The silent treatment is an abusive behavior often used by those with narcissistic personality disorder to coerce or manipulate. If you have experienced this, you can learn how to cope.

If you’ve ever engaged with someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), they may have used a tactic called the silent treatment to coerce, control, or manipulate you. If someone uses this technique, they may withdraw or avoid engaging with you.

This is a form of emotional abuse, as it can be used to try to get you to do things you don’t want to do. If you’ve been in a relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder, there are steps you can take to help yourself cope.

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Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder often use the silent treatment to coerce or manipulate you by withdrawing or refusing to engage with you. The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse.

This method can be used to punish you or make you feel like you did something wrong.

Research from 2022 identifies five reasons the silent treatment may be used:

  1. To punish you: Punishment may be used to reject, isolate, or correct any behavior that they don’t like.
  2. For a timeout: Taking a timeout from a highly contentious interaction is often a positive move in a typical disagreement. But timeouts may be utilized by those with NPD to “buy more time” in hopes the other person will be less reactive over time.
  3. Relational aggression: A person may use the silent treatment to harm or threaten harm to you.
  4. To manipulate: An individual may use the silent treatment to manipulate you to get you to do something or to stop a behavior they don’t like.
  5. As a power move: Similar to manipulation, narcissists may use power tactics to coerce you into doing what they want or not engaging with you until you give in to their desires.

Disengaging with someone for a short time and then communicating afterward to resolve the conflict can be healthy. But it can become unhealthy when someone doesn’t seek to resolve the conflict until they get what they want.

Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Narcissism is often associated with an inflated sense of self-importance. If you’ve engaged with someone who lives with NPD, they may inflate their self-importance and want admiration at an extreme level.

Understanding how to identify signs of narcissistic abuse and silent treatment can be the first step toward healing.

The silent treatment may last for a while; it could be a few hours to several days, weeks, or even months. When a person with narcissistic personality disorder uses the silent treatment, it can often feel inconsistent or unpredictable.

Here are some signs that someone may be using the silent treatment or stonewalling you:

  • disengaging with you
  • ignoring your needs
  • rejecting any physical touch
  • shutting down all attempts to communicate
  • giving one or two-word answers
  • using dismissive language by saying things like “Who cares?” or “Shut up.”
  • avoiding eye contact
  • doing something else completely
  • physically distancing themselves away from you after a conflict
  • tuning you out

Examples of narcissistic silent treatment

Here are some examples of how the silent treatment may be used:

  • saying things like, “I’m not talking to you until you have sex with me.”
  • isolating in a room away from you and not communicating what’s wrong
  • placing blame on you for a conflict and refusing to talk it out
  • not responding or acknowledging you after you ask for help with household chores
  • refusing to hug or kiss you
  • avoiding you and doing something else completely
  • engaging in nonverbal communication, such as crossing their arms or rolling their eyes
  • shutting down all attempts to communicate
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If you’re in a relationship with someone who uses the silent treatment, here are some ways to cope:

  1. Hold healthy boundaries: Keep healthy boundaries and learn how to say no. Try to restrain from giving in to demands that you don’t want to do.
  2. Acknowledge how you feel: People with NPD can be unpredictable, and you may feel angry, hurt, sad, frustrated, or confused by their behavior. It’s OK to feel this way.
  3. Pause before responding: Before you respond to the person engaging in the silent treatment or stonewalling, consider taking some space to acknowledge your feelings and practice self-soothing techniques before trying to re-engage.
  4. Lean on your support system: Utilize your support system or find a support system to help you deal with the hurt that goes along with the silent treatment.
  5. Ensure you’re in a safe space: Make sure you’re in a safe space from physical abuse. If you have to, seek a safe space from positive support or find a shelter in your area.
  6. Re-evaluate your relationship: We may all occasionally stonewall others sometimes, but when this becomes a habit, and it feels unsafe to communicate your needs, it may be time to re-evaluate your relationship with the person with a narcissistic personality disorder.
  7. See a therapist or mental health professional: A professional can help you learn how to deal with a narcissist and provide support. You don’t have to go through this alone.

The silent treatment is similar to stonewalling, which famous couples therapist Dr. John Gottman believes is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

According to The Gottman Institute, one way to deal with stonewalling is to stop and take a break once the other person has checked out because it’s likely that your reaction will escalate the situation.

Gottman recommends physiological self-soothing, which is a way to get yourself to calm down physically.

Self-soothing may look like:

  • practicing deep breathing
  • tensing and relaxing muscles
  • using imagery techniques to take you to a calm spot in your mind
  • journaling to remind you of reality and what actually happened

Any technique that takes your mind off the situation and helps you soothe the intense emotions that may come up. If they’re eventually willing to engage in a productive conversation, use “I statements” to describe your feelings.

Dealing with narcissistic abuse can be overwhelming, and you may feel lonely and hurt if you’re experiencing it. If you engage with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you may receive the silent treatment as a way to coerce or manipulate you.

The silent treatment is an unhealthy and abusive behavior, and there are ways you can get help. You can use PsychCentral’s Find a Therapist resource to locate a mental health professional near you.

You can also reach out for support at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You aren’t alone, and you can heal if you’ve experienced emotional abuse.