Understanding and recovering from silent discard

To discard is to get rid of something that is no longer useful, desirable or wanted. So, being discarded by someone you care about, whether a partner, friend or family member, is one of the most devastating experiences you will ever face. In many respects, it is such a difficult loss because it involves the experience of abandonment, rejection, betrayal and often replacement.

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Being discarded is particularly painful because the loss is irrational and done by someone who knows you well and has chosen to throw you away, thus rendering you unacceptable and worthless to them. It is deeply wounding as, regardless of the nature of the relationship, you invested trust, loyalty, time, effort and hope.

The ending of any relationship can be difficult but, in healthy adult relationships, this will be done after discussion, explanation and decision-making which, although maybe painful, allows closure to be achieved. But what if that decision is taken without one of the parties being aware or informed? This is the silent discard.


What is silent discard?

This shouldn’t be confused with ‘ghosting’ - which is usually experienced in the dating world when someone you have been communicating with suddenly ‘disappears’ - which sends a message that they are not interested but they are not brave enough to openly express that. Nor should it be confused with ‘no contact’, which is something that is used after a breakup to protect oneself from additional pain or abuse.

I’m referring to long-term relationships that end without one party even being aware. The silent discard usually begins with the silent treatment.

What is the silent treatment?

This is when someone refuses to respond and ignores their partner/friend’s attempt to engage with them to resolve issues. It can be really difficult to understand why someone uses silent treatment rather than discussing a problem to find a solution. It may be because they are:

  • Overwhelmed and don’t have the emotional capacity to express themselves.
  • Avoiding the situation or don’t wish to say anything to escalate reactions. Having a rational reaction, rather than emotional, due to a high level of self-control.
  • Protection of themselves from potential reactions, rather than malice.
  • A form of punishment.

Using silent treatment is often associated with people who have narcissistic tendencies and who use it as a passive-aggressive method of control and psychological abuse. If used by someone with narcissistic tendencies, it is often a tactic to neutralise your attempts to challenge their behaviour, set boundaries or deny them something which they see as criticism due to their own vulnerabilities and narcissistic injury and to escape responsibility for the damage caused to you by their actions.

However, of course, it cannot be said that everyone who employs this tactic is narcissistic.

Whatever the reason, it halts communication, which is the lifeblood of a relationship and is not a productive way to deal with a disagreement. When one person wishes to talk about a problem and the other withdraws, it can be experienced acutely by the person on the receiving end, causing negative emotions such as anger, distress and anxiety and may trigger feelings of rejection. It denies basic human, social and relationship needs.

Can the silent treatment be helpful?

Healthy use of silent treatment is to take ‘time out’ to allow breathing space in a conflict situation but to readdress the issue in a less emotive way to find solutions. Ultimately, if the use of silent treatment lasts for extended periods of time (running into days or weeks), occurs frequently, and only ends when you apologise, give in to demands or change your behaviour to avoid the silent treatment, then it is likely to be being used as a method of manipulation, punishment and control.


Silent treatment vs silent discard

People with narcissistic tendencies tend to see others as objects to meet their needs and will discard them when it is no longer met or the person adds no value. Their pattern of relationship is to idealise, devalue and then discard.

The silent treatment is a temporary discard. How often this happens is an indicator of underlying factors and, in a long-term relationship, will be a familiar pattern of behaviour rather than isolated incidences with people with narcissistic tendencies.

They lack empathy and cannot put themselves in someone else’s position. They will also lack any sense of accountability for their own behaviour and will project blame onto you for the silent treatment and discard, as they cannot feel any shame or guilt for the way they may have treated you previously. They may have been disinterested for some time but will have maintained a friendship until something/someone more supply-orientated came along. For this reason, the discard, when it comes, is often sudden, unexpected, silent and brutal.


Dealing with silent discard

You have lost the ability to supply their ego and, in that moment of discard, you mean nothing to them. People who discard you are not your friends. They won’t offer loyalty for sacrifices made on their behalf in the past. It’s the here and now that matters, not what went on before.

Whilst you are feeling distressed and confused not only by the discard but how it happened, inevitably, this person has already found a new supply feeding their need and you are now surplus to requirements. But they won’t tell you that.

Someone with narcissistic tendencies needs to keep their options open in case their new supply doesn’t work out. They may even tell you that you need to change if you want to see an improvement in the future. Discard is ending the relationship completely.

Those with narcissistic tendencies will not wish to completely end the relationship as they will still be receiving mental supply from your confusion and distress. To be on the receiving end, especially if you have been replaced, it certainly feels like you have been discarded. It is a betrayal and dismissal. You have been rendered unwanted in the cruelest of ways. Thrown aside as if you, or what you had shared, had never mattered in the first place.

You feel helpless because you have no say, no explanation, no answers, no opportunity to resolve issues and no closure. You are a caring individual who can consider other people’s thoughts and feelings and may want to hear and understand and have the same in return. But someone with narcissistic tendencies will not allow this opportunity.

