silent treatment is damaging

10 Ways Narcissists Use Silent Treatment to Punish You

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Being on the receiving end of the silent treatment is damaging no matter who does it, but when the narcissist in your life employs it as a tool, it can be downright devastating.

Why is that?

Narcissists somehow instinctively know that one of the best ways to hurt the person who loves them is to give them the silent treatment. Why is it so harmful? I’m going to outline some of the reasons for you here…

The Silent Treatment in Relationships

The “silent treatment” is a way of describing how one partner in a relationship stops talking to the other, typically after a fight or disappointment. This silent treatment can go on for hours, days, or at its extreme, weeks or even months.

The silent treatment is something that many people engage in, and therefore, it is not just the domain of narcissists. The difference is that when a narcissist employs the silent treatment, they do it on purpose in order to hurt the people close to them.

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On the other hand, someone may withdraw and stop speaking to a partner not to manipulate, but because they are genuinely hurt and unable to talk about their feelings. This is not what drives the narcissist, however.

10 Ways the Silent Treatment is Damaging

Even if you know that the narcissist is using the silent treatment to punish you, it can be difficult to let go of the frustration and pain when it happens. Here are some reasons why this may be the case:

1. We are Wired for Community

Some evolutionary psychologists speculate that as humans evolved, they learned that being part of a group gave them a higher chance of survival. Being separated from the tribe could literally mean certain death. For this reason, we have powerful emotional forces telling us that we need to be with others in order to survive and thrive.

2. Silent Treatment Triggers Pain Pathways in the Brain

MRI stands for “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” and it is a way for doctors to take pictures of the inside of a human body. When MRIs are performed on the brain, doctors can see that the emotions triggered by silent treatment activate the same areas of the brain as physical pain. In other words, it hurts.

3. Our IQ Actually Goes Down Temporarily After Silent Treatment

People who were asked to recall an instance of silent treatment scored lower on a variety of tests assessing human brain function, including IQ, short-term memory, and decision-making tests.

4. Silent Treatment Even Hurts When Strangers Do It

We are wired to want to feel like we belong, so that even if strangers reject us, we still feel the sting. In fact, even if we don’t particularly care for certain strangers, we can still experience emotional pain if we feel rejected by them. For example, a militant atheist who hates religion might still feel emotional pain if a spiritual person dislikes them.

5. When We Experience Silent Treatment, We Tend to Blame Ourselves

No matter how much we might try to talk ourselves out of it, our natural tendency is to blame ourselves when we are experiencing silent treatment. In fact, we will actively look for reasons, from not believing we are physically attractive to assuming we must be a bad person deep down inside.

6. Getting Silent Treatment Can Make Us Angry and Aggressive

The silent treatment is linked to aggression.  In 2001, the United States Surgeon General delivered a report citing the correlation between adolescent violence and social rejection. The narcissist may sense this intuitively, and try to egg you on with the silent treatment. Then, if you act out angrily, you are then made to be “wrong.” 

Even worse, the children of parents who are dealing with the silent treatment are often the unfortunate receptacles for their anger and aggression.

7. Emotional Pain is Stronger Than Physical Pain, When You Think About It

If you try to recall physical pain, you might not remember much. But, trying to remember emotional pain can actually stir up more negative feelings and pain than old physical pain. Thinking about emotional pain hurts more than thinking about physical pain.

8. A Relationship with a Narcissist is Like a Gambling Habit

When a narcissist gives and takes love in a random manner, he or she is effectively acting like a slot machine to your emotions. This behavior activates the reward and addiction centers in the brain. You want to keep putting more coins in the slot machine, even though you are losing overall. The emotional “jackpot” that you get once in a while when the narcissist showers attention on you motivates you to continue the emotional investment, even though you are being fleeced.

9. When Wielded Purposefully, the Silent Treatment is a Form of Emotional Abuse

As noted above, you may have friends or loved ones who are not narcissists who engage in the silent treatment on occasion. Sometimes, this is because the person in question is so hurt that they need some time and space before they can talk and reconnect.

