April 20, 2020


The silent treatment is considered a form of emotional abuse typically employed by people somewhere in the narcissistic spectrum. Stonewalling is common among individuals with personality disorders (particularly covert narcissism/NPD and Borderline personality Disorder/BPD), as well as those with dysfunctional attachment patterns. It is designed to (1) place the giver in a position of control; (2) silence the target’s attempts at assertion; (3) avoid conflict resolution/personal responsibility/compromise; or (4) punish the target for a perceived ego slight. Often, the result of the silent treatment is exactly what the person with narcissism wishes to create: a reaction from the target and a sense of control. It  can trigger 'push and pull' and/ or 'demand and withdraw' patterns that would can become almost impossible to interrupt. It continues until the relationship is too broken to be revived.


The target, who may possess high emotional intelligence, empathy, conflict-resolution skills, and the ability to compromise, may work diligently to respond to the deafening silence. He or she may frequently reach out to the narcissistic person via email, phone, or text to resolve greatly inflated misunderstandings, and is typically met with continued disdain, contempt, and silence. Essentially, the narcissistic person’s message is one of extreme disapproval to the degree that the silence renders the target so insignificant that he or she is ignored and becomes more or less nonexistent in the eyes of the narcissistic person. Bear in mind that having narcissistic traits on itself is painful and scary, being a frightening place for the givers as well.


The emotional maturity of a 'typical narcissistic' person can relate to a young child/adolescent. For example, the 7-year-old who refuses to talk with the friend and angrily storms off to play on the jungle gym with someone else. The bewildered child with the pail and shovel may feel confused, rejected, and may not understand why they can’t share. He or she just wanted to build a sand castle together. This could have been also the case for the ones in the withholding positions in the past, when open communication about feelings and emotions were not in place during their upbringings.

Note that a small amount of narcissism is considered 'normal'. For more information on the differences, an article published by Dr. Hartwell-Walker covers this topic well; please visit the link: https://psychcentral.com/lib/narcissistic-personality-disorder-vs-normal-narcissism/  

Dr. Khalid A. Mansour (a British Arab psychiatrist), in an article in the Pan Arab Journal of Psychiatry, has also proposed that narcissistic personality may merit classification as an autistic spectrum disorder: “There is now significant level of agreement that emotional processing problems like: lack of empathy, poor self-awareness, self-centredness, poor reciprocation of emotion, poor ability to maintain emotional relationships, anxiety, and anger outbursts are more or less central features of autism (10, 50,51)." For the full article, please read: https://www.theneurotypical.com/narcissism-and-asd.html and https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235664611_Concept_Diagnostic_Criteria_and_Classification_of_Autistic_Disorders_A_Proposed_New_Model


Because no further communication can ensue unless and until the one controlling decides to give the target another chance, a false sense of control is nurtured. Often, the narcissistic person will demand that the target apologises for whatever inflated transgression the target may have committed (the target may have set a limit or asserted a boundary against emotional abuse, for example). Sometimes, a person with narcissistic tendencies will decide to abandon and discard the relationship when his or her partner presents an ultimatum or attempts resolution requiring compromise. The person with narcissism may prefer to end the relationship and start over rather than be in a position of potential abandonment. The 7-year-old storms off and plays with a new, innocent target on the swing set. It is too much work to share the pail and shovel.


So how does one deal with the silent treatment from a person with narcissism? For those leaving a so called 'toxic relationship' with such an individual, it is often suggested that the person receiving the silent treatment understand that the person with traits of narcissism has not developed the ability to express a high level of empathy, reciprocity, and compromise – This is often due to not receiving appropriate and safe attachment during their childhood/adolescence. Most individuals with narcissistic traits have been raised by a narcissistic parent(s) who themselves had poor or complete absence of communication skills. The silent treatment is most often initiated by the avoidant personality, whose greatest fear is 'engulfment' (conscious or unconscious fear of closeness or intimacy). Again, this is a learned behavior from family of origin, ingrained long before the person has their first adult relationships.



When the avoidant feels that someone is making too many demands of them for closeness and/ or intimacy, or overwhelms them with criticisms, pressures, or needs, they fight back with a passive, concealed strategy of psychological abuse due to finding difficult to communicate their true emotions and fears. It becomes manipulative, highly effective, and easy to deny. Common tactics: refusing to speak to someone, distancing, avoiding someone’s company, ignoring a person’s expressed requests or needs, and any kind of behavior that makes a person feel invisible, unacknowledged or invalid. As a result, they get what they want by doing so very little: emotional space, control over another person, or the validation that comes from being called, texted, and chased repeatedly during the silent period.


