enabler parent

‘Better you than me’ – Going unprotected from narcissistic abuse by the enabler parent.

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.

Comments 18

  1. Hi Jay, This in an excellent blog. You should think about organizing your case studies into a control-mastery casebook. You should also think about attending the CMT conference in Sicily this Oct. Best, Marshall

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      1. Since it is now OCT, I bet I’m not the only one who’d be interested to know if this happened and if there will be any kind of follow-up report (even if we don’t speak Italian :-))

        Thank you so much for this. Newly discovered, so now I’m working my way through the archives (with Kleenex box handy)

    2. Your assessment of the sickest most convoluted family system is very good. It’s hard to find a shrink who can fully understand the insane horror we all were raised with. The adult pain has no words when you wake up one day with nothing – knowing all was destroyed by the family. I have never experienced such cruelty fro my own siblings now that my parents are dead. My parents left a legacy of pain destruction and horror. Facing the truth that are lives were ruined takes courage. I have that courage. But how to continue after coming out of the carnage is a mystery.

  2. Yes indeed this a great blog ! Thank you for helping me 100x more than my enabler “parent” (smh!!) ever did. Please continue to write more articles such as this so that it will empower all scapegoated children.

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      Thank you for this feedback. I am very glad to hear that it was helpful to read about this aspect of being scapegoated.

  3. You just blew my mind with that article. Especially the part about the focus on emotional regulation as opposed to acknowledging the family dynamic. After 7 years with the same therapist it came to a very strange ending two months ago.

    You just help me realize that the problem is not me but rather Her lack of being able to recognize this dynamic.

    Your writing is clear and articulate and really helped explain this dysfunctional dynamic which I am now realizing was not only mine but also that with my partner which might explain why we’ve had so many issues!

    Thank you so much!

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  4. You mentioned Peck’s book but do you recommend any resources or other readings on how to recover from the enabler parent? It’s been devastating lately with my enabling parent ignoring me and refusing to acknowledge anything I’ve said. Though I am in therapy, this post helped me more than anything else has. Most resources focus on the narcissist parent and touch on the enabler either all too briefly or in a very one-sided context, which is that said parent is complicated but ultimately weak and undeserving of contact.

    As far as additional context goes: My dad …. saved me in so many ways. But he threw me to the wolves as well. He took care of me after an accident but ignores me now/only says he will call (but never does), because that I won’t play family and put on airs with the abusers in it. He saw some of this hell but not all. I put him on a pedestal as he’s only ever been everything I’ve ever had in terms of family, and the only one who was remotely kind. It’s all I had and being cut loose is terrifying even though I am well into adulthood. Recommend any books? Articles? Blogs, anything? Few focus on the “enabler” problem.

  5. Wow! This totally describes my narc family. Thanks for this article, as a scapegoat in a narc family system, your words made me feel validated.

  6. Just found your site today and see you wright very thorough articles on the subject. Also read this one and have a question about it.
    First some explaning. It took me a very long time to truly learn, see and accept how abusive and disruptive my mother has been to me and our family since childhood. It has been a full-blown malignant narcissist till the day she died. All my siblings are victims of her in some way but I happened to be her- and the family scapegoat (which is still the case, I went no-contact with all of them ~8 years ago, I had to to stop the ongoing abuse).

    Occasionally I have the urge to fresh up my mind and spirit when some doubt creeps in coming along with the sadness of missing my siblings and extended family. The doubt then soon passes but the pain never quite fades. Then your article made me wonder about my ‘enabling father’.

    I see he enabled her to abuse me by distancing himself more and more from involvement in his task of being a caring and active parent. Along the way he started drinking more and more. But I also saw from a very young age the relentless devaluations she put him through over and over again. She just broke him down over the years till there was nothing left.
    He killed himself when I was 19 and he 48.

