Divorcing a narcissist or a psychopath
Contributed by Sam Vaknin, Ph.D, author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited".
Domestic violence shelters
Preparing your getaway
Getting the police and law enforcement agencies involved
Peace bonds and restraining orders
Working with professionals
Suggested check list
The court proceedings
What about common children?
Books & articles
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This article is meant to be a general guide to seeking and finding help. It does not contain addresses, contacts, and phone numbers. It is not specific to one state or country. Rather, it describes options and institutions which are common the world over. You should be the one to "fill in the blanks" and locate the relevant groups and agencies in your domicile.
Your first "fallback" option is your family. They are, in many cases (though by no means always) your natural allies. They can provide you with shelter, money, emotional support, and advice. Don't hesitate to call on them in times of need.
Your friends and, to a lesser extent, your colleagues and neighbours will usually lend you a sympathetic ear and will provide you with useful tips. Merely talking to them can not only ease the burden - but protect you from future abuse. Stalkers and paranoids thrive on secrecy and abhor public exposure.
Regrettably, resorting to the legal system - your next logical step - is bound to be a disappointing, disempowering, and invalidating experience. I wrote about it extensively in the essay "Pathologizing the Victim".
A 1997 Review Paper titled "Stalking (Part II) Victims' Problems With the Legal System and Therapeutic Considerations", Karen M. Abrams, MD, FRCPC1, Gail Erlick Robinson, MD, DPsych, FRCPC2 note:
"Law-enforcement insensitivity toward domestic violence has already been well documented. Police often feel that, as opposed to serious crimes such as murder, domestic issues are not an appropriate police responsibility; 'private' misconduct should not be subject to public intervention, and, because few cases result in successful prosecution, pursuing domestic violence complaints is ultimately futile... This sense of futility, reinforced by the media and the courts, may be transmitted to the victim.
In cases involving ex-lovers, the police may have equal difficulty in being sympathetic to the issues involved. As in the case of Ms A, society often views stalking as a normal infatuation that will eventually resolve itself or as the actions of a rejected lover or lovesick individual, more to be empathised with than censured (2). Victims often report feeling that the police and society blame them for provoking harassment or making poor choices in relationships. Authorities may have particular difficulty understanding the woman who continues to have ambivalent feelings toward the offender...
In terms of the laws themselves, there is a history of ineffectiveness in dealing with crimes of stalking (1,5). The nature of the offences themselves makes investigations and prosecution difficult, because surveillance and phone calls often have no witnesses. Barriers to victims using civil actions against stalkers include dangerous time delays and financial requirements. Temporary restraining orders or peace bonds have been used most commonly and are generally ineffective, partly because law-enforcement agencies have limited resources to enforce such measures. Even if caught, violators receive, at most, minimal jail time or minor monetary penalties. Sometimes the offender just waits out the short duration of the order. Persistent, obsessed stalkers are usually not deterred."
Still, it is crucial that you document the abuse and stalking and duly report them to the police and to your building security. If your stalker is in jail, you should report him to the wardens and to his parole officer. It is important to resort to the courts in order to obtain restraining or cease and desist orders. Keep law enforcement officers and agencies fully posted. Don't hesitate to call upon them as often as you need to. It is their job. Hire a security expert if the threat is credible or imminent.
You are well advised to rely on professional advice throughout your prolonged and arduous disentanglement from your paranoid and stalking ex. Use attorneys, accountants, private detectives, and therapists to communicate with him. Consult your lawyer (or, if you can't afford one, apply for a pro bono lawyer provided by a civic association, or your state's legal aid). Ask him or her what are your rights, what kinds of legal redress you have, what safety precautions you should adopt - and what are the do's and don't do's of your situation.
Especially important is to choose the right therapist for you and for your children. Check whether he or she has any experience with victims of stalking and with the emotional effects of constant threat and surveillance (fear, humiliation, ambivalence, helplessness, paranoid ideation). Stalking is a traumatic process and you may need intervention to ameliorate the post traumatic stress effects it wreaks.
Join online and offline groups and organisations for victims of abuse and stalking. Peer support is critical. Helping others and sharing experiences and fears with other victims is a validating and empowering as well as a useful experience. Realising that you are not alone, that you are not crazy, and that the whole situation is not your fault helps to restore your shattered self-esteem and puts things in perspective.
The social services in your area are geared to deal with battering and stalking. They likely run shelters for victims of domestic violence and abuse, for instance.
