At best the silent treatment is an immature behavior used by spoiled brats and manipulative individuals. At worst, it is a weapon used by abusers to punish their victims. One demographic of the population that particularly loves the silent treatment is the narcissist. In fact, the silent treatment is the narcissist’s favorite weapon.
Whether the person in your life is using the silent treatment immaturely or abusively, one thing is for sure, it is infuriating to receive; problems cannot be dealt with, conflicts remain unresolved, simple conversations are thwarted, and in the end, relationships employing this tactic become either toxic on nonexistent.
Abusers and/or narcissistic personality types love to ignore you and they love for you to know that they are ignoring you. Why is that? Let’s parse this concept apart. The silent treatment is not blatant; it’s insidious. The only person who really feels the silent treatment is the target. The person giving the silent treatment is not being overtly aggressive, abusive, or unkind in any visible way. This keeps him looking “good” and reasonable. When challenged, the giver of the silent treatment can say comments such as, “I’m fine.” “Nothing’s wrong.” “I’m not mad.” Or some other innocuous comment. Realize that these comments are forms of gas lighting and confabulation, which are other common narcissistic weapons (see Coping with Narcissistic Confabulators.) The internal confusion results in the experience of cognitive dissonance, which is prevalent in abusive relationships.
When trying to explain the problem to others, the target may also encounter invalidation and minimization, with comments such as, “Give it time.” Or, “Maybe he’s just not ready to talk yet.” Or, “Don’t be so sensitive.” “Blah, blah, blah…” There is really no understanding when trying to explain the hurt caused by the silent treatment.
I also found it interesting to see that when I Googled the words “silent treatment,” I came across sites on narcissism. This is how I learned that the silent treatment is often the weapon of choice for the narcissist. When in a close relationship with a narcissist you only have two available roles – either you are narcissistic food (ego-inflating fuel) or you are a scapegoat. If, for some reason, you challenge the narcissist or fail to provide sufficient “food,” he will suffer a “narcissistic wound” (see, Beware the Narcissist Wound for further description.) This would probably trigger a silent treatment event.
The silent treatment serves many useful purposes to the perpetrator. The silent treatment is one means for him to keep his target under his control. Not only does it enable the abuser to control his target, it also enables him to avoid discussing matters that he wants to avoid, and helps him to completely evade any types of responsibility he has in the relationship. It is also an effective tool for devaluing and discarding a target and for remaining in the “one up” position. Mainly, it’s used as a punishment. Think about how audacious that is – the silent treatment giver deems it his superior right to punish others!
Since the target is not as adept at playing emotional head games as most narcissists are, she is completely out of her league. The target usually feels extremely anxious and, over time becomes very distressed over the lack of communication and connection. Eventually, she will do almost anything to get her loved one to start talking to her again, even apologizing for things that she didn’t even do just to get the whole thing over with. She is willing to wave the white flag because whatever caused the silence (and causes can be either imaginary or real) in the first place pales in comparison to the injury caused by being emotionally shut out with the silent treatment.
The silent treatment is emotional abuse. When a victim is in a relationship with a person who causes the above mentioned distress, her mind and body remember how upsetting and anxiety provoking the previous silent treatment occurrences were. Because of this negative association, the victim then becomes easily controlled by the perpetrator because she does not want to experience the silent treatment again. This causes her to be very compliant and agreeable. She starts walking on eggshells in the relationship and eventually loses her own voice and sense of self.
Melody Beattie, the Codependent No More author, has a great line for when a codependent doesn’t like what the addict in her life is doing. I think the quote is perfect for those dealing with the silent treatment. I recommend that you make it your own; it is: “Celebrate the ‘no’!” In other words, use this time to work on yourself and stop tryng to change someone else. Indie author, Zari Ballard, also has some great advice for those dealing with the silent treatment; she calls it silence appreciation. She likens it to the space in your life when you have a break from the “noise” the narcissist brings to your world. Celebrate the fact that you now have an opportunity to enjoy your life without the narcissist’s presence. Take advantage of this “break” and savor this time with yourself.
Ask some questions of yourself and write your answers in your journal:
- How do I feel right now?
- What do I need?
- How can I take care of myself?
Not only can you ask yourself questions in your journal, write what you want. If you believe in a higher power, write out your requests in prayer. This will help you get clarity into your situation. You can also talk to yourself in affirming ways in order to shut off the unhealthy and critical voices in your own head. I heard a great quote that applies; it was: “Don’t listen to yourself, tell yourself something.” That is, tell yourself affirming statements, such as, “This too shall pass…” etc. Take this time of silence to recover from the effects emotional abuse has had on your psyche. Embrace the opportunity to practice some healthy self-care. This will enable you to take back your own power and not hand over your emotional well-being to those who would exploit your weaknesses to hurt you.
Note: Disregard gender labels as the silent treatment is not a respecter of genders.
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