“Nothing in this world lasts without protection.”
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” -Edmund Burke
Good things in the world do not survive unless they are protected. Think of a human baby. As cute, fun, and loving as they are – they are equally vulnerable. Most often these awesome creatures receive joy, warmth, and protection by their caretakers. In the natural order the young and defenseless are to be loved and protected by the stronger and older.
Sometimes – tragically – something unnatural happens. A child is born to someone motivated by something other than human connection. Instead this person wants to see others – even his or her own children – suffer. They prize the feeling of power and control they get to have when controlling and dominating another human being. This feeling becomes so valued that no appeal to morality will impede them. A person with kind of motivation structure is known as a malignant narcissist. Saving others from harm does not matter to them. Or worse, it matters, but in the opposite direction – they want to harm others. They react to confrontations of their abusive behavior by denying, blaming the victim for ‘overreacting’, or claiming the victim deserved it.
In my practice, most of the clients who’ve survived such vicious upbringings had one primary abusive parent. The other “enabler” parent was typically less overtly abusive but passive and compliant in the face of the other parent’s abuse. This enabler parent buries himself or herself in work, alcohol, extramarital affairs, and/or household tasks in order to avoid intervening in what is happening to his or her children under his or her roof.
Today’s blog post will discuss surviving and recovering from going unprotected from narcissistic abuse by the ‘enabler’ parent. When a child is chronically derided, blamed, and scapegoated without intervention by the ‘enabler’ parent – it is tragically easy for the child to conclude that he does not deserve protection. Such a kid can may even conclude that he deserves to be abused and neglected.
Sins of Omission: What the Enabler’s underprotection can look like
In my experience, a malignant narcissist does not get away with hurting his or her children without the endorsement – implicit or otherwise – of the other parent. I suspect that many malignant narcissists choose partners who are meek and submissive so that they will not encounter resistance. They may search for partners with whom they feel dominant. The prevailing theme in the relationship becomes whether the narcissist will be made happy. The enabler partner makes that his or her life’s goal. He or she also knows it’s a fickle achievement. Despite his efforts he can still be found inadequate in making the narcissist happy. This lack of consistency is designed to keep the partner feeling insecure about his or her worth in the narcissist’s eyes. Enabler partners are unable – or unwilling – to recognize how they are being strategically tormented. Instead they double-down on the efforts to please.
Once this type of pseudo-relationship is established, the fate of their children is often sealed. The narcissistic parent will inevitably find fault with, devalue, and demean a child. The enabler parent only sees that the narcissist is unhappy and will want to make him or her happy. If the narcissist identifies the child as the reason for his or her unhappiness then the other parent will too. The enabler parent may gang up with the narcissist against the child. He may seem distracted or uninvolved while the narcissist abuses the child. He may find a way to be out of the house – due to work obligations, extramarital affairs, etc. Whatever the tactic, the enabler parent signals to the child that he will not be offering protection. Gallingly, the other parent communicates “better you than me” to the child getting abused. This attitude flies in the face of the concept of parenting yet unfortunately happens in families ruled by narcissists.
Terry* had a narcissistic mother and ‘enabler’ parent as a father. When he was 4 years old, he came out to say goodnight to both parents. His mother may have found him to be in too high of spirits and decided he needed to be knocked down. She asked him if he had brushed his teeth and he told her he had. She recoiled with an over-dramatic gasp and said, “Oh Terry, how can you tell a lie like that?”. He had, in fact, brushed his teeth so he was confused but knew something bad was going to happen. He insisted that he had brushed them and was met with her turning to his father and saying, “Can you believe that he is standing there lying to us?”. Terry’s father put down his beer, grabbed him by the elbow, spun Terry around and spanked him three times. The physical pain was not significant to Terry. The knowledge that Terry had a mother who wanted to set him up for such abuse – and a father who would go along with it – was.
Terry’s parents had very little love between them. A master-slave relationship does not afford such experience. They did find consensus when targeting Terry for trumped up reasons. In therapy, Terry grew to suspect that his father’s lack of power in his marriage was addressed by feeling powerful with his wife against his son.
Jason*, grew up with a malignantly narcissistic mother and ”enabler’ father. His mother would ask Jason to perform chores then scream at him for ‘not doing them right’. Once his parents divorced, Jason was the only male left in the home. His mother would continue her psychological and emotional abuse of him. In sessions, Jason initially reported that he was grateful that his father stayed local after the divorce. “My Dad could have moved back home to California where he grew up”. When I asked Jason whether he could appeal to his father about how his mother was mistreating him he said, “My Dad would tell me that he knew she could be this way. He’d just tell me to try not to make her upset.” No calls to Child Protective Services. No battle for custody of Jason and his siblings. In essence, Jason was told to appease his mother and suffer her abuse on his own.
Jason was told in no uncertain terms that he would not receive protection from his father. Since his father was his most viable parent, he had to find a way to continue thinking highly of him. At the start of therapy, Jason revealed how he did this – forcing himself to believe that he did not deserve to be protected from his mother’s abuse. His statement that he was grateful that his father stayed local after the divorce reflected this. Only if he believed he was undeserving of protection, could his father’s gesture of staying local seem like a show of parental love. As an adult, Jason found new relationships inside and outside of therapy that afforded him the safety he had always sought. These new connections allowed him to identify and question the belief that he could not have asked anything more of his father. He grew to feel entitled to feeling safe in relationships and recognized how his father’s passivity in the face of his mother’s abuse denied him this.