Whoever is on the receiving end of such behavior, these individuals are probably securely or anxiously attached (please see articles on Attachment). And for either, it can be torturous: these individuals would not know what the giver is thinking. They do not know if the givers are going to leave either. They do not know what their next moves are. The anxiously attached, whose greatest fear is abandonment, may engage in chasing behaviors. Occasionally so too, will the securely attached individual, who seeks out a rational conversation that provides answers to an illogical situation.


The healing process can feel like mourning the loss of a relationship that did not really exist, often in favour of the person in the narcissistic spectrum. Sometimes, when the partner disagrees with the narcissistic person or asserts his or her healthy boundaries, the narcissistic person deploys an arsenal of abuse tactics. The silent treatment can often become a conscious or subconscious weapon. Why are silent treatment is so abusive and damaging? It threatens an individual’s fundamental human needs: to be acknowledged, to be mirrored, to be treated with dignity and respect. Moreover, when a person is ostracised, the brain’s suffers too as seen below.


It is important to both individuals involved to build/strengthen their internal sense of self-worth in order to use those skills with themselves and in their relationships. Communicating in a mature, emotionally healthy manner requires dealing with personal fears and insecurities first. You deserve no less.


The silent treatment has physical effects as well

Studies have been done that show that feeling excluded or ignored can cause changes in the brain. A zone of the human brain called the “anterior cingulate cortex” is responsible for detecting different levels of pain. Scientists have proven that this zone is activated when something receives the silent treatment. When someone is ignored, their brain tells them they are in physical pain: being ignored is physically painful.




Activation in this zone means that physical symptoms also start to appear. Some very common symptoms are headaches and digestive problems. Fatigue and insomnia are also frequent complaints. If the situation is severe and prolonged, serious problems can arise, such as an increase in blood pressure, diabetes, or even illnesses like cancer. There is a wide variety of overwhelming emotions that come with being ignored. Victims may also experience depression, anger, and frustration, as well as feelings of restlessness, isolation and rejection, guilt, loneliness, and despair ― maybe even a sense of betrayal or bitterness.


The autoimmune system is also affected, primarily because of the high levels of stress that the situation causes. The consequences are even more serious if the person giving the silent treatment is an authority figure such as a teacher, parent, or boss. If you have suffered from severe, reoccurring withholding, and/or ostracism, you might experience a range of traumatic stress.


Ostracism (exclusion, banishment) is also a form of silent treatment. The silent treatment can be a mind game for some people, and in some cases can be used as a form of psychological manipulation. Along with the emotional roller-coaster, it tears down your sense of self-esteem and sense of self-worth. The longer and more intense the ostracism continues, the more permanent the psychological effects, especially in children. Being ignored could cause individuals to behave in ways they might not normally ― things like questioning and second-guessing themselves and others, lashing out, or doubting themselves and situations where they normally wouldn't. They might start to feel like They are bothering the other person, or being too needy. All the questions and doubt might cause individuals to act differently than they normally would. Realising they are not quite acting like themselves could further feelings of guilt, loss of control, and uncertainty; since these feelings initiate a sense of threat to our survival, this may heighten any fight-or-flight reaction they may have.



Learning to negotiate these types of situations

Often the issue is with communication. For any of the reasons mentioned, sometimes one partner might ignore or distance themselves from the other. No matter the reaction of the other partner, this action causes a rift. Each partner might feel the problem is with the other, and instead of communicating with each other, they wait around for the other to admit they are wrong and apologise. In this situation, each cares more about being right than they do about the relationship. Or one or both partners might feel they are being the bigger person by not interacting with the other, when in reality the opposite is true. This decreases and damages intimacy and trust between partners, and can cause anxiety and aggressive behaviour.


The silent treatment may become a pattern, which hinders the ability to communicate effectively. Many people do not realise the dangers of engaging in the silent treatment, which only adds to the problem. The intensity of all these feelings and side-effects depends on the intensity of the silent treatment, but that does not make it any less unhealthy or damaging.


Sometimes the silent treatment is used by two people who love each other, such as romantic partners, good friends, siblings, etc. Sometimes people think that if they use the silent treatment, the other person will change their behavior or do what the other person wants them to do. They think of it almost as an educational tool. They are, however, very wrong. Ignoring another person as a form of punishment only destroys relationships, affecting also the self. Just because the giver is not using his or her hands does not mean they cannot irreparably hurt someone else. Ignoring someone is also not a strategy, it is just a flat out disregard for someone else’s feelings. When someone’s existence and feelings are dismissed and disrespected, they feel devalued, unloved, unworthy, and insignificant. Like an old couch you toss out because you don’t have room for it.


As with many tactics, which are defensive and a result of insecurity, the use of this one shows, as mentioned previously, poor communication skills. Silence can be healthy when tempers are high and a pause is needed before something exacerbates the situation. However, when silence is used as a method of control or punishment, it becomes abuse. When there is a problem between two people, the only healthy thing is to engage in dialogue to find solutions. Silence and distance only generate more problems and, in the end, solve absolutely nothing.