This is not the case with a narcissist. For them, the silent treatment is a tactic. When used purposefully to hurt someone and throw them off balance, the silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse used by narcissists and other psychological manipulators.

10. In a Game of Chicken, the Narcissist Usually Wins

The game of “chicken” is a game of nerves that can be done in a car, on a bicycle, or even with just two people running at each other. The idea is that the person who flinches last wins. So, with two cars driving towards each other, the person who swerves first to get out of the way is the loser.

When a narcissist uses the silent treatment against you, he or she is playing an emotional game of chicken with your mind. You will be tempted to reach out and speak first. When you do, the narcissist will have considered your reconciliation action a form of “flinching.” In their gamebook, they win, and you lose.

Since narcissists don’t experience emotions the same way most people do, it is much easier for them to keep their “cool” and not flinch or swerve in their emotional chicken game.

How to Respond to the Silent Treatment

The first thing to remember with the narcissist is that you will never “win”. They have no emotional intelligence or emotional resilience, so they can’t be reasoned with.

So, how should you respond to silent treatment?

You can choose to try to talk to the narcissist, but they will likely use your attempts to further torture you by continuing the silent treatment indefinitely. This can be maddening, especially if you live with the person. Realize that there is nothing you can do to get them to talk. They will do so when they determine the time is right, which is usually when it would benefit them the most.

Because of this, the most important thing for you to do is to find healthy ways to deal with your feelings when experiencing the silent treatment.

1. Connect with Other Friends and Loved Ones

One of the best ways to overcome negative feelings from the silent treatment is to encourage positive feelings of belonging. How do you do this? Connect with other friends and family members who love and care about you.

Of course, many narcissists and emotionally abusive partners will try to isolate you from your friends and reduce your social circle. It will take an effort to get out there and make new connections. The two resources below can help.

2. Join a Support Group

Support groups can be extremely helpful in dealing with emotional pain. Unfortunately, finding a “narcissist victim support group” in your area might be challenging. Contact your local therapists to see if they know of any groups. You can also try 12-step programs such as Al-Anon, which is for family and friends of alcoholics. The narcissist does not necessarily need to be an alcoholic for you to join (this depends on the individual local group) but the issues are sometimes similar.  You may also want to consider enrollment in The Essential Break Free Bootcamp which includes a private Facebook group specifically for individuals who are on their own healing journeys.

3. Find a Therapist to Talk to

A qualified therapist who understands narcissism can help you retain your sanity and sense of self-esteem while you are dealing with a narcissist. You don’t need a couple’s counselor for this, if the narcissist in your life happens to be your spouse. In fact, you’d be better off seeing the therapist alone.

Make sure the therapist has some expertise in narcissism. On rare occasion, you might find a poor therapist who doesn’t understand what is going on and will take the side of the narcissist over you. If this happens, fire the therapist and find a better one.

4.  Consider Ending the Relationship

The bad side of staying in a relationship with a narcissist is that it keeps you stuck in a hopeless situation.  Holding onto hope that the narcissist in your life will change is a pipe dream that leads to a wasted life. The idea can be likened to the legends of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.  There are people who adamantly insist these creatures exist, but no one has ever really seen them. 

The same goes for a narcissist making lasting change.

You Can Overcome the Silent Treatment

Despite the silent treatment being painful – or, at least, very annoying – you can learn to deal with it with grace and poise. By cultivating your self-esteem and sense of connection with others outside your abusive relationship, you will be able to weather the next silent storm. The narcissist won’t be able to trigger your emotions as much, and you may eventually develop the courage to finally end the relationship.

Recovery involves rewriting everything the narcissist has tried to make you believe. It requires rebuilding your identity – or in many cases building an identity for the first time.  You need a narcissistic abuse recovery program that can help you avoid relapse by learning about yourself, habits, and triggers.

The Break Free Program may be the missing piece of the puzzle. 