Domestic violence shelters
Shelters are run, funded, and managed either by governments or by volunteer non-government organisations. According to a 1999 report published by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, there are well over 2000 groups involved in sheltering abused women and their off-spring.
Before you opt for moving with your children into a sheltered home or apartment, go through this check list.
- It is important to make sure that the philosophy of the organisers of the shelters accords with your own. Some shelters, for instance, are run by feminist movements and strongly emphasise self-organisation, co-operation, and empowerment through decision-making. Other shelters are supervised by the Church or other religious organisations and demand adherence to a religious agenda. Yet others cater to the needs of specific ethnic minorities or neighbourhoods.
- Can you abide by the house rules? Are you a smoker? Some shelters are for non-smokers. What about boyfriends? Most shelters won't allow men on the premises. Do you require a special diet due to medical reasons? Is the shelter's kitchen equipped to deal with your needs?
- Gather intelligence and be informed before you make your move. Talk to battered women who spent time in the shelter, to your social worker, to the organisers of the shelter. Check the local newspaper archive and visit the shelter at least twice: in daytime and at night.
- How secure is the shelter? Does it allow visitation or any contact with your abusive spouse? Does the shelter have its own security personnel? How well is the shelter acquainted with domestic violence laws and how closely is it collaborating with courts, evaluators, and law enforcement agencies? Is recidivism among abusers tracked and discouraged? Does the shelter have a good reputation among them? You wouldn't want to live in a shelter that is shunned by the police and the judicial system.
- How does the shelter tackle the needs of infants, young children, and adolescents? What are the services and amenities it provides? What things should you bring with you when you make your exit - and what can you count on the shelter to make available? What should you pay for and what is free of charge? How well-staffed is the shelter? Is the shelter well-organised? Are the intake forms anonymous?
- How accessible is the shelter to public transport, schooling, and to other community services?
- Does the shelter have a batterer intervention program or workshop and a women's support group? In other words, does it provide counselling for abusers as well as ongoing succour for their victims? Are the programs run only by volunteers (laymen peers)? Are professionals involved in any of the activities and, if so, in what capacity (consultative, supervisory)?
- Additionally, does the shelter provide counselling for children, group and individual treatment modalities, education and play-therapy services, along with case management services?
- Is the shelter associated with outpatient services such vocational counselling and job training, outreach to high schools and the community, court advocacy, and mental health services or referrals?
- Most important: don't forget that shelters are a temporary solution. These are transit areas and you are fully expected to move on. Not everyone is accepted. You are likely to be interviewed at length and screened for both your personal needs and compatibility with the shelter's guidelines. Is it really a crisis situation, are your life or health at risk - or are you merely looking to "get away from it all"? Even then, expect to be placed on a waiting list. Shelters are not vacation spots. They are in the serious business of defending the vulnerable.
When you move into a shelter, you must know in advance what your final destination is. Imagine and plan your life after the shelter. Do you intend to relocate? If so, would you need financial assistance? What about the children's education and friends? Can you find a job? Have everything sorted out. Only then, pack your things and leave your abuser.
Preparing your getaway
Do not leave unprepared. Study and execute every detail of your getaway. This is especially important if your partner is violent. Be sure to make a Safety Plan - how to get out of the house unnoticed and the indispensable minimum items that you should carry with you, even on a short notice.
Here are the recommendations of the Province of Alberta in Canada:
- Long before you actually leave, copy all important documents and store them in a safe place. These include: identity cards, health care and social insurance or security Cards, driver's license/registration, credit cards and bank cards, other personal identification (including picture ID), birth certificate, immunisation card for the children, custody order, personal chequebook, last banking statement, and mortgage papers. Make a list of all computer passwords and access codes (for instance: ATM PINs).
- When you leave the house, take with you these copied documents as well as the following personal items: prescribed medication, personal hygiene products, glasses/contact lenses, money (borrow from family members, a neighbour, colleague, or friends, if you have to), several changes of clothing (don't forget night wear and underwear), heirlooms, jewellery, photo albums (pictures that you want to keep), craft, needle work, hobby work.
- The situation is inevitably more complicated if you are fleeing with your children. In this case, be sure to bring with you their various medications, soother, bottles, favourite toy or blanket, and clothing (again: night wear, underwear). Older kids may carry their own clothes and school books.