Narcissistic Abuse as a family system
Scott Peck writes how targeted, remorseless and systematic cruelty (i.e. evil) get woven into a family’s ways. His book “People of the Lie” emphasizes how narcissistic abuse starts with the narcissist’s motivation to act cruelly towards people and utter refusal to take responsibility for their actions. They do not possess empathy for others’ feelings or needs – just their own. They often construct lives that seem “normal” from the outside – posing as civic leaders, loving mothers, teachers, nurses, business executives, etc. These appearances also function to offer the narcissist cover so that they do not get caught abusing their victims. Many adult children of narcissists exclaim that nobody would have believed them if they spoke of how cruel their parent really was. Such narcissists go to great lengths to convince the public of their virtue and good will. They know they could get caught and are adept at avoiding it.
Peck describes the “lie” as the system of denials and collusion that the family members around the narcissist must adopt. The lie starts with the tacit agreement that the narcissist is entitled to act cruelly and bears no responsibility for how she hurts others. The enabler parent as the second highest authority in the house endorses the narcissist. The narcissistic and enabler parents can have such strong faith in this lie that they feel no dissonance. The narcissist abuses the targeted child because that child is so bad – that’s it. The enabler readily agrees.
This system of cruelty allows its perpetrators to take no responsibility for themselves nor their actions. If a child feels sad or shame for being derided that’s the child’s fault for being ‘overly sensitive’. Terry’s mother was fond of telling him that she was not yelling at him just “telling him things he did not want to hear”. The narcissist is intent on shifting all accountability for her bad behavior onto a vulnerable target. Her enabler partner colludes with her along these lines and they perpetuate the lie of “evil” together.
In plying the lie that the narcissist’s target is to blame for all the family problems, both parents show no empathy to the targeted child. This child is faced with the chilling knowledge that he is getting hurt by people who either do not care about his pain or are want to see him suffer.
The Enabler’s own psychology: A sheep looking for a shepherd
Enabler parents were often forgotten children in their families of origin. They may have adapted to a “children should be seen and not heard” ethos. Typically the enabler parent was not singled out and attacked as a child, however they did not receive much attention nor recognition by the parents. As a result a deficit of needed self-esteem, empathy for oneself and others, and initiative can develop. Such people emerge from their childhoods believing that they are expendable and “lucky” to find a romantic partner who will accept them. They learned in their families of origin they do not deserve consistent respect and connection. This required belief guides their search for a romantic partner. They will often comply with this belief and find a partner who also ignores their needs in favor of his or her own.
When a to-be-enabler is met with the affection of a man or woman, they ma be astounded. They may never have thought they would get such treatment. After a long history of deprivation this affection will often be clung to – regardless of the offerer’s other traits. A malignant narcissist will see such a person as a preferable and relatively easy target. Such a person seeks to find a partner she can control and manipulate with her affection. Their partners have to be more interested in making the narcissist happy than making themselves happy. People who were chronically ignored by their parents were often so starved for affection that they will fit this bill.
“Terry’s father was in the Army. He attended West Point then served a tour in Vietnam. He met Terry’s mother on a double-date when they were on opposite sides of the date. His father showed up at mother’s door the next day to ask her out. Despite Terry’s father’s recollection that his mother began acting very angrily towards him in the months before and after the wedding, he just hoped that he could make her happy with him. In Terry’s 12 years growing up with both of his parents in the house he could only recall his mother screaming at his father. Never the other way around. In the end, his father had a series of extramarital affairs that led to a divorce – effectively leaving Terry alone with his narcissistic mother.
Terry’s father seemed to not have much of a center in himself. He was easily influenced and did not have empathy for Terry – just his wife and himself. Although Terry’s father was not predisposed to active acts of cruelty – like his wife – he had no trouble passively allowing her to commit them against his son. Terry’s father’s only goal in life was to find people who were happy with him. If these people showed disapproval to someone other than him he may have felt relief that he was not being rejected. His father did not have the innate instinct to protect those who are more vulnerable.
Recovering from going unprotected by the enabler parent
Enabler parents are unlikely to take responsibility for their devastating impact on the scapegoated child. Even if the scapegoated child confronts this parent as an adult, she will likely be met with disbelief, denial, dismissiveness or blame. Such enablers are too far down the rabbit hole to turn back. They have fused themselves to others rather than themselves and have no way to ascertain the reality the scapegoat would describe.
Rather than holding this parent accountable, it can often be more helpful to have little or no contact with them. Although this may seem harsh, it is important. Doing so can give the scapegoated victim the distance needed to see the abuse was all about their narcissistic family members rather than anything about the scapegoat. If you have been scapegoated, then you have been blamed or refused to be believed when you expressed your suffering. These experiences need to cease for you to be able to recover your own rightful narrative. Your family’s audience will never give the needed response and will likely do more harm.
Once enough emotional distance is created, then the victim can begin to hold the enabler parent accountable for how they shirked their parental duties. Victims often feel guilty at this stage as they have learned to feel protective towards the enabler who was the lesser of two evils in the family. This can be worked through as the victim grows to know the immense suffering he was put through as a result of the enabler parents lack of empathy for the victim.
Lastly, but importantly, going to therapy can be very helpful – even necessary. It is critical that such a therapist have an understanding of narcissistic family dynamics and be willing to identify and hold your family members accountable for their abuse of you. If you find yourself in therapy where the therapist is questioning your perception of family members or identifies the problem as your emotional dysregulation – you might want to find a different one. I believe that a therapist must come down hard on the side of the scapegoated client to be able to undo the brainwashing that their families have undertook to convince the client that he is the crazy, rageful, or pathological person. It can be scary for the scapegoated child as an adult to risk trusting a new person with his or her story. These stories deserve to be honored and respected. Anything different will not be helpful in my strong opinion.
*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.