I know what you’re going through and I’m here to help. Learn more about the course and see what my students and neuroscience experts have to say about it.

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M says November 7, 2022

To me, silence can be abusive if the intent is to control or manipulate somebody else. “No contact” is different from the silent treatment. It’s simply a protective move, but there is no nefarious intent behind it.

What my husband does is the silent treatment. He decided that I’m not worth talking to, so he will sit for hours acting as if I’m not there.
That is abusive. I think anyone that does this (no matter how you justify it) needs therapy.
It’s cruel behavior. Very different from “no contact” or simply taking time to cool down for a while.

With the silent treatment, the person doing it is attempting to make their victim feel small and unworthy of basic respect.
It’s a way to communicate that “I don’t see you or hear you or care about you. You don’t matter. You have no rights in my book”.
When I called him out on this, he denied it and became defensive. I tried to explain that I’m not attacking HIM personally…I have a problem with his behavior/attitude.

It is extremely unkind to sit in a room with others and behave in this way. It’s not just being quiet or introverted.
I am an introvert who doesn’t like to socialize, but I don’t give people the silent treatment, nor would I visit anyone’s home and act like I’m better than they are.

We are from different backgrounds…he is a white American, I’m of mixed (Caribbean-American) descent.
In my culture, people find it rude when somebody sits in stony silence and refuses to engage with others. It comes across as disrespect. Not simply being quiet or shy, but like a sense of looking down on everybody else.
My mom even asked him if he was OK. I think she was hurt and confused by his attitude. He wasn’t saying anything, which is no problem…but there is tension and hostility behind the silence.
THAT is why the silent treatment is so bad. Being calm and quiet or introverted is normal. But when a person goes silent for days, weeks, months at a time and you can feel the hate or annoyance coming from them…a conversation needs to be had or the relationship needs to end.

Healthy people don’t treat others in this way. Taking time and space to cool down? No problem.
No contact? No problem. But the silent treatment is something else. It is a deliberate attempt to diminish the other party.
It is manipulative. It makes the other person feel dismissed and abandoned. I’ve made it clear to him that I no longer give a damn if he wants to talk to me or not. I will not allow him to control or abuse me in this way anymore.
And I will not allow him to pretend that I am the narcissist or the abuser because I confronted him about lying to me, hence his silence thereafter.

Anonymous says May 17, 2022

Such a wonderful article! Thank you! I love this line… “Holding onto hope that the narcissist in your life will change is a pipe dream that leads to a wasted life. The idea can be likened to the legends of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.  There are people who adamantly insist these creatures exist, but no one has ever really seen them. “

Recovering Daughter says January 6, 2019

My Narcissistic mother has been giving the silent treatment for 2 years now. It still hurts even though we are free from her abuse …it’s like a grieving period but with no corpse. However Kim, I feel slightly less crazy reading your posts as it bring relief and a sense of normality to the behaviour I’ve witnessed my whole life.
Trying to move forward and spread love and kindness!!

Shirley says January 6, 2019

I have endured the silent treatment for almost three years! Time to end this mess permanently. If you cannot communicate with someone, how can you say you have a relationship with them? Might as well say goodbye for good! Which is 2019 is what I plan on doing. I know this will shock and rock the narc’s world, but I don’t care. I need to go forward and get on with living. Three years is enough time to make up your mind what you are going to do. My mind is made up. This toxic trauma has to go for good. My healing and recovery are day by day and everything that was stolen will be restored. I will continue to examine myself and accept my responsibility for this terrible marriage. I will be a success. Thanks for this article again Kim.

Stop Focusing On Narcissist Types and Start Investigating These Toxic Red Flags - Kim Saeed: Narcissistic Abuse Recovery & Personal Growth says December 12, 2018

[…] As a result, you may feel a heightened sense of anxiety. Will he be upset that you were in a meeting and couldn’t text back right away? Will she agree with your restaurant selection for dinner or throw a fit? Are you one wrong move away from a dreadful episode of silent treatment? […]

Mark says June 4, 2018

June 2018 is a year of silent treatment. Is this beyound normal?

Smitha Day says June 3, 2018

Thankyou so much for this!

Anonymous says February 1, 2018

Excellent article!!! Helped me alot …

Calinda says January 18, 2018

I am currently using modified no contact with my ex. (recently divorced and we still have some loose ends that need to be addressed). I feel like a monster described in this post for essentially giving him the silent treatment. How do you reconcile the difference between no contact and silent treatment?

    Lea says January 19, 2018

    That is my question. Not to an ex, but a new boyfriend I’m now beginning to suspect of narcissism subsequent to both getting to know him more and researching narcissism. He fits the bill and has done something extremely hurtful without taking any responsibility for it. He either doesn’t understand what he’s done even though I’ve explained it in detail or or doesn’t want to admit that he did anything wrong.

      Sweetie says June 3, 2018

      If you havent left HIM yet, leave and go no contact. He needs you more but will trick you in thinking you need him more. This is how my relationship started out too, nothing is or was real, they are empty bottles. Ask him where he will be in 5 years? If he answers; being with you is everything i want, or that i will see in 5 years or no idea, or mentions things that wont have anything to do with you ….then choose YOU!

      Anonymous!!! says January 6, 2019

      When they show you who they are, believe them. The first time!!!

      From What you described, you have a narcissist. My advice is to RUN, end that relationship asap, because he is not gonna change. What you see is what you get.
      Don’t ignore the signs, Run!

      Roberta A Hantman says January 6, 2019

      Lea, a normal person takes responsibility for doing something hurtful to someone they care about and validates your feelings when you express them to him. Sounds like a narcissist so run for the hills and go no contact now while you are still strong enough to do it. Good luck and be glad that you see a red flag early enough to get out. If you don’t leave now the abuse will only escalate. And destroy you.

    Dora says February 20, 2018

    (Sorry, I’m no native English) I think the main difference is that silent treatment is a tool to hurt someone or get him/her behave the way narcissist want them to. But defending yourself from their manipulation is something else! We all know that they are pretty good liers and if you open the door, they come in. Immediately. Once you let them text or call, then it might trigger feelings (either good or bad). They have perfect sensors to analyze if you have any doubt or anything they can hold on to and they might restart love-bombing or promising or whatever. This is what keeps them alive! Don’t feel sorry for protection yourself and the kids! Of course they might use it against you, but keep in mind that until you only use “silent treatment” as a shield (it is rather grey stone technique) and not to hurt anyone, you are totally OK. 🙂

      Calinda says February 21, 2018

      Thanks so much Dora, I have really struggled with this. I sometimes feel like no contact makes me a monster (and he has let me know that he feels that way in no uncertain terms). Your explanation really cleared it up for me- the motivation behind the act is the key. I like that you called no contact a shield – the visual of that made me feel better, it implies protection and that is definately the goal. By the way, your English is perfect!

    Sweetie says June 3, 2018

    THE silent treatment is a way to break you, to put you down, to neglect your feelings and say in the matter. Its a way of telling you, you will come back to me anyhow, no matter how sick I am, because although i need you more i’m not gonna grave for it and you need to prove your love to me. Going no contact is when every contact with a particular human being is damaging to you. Because either they wont come to reason, arent interested in your feelings, hurt you more when you try explaning how you feel, or they cant be trusted as you know or doubt if what they say is the truth! So the latter is for your OWN good, based on selfrespect, while the first deployed by the NPS-er is pure emotional blsckmail.

    Quite a difference i would say! Greetings from Holland
    Good luck to you all, please fill in the gap that THE narcissist was supposed to heal, they think themselves often as being the saver for mankind, mentally ill and disturbed as they are.

