The “silent treatment” is a way of describing how one partner in a relationship stops talking to the other, typically after a fight or disappointment. If you’re dealing with a narcissistic individual, this silent treatment can go on for hours, days, or at its extreme, weeks or even months.
The silent treatment is something that many people engage in, and therefore, it is not just the domain of narcissists. The difference is that when a narcissist employs the silent treatment, they do it on purpose in order to hurt the people close to them.
On the other hand, someone may withdraw and stop speaking to a partner not to manipulate, but because they are genuinely hurt and unable to talk about their feelings. This is not what drives the narcissist, however.
5 Ways the Silent Treatment is Damaging
Even if you know that the narcissist is using the silent treatment to punish you, it can be difficult to let go of the frustration and pain when it happens. Here are some reasons why this may be the case:
- Silent Treatment Triggers Pain Pathways in the Brain
MRI stands for “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” and it is a way for doctors to take pictures of the inside of a human body. When MRIs are performed on the brain, doctors can see that the emotions triggered by silent treatment activate the same areas of the brain as physical pain. In other words, it hurts.
- Our IQ Actually Goes Down Temporarily After Silent Treatment
People who were asked to recall an instance of silent treatment scored lower on a variety of tests assessing human brain function, including IQ, short-term memory, and decision-making tests.
- A Relationship with a Narcissist is Like a Gambling Habit
When a narcissist gives and takes love in a random manner, he or she is effectively acting like a slot machine to your emotions. This behavior activates the reward and addiction centers in the brain. You want to keep putting more coins in the slot machine, even though you are losing overall. The emotional “jackpot” that you get once in a while when the narcissist showers attention on you motivates you to continue the emotional investment, even though you are being fleeced.
- When Wielded Purposefully, the Silent Treatment is a Form of Emotional Abuse
As noted above, you may have friends or loved ones who are not narcissists who engage in the silent treatment on occasion. Sometimes, this is because the person in question is so hurt that they need some time and space before they can talk and reconnect.
This is not the case with a narcissist. For them, the silent treatment is a tactic. When used purposefully to hurt someone and throw them off balance, the silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse used by narcissists and other psychological manipulators.
- In a Game of Chicken, the Narcissist Usually Wins
The game of “chicken” is a game of nerves that can be done in a car, on a bicycle, or even with just two people running at each other. The idea is that the person who flinches last wins. So, with two cars driving towards each other, the person who swerves first to get out of the way is the loser.
When a narcissist uses the silent treatment against you, he or she is playing an emotional game of chicken with your mind. You will be tempted to reach out and speak first. When you do, the narcissist will have considered your reconciliation action a form of “flinching.” In their gamebook, they win, and you lose.
Since narcissists don’t experience emotions the same way most people do, it is much easier for them to keep their “cool” and not flinch or swerve in their emotional chicken game.
You Can Overcome the Silent Treatment
Despite the silent treatment being painful – or, at least, very annoying – you can learn to deal with it with grace and poise. By cultivating your self-esteem and sense of connection with others outside your abusive relationship, you will be able to weather the next silent storm. The narcissist won’t be able to trigger your emotions as much, and you may eventually develop the courage to finally end the relationship.
Written by Kim Saeed