If you have ever interacted with a person who exhibits strong narcissistic or other dark personality traits, you have likely experienced what is known as the silent treatment.
What Is Silent Treatment?
The silent treatment can be defined as the following: a passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval, and contempt is exhibited through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence.
Basically, the silent treatment is a passive-aggressive behavior by which an abuser communicates some sort of negative message to the intended victim that only the perpetrator and the victim recognize through nonverbal communication. It can be explicit or subtle, in private or public, recognizable by others or not, and usually coexists with other forms of abuse.
In other words, it is only one tool of many that may be simultaneously employed by the narcissist to ensure control over another person. It is a way to manipulate and subjugate another into submission, and compliance, distress, and discomfort are the intended goals for the narcissist. The victim, however, desperately wants things to go back to normal. And so the cycle continues, often with shortening periods of “honeymoon” behavior and increasing amounts of abuse.
Silent Treatment vs. Time-Out
Sometimes the silent treatment is confused with the healthier time-out. Time-outs are constructive, time bound, reassuring or neutral, mutually understood and agreed upon, and meant to help find solutions in the end. Time-out basically means taking a break to deal with overwhelming emotions and clear your thoughts. The silent treatment, on the other hand, is destructive, indefinite, contemptuous, unilateral, and meant to alleviate the abuser’s sense of responsibility and allocate all the blame onto the victim. It is a manipulation tactic.
Not talking to simply cool down or communicating clearly that you need to be left alone is not the silent treatment and should not be mistaken as such. You are not intending to manipulate and cause distress during a time-out, nor are you purposefully withholding communication to control or coerce another person. Instead, a time-out just allows people to gather their thoughts and calm their emotions so that they can re-approach one another in a loving and healthy manner at a later time. The time-out is meant to cause clarity and calmness, while the silent treatment results in ambiguity, confusion, and distress.
Who Uses Silent Treatment?
The passive-aggressive attitude underlying the silent treatment makes it highly effective and very flexible, making it the perfect tool for abusers of all kinds. Indeed, the silent treatment can be used by just about anyone, including family members, significant others, friends, coworkers, or even by people who just met each other. You might be surprised who may use it: your elderly aunt, the salesperson at a clothing boutique, a person you once considered your best friend, and so on.
Similarly, anybody may find themselves a victim. The point is that the silent treatment results in the victim focusing on themselves and their behavior instead of the behavior of their abuser. Their abuser shifts blame, or shifts focus away from themselves, causing their victims great emotional distress to the point where they will take responsibility for things that they are not responsible for, leaving them confused and in a state of cognitive dissonance.
I have heard many of my clients and other people explain how they even apologized for things they didn’t do, or even the things done against them just to make their abuser talk to them again. Make no mistake, it is a highly damaging behavior that needs to be taken seriously.
Examples of Silent Treatment
A common example is a husband or wife is upset about something, and when their spouse asks them “What’s wrong?” or, “Is everything okay?” they don’t respond or say that everything’s fine. Asking a few more questions leads nowhere, so the spouse is left puzzled about what is actually going on. They may blame themselves by thinking that they did something wrong, or they may simply feel frustrated that their partner doesn’t want to communicate openly with them.
A child does something the parent disapproves of, often a very minor thing, and the parent starts ignoring them as punishment. It can involve withdrawing attention, ignoring the child’s needs, stopping verbal communication, avoiding eye contact, or avoiding any engagement with the child.
This causes severe distress to the child because it makes the child feel invisible and, fundamentally, unloved, neglected, or abandoned. It can even be considered a form of emotional child abuse.
The Purpose of the Silent Treatment
Essentially, the point of the silent treatment is to make the victim feel confused, stressed, guilty, ashamed, not good enough, or unstable enough so that they would do what the manipulator wants. It is to make the victim acquiesce to self-erasure and scramble to meet the needs of their abuser, however unhealthy or damaging those may be.
Moreover, it is a form of intermittent reinforcement that causes the victim to walk on eggshells. Often the victim, in a perpetual state of anxiety and distress, will eventually avoid all conflict and the abuser’s silent treatment and other forms of abuse will become, if it isn’t already, more and more unpredictable and normalized.
The Bottom Line
The silent treatment, while sometimes seemingly harmless when talking about it, can be a highly damaging and effective form of manipulation, coercion, and control used by toxic people. It is common, even though many victims feel alone and like they can’t talk about it because no one will believe them or understand. This is, simply put, the nature of this kind of abuse. It is done in such a way that only the abuser and the abused know what is going out. Just remember, you are not alone and you do not deserve to be treated in such a callous and cruel way.