Emotional Abuse: Withholding, Love Bombing and Coping With the Gray Rock Method

We’ve talked a lot about emotional abuse on our site, but today we want to dive a little deeper into some common terms that pop up in the conversation around abusive, toxic, or narcissistic personalities. There are so many ways emotional abuse can manifest that this post won’t be able to cover all of them, but a few of the most common and insidious types are known as “withholding,” love bombing,” and “the silent treatment.” If you’re wondering, “What about gaslighting?” don’t worry–we’ve covered that in another post.

How to Handle Emotional Abuse

Love Bombing, Withholding, and Gray Rocking

What is Love Bombing?

At first, love bombing feels great! In a romantic relationship, this is the part where you’re falling in love. They make you feel seen and heard. They give you gifts and compliments. They perform acts or service, seeming selfless and kind. How could you not appreciate this person? You grow attached and even dependent upon them because they seem awesome.

For a toxic parent, examples of love bombing might look like extravagant shopping trips, expensive gifts, or telling you how proud they are of you. In a toxic dating relationship this might look like love letters, good morning texts, cute gifts, etc. It doesn’t have to be big, though. Even subtle love bombing is enough to convince us that this person would only ever do what’s best for us, that this is a healthy realtionship.

If you notice that your abuser is love bombing right after a major fight, breakup, or period of distance between you, they may actually be “hoovering,” which is another emotional abuse term that is meant to describe how they try to suck you back into the relationship by acting sweet, kind, or attentive. Regardless of when or how the love bombing occurs, it’s an insidious way to keep you addicted to the relationship, convincing you that there’s always a future in which your relationship with this person could be healthy.

What is Withholding?

Withholding is an abusive tactic that involves a person keeping love, affection, or even basic care from you until you do what they want you to do. It may not be communicated out loud, but somehow you are aware that you won’t get “love” from this person until you concede to their expectations. It’s basically conditional love because the toxic person is making it clear that they will only love you under specific conditions.

For a toxic parent this might look like your dad never giving you the time of day unless you score a touchdown at a game or even refusing to let you sit down at the dinner table until you apologize for something. In a toxic dating relationship this might look like your girlfriend saying that she won’t go to the dance with you unless you buy her something or help her with a project.

Witholding often happens after a love bombing phase, so you are left feeling emotional whiplash and wondering where the sweet, giving person went and feeling guilty as if you’ve done something to make them change their tune. All you want to do is work hard to get that love bombing phase back, which is right where they want you.

Is the Silent Treatment Abusive?

A form of withholding but often more blatant is the famous silent treatment. The name speaks for itself, ironically. It’s when the toxic person literally stops speaking to you, sometimes even pretending not to be able to see or hear you, for a period of time. After it’s over, they may claim they needed time to “get over” something you’ve done, or they may communicate that they won’t speak to you until you meet certain requirements. When someone you love ignores you, it’s heart-wrenching, so of course you’re left wanting to fix the situation as quickly as you can.

For a toxic parent this might look like you coming home from school, saying, “Hi mom,” only to be met with stone-cold silence. She doesn’t even look up from her book. You spend the rest of your day trying to figure out what you’ve done, maybe even apologizing for not taking the trash out and leaving a sock on your floor, until you finally figure out that she was actually mad about your grades the whole time. In a toxic dating relationship this might look like your boyfriend suddenly leaving you “on read” for hours, even days, until you’re finally able to confront him in person and you find out that he’s been angry with you for something you don’t even remember saying last week.

All of the above are tactics that wreak havoc on you, the victim, because they chip away at how you see yourself. You learn to be constantly worried about what they might think of every little move you make, but no amount of hypervigilance on your part will ever actually make them happy. What they really want is control over you, and they have it.

How Can You Protect Yourself from These Forms of Abuse?

So your partner or parent is using one or all of the above methods on a frequent basis… What can you possibly do to defend yourself? If it’s your boyfriend, you can end the relationship and move on… try to heal from the abuse… but what if it’s your mom? Not every toxic relationship feels immediately escapable, leaving you to figure out how to stick up for yourself. It’s very difficult to deal with an emotional abuser because they will do everything they can to maintain control over you, including changing the narrative or temporarily behaving better. Once you’re wise to their methods, however, you can learn how to cut their influence off at the knees by practicing emotional distance. In fact, there’s now a popular term for this: the gray rock method or gray rocking.

What is Gray Rocking?

The abusive person has one goal–control. They maintain control over you by evoking an emotional response from you with their behavior. They know that they can make you feel happy, sad, angry, overwhelmed, or content with one of their tricks. But what if you take that power away from them? Gray rocking is a method of disarming a narcissistic or toxic person to emotionally disengage from their abuse. Essentially, when you are interacting with this person, do everything you can to conceal whatever feelings you have about what they say or do. You can do this by staying distracted in their presence with your phone or a chore, avoiding prolonged eye contact, keeping a straight face, and limiting your verbal responses to simple “yes,” “no,” “hm,” wow,” “okay,” “uh-uh,” etc. Arguing with them or getting upset only feeds them more ammunition to continue pressing your buttons, which is what they’re really after. You become like a gray rock. You remove what they find so entertaining about you. You become so boring to them that they move on.

How is it different from the silent treatment? Is it really okay to use one of their own abusive tactics against them? Well, the silent treatment is almost like a form of withholding in which this person refuses to give you the opportunity to hear them speak until you do something they want you to do. Gray rocking, on the other hand, is not a refusal to engage completely, but a refusal to take the emotional bait they offer you. You are using this method to create a healthier environment, not to control anyone. Therein lies the difference.

Are There Risks to the Gray Rock Method?

While gray rocking can be a very useful method for you as you learn to set boundaries and create more distance between you and your abuser, it’s important to be careful with it. Shutting your emotions off for a brief moment while you interact with someone toxic is one thing. Shutting them off for lengthy periods of time is another. Make sure you have a plan in place to be able to safely feel your feelings after you interact with this person, whether that’s journaling, therapy, or talking to a trusted friend. Bottling up your feelings is unhealthy and can result in more trauma than you already have.

While a toxic person can grow bored enough with your gray rocking that they move on and leave you alone, it’s also important to be aware that in some cases this method may result in an escalation of abuse, wherein your abuser gets so frustrated with your newfound immunity to their tricks that they try even harder to get under your skin. If this is the case, you need to switch tactics and seek help. Create physical distance between you and your abuser–it may be helpful to have an exit plan beforehand to make sure you are able to remove yourself from the situation if this person flies into a rage.

There Are Healthy Relationships Out There

One of the worst results of emotional abuse is that it leaves victims convinced that all their relationships are going to be difficult or tainted. You feel hopeless against future abuse and may even believe that you don’t deserve better. 


The truth is that you are worth so much more than they have made you feel. You can have unconditional love. You can have joy. You can have peace. Ask for help–tell someone what you’re going through and find a counselor or therapist to help you formulate a game plan. If you’re not sure where to start, or if you’d like to find out about how you’re already unconditionally loved by someone who sees you as beautiful and wonderful, chat with a Hope Coach today. We are here to listen without judgment, and we don’t condone emotional abuse. Ever. There is hope for you to have a better future.

Want to know more about emotional abuse? Here's how to identify the most common signs of emotional abuse.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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