For those in or getting out of a romantic relationship with a self-absorbed individual, the silent treatment can feel like a punishment worse than death.
The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse typically employed by people with narcissistic tendencies. It is designed to (1) place the abuser 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.
The emotional maturity of a typical narcissistic person is akin to a 5-year-old child who pouts and refuses to play with a friend in the sandbox because the friend wants to share the pail and shovel. The 5-year-old 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.
Because no further communication can ensue unless and until the narcissistic person decides to give the target another chance, a false sense of control is nurtured. Often, the narcissistic person will demand that the target apologize 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 qualities 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 toxic relationship with such an individual, many therapists suggest that the survivor understand that the person with narcissism has not developed the ability to express a high level of empathy, reciprocity, and compromise. The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse that no one deserves nor should tolerate. If an individual experiences this absence of communication, it is a sure sign that he or she needs to move on and heal.
The healing process can feel like mourning the loss of a relationship that did not really exist and was one-way in favor of the ego-massaging person with narcissism. The minute 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 is a favorite weapon.
Do not accept emotional abuse. Know that you are worthy of a healthy relationship with someone who can communicate in a mature, emotionally healthy manner. Play with someone who has the ability to share the shovel and pail. You deserve no less.
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