- Make a list of the following and have it on you at all times: addresses and phone numbers of domestic violence shelters, police stations, night courts, community social services, schools in the vicinity, major media, and address and phone and fax numbers of your lawyer and his attorneys. Secure a detailed public transportation map.
- Your best bet is to apply to a shelter for a safe place to stay the first few days and nights. Read more about shelters here - Domestic Violence Shelters.
- If you can afford to, your next step should be to hire a divorce attorney and file for interim custody. Your divorce papers can be served much later. Your first concern is to keep the children with you safely and legally. Your husband is likely to claim that you have kidnapped them.
- But your escape should be only the tip of a long period of meticulous preparations.
We already mentioned that you should make copies of all important documents [see above]. Don't escape from your predicament penniless! Secretly put aside cash for an Escape Fund. Your husband is likely to block your checking account and credit cards. Ask around where you can stay the first week. Will your family or friends accept you? Apply to a domestic violence shelter and wait to be accepted. Be sure to know where you are going!
Make extra sets of keys and documents. Bundle these up with some clothes and keep these "reserve troves" with friends and family. Put one such "trove" in a safety deposit box and give the key to someone you trust. Secure transportation for the day or night of escape. Agree on codes and signals with friends and family ("If I don't call you by 10 PM, something has gone wrong", "If I call you and say that Ron is home, call the police").
You should wait until he is gone and only then leave home. Avoid confrontation over your departure. It can end badly. Do not inform him of your plans. Make excuses to slip away in the days and months before you actually leave. Get him used to your absence.
Getting the police and law enforcement agencies involved
If you want the nightmare to end, there is a rule of thumb which requires courage and determination to implement: Involve the police whenever possible.
Report his crimes as soon as you can and make sure you retain a copy of your complaint. Your abuser counts on your fear of him and on your natural propensity to keep domestic problems a secret. Expose him to scrutiny and penalties. This will make him re-consider his actions next time around.
Physical assault is a criminal offence as are rape and, in some countries, stalking and marital rape. If you have been physically or sexually assaulted, go to the nearest hospital and document your injuries. Be sure to obtain copies of the admission form, the medical evaluation report, and of any photographs and exam results (X-rays, computerised tomography-CT, biopsies, and so on).
If your abusive intimate partner verbally threatens you, your nearest and dearest, or your property or pets - this is also criminal conduct. To the best of your ability, get him on tape or make him repeat his threats in the presence of witnesses. Then promptly file a complaint with the police.
If your abuser forces you to remain indoors, in isolation, he is committing an offence. Forced confinement or imprisonment is illegal. While so incarcerated, failing to provide you with vital necessities - such as air, water, medical aid, and food - is yet another criminal act.
Damage to property rendering it inoperative or useless - is mischief. It is punishable by law. Same goes for cruelty to animals (let alone children).
If your partner swindled you out of funds or committed fraud, theft, or perjury (by falsifying your signature on a checking or credit card account, for instance) - report him to the police. Financial abuse is as pernicious as the physical variety.
In most countries, the police must respond to your complaint. They cannot just file it away or suppress it. They must talk to you and to your partner separately and obtain written and signed statements from both parties. The police officer on the scene must inform you of your legal options. The officer in charge must also furnish you with a list of domestic violence shelters and other forms of help available in your community.
If you suspect that a member of your family is being abused, the police, in most countries, can obtain a warrant permitting entry into the premises to inspect the situation. They are also authorised to help the victim relocate (leave) and to assist her in any way, including by applying on her behalf and with her consent to the courts to obtain restraining and emergency protection orders. A breach of either of these orders may be an indictable criminal offence as well as a civil offence.
If you decide to pursue the matter and if there are reasonable grounds to do so, the police will likely lay charges against the offender and accuse your partner of assault. Actually, your consent is only a matter of formality and is not strictly required. The police can charge an offender on the basis of evidence only.
If the team on the scene refuses to lay charges, you have the right to talk to a senior police officer. If you cannot sway them to act, you can lay charges yourself by going to the court house and filing with a Justice of the Peace (JP). The JP must let you lay charges. It is your inalienable right.
You cannot withdraw charges laid by the police and you most probably will be subpoenaed to testify against the abuser.
Peace bonds and restraining orders
If you want the nightmare to end, there is a rule of thumb which requires courage and determination to implement: Involve the courts whenever possible.
In many countries, the first step is to obtain a restraining order from a civil court as part of your divorce or custody proceedings or as a stand-alone measure.
