Q: I’ve been dating someone I’d consider a narcissist for over a year. He’s verbally and psychologically abusive, but would never admit this. He blames me for every fight we get in. He’s constantly trying to tear down my self-esteem. There are multiple reasons why it’s hard to leave this relationship (mainly, we live together and I can’t afford to move out) so, lately, I’ve been trying to ignore and avoid him at all costs, and I go completely silent when he starts yelling at me. I know this isn’t the healthiest strategy, but it does seem to be working. What do you think of this as a coping method—stupid or smart? -J.
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First off, I’m not about to judge survivors’ methods of coping. Is it working for you? Is it keeping you safe or relatively sane or allowing you time to formulate an eventual escape plan? If yes, then great, you should do that. Only a survivor knows when it’s safest to leave, and I fully empathize with the number of barriers that can stand in the way of leaving an abuser, among them, financial independence. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
What you’re actually employing is something psychologists call “the grey rock method.” If you think of a grey rock—motionless, silent, blending in with the background—it’s a great metaphor for how you’re going about avoiding your partner.
“This strategy involves becoming the most boring and uninteresting person you can be when interacting with a manipulative person,” says therapist Ellen Biros, MS, LCSW in an interview with healthline.com.
Because abusers are often looking for a reaction, by not giving them one, they’re going to [hopefully] realize that you’re not their ideal target. It should be noted this is mainly a tactic to use with partners who utilize verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. If you’re experiencing physical abuse, shutting down is likely not going to stop violence. It’s important to also realize nonphysical abuse often escalates into physical abuse, and to take the necessary steps to safety if this happens, such as reaching out for help, developing a safety plan or exploring emergency shelter as an option.
But in your case, J., using the grey rock method is similar to a victim of stalking who should never respond to the stalker’s attempts to communicate. By engaging—talking, texting, emailing or responding to them on social media—a victim is in essence saying, “I’m here and I’m listening. Tell me more.” It’s adding to that fire the abuser has set.
Grey rocking is also effective after you leave an abusive partner and they attempt to reach out to you, either to harass and berate you for your choice, to threaten you if you don’t change your mind, or to try and woo you back with supposed kindness or romance. A non-response is the best response. For survivors who share children with an abuser and are forced to continue interacting with that ex, flat, emotionless and calm responses to the abuser’s provocation attempts will likely be the best way to shut that down.
Of course, this is not always the case. There are dangers to the grey rock method. Darlene Lancer, LMFT, tells Psychology Today that abusers may “up the ante to elicit a response from you to regain control and reassure themselves that you have feelings for them.” She encourages survivors to practice detachment when this happens.
What does that look like? Well, it’s a lot of boundary-drawing, for one. You may also want to implement self-care practices like meditation that can help you be calmer and less reactive when the abuser’s attempts to bait you ramp up.
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Grey rocking is obviously a short-term solution. I’m assuming that morphing into a rock with no emotions, feelings or needs is not exactly your ideal long-term plan. But for the time being, it may be keeping you from being the target of more abuse.
Looking ahead, you may want to consider how you can extricate yourself from this person. It might help to first talk to a domestic violence advocate near you for support – find one on our Help page. They can likely offer you some ideas on your housing issue by referring you to low-cost or temporary housing in your area. You may want to read, “Breaking Your Lease Without Breaking the Bank” if you’re sharing a lease with your partner. And then you may want to start thinking about how you can become financially independent. Here are some articles we’ve written that may help with that:
- Finding Your Financial Footing After Abuse
- How to Stash Cash
- 5 Ways to Get Money Matters in Order
- Finding Financial Independence After Abuse
Remember, even though a narcissistic abuser will try to convince you what’s going wrong is your fault, it’s not. No one deserves to be abused, and a partner should not make you feel afraid, degraded or shamed. And if you’re turning yourself into a rock to deal with a partner, it’s definitely time to consider getting out.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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