top of page


The silent treatment is considered a form of emotional abuse typically employed, in general, by people somewhere in the narcissistic spectrum. 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.

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 also a frighten place for the giver 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, when open communication about feelings and emotions were not in place during their upbringings.

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 5-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 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.

It is as 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 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.

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.

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 silent treatment, you might also follow this pattern or might carry post traumatic stress.

Learning to negotiate these types of situations

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.

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.

Breaking the Silence

• 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.

It is important to seek therapeutic support if you feel that you have been giving or receiving silent treatments, in order to explore your own history, and how your emotions and feelings were shaped during earlier experiences.

bottom of page