    What I mean to say, is; I believe he was also a victim of her. Although detached most of the time to me, he has been the only one who showed me kindness and stability in his behaviour (never abusive). At crucial points in my live then, he supported me but then told me not to tell my mother.
    She scared the hell out him I realize now. I cann’t see him as an active enabler but see him as a victim too of this sadistic malignant narcissist.
    What are your thoughts about some(most maybe) enablers being mostly victims of the narcissist themselfs?

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      Hi Ge,

      I think you and the comment posted above raise a very important question. First of all, thank you for sharing your story and you are one tough individual to have survived what you describe.

      Maybe both are true: that the other parent can also be a victim of the narcissistic parent AND their lack of protection of the children paves the way for the children to be victimized. It is very tough to see that the other parent seems to have a good heart but just cannot muster the strength to stand up to the abusive parent. At the same time, from an outside perspective the other parent – by virtue of being an adult – is the most capable of standing up to the abuser. The children – by their very nature – cannot stand up for themselves definitively because they are programmed to secure the bond to their parents. So, given those different starting points, I personally would argue that responsibility lies with the other adult to protect his or her children. As you wrote, though, when that other parent is the only person in the family who’s shown some love and kindness, it can be very difficult to hold them accountable.

      In any case, I don’t claim for these categories to be too formalized and I’m speaking broadly about what constitutes and ‘enabler’ parent. Every person and story is unique and deserves to be understood on its own terms. Again, thank you for sharing and I wish you the best.


  7. Hi – I’m married to someone who – after 20 years – I now understand has some form of NPD. I am not an ‘enabler’. I fought daily against their unjust behaviour towards all family members. Our four kids were told that my ‘anger issues’ were the problem. I was misrepresented so relentlessly that everyone – including me – believed I needed psychiatric help. I spent 5 years in and out of clinics and consultations, being drugged, scanned, blood-tested and pretty much straightjacketed until a 60 year old psychiatrist who happened to have seen one of his parents die as result of narcissistic abuse stopped the process. His dead parent wasn’t an ‘enabler’, nor ‘victim’ – more ‘warrior’ engaged in battling unscrupulous covert ops…
    Kids raised by a Narcissist and their profoundly abused partner aren’t in fact hurt by lack of protection by the latter: witnessing emotional domestic violence and enduring parental alienation (if the abused parent is non-compliant) supplants the failures (read: further scapegoating) of the embattled (ie. determind to dis’enable’) parent. But only if the effects of narcissistic abuse are understood.

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      Thank you for sharing this perspective. You and the commenter below raise an important point. It also sounds like you very much did not fit the ‘enabler’ heuristic but suffered the gaslighting and goading tactics that the narcissistic person employed – until you met the psychiatrist who saw you clearly. I agree that if the other parent is a fighter or warrior against the narcissistically abusive tactics that it is of tremendous benefit to the children in the family. It can show that truth or rightfulness is worth fighting for and that treating people without due respect and dignity is unacceptable.

      Thank you for sharing your story. It is a real contribution to this thread.


    2. Sam,

      I can so relate to your story. And I’m kind of glad you’ve become aware of what’s been going on all those years. I know becoming aware is devestating too. You’ve lived defending/believing a lyer and abuser without realizing this was all she/he was. You now know you were not to blame for trying your best to solve the problems. You stood no chance at all against a narcissist who thrives on creating problems for keeping control and attention.
      And I surely relate to your statement you were not an enabler. Most aren’t unless they are themselfes narcissists or other Clustr B disordered.
      You had the the luck to encounter this psychiatrist to make you aware.
      It must have been quite a shock to you coming to terms with this reality.
      Sending you kind regards.

  8. Thank’s for your reply and also to Sam who makes a similar point.
    I think it’s also in the word ‘enabler’ what’s makes it more confusing. For it suggests the narcissist needs someone else to enable his/her abuse. And this isn’t true. A narcissist will conduct their lies and abuse regardless from who is around them. No-one enables them. It’s just who they are. They will lie, gaslight and abuse everywhere for as long they can get away with it

    Their best prey though are those who are basically quite trusting, empathetic and willing/tending to look at themselfs too when problems arise to solve problems. I.e. the fast majority of normal people.
    It’s this general normality they prey on and the common unawareness of people about this dangerous disorder.
    They confuse and abuse people till the point of erasing their personalities if they get the chance. Awareness of the disorder is the key to stop the cicle of abuse and the start of healing the damage done.

