The silent treatment is an abusive method of control, punishment, avoidance, or disempowerment (sometimes these four types overlap, sometimes not) that is a favorite tactic of narcissists, and especially those who have a hard time with impulse control, that is, those with more infantile tendencies.
The silent treatment can be used as an abusive tactic that is the adult narcissist’s version of a child’s “holding my breath until you give in and give me what I want.”
It is one of the most frustrating tactics and can provoke even the most patient person. Depending on the method used, it can make the person on the receiving end feel powerless, invisible, intimidated, insignificant, “dissed”, looked down on, disapproved of, guilty, frustrated, and even angry.
Let’s start with some four common examples of silent treatment (there are more):
1.When the abuser (and make no mistake–the silent treatment is a form of abuse) gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you for a period of time because you refuse to acquiesce to his or her demands. This is manipulating you with silence.
An example might be your mom wants you to come for the holidays and you can’t this year, so she either refuses to take your phone calls or she speaks to you in curt, clipped sentences.
2. When the abuser gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you because you’ve said/done something that bothers them and will not accept any reasonably sincere apology. This is punishing you with silence.
An example might be if you were late to meet a friend at the theater and you missed the event because of your tardiness. Even if you have a legitimate reason, you are generally on time, and you apologize profusely your silent-treatment might include the cold-shoulder from your friend or answering you in curt, clipped sentences while refusing or barely acknowledging your apology.
3.When the abuser gives you the cold-shoulder and refuses to speak to you because you’ve said/done something that bothers them and will not even tell you what it is that you’ve said or done, leaving you powerless to make an apology. This is punishing and disempowering you with silence.
Your spouse refuses to speak to you or stomps around answering you in curt, clipped one-word answers. When you ask what’s bothering them, they say: If you cared about me/loved me, you’d know what’s bothering me. If you cared you’d apologize for what you did. Or they say nothing at all.
4. When the abuser completely ignores what you’ve said, changing the subject or just staying silent to a question or statement that generally requires a response. This is disempowering you and “one-upping” you with silence.
It’s a favorite tactic of particularly infantile narcissists. For example, your boss requests volunteers for a project that requires skills you have, perhaps even unique skills. You raise your hand and he ignores you. Or you say, “I’d like to do that,” and he pretends he hasn’t heard you and remains completely silent, as if you do not exist or as if what you said was never said.
In general, for people you aren’t close with and may not see often, telling someone that how their silent treatment hurts or angers you is not be a great idea. That’s because someone who uses this tactic feeds on the negative emotions of his victim. Not letting the perpetrator witness your negative feelings and showing him that you aren’t bothered by his behavior may be the only thing you need to get him to stop.
Another response that might get the person to stop is to tell him that his behavior appears immature, controlling, desperate, manipulative, ridiculous, etc. It’s best to do this if you truly do not feel affected by his behavior and can even laugh it off.
Obviously, if you are in a close or unavoidably close relationship with this person such as a spouse, your response should take this into consideration. Since the silent treatment is often (though not always) a sign of an immature or otherwise dysfunctional emotional life, therapy can really be a help, especially goal-oriented, behavior-oriented therapy that also works on managing the thoughts and emotions. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy might be helpful.A couples therapist who is skilled in these methods might be a good choice.
Getting your spouse to go to therapy with you may not always be possible, but if the relationships is important to them and you feel that their behavior is irreparably damaging it, you might be in a position to strongly encourage even demand it of them. If not, go to therapy on your own so you can learn how to handle their behavior in a way that is healthy for you.
If it is a parent and you are an adult who doesn’t live with them, you can learn to set healthy boundaries for yourself. If you are on the receiving end of a snippy, clipped semi-silent treatment, you can say something like: Dad/Mom, I love you so much and I want our relationship to be enjoyable and supportive. When you give me the silent-treatment, that damages my positive feelings. Therefore, I am going to end this conversation now but look forward to speaking to you when you can speak to me openly without giving me the silent treatment.
What do you do if it is someone you are “stuck” with but don’t have an intimate relationship with, such as a boss or colleague? This can be tricky but rule number one is: Don’t go swimming in shark infested waters while you have a cut on your finger. One sniff of blood in the form of any weak or emotional response to the silent treatment and the narcissist will go for the kill.
Instead, appear (and truly feel, if possible) relaxed and positive. Laughing at them will only incite or enrage them, but if they use the silent-treatment regularly or other controlling, disempowering tactics, a sigh, smile and shake of the head (with maybe a strategic eye roll) can diffuse the situation. If done in a friendly, gentle manner, these gestures sends the message that you aren’t taking them so seriously and it gives them permission to back down and not take themselves so seriously.
If your colleague or boss has no sense of humor, or is truly a narcissist, this will backfire, so be careful! The main thing is to develop a strong sense of self and not let it get to you. Remember, you can only change your behavior, not anyone else’s.