In some countries, the police applies to the court for an emergency protection order on your behalf. The difference between a protection order and a restraining order is that the former is obtained following an incident of domestic violence involving injury or damage to property, it is available immediately, granted at the police's request, and issued even outside court hours.
Many restraining orders are granted ex parte, without the knowledge or presence of your abusive partner, based solely on a signed and sworn affidavit submitted by you. A typical emergency restraining order forbids the offender from visiting certain locations such as the children's schools, your workplace, or your home. It is later reviewed. At the review you should produce evidence of the abuse and witnesses. If the emergency or temporary order upheld it is fixed for a period of time at the judge's discretion.
Always carry the restraining order with you and leave copies at your place of employment and at your children's day-care and schools. You will have to show it to the police if you want to get your abuser arrested when he violates its terms. Breach of the restraining order is a criminal offence.
The wording of the order is not uniform - and it is crucial. "The police shall arrest" is not the same as "The police may arrest" the offender if he ignores the conditions set forth in the order. Don't forget to ask the court to forbid him to contact you by phone and other electronic means. Seek a new restraining order if you had moved and your place of residence or your workplace or the children's day-care or school changed.
If the abuser has visitation rights with the children, these should be specified in the order. Include a provision allowing you to deny the visit if he is intoxicated. The order can be issued against your abuser's family and friends as well if they harass and stalk you.
A restraining order is no substitute for taking precautionary measures to safeguard yourself and your children. Abusers often ignore the court's strictures and taunt you all the same. The situation can easily escalate and get out of hand. Be prepared for such unpleasant and dangerous eventualities.
Avoid empty and unlit areas, carry relevant emergency numbers with you at all times, install a personalised alarm system, wear comfortable shoes and clothes to allow you to run if attacked. Trust your senses - if you feel that you are being followed, go to a public place (restaurant, department store, cinema). Learn by rote the transit routes of all public transport around your home and workplace and make special arrangement with the cab operator nearest to you. You may also wish to consider buying a weapon or, at least, a spray can.
If you were physically or sexually assaulted or if you are being stalked or harassed, keep records of the incidents and a list of witnesses. Never hesitate to lay charges against your abuser, his family and friends. See your charges through by testifying against the offenders. Try not to withdraw the charges even if you worked out your problems. Abusers learn the hard way and a spell in jail (or even a fine) is likely to guarantee your future safety.
Based on a criminal police file, the criminal court can also force your abuser (and his family and friends if they have been harassing you) to sign a peace bond in the presence of a judge. It is a pledge of good behaviour, often requiring your abuser to stay away from your home and place of work for a period of 3-12 months. Some peace bonds forbid the abuser from carrying weapons.
Have the peace bond with you at all times and leave copies at your children's day-care and schools and at your place of employment. You will have to show it to the police if you want to get your abuser arrested when he violates its terms. Breach of the peace bond is a criminal offence.
Do not meet your abuser or speak to him while the restraining order or peace bond are in effect. The courts are likely to take a very dim view of the fact that you yourself violated the terms of these instruments of law issued for your protection and at your request.
There are many additional remedies the courts can apply. They can force your abusive partner to surrender to you households items and clothing, to grant you access to bank accounts and credit cards, to defray some costs, to pay alimony and child support, to submit to psychological counselling and evaluation, and to grant the police access to his home and workplace. Consult your family or divorce attorney as to what else can be done.
In theory, the courts are the victims' friends. The truth, however, is a lot more nuanced. If you are not represented, your chances to get protection and prevail (to have your day in court) are slim. The courts also show some institutional bias in favour of the abuser. Yet, despite these hurdles there is no substitute to getting the legal system to weigh in and restrain your abuser. Use it wisely and you will not regret it.
Working with professionals
Selecting the right professional is crucial. In the hands of an incompetent service provider, you may end up feeling abused all over again.
Go through the following check list before you settle on a divorce attorney, a financial consultant, a tax planner, a security adviser, or an accountant. Don't be ashamed to demand full disclosure - you have a right to do so. If you are met with impatience, arrogance, or a patronizing attitude - leave. This is not the right choice.
Make additional enquiries. Join online support groups and ask the members for recommendations. Visit directories on the Web - they are usually arranged by city, state, region, and country. Compare notes with others who have had similar experiences. Ask friends, neighbors, and family members to do the same. Scan the media for mentions of experts and mavens. Seek advice and referrals - the more the better.
Suggested check list
Is the professional certified in your state/country? Can he himself fully represent you?