    I’m sure most victims who really become aware of the dynamics in play, will stop parcitipating in the narcissists game of lies and abuse.
    This is not the same as stopping actively ‘enabling’ the narcissist.
    Enabling is a consious, active behaviour. It suggests the enabling person is consiously aware of the abusive dynamics the narcissist plays out and supports it actively or passively.
    I don’t think this is the case in most cases, unless the parcipitating party is a narcissist/Cluster B themselfs.

    My father had the misfortune to fall in love and marry a malignant narcissist. I remember he argued her often fiercly when I was a kid. But he wasn’t aware he was dealing with a full-blown sadistic narcissist who loved to make him angry and to play with like a cat plays a mouse.
    It must have been totally crazy-making/ confusing to him. A battle he never could win but only loose. And he did. He paid with is live in more than one way.

    I’m sure if he had the chance/luck early-on or later to get the right information about narcissists he would never have married her or divorced her in time. Not being aware of this he stayed a victim of her till his self-chosen end not able to protect us enough likewise.
    But surely not an ‘enabler’ by my definition of the word.
    In the sence used in your article it lightly becomes another form of victim blaming.
    I think this needs some carefull thought.

  9. I like to add something to clarify my thoughts on this better.
    In my case -and I learned it often goes this way with narcissists- my mother performed here incidious abuse on me and my siblings only openly when my father was at work or away otherwise.
    She scared me by telling there would be even more terrible consequences when my father got home and she would tell him of the ‘terrible’ things I had done. So ofcourse I kept quiet. She kept him in the dark of her abuse and played the victim to him for having to deal with such a difficult kid, children and live.
    In between controlling all the money he earned in the end (she never worked for a serious moment in her entire live), spending a lot on herself (clothes, haircuts and so on, all pretence) and later made her adolecent children pay half their salaries to accomodate her greed and lifestyle. It was just a parasite.

    She even stole all the money that was granted to her children lawfully after my father died. She just kept silent about it and collected the money for herself for years. She was very shrewed, completely egocentric but pretending being a victim of us and everyone. Triangulating all, in her need for absolute controlle, greed and centre of attention.

    I just can go on about the wickedness of this women. But what I want to make clear is that no sane human is prepared for this kind of insanity.
    They don’t enable it. They play no role at all in their disordered conduct. It’s what they are. If you stop connecting with them they just go on doing the same with other people.
    The victims just show a normal stress-reaction to a very abnormal, disordered human without a developed conscience.

    Enabling isn’t the right word. It suggests you are partly to blame for their behavior. Which isn’t the case. They’ll do it anyway regardless of your personality or what you try to solve with them.

    But ofcourse those people have to be confronted and adressed in their tracks. This is where awareness kicks in. Calling the beast by it’s name and not taking blame for their abuse and misdeeds but fighting them.
    Not excepting the guild and stigma of being an enabler of their abuse and misconduct as though you caused them to act this way.
    This is pertenitally not true. It’s them who are wicked and disordered, not you. Don’t take the bait.

    Most of their victims are nice, empathetic, intelligent, normal people just not prepared to deal with such individuals.
    They are the evil the Bible and all other religions speak of.
    Awareness is key. They understood this allready ~2000 years ago. And even beyond when the Greeks wrote down their Narcissus-story.

    They are the evil in our society throughout the ages getting far too much credit and misguided blame-shifting which leaves them free to play-out their totally egocentric and wicked ways.
    It’s not right to serve them this way I believe. To not grant them this excusse of being ‘enabled’ to do the abuse they commit.

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