Maybe it was you, the woman who sat in her therapist’s office listening to an explanation from the DSM on what “narcissistic personality disorder” is, with regard to your ex. Maybe you were the woman whose ex finally received an official diagnosis: “antisocial personality disorder” or “borderline personality disorder” or some combination. Maybe no one told you, but you learned through domestic violence professionals who helped you. You learned that your ex has an incurable disorder and that he is too arrogant to seek help or even listen to how he’s affected you. You learned that it is damaging to be involved with someone who is so consistently demeaning, controlling, selfish, dishonest, and abusive and began to untangle your own trauma issues. The mental health professionals you sought for advice told you the only thing to do is to go “No Contact”, for the reason that you cannot expect any semblance of normal, healthy relationship with this person. You’ve learned about “flying monkeys”-people who are enablers of the disordered, and you’ve cut those enablers out of your life. You learn to accept the situation and let go, realizing that this person can never accept influence, never value you as a human being, and will never change. As you heal and grow, life for you without an abuser or disordered person becomes increasingly hopeful, safe, and sweet again.
Except, you had children with this man. You can’t completely go "no contact" or avoid situations where you have to work together. Except “working together” in the spirit of mutuality, cooperation, and doing what’s best for the children is incompatible with his disorder.
And to top it off, your kids think Daddy hung the moon. You're the one who put in long hours of changing diapers and nursing and trying to juggle playdates and your job and you had a grown person who instead of stepping up to be supportive and helpful, was checked out and off doing what he wanted, when he wanted. The children may or may not know the depth of the abuse. They may or may not have witnessed direct verbal or physical abuse. But they understand, innately, the hierarchy an entitled parent sets up. And they intuitively know that Dad thinks Mom is worthy of contempt and ridicule. Despite this, they still believe that this parent who has exhibited unmitigated cruelty towards their own mother, who manipulates everyone’s lives through family court, who refuses to support his children financially and instead works behind the scenes to ensure they have an unnecessary struggle, who hates their mother, who consistently hurts someone they love- is a person who is trustworthy and loves and cares about them. Even though they've never actually seen or experienced their disordered parent being unselfish and supportive, their normal is set at a lower standard because it's all they've known.
There are plenty of tools in an abuser’s toolbox to use the children for dominance and control. A disorder does not go away because that person scapegoats someone or a new wife enters the picture or there are children involved. It’s pretty much the nature of personality disorders to have distorted thoughts and behaviors. And there are very, very few who seek help or recovery.
How do you reconcile your ex’s “good daddy” act and your children’s developmentally appropriate tendency to live in that fantasy with this behind the scenes hatred of you? These are your children to love and guide. Their father abandoned the marriage and refuses to be a team player in co-parenting. But your children love and want both parents. Their father is locked in to a compulsion to control and an extreme entitlement that he cannot fix. You understand how much that hurts. And you understand that it hurts the children when their father models a constant contempt for you. This affects your relationship with your children in different ways. Acting like a good dad on the surface while undermining the other parent without appreciating how this affects the children is gaslighting. It’s a performance when really that parent is dominating and dictating. Ultimately, it's child abuse. Depending on the severity of your ex’s disorder, this could result in:
-Your ex frequently using family court to work out co-parenting issues while depriving you of common courtesy and financial support and holding to a double standard. The goal: to financially cripple the mother (and the children, by proxy, making this child abuse) therefore, maintaining control
-your ex initiating a custody battle as a response to your calling out his abuse issues or again, to maintain control. Depriving a child of their healthy mother through lying, ruthless use of financial advantage to disadvantage the other, and enemy-making is abusive to a child.
-disparaging the other parent, either openly or passive-aggressively, thereby teaching children the subtext of abusive control: “your mother is incapable and unworthy and less than me. I have to dictate to her what to do and how to do it because she is too stupid to contribute to your major life decisions.”
-starting smear campaigns to punish you for speaking out or not doing what he says
-strictly enforcing the children’s loyalty to him and their participation in family enmeshment
-emotionally abusing the children through tight control and harsh parenting methods, as well as denigrating their parent whether they denigrate verbally or not
-acting as if he is in charge and can make decisions unilaterally, thereby effectively erasing your influence and diminishing your role
-manipulating the children to turn against you, reject you, and join his “side” and disparage you. This is called “domestic violence by proxy” because it is using the children’s loyalties to punish a loving mother. Withholding from her what she desires most: a relationship with her children, is punitive and cruel to the children. The underlying message is, “your mother is crazy and she must never get what she wants”.
But what can you do to help your children? How do you reconcile the fact that they love a person who lacks empathy and whose judgment is impaired by an incurable disorder?
