse survivors who have experience this emotional abuse tactic, and it’s no laughing matter.

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