Ask yourself, when did you last get a chance to discuss your concerns without receiving silent treatment in return? To a person with narcissistic tendencies, it is a temporary discard, ready to take you back if the new person doesn’t work out and you behave as they want you to. They may return at some point - if you let them. 

It is hard not to think that you are responsible for the discard (especially when they tell you that you are), but it is important to remember that this is about them and not you. However, to prevent being drawn back into this or any similar relationship, it is important for you to reflect on and learn from this experience. The best thing you can do for yourself after a discard is to give yourself closure as you will not get it from the other person. You will also need to begin working on your healing.

Even after the emotional anguish you went through with this person, the discard can be the most painful part as it can also trigger childhood wounds. That does not excuse their behaviour but can explain why it is so painful and why you entertained it for so long.

In childhood, you may have experienced wounds around rejection or abandonment, which can make abuse and neglect feel like a ‘normalised’ way of life. This can happen in adult relationships too. Often, it starts with the silent treatment to try to modify your behaviour with the threat of rejection when you don’t give them or behave towards them as they want, and if you maintain your boundaries and self-respect, they will discard you. This can be very traumatic, triggering early experiences.

Even if you have previously processed those experiences and no longer feel the pain, it is possible that you have sought out or maintained similar experiences with people who are dismissive, unavailable or distant because they are familiar and thus, subconsciously, enabled the situation.

While a lot of these people may not be manipulators, their level of emotional immaturity can still trigger your fears because the end result of you feeling rejected is still the same, even when the intention of the other person is different.

It is heartbreaking to love someone who distances themselves from you.

It is not about blaming yourself; it is not you who has treated someone that way, but a way to understand why you tolerated such treatment and why the discard is so painful. You can change that going forward.


How to heal and avoid these relationships in the future

Allow yourself to grieve

Go into your feelings, don’t try to avoid them. The more you allow yourself to feel the emotions, the quicker you will heal. Grieving is the process of expressing the emotional energy by talking about the loss, writing your feelings down, allowing yourself to remember the good and bad times, and allowing yourself to say goodbye. It will be a rollercoaster of confusion/disbelief, anger, questioning yourself and deep sadness. It is a process and you will move through it if you allow yourself to.

Challenge your negative self-beliefs

Undoubtedly, if you have been discarded and especially if you have been replaced, you will be questioning yourself and thinking that you’re not ‘good enough’, ‘unwanted’, ‘unlovable’ or ‘not as good as/desirable’ as the new person. You’ve probably also been led to believe that you are the problem, when actually what you have done is question someone else’s behaviour towards you. It is important for you to challenge these negative self-defeating beliefs.

Remind yourself of the person that you really are, what you achieve, your value and worth, what others close to you think about you and what you deserve. This is vital to maintain or improve your self-worth and to prevent accepting poor behaviour in relationships. 

Transfer responsibility

Hand it back to where it belongs. You were not the person who used silent treatment, refused to find solutions to problems or chose to discard another without actually telling them whilst developing another relationship.

Develop your boundaries

If you’re used to accepting abusive, neglectful and disrespectful treatment from people due to your early experiences, you will need to develop your boundaries to stop you from entertaining this type of behaviour in the future.

It is likely that you have already done this to a certain extent to have been challenging the other person’s behaviour or you may have been reacting as a result of your feelings of rejection which was expressed in a way that triggered the other person's wounds, whether narcissistic or otherwise.

It is important to recognize how much you have participated in the situation and pain. Setting boundaries around what works for you and what doesn’t in relationships and friendships is important so you don’t keep getting involved in painful and disappointing situations.

Discover where you belong

When you feel rejected by someone else because they don’t accept, value, respect, care about or want to spend time with you, it can really affect your sense of belonging. It’s time to move on. It’s about finding connections where you do belong whether that’s through work, hobbies or existing friends and family. Find something that you are passionate about and can make a contribution to by sharing your passion and wisdom.

Learn lessons

Ask yourself what you have learned from this experience and what you could do differently in the future. If you had some good experiences, it will have been worth having allowed yourself to love and experience them than not, despite the current pain. Learn from the positives of what you do want.

Move forward with your life

Use this time for personal growth. Love yourself, be there for yourself and don’t abandon yourself as the other person has discarded you. Working through this experience will help you not to do the same again and to not project your past onto a new relationship. Make plans and goals and move forward.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Sale, Cheshire, M33
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Written by Angela Holt, (Mindwell Matters) PGDip, MBACP - Individuals and Couples
Sale, Cheshire, M33

A grounding in person-centred approach, holding a PG Diploma and Registered Member of the BACP, I work pluralistically, including Person-Centred, CBT, Transactional Analysis and Solution Focused, with individuals and couples via face to face, telephone or video sessions from therapy rooms based in Sale.

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