Have you ever had a friend or partner that you had a disagreement with and they stopped talking to you for a period of time because they were upset? Their feelings were hurt, they needed a break, so they took a day or two away from contacting you. After they were able to cool down, talking resumed. As you two start communicating again, an apology may have happened but there was, at a minimum, likely acknowledgement that you two were upset with each other, what the issue was, and how you two can move forward. This is what happens in a normal, healthy relationship. A disagreement may occur, you step away from each other, and when you both feel comfortable talking again you acknowledge the issue and how to improve things in the future.
When there is a narcissist in your life, disagreements don’t lead to short cool down periods where you both come back at a later time with acknowledgement of what went wrong and how to move forward. When a disagreement occurs with a narcissist, it is often one-sided, and you may not have even done anything wrong. However, the expectation from the narcissist is that you apologize for the wrong you committed, and until you “learn your lesson” then they will not talk to you.
The silent treatment, a form of stonewalling, is a tool used by narcissists to punish someone who has behaved in a way they don’t like. Most people want to right wrongs and if they feel like something negative has happened in the relationship, they want to discuss it to lessen tension and to protect the relationship.
However, with narcissists, the goal isn’t to acknowledge what role they may have played in the disagreement, but to absolve themselves from all blame and to take the attention away from them and place it onto someone else.
The silent treatment is a powerful way to create change. When used by narcissists, it is a way to control the interaction and punish the partner. As social creatures, we like connection and to be liked. Non-narcissists can consider the feelings of others and don’t want someone else to be upset or hurt. However, for the narcissist, there is no desire to create connection, only a need to get their own needs met. The narcissist’s goal with the silent treatment is to get you to think you are in the wrong, apologize, and then all blame is on you. They have effectively created a scenario where you have taken the blame while they sit back and wait for you to come to them. Because the goal is not to build connection, they can stay in the silent treatment as long as needed.
The silent treatment is damaging to relationships for many reasons. One reason is because it shuts down all communication. When one partner is not willing to discuss any issues that arise, then problems are left unresolved. The partner being punished through the silent treatment also feels as if their emotions are being invalidated and this breaks trust that is necessary for a successful relationship.
The silent treatment can also open the door to gaslighting where the narcissist manipulates the environment in a way that is most convenient for them. If you hadn’t said or did what led to the silent treatment, then things would still be good in the relationship – or so the narcissists wants you to think. Any opportunity the narcissist can take to place blame on you and away from themselves is another opportunity for them to gain an upper hand in this game of control and manipulation they play.
So, if your partner is giving you the silent treatment to control, what should you do? It is understandable you would want to express your concerns, how they are making you feel, and that you want to talk about the issue. However, this is counterproductive and only acts to prolong the silent treatment. When a partner begs or pleads for interaction and communication, the narcissist is getting exactly what they want – you to feel unsure about the relationship and emotionally uneasy. This allows the narcissist to maintain the upper hand and provides incentive to remain silent longer.
If you are experiencing the silent treatment from a narcissist, the best thing you can do is to not play the game with them. Step away from the interaction and display no interest in the silent treatment you are receiving. This will allow you to gain the upper hand and be in control because the control has been switched from the narcissist to you. This will be hard because you want to restore the communication with your partner. However, remind yourself that the communication will be broken down as long as the narcissist feels they are in control and able to manipulate the situation. In time you can try to bring up the issue again with the narcissist and see if there can be communication. However, if you continuously get shut down over the same topics and this starts to damage your relationship further, you need to ask yourself whether this relationship is one in which you will ever feel like your needs and wants would be met or if it is time to step away.
At Mindset Therapy we provide mental health services in Texas and Washington from trained professionals, via telepsychology, which allows you to attend the appointment from the location most convenient for you. Visit Mindset Therapy at https://www.mindsettherapyonline.com/ to learn more about the services offered and make an appointment. Also visit our YouTube page, Mindset Therapy, PLLC, for the Mental Health Minute series that provides quick pieces of information for common mental health issues.