Sandy says January 17, 2018

My ex would up and walk out on me so many times. At first I would cry and beg him not to go. Once I even sat behind his car so he couldn’t back out my driveway. All he did was put it in reverse and rev his engine, which scared the bejeebers out of me. The only time I EVER had any success at stopping him from running out on me for the smallest reason, was when I began to help him speed up his exit. I’d be gathering his stuff, and the whole time be telling him I didn’t want him there anyway, I was gonna have a really nice dinner and good time without him, and I was glad he was leaving cuz he’d really become one big, boring drag to me. I don’t advocate playing games with a narcissist, cuz it will still end badly, but I did succeed a few times in getting him to stay. Which was truly NOT worth the effort, I might add. So glad to be free sine 10/2014

Robin says January 17, 2018

I was constantly being hung up on during phone conversations. Or, if there was a face-to-face conversation/argument, he would walk away, get in his car, and not call me for days. I would be the one to reach out and apologize. I felt like I may have been the one who really started this uncomfortable conversation. I used to beg him to talk to me. About a year and a half ago, he gave me the silent treatment for no apparent reason (I guess he was heavily grooming someone else and couldn’t be bothered with me for the time being). He has since called my work number early in the morning or late at night when he knows I am not there just to hear my message. I have since changed the message to someone else’s voice not to give him the satisfaction of hearing my voice. He still continues to call. It happens randomly (sometimes 1 month, sometimes 5 months). I think he wants me to know that he called when I see my caller ID screen at work. Maybe he thinks I will break and call him back. I will NEVER ever call him back. My life has been simplified x 1000 since he has been out of my life. It was a withdrawal at the beginning, but so rewarding at the end. I am in a normal relationship now and I have to say, it took and is still taking some getting used to.

Duran says January 17, 2018

I was the victim of ‘the silent treatment’ numerous times.
By a diagnosed PTSD-Borderline- And I am postitive Narcissist woman.
Nothing ever caused me more pain in my life, not even a metal bar smashed into my forehead.
I used to lay in bed thinking, “why does this girl who said I had a beautiful heart and was a gift from God want to hurt me.?,
And not answer my phone calls or texts.
I was in such pain, I would sleep at night holding a wooden cross in my hand.
It is very hard to talk about.

    Guy says January 17, 2018

    That’s what they do, Duran. I dated one for two years who told me I was “the greatest thing that ever happened to” them and that they couldn’t wait to spend the rest of their life with me. It’s hard to feel that close to someone and share so many things with them only to find out it was all a lie. For the past 7 months, she is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep (that is when I actually sleep). It hurts like nothing I’ve ever felt. But it will get better. But not until you decide to make that break. You are so much better and deserve so much better than what this person will ever be capable of giving you.You have to allow someone to love you that will actually “love” you and not just tell you that. You can do this!

      Duran says January 18, 2018

      Hello Guy:
      Thank you for the encouragement.
      Yes, it the pain is unbearable.
      When your heart is involved , it hurts even more.
      You feel betrayed.
      One day she says she loves you, the next day they can do a 360.
      That is not love.

Denise says January 17, 2018

I am an extreme introvert and my husband is the extrovert. He talks so much that most times the silent treatment is a blessing for me. LOL

    JJ says February 27, 2018

    Oh Denise I know what you mean. I’m an introvert too and my husband is an extreme extroverted narcissist. He is like a badly behaved toddler that comes over every 5 minutes to dump words off at me (always about himself, what he is doing, or down grading someone) . Yet if I try talking he walks away, or starts making a phone call ,or implies I’m wrong (even if I agree with him). He is so exhausting ,he is more like having out of control toddler triplets ,without any of the cuteness and fun moments.

Patricia says January 17, 2018

Hello Kim,

My husband cheated on me a year ago. I made a decision not to respond to any of his emails. He’s been emailing me since November of last year. I have not responded. I believe by doing that, he will eventually stop. We do not have kids, he had now moved in with his 31-year-old coworker. He’s 61. I don’t know what name suits him well. But I call him a cheater. I don’t think I can stand the thought of seeing or even seeing his ugly face. I am trying to so hard to overcome my struggles, for what he has done to me. We were married for 24 years. I believe he does not love me. But feels guilty, for the way he ended our relationship. Thank you

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