Sometimes it starts with an argument, an off-handed comment in front of a mutual friend, or maybe just forgetting to do something your partner asked of you. They’re minor slights that most couples work through by having a dialogue and understanding each other’s feelings. Narcissists have a completely different playbook though. They go silent, sometimes with no end in sight.
We typically think of narcissists as gregarious, full of themselves, and always the center of attention. Tell that to their partners though and you’ll get a story of how they clammed up days or even weeks at a time. So why would an attention seeker suddenly go silent?
Why Do Narcissists Suddenly Go Silent?
As with most things pertaining to narcissism, it boils down to control. When a narcissist goes quiet, their partner questions what they might have done to cause offense. More often than not it’s that something shattered the narcissist’s grandiose vision of themselves.
It might be something you said or did, or it may be completely unrelated to you and the narcissist is just taking out their rage on those closest to them. Narcissistic rage and the silent treatment frequently accompany one another; the silence puts them back in a position of control.
By remaining silent, the narcissist doesn’t need to explain themselves, work through problems, or see your side of the conflict. You’re forced to do all the emotional heavy lifting, racking your brain as to why they’re upset and what you can do to fix it. While you’re pondering that, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice that the narcissist was at fault in the first place and should be apologizing to you.
Is the Silent Treatment Manipulation?
The silent treatment can easily be mistaken for anger; every once in a while we all get too upset to work through our problems in the moment. We need time to cool off, let our rational brain takeover, and be ready to compromise with our partners.
This is what happens in a healthy relationship, with both sides taking the time they need before returning to the table and coming to a resolution. The silent treatment is nothing of the sort – the narcissist fully expects you to be the one to apologize, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.
For narcissists, the silent treatment is a form of manipulation. They’ll refuse to communicate for days, weeks, or even months. However, at no time will they explain their actions because the goal is to get you to apologize first and offer subservience to get back into their good graces.
As such, narcissistic injury and the silent treatment go hand in hand; when the narcissist’s ego is threatened by criticism, they will go silent until the person that criticized them shows contrition and goes back to boost their ego. Never mistake the silent treatment as a display of emotion – it’s always manipulation.
Being on the receiving end of the silent treatment is akin to being ostracized, which has been shown to have far-reaching negative effects on a person’s psyche. It can make a person feel like they have no control over their life, emotions, or behavior. This is the goal of the narcissist, to have their partner dependent on them for happiness.
Why is the Silent Treatment so Effective?
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you know how hurtful their words can be. Whether it’s insults, sarcastic comments, lying, or emotional blackmail, the verbal abuses can feel endless. So it might seem like something of a break to have peace and quiet in the relationship. Unfortunately, this type of silence will feel anything but peaceful.
For starters, narcissists often pull people into relationships with them by showering them affection, which is sometimes referred to as love bombing. They build up their victims, making them feel special, and telling them that they’re responsible for the narcissist’s newfound happiness.
When the narcissist engages in the silent treatment, that all gets turned on its head and the victim feels like they are 100% responsible for the narcissist’s sadness or anger.
Additionally, humans naturally want to feel loved and “seen” by their partner. They want to be acknowledged in a world where we often feel like little cogs in a big machine. When the person closest to us turns their back and shuts their mouth, it can feel like we don’t matter to anyone.
This is the narcissist’s goal, to make their victim feel like the only way they can pull themselves from this darkness is by making the narcissist “love” them again. Their “love” is conditional and can only be regained by submitting absolutely to them.
In many cases, this is the only type of relationship the narcissist knows. Many grew up in homes where love was conditional and used to exert power. Every relationship, and every interaction within the relationship is a game to be won. For them to win, they need you to break first, to come to the table asking for forgiveness. They know that their victims can’t stand the silence as long as they can.
How Long Do Narcissists Give the Silent Treatment?
The short answer is that it varies depending on what caused the silence and what the narcissist hopes to gain from it. If it originated from a minor strike against their ego, the silence may only last a few hours – just long enough for you to see how awful it can feel when the narcissist stops communicating with you.
For larger slights or when there’s a pattern of using silence as a weapon, you could be looking at days or weeks. What most want to know though is do narcissists come back after the silent treatment and what prompts it?
Some people experience a much longer period of pseudo-silence from their partner though. The narcissist might communicate about basic necessities: finances, issues related to child rearing, or what to buy at the grocery store, but there’s no emotion connected to their words.
