Excerpt from Planet Ben: Inside the World of a Narcissist (Copyright Susan Williams 2014)
The silent treatment is one of the hardest things to handle in a relationship with a narcissist and very damaging to the person on the receiving end. When you have grown too close or are not performing to the script he has written for you; when you have dared to challenge or question him, as a form of punishment he will simply remove himself from your life. After a day, a week, two weeks, longer, he will reappear as if nothing has happened. It is another way for him to regain control. He doesn’t want to look at whatever the issue is, so he leaves until he makes sure that you will not discuss it again and that you are back reading from the script he has prepared for you.
Not knowing exactly how long the silent treatment is going to last is designed to make the person on the receiving end highly anxious, and it does. It sets up a type of separation anxiety as you have no idea when he is going to come back, or even whether he will this time. The longer it goes on, the worse it becomes. It is like a form of mental torture that ultimately leaves the person on the receiving end confused, depressed and insecure, willing to try anything to get some kind of communication or response. This is often why the partner of a narcissist will cave and instigate contact because they simply cannot handle not knowing what is going on and being treated like they do not exist.
Once a narcissist has tortured you enough he will randomly show up, offering no logical explanation or apology and expecting everything to be normal. He will often be upbeat and happy while you have spent days or weeks suffering in misery. And usually a partner will try not to rock the boat because if she attempts to talk about the issue, he will simply disappear again. It gets to the point where it is not worth any more grief. The relief of having Mr Nice back, overrides the need to sort things and risk Mr Nasty again. So of course the same issues come up again and again.
What a narcissist is doing here is managing down your expectations so that he can get away with more and more of this type of behavior. He can gauge how you will react, what you are prepared to put up with and how in control of the situation he is, by all of these things. He will often pull the silent treatment trick when you least expect it, so that he can get you back under control.
As long as you allow him to disappear and reappear from your life whenever he feels like it, you remain complicit in his game and he will never stop doing it.