There are several things you can do. First, commit to your own healing. Having children means you must have contact with your ex. Family courts do not understand the impact of personality disorders, and they see it as a rights issue. Even the disordered have the legal right to raise their children. Who cares if this produces more narcissistic, sociopathic, wounded people in the world. However, there are things you can do to mitigate the damage and guide your children towards emotional health.
-Teach them how to take no for an answer
-Teach them how good it feels to be validated and loved, and guide them towards learning to validate the opinions of others.
- Teach them full expression of feelings and self-awareness
-Teach them about gaslighting, emotional abuse, and dishonest manipulation in an objective, indirect way, just like you might help them with their math
-Teach them to resolve conflicts by using a restorative justice model: if you hurt someone, you make a repair, and you are able to apologize
-Teach them that their voice counts. While they are young, they will have very little power in their relationship with their father, and they will live in the fantasy world of the very young. My son, who is 8, told me that when he is older he will work at a Lego store but only two days a week because it would cut into his job as a paleontologist, and then he would find time between jobs to be an inventor. This is a beautiful aspect of childhood-this innocence in imagination. But that kind of magical thinking also applies to working with people who are disordered. Children are just not mature enough to speak up for themselves against an abuser. Still, teaching them and modeling having a voice can help. I have a friend who points out characters in movies, such as the witch in “Tangled”. You can learn a lot about gaslighting and manipulative tactics from most any Disney movie. Pointing out where the character grew to say, “no more lies” can give children an imagination of what is possible when you use your voice, and that there is a way to have courage.
--Teach them that their preferences and desires matter, but that they must also consider others. There is a give and take.
-Teach them emotional intelligence all the way around, by modeling through your own relationship with your children. Do not be afraid to directly confront issues, have hard conversations, and provide solid guidance to your children. Adopt a policy of 100% freedom of expression, that your house is a safe place to do that
-Teach them healthy boundaries. Narcissists and their families tend to engulf their members, making boundaries blurry and permeable. Help your children recognize who they are as unique people rather than letting a narcissist define and dictate who they are.
-Be a role model. Be aware of your own issues and triggers, especially if you have c-PTSD or PTSD from the relationship. Be gentle with yourself and model self-care. Self-care is as much about taking care of your feelings as it is about taking care of your physical needs. If you ended up with trauma issues because of a narcissist, your children are likely to a) also have trauma issues from not being seen, heard, or taken into account or b) cope by becoming narcissists themselves. It’s difficult when the worst outcome would be for your children to end up with all the selfishness, control, lack of empathy, dominance, and retaliatory traits of their father. But you cannot always prevent that.
-Be aware that when your children go through their teens, they are likely to switch teams as they become more developmentally narcissistic. No, they are not necessarily becoming narcissists, but are simply exhibiting the egocentrism, lack of decision-making capacities and poor impulse control that marks their age. The trouble is, narcissists do well with other narcissists, and narcissism runs in families. So of course, you are on “higher alert” during this age. Get your children into counseling, keep talking to them and keep lines of communication open and do not take any dismissal personally. In fact, use this age to teach boundaries because even though they demonstrate bravado, they are subject to the influences of peers and often naïve. Keep teaching them the importance of good character.
A cluster B’s parenting style is less of a parenting style and more of a management style. They need to control the appearances of the situation, micromanage details, and judge and correct. To them, children are projects who need to be aggressively fitted into their mold. Children who become their own person are threatening in a dysfunctional family. To that end, they make decisions without considering the children or the other parent while appearing to be actually doing the work of parenting. They are like the managers who come into the office, work everyone into a frenzy, then retreat to their office. No sense of teamwork or fair play.
But you can work to make sure your children have a mother who, through monumental effort and growth, comes to the place where she can handle this. Grow out of the victim mindset, even though you have been targeted for every ounce of destruction your ex can wreak on you. Your ex himself will have dibs on victim mindset even as he is the one victimizing. He will continue to model retaliation, control, and unending bitterness while he accuses you of those very things. He will teach the children no skills related to cooperation, because he cannot do that himself. He will show the children that things and appearances matter more than people. He will teach them selfishness and how to reject people when you don’t get your way, no matter how devoted and loving that person was.
It’s not fair, it’s not right, and cleaning it up is painful, messy, and lasts a long, long time. But you can use this situation to clarify and grow yourself. Through oppression, you can grow wise, strong, and clear enough to show your children what really counts: unconditional love.
Hold your ground, warrior women. Don’t let anyone tell you “mother” is less than or more disposable than “father”. Love your children fiercely, heal yourself, and hope always comes. No matter what your situation, know that you deserve complete grace. And so do your children. Let them love, let them learn their own way to forgiveness, don't judge them and protect them fiercely from influences of shame and blame. They will come to see their father through adult eyes some day, and you will be there to help them pick up the pieces when they hurt over their awakening.