This type of silence can go on for several months and is utterly destructive to their partners sense of self worth. It feels like you don’t have a partner.
So do narcissists come back after several months of the silent treatment? Usually not.This type of silence is less likely to be about manipulation and more to do with an upcoming discard.
The narcissist was slighted in some way, but they no longer see a use for you and they’ve likely found another source for their narcissistic supply. If they do come back, it will only be temporarily and just to wring the last bit of supply from you.
What Happens When you Don’t Reach Out During the Narcissist Periods of Silent Treatment?
You’ve been given the silent treatment once or twice now and seen how it progresses: you apologize, you make concessions, and you end up feeling controlled. The solution? Perhaps you could just ignore the silence. Treat them like a child acting out and disregard their behavior until it stops. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
Narcissists depend on supply and that usually takes the form of compliments and affirmation of the delusional image they have of themselves. However, supply can also take the form of subservience and feeling feared. They know you’ll do anything to end the silent treatment and stop it from happening in the future, no matter the cost.
When you refuse to acknowledge the narcissist’s behavior they tend to lash out in other ways like:
- Belittling you
- Expressing rage
- Provoking guilt
- Turning friends against you
They’re unlikely to give up until you’re groveling before them and asking for forgiveness. If silence isn’t enough to accomplish that, they’ll simply find another way.
What Happens When You Give
a Narcissist the Silent Treatment?
If you’ve been previously hurt by a narcissist’s silent treatment, you might be tempted to turn their tactics on them. As you mother probably told you though: two wrongs don’t make a right, and that’s doubly true when you’re dealing with a narcissist.
First, ask yourself why you are employing the silent treatment? Are you trying to hurt the narcissist or are you hoping they’ll come back to apologize? If it’s the former, their hurt will be short lived.
They’ll almost immediately fall back on ego-defense mechanisms, perhaps by lashing out and manipulating your mutual friends, painting you as the aggressor. You’ll be equally disappointed if you’re looking for an apology as narcissists rarely admit guilt or show remorse (and mean it).
The silent treatment is never a healthy method for dealing with conflict. Whether you use it on someone with a narcissistic personality disorder or someone without, the results are sure to be disastrous.
How to Deal with the Narcissist Silent Treatment?
So how do you respond to the narcissist’s silent treatment without giving them the cold shoulder? It depends on where you’re at in the relationship and what kind of resolution you’re hoping for.
1. If you’ve legitimately done something wrong, apologize for it.
Make it clear that you regret your actions and would like to talk about the issue further. No matter what you did though, the silent treatment is not an acceptable response. Don’t internalize the guilt that the narcissist will inflict upon you. Don’t allow the narcissist to control you through the apology. An apology is about love, not power.
2. Give them the chance to make up in a healthy way
Some people just don’t have the emotional tools to deal with upsetting situations and the silent treatment could be a manifestation of their fear. Let them know that you care about them and want to understand what’s troubling them.
Another option is to let the narcissist know that the silent treatment is not a responsible way to deal with their pain. Calmly explain that you’re willing to talk and make compromises if necessary, but that staying silent will get them nowhere.
3. The silent treatment is often just one component in a pattern of abuse
Tell the narcissist that their silence is an unacceptable way of dealing with conflict and that you will exit the relationship if it continues. Narcissistic discard and the silent treatment are commonly associated though, so don’t be surprised if the narcissist reacts angrily and breaks it off with you first. Chances are this won’t be permanent and the break up is just a way for them to gain the upper hand. In that case, do not initiate contact or respond to the narcissist. Walk away and don’t look back.
4. Lastly, you can ignore the narcissist’s silence, though this isn’t likely to turn out in your favor
Narcissists have many tools for getting their way and if silence is ineffective they will use a different one. Fortunately, this will confirm the type of person that you’re dealing with and can help you understand the importance of distancing yourself from the narcissist.
Being on the receiving end of the silent treatment can be an incredibly painful experience. You’re left questioning yourself, what you did wrong and what to do when the narcissist ignores you.
Remember that it’s not your fault, even if you did something to provoke their narcissistic rage. Their unhealthy reaction is their problem and you can’t always fix it.
Letting them know that you care to mend the relationship while setting boundaries is the best way to keep the peace and your sanity if you’re to stay with the narcissist.
What is Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome?