A Narcissist's Silent Treatment by Gail Meyers

Chalkboard hanging on fence with Gail Meyers quote on the silent treatment.

The silent treatment is "the act of ignoring and excluding a person or group by another person or group." It is a passive-aggressive form of communication that conveys contempt, disapproval and displeasure. It can be used in virtually any relationship for a variety of reasons, but control is the core issue in the silent treatment.

The silent treatment can be so destructive to relationships that John Gottman included it as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in relationships. In other words, it is a relationship buster. While some may use the silent treatment prior to learning more effective communication skills, chronic emotional manipulators often repeatedly use it to control, punish, test boundaries, avoid accountability and avoid even discussing unpleasant issues.

This discussion of the silent treatment starts out by joining Roger S. Gil, MAMFT for a closer look at the silent treatment in the context of other relationships than those with chronic emotional manipulators. He provides the common results of the silent treatment, as well as some more effective communication skills to use in place of the silent treatment.


Cooling Off Period v. the Silent Treatment

A cooling off period is not the same as the silent treatment. This can actually be healthy for a relationship when both people remain quiet for a short period of time until they are able to communicate without being hateful. Usually 20 or 30 minutes is enough time to allow any anger to subside and to gather your thoughts, but it varies from person to person. If only negativity is going to come out of your mouth, then remaining silent is not the silent treatment. It is healthy prudence. 

So not everyone who remains silent is trying to punish or control the other person, at least not intentionally. Some use it in order to give the other person "some time to think." However, the belief by one party that the other person should be able to read their mind is often what leads to the silent treatment. Common results of the silent treatment:
  • Resentment by the person remaining silent. The person not speaking is resentful because the other person can not read their mind. They believe the person should know what the problem is without them having to tell them.
  • Resentment by the person being given the silent treatment because the other person will not tell them what the problem is even though they are making them suffer for it.
  • Even if the problem is obvious and known by both parties, the silent treatment ensures that the communication necessary to resolve the problem will not occur.
  • Used habitually it can cause withdrawal in the relationship during a crisis.
  • Ensures that issues are not resolved, but causes issues to build up. So the next time there is an argument the same issues come up.
  • Can cause anger to increase while no solution is found.
  • Threatens the long term viability of the relationship.

Healthier Alternatives to the Silent Treatment

  • No one can read your mind, so clear communication is needed.
  • Cool off and remain silent for a set period of time until you can communicate without overreacting or being hateful.
  • If the issue can not be resolved in one day, then agree to another time to address the issue until it is resolved. This acknowledges that there is a problem that needs solved without attacking anyone as a person.
  • If there can be no clear communication without anger or if you habitually use the silent treatment, then consult a professional.
Next, The Social Connection provides a closer look at the silent treatment and the basic human needs it violates.

Dr. Kipling Williams at the University of New South Wales has been studying the phenomenon of ostracism. He defines ostracism as "the act of ignoring and excluding an individual or a group by another individual or group." Ostracism is known by many different names and can be used while in the presence of one another or physically apart.

Examples of terminology used when a person is ostracized and physically removed from the other person or group, including:
  • Shunning
  • Exile
  • Banishment
Examples of terminology used when the people involved remain in the presence of one another, include:
  • The silent treatment
  • Getting the cold shoulder
  • Being sent to coventry
  • Meidung

The silent treatment in all of its various forms can be so damaging because it violates four fundamental human needs:
  1. The need to belong. Human beings need to feel connected. Ostracism undermines this sense of belonging.
  2. Sense of control. People need to feel a sense of control, which can be maintained as long as they are able to argue their point of view. The silent treatment removes that sense of control.
  3. Self esteem. Human beings need to value and respect themselves. Being ostracized induces a feeling that you have done something wrong or that there is something about you that is wrong or bad.
  4. Human beings need a sense of meaningful existence, but ostracism can take that away. It can cause you to feel as if you are invisible and meaningless.
*Notice how the subject is being stonewalled by the other two participants in the experiment on the video.

Ostracism violates four fundamental human needs quote by Dr. Kipling William


How a Narcissistic Manipulator Uses the Silent Treatment

In this series on manipulation tactics, chronic emotional manipulators are defined as those individuals with narcissistic, borderline or antisocial personality disorders, as well as those with chemical or behavioral addictions. In this video Noordinarylife7 discusses the silent treatment in an abusive relationship.

The silent treatment is used for:

  • Control
  • Punishment
  • Testing boundaries
  • Avoidance of issues and responsibility


The Stonewalling Silent Treatment

Dictionary dot com defines stonewalling as behavior to "block, stall or resist intentionally." Steve Becker, LCSW of Love Fraud, states stonewalling is "shutting down a partner’s communication either aggressively, or passive aggressively, the effect of which is to leave the “stonewalled” partner feeling voiceless, alone, dismissed, negated as a person. While stonewalling, then, can arise from less malign motives, sometimes, too often, it expresses serious pathological aggression, passive-aggression, hostility, contempt and callousness."

Stonewalling can take many forms, including someone carrying on as if you are not talking to them. For example, you are discussing an issue and the stonewaller starts reading the newspaper.


Examples of the Silent Treatment Used to Ostracize the Scapegoat

While this series attempts to articulate the dirty tricks of chronic psychological manipulators one-by-one, it is rarely so clear cut in real life. The silent treatment is often combined with other tactics from the narcissist's bag of dirty tricks. For example, my late narcissistic personality disordered mother would pull this stunt then immediately inflict the silent treatment. This is the previously discussed dirty trick of playing the victim while vilifying the true victim.

For several years just prior to the holidays, my mother would start a fight with me out of nowhere. Literally, the last time it happened we were in the middle of a pleasant conversation when she suddenly began having a one-sided conversation that made no sense at first. Imagine someone on the phone with you and it seems someone suddenly walked up on them. Then I realized what she was doing. She wanted to convince that person I was attacking her, so she begin responding on the other end of the phone as if I was attacking her, even though we were just in the middle of a pleasure conversation! By this time, I was on the other end of the phone telling her to stop, but she persisted as if oblivious to my words.

Narcissistic manipulators rarely play fair, they play dirty. She then inflicted the silent treatment while telling everyone I attacked her and telling me I owed her an apology! This is an example of the crazy-making behavior of a narcissistic personality disordered mother. This meant I was uninvited to the extended family holiday gatherings, where she concealed her treacherous behavior and put the blame for my absence back on me by telling family members I attacked her. She was playing the victim in a drama she fabricated and orchestrated.

Another example is when I confronted her about lying and spreading vicious gossip about me. She flew into a disproportionate rage, screaming profanity, and telling me to get out of her life and stay out of it. She then told everyone I screamed that profanity at her, while immediately inflicting the silent treatment and later demanding an apology from me! This crazy-making behavior can cause you to feel as if you have had your head in a washing machine. Writing out what actually happened in a journal and having your experiences validated by a trusted friend or therapist can help. Reducing contact or going no contact are also often healthy options to consider.

We did not speak for four years during that silent treatment, nor did I make any attempt to. A few months after this happened, when she was getting no response, she orchestrated a big melodrama attempting to make it appear I had attacked her when I was not even speaking to her. She was manipulating for abuse by proxy, to get the flying monkey extended family members to punish me with abuse by proxy because I was not giving her the satisfaction of letting her know it was bothering me in the least.

Thus, the prolonged silent treatment can transition into the ostracism of the scapegoat in a toxic family. What she was doing was continuing to attempt to breakdown my extended family relationships and reputation with more of her lies and maneuvers behind my back, while simultaneously having me in intense emotional pain. There was never any empathy or remorse for any of this abuse.

If you are in this situation, please reach out for support. Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Seek counseling from a pastor or preacher. Find a therapist knowledgeable in this area. Sliding scale counseling services can be found at 211.orgAl-Anon and Overcomes Outreach groups are available in many locations. There are also many online resources and groups for those dealing with personality disordered individuals, as well as online therapists offering telephone or in person counseling.


The Silent Treatment v. No Contact

There are flying monkeys who insist the only distinction between the silent treatment and an adult child of a narcissistic mother going no contact is semantics. This conveniently fits nicely with the ultimate reason many flying monkeys are - well, flying monkeys. In my experience it is rarely because they are truly innocent and ignorant of the truth, even though that is a lesson it took many years to learn.

It is often because they are abusive and narcissistic themselves. They also may fear becoming the target of the narcissistic emotional manipulator's wrath if they stand up to them. So this ridiculous statement is one more example of the spin that is put on defining situations and terms by a manipulator.

First of all, the motive is completely different at its core. A narcissist imposes the silent treatment to control and punish. This is usually done for a childish reason while the manipulator is throwing a temper tantrum as a disproportionate response to something they did not like. It is often akin to a six year old informing a playmate that if they do not get their way, they are taking their toys and going home. When an adult son or daughter decides to go no contact, it may well be in anger. However, in stark contrast to the narcissist's temper tantrum, the adult child comes to the painful conclusion after years of being used, abused and manipulated. It is usually a self-protective, albeit often painful decision for the adult child.

Secondly, narcissistic mother's silent treatment is punishment to get you back in line so they can have their way, shut you up, avoid confrontation, etc. It is just one more way a narcissist avoids accountability, manipulates and punishes. When the adult child goes no contact it is often in order to work on the mammoth load of emotional baggage thrust upon them by the narcissistic emotional manipulator. The thing the adult child is attempting to avoid is being injected with more venom while they are attempting to heal the old wounds.

To say the silent treatment is the same thing as going no contact is a ridiculous statement to make if someone is even remotely aware of the true nature of dealing with a narcissistic personality disordered mother. Don't buy it. Experience has taught me not to waste my time and energy trying to explain or justify myself to a flying monkey. I like to say something like, "You might be right, but that is my decision." That seems to defuse them from attempting to force you to see things their way, but politely reinforces your boundary. Do not give any further explanation. This may feel awkward at first, but with practice and recovery it becomes easier to resist the urge to take the bait.


How to Handle the Silent Treatment

When I look back on the long estrangements resulting from my narcissistic personality disordered mother inflicting her silent treatment, they look like blessings in disguise. It certainly did not feel that way at the time! I was in agonizing emotional pain, but she never gave the slightest hint it bothered her in the least.

It was a mind game to her. It was just one more way she invalidated me, tearing me down to make herself feel better. If I had it to do over, I might just consider the long bouts of the silent treatment as a blessing in disguise! However, I know well from experience how painful it can be. Here are some thing to avoid when an emotional manipulator is giving you the silent treatment:
  • Do not argue
  • Do not beg
  • Do not blame yourself
  • Do not attempt to force communication
  • Do not apologize when you did not do anything wrong
  • Do not internalize the projections and negative messages
  • Do not show the narcissist the silent treatment is bothering you
It is truly pathetic, but certain personality disordered characters seem to thrive on your pain. The only thing any of the above does is reinforce the behavior and invite more of the same. The narcissistic emotional manipulator may well continue even without any response, but do not encourage it. Here are some things to do:
  • Realize the silent treatment is used by an emotional manipulator to control, punish, invalidate and silence you.
  • Realize the chronic use of the silent treatment is emotional abuse and unacceptable behavior in a relationship.
  • Put your focus on your own life and recovery, detach.
  • Get help. See a therapist, join a support group, or confide in a trusted friend.
  • Realize the silent treatment is destructive to relationships and individuals so you do not in turn give others the silent treatment.


If you use the silent treatment in your relationships, realize it is threatening to the long term viability of the relationship. If you are on the receiving end of the silent treatment of a chronic emotional manipulator, examine the motivation behind it and determine how you will respond.

More Resources on the Silent Treatment

Join the discussion on the silent treatment from a narcissist on PsychForums.

Idealization, Devaluation and Discard: The Narcissistic Cycle by Surviving the Narcissist Relationship on Facebook.

Read The Silent Treatment of the Borderline Mother by Gretel Ella, an adult child of borderline and narcissistic personality disordered parents.

Note: This article has been moved from a hacked blog and still needs to be proofread and updated.


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