The Price and Payoff of a Gray Rock Strategy
Total disengagement from narcissists can help or hurt. Learn why and what to do.
Posted November 4, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
One strategy for dealing with a narcissist or sociopath is to act like a “gray rock,” meaning that you become uninteresting and unresponsive. Using the Gray Rock method, your objective is to make someone lose interest in you. You don’t feed their needs for drama or attention. You don’t show emotion, say anything interesting, or disclose any personal information. Nor do you ask questions or participate in conversations, except for brief factual replies. Limit your answers to a few syllables or a nod. Say “maybe” or “I don’t know.” Additionally, make yourself plain and unattractive, so your partner gains no pleasure in showing you off or being seen with you. This maneuver removes the narcissist's “narcissistic supply.” For sociopaths and borderline personalities, it deprives them of drama.
Using the Gray Rock method, you make yourself seem so boring that the other person has no interest in you and will look elsewhere to get their needs met. Even if you’re accused, you might agree or say nothing. Your nonresistance makes it harder for them to project onto you. The idea is to blend into the background, like a gray rock.
When to Be a Gray Rock
The Gray Rock strategy is the most effective in work and dating relationships or when co-parenting after separation with the goal of being left alone. In marriages, your spouse may not want a divorce for a variety of reasons. Even if you no longer want or expect love from your spouse but want to stay married, be prepared for him or her to get needs met outside the marriage. Consider how you will feel if your spouse openly takes a lover. Not reacting to adultery gives permission to your spouse to “have his (or her) cake and eat it too.” On the other hand, if you want to break up or escape a hovering narcissist or sociopath, using this method may lead to them tiring of your lack of response and leaving you alone.
Risks of Going Gray Rock
In “Confronting Abuse,” I explain why typical responses to abusers, such as explaining, arguing, and placating, are counterproductive. Going "gray rock" is also not without risks. Be forewarned that if you want more attention and love from a narcissist, this tactic will drive them away. Moreover, abusers will up the ante to elicit a response from you to regain control and reassure themselves that you have feelings for them. It’s essential that you understand their mindset. Practice detachment and not responding to anger, putdowns, outrageous accusations, slander, or jealous provocations. Like children having a tantrum, they believe they have the upper hand if you give in and react. However, if you’re persistent, in time, they’ll tire of not getting a reaction.
If you’re with a physically violent partner, you may be in harm's way whether or not you react, because violent abusers don’t need an excuse to take out their rage on you. They may easily manufacture unfounded justifications. In such a case, it’s better to confront abuse, set boundaries, and take steps to protect yourself.
The Hidden Dangers
There is a hidden risk to this strategy that is not often mentioned, but I’ve witnessed it with clients who have practiced it after living with a narcissist for some years. You risk losing connection to your feelings, wants, and needs. Like anyone walking on eggshells in a relationship, you're suppressing your thoughts and feelings with this approach. By not expressing yourself, you risk becoming alienated from your real self. This can be traumatic. Beware that you don’t become depressed and withdraw in other relationships.
Being a gray rock requires you to suppress your natural needs for love, attention, companionship, empathy, sex, and affection. As you become more invisible, your behavior feeds codependency. Rather than learning to be more assertive, you may be replaying dynamics from your childhood. It may cause re-traumatization, reminding you of how you felt growing up if your needs and feelings were ignored. This tactic is based upon self-denial and self-sacrifice. It isn’t the best strategy to feel safe and get your needs met.
A far better option than going gray rock, if possible, is to break up or divorce and go "no contact." If you’re unable to do that for emotional reasons, examine your vulnerability to getting drawn back in. Are you still hoping for love and commitment from this person? (See “Can You Tell if a Narcissist Loves You.”) If so, deep yearnings will sabotage your gray rock performance. It’s a better idea to work with a counselor on letting go.
Unless you’re living apart and unequivocally want to end the relationship, the Gray Rock method is a risky tactic to attempt long term. It’s far better to set effective boundaries on bad behavior and learn strategies to get your needs met. Then you can ascertain whether your relationship can improve or whether it’s best to leave.
Follow the strategies described in my ebook, Dealing with a Narcissist.
©Darlene Lancer 2019