Why We Go Silent


The silent treatment is caused by a combination of hurt feelings and an inability or unwillingness to talk about them. Both individuals should take some responsibility. One thing that couples tend to do is to blame the other person for the situation, which will not help or resolve the conflict.


What's worse is that the person receiving the silent treatment will grow increasingly frustrated by the lack of response, which will lead to even more demands that in turn frustrates their partner who withdraws even further. It can become a vicious cycle. Soon you're no longer addressing the issue at hand. You start arguing about arguing.


If you have been getting the silent treatment, you might start to ask personal questions about the reasons for you to be accepting or engaging in the treatment as well. Unfortunately, indifference does not foster love. If you have a good reason for staying connected with the stonewaller — they are a family member, you are in a marriage or committed relationship, you have personal history together, you have children together, they are a business partner, teammate, or colleague — then you may wish to get to root of the conflict.



Breaking the Silence


First off, stay calm. Whether you are doing the ignoring or being ignored, forget about anger, forget about your ego, just apologise. Have a conversation like an adult. It is not healthy or worth it to keep the silence. If you are the one being ignored, do your best to find out what is wrong; do not give them the silent treatment back. If one or both of you needs space, establish that in a courteous manner. Since, as mentioned, communication is often the issue, try to discuss, and understand the situation. Understanding is key, starting with the self. Patience, the intention to be loving and kind, and the willingness to be understanding would be important on both sides. Use the distance to take stock of things and reflect on yourself: Are you doing your own emotional labor? Do you manage yourself well? And: Are you guilty of enmeshment/engulfment? If you need to change, take concrete steps to do it, irrespective of the other person. If there is an opportunity for self-improvement, that only benefits you and your future relationships.


Narcissism or other psychopathologies aside, part of the reason the person doing the ignoring might be angry could be because they are not getting what they want, and do not see why they should compromise. Depending on the situation, they might not see how much they are hurting the other. Make sure the other person knows that care and love are in place, and that both will be ready or willing to listen when they are ready to talk. Silent treatments should be easily broken in these cases. It is natural to be upset. But anger and frustration are self-defeating. For one, it further pushes the other person away, while you sink into a negative headspace.The right response is the counterintuitive one: surrender. If a person withdraws from your company without any communication, that is their choice. Their departure creates space for others, both new people and old connections you may have been ignoring. If the situation warrants grieving, acknowledge the loss in a healthy way.


Love yourself: relationships are tides. They swell with energy, then retreat through episodes of separateness and peace. Fighting the natural way of things drowns the people we love and prevents us from loving ourselves. Do not confuse the silent treatment with healthy separation, which is how human beings balance desire with fear, intimacy with freedom. Aloneness teaches us to draw from and reaffirm what is within, rather than take the energy of another. In so doing, you reconnect with your highest self and greatest purpose. If you haven’t learned to love yourself, you can start right now.


Build healthy boundaries: avoidance patterns are deeply ingrained and extremely hard to break. The behaviour, even with the best of intentions, tends to repeat. It is not your responsibility to manage the emotions of others, though there are lots of people out there willing to let you do unpaid emotional labor for them. Your priority is your own well-being. Tell the person what you will and will not tolerate. Stick to it. Walk away if you need to or seek support together.


If someone is purposefully trying to hurt the other through prolonged silent treatment and/or acting out of malice, then he or she would be in the narcissist spectrum. This would also be simply abuse. Do not keep begging them to talk to you―to them that just means they are right. Just do not contact them. Do not return the silent treatment in this situation either, but do not let the situation get to you. It is possible the relationship is unhealthy, and needs therapeutic support or to end.


• Talk with the person involved when you feel like you are beginning to give them the silent treatment or you think they are giving you the silent treatment


• Agree to take time to cool down and then come back to discuss what is triggering the conflict when you are both calm and willing to listen to on another


• When talking it out, avoid offensive language like "selfish," "rude," "uncaring," etc. It is also important to avoid accusatory tones, talk about the self/ first person: "I feel"...

• Acknowledge the role you play in the silent treatment and recognise how your actions could explain the undesirable behavior of you partner. Tell each other constructively and honestly how the behavior feels.


• Next time one needs space, discuss the need for a brief withdraw while maintaining courteous communication, honouring each other's emotional need for space and time.


Do not ignore people, especially those closest to you. Everyone will be better off if you take the time to sort through the situation. It is important to seek therapeutic support if you feel that you have been giving or receiving prolonged silent treatments, in order to explore your own history, and how your emotions and feelings were shaped during earlier experiences.









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© 2020 by Rozie Pilkington

London Borough of Bromley