Will you be served by the expert himself - or by his staff? Don't end up being represented by someone you never even met! Make the professional's personal services an explicit condition in any written and verbal arrangement you make.
Obtain a complete financial offer, all fees and charges included, before you hire the services. Make sure you are aware of the full monetary implications of your decisions. Finding yourself financially stranded midway through is bad policy. If you can afford it - don't compromise and go for the best. But if you don't have the pecuniary means - don't overshoot.
What is the professional's track record? Does he have a long, varied, and successful experience in cases similar to yours? Don't hesitate to ask him or her for recommendations and referrals, testimonials and media clips.
What are the likely outcomes of the decisions you make, based on the specialist's recommendations? A true pro will never provide you with an iron-clad guarantee but neither will he dodge the question. Your expert should be able to give you a reasonably safe assessment of risks, rewards, potential and probable outcomes, and future developments.
Always enquire about different courses of action and substitute measures. Ask your professional why he prefers one method or approach to another and what is wrong with the alternatives. Don't accept his authority as the sole arbiter. Don't hesitate to argue with him and seek a second opinion if you are still not convinced.
Make the terms of your agreement crystal-clear, get it in writing, and in advance. Don't leave anything to chance or verbal understanding. Cover all grounds: the scope of activities, the fees, the termination clauses. Hiring a consultant is like getting married - you should also contemplate a possible divorce.
Relegate any inevitable contact with your abusive ex - when and where possible - to professionals: your lawyer, or your accountant. Work with professionals to extricate yourself and your loved ones from the quagmire of an abusive relationship.
Having chosen your team of consultants and experts - and having hired their services - relegate any inevitable contact with your abusive ex - when and where possible - to professionals: your lawyer, or your accountant. Work with these qualified third parties to extricate yourself and your loved ones from the quagmire of an abusive relationship.
Be sure to maintain as much contact with your abuser as the courts, counselors, mediators, guardians, or law enforcement officials mandate. Do NOT contravene the decisions of the system. Work from the inside to change judgments, evaluations, or rulings - but NEVER rebel against them or ignore them. You will only turn the system against you and your interests. But with the exception of the minimum mandated by the courts - decline any and all GRATUITOUS contact with the narcissist.
Remember that many interactions are initiated by your abusive ex in order to trap or intimidate you. Keep referring him to your lawyer regarding legal issues, to your accountant or financial advisor concerning money matters, and to therapists, psychologists, and counselors with regards to everything else (yourself and your common children).
Abusers react badly to such treatment. Yours will try to manipulate you into unintended contact. Do not respond to his pleading, romantic, nostalgic, flattering, or threatening e-mail and snail mail messages. Keep records of such correspondence and make it immediately available to the courts, law enforcement agencies, court-mandated evaluators, guardians ad litem, therapists, marital counselors, child psychologist - and to your good friends. Keep him away by obtaining restraining orders and injunctions aplenty.
Abusers crave secrecy. Expose their misdeeds. Deter abuse by being open about your predicament. Share with like-minded others. It will ease your burden and keep him at bay, at least for awhile.
Your abusive ex-partner will try to dazzle you with attention. Return all gifts he sends you - unopened and unacknowledged. Keep your communications with him to the bare, cold, minimum. Do not be impolite or abusive - it is precisely how he wants you to behave. It may be used against you in a court of law. Keep your cool but be firm.
Do not let him re-enter your life surreptitiously. Stealth and ambient abuse are powerful tools. Refuse him entry to your premises. Do not even respond to the intercom. Do not talk to him on the phone. Hang up the minute you hear his voice while making clear to him, in a single, polite but unambiguous, sentence, that you are determined not to talk to him, that it's over for good.
Do not succumb to your weakness. It is tough living alone. You are bound to miss him horribly at times, selectively recalling only the good moments and the affection in your doomed relationship. Do not "dip" into the poisonous offerings of your abuser. Do not relapse. Be strong. Fill your life with new hobbies, new interests, new friends, new loves, and a new purpose.
Do not visit your abuser on "special occasions", or in emergencies. Do not let him convince you to celebrate an anniversary, a birthday, a successful business transaction, a personal achievement or triumph. Do not let him turn your own memories against you. Do not visit him in the hospital, in jail, a rehab center, or join him in a memorial service.
Do not ask him for anything, even if you are in dire need. When you are forced to meet him, do not discuss your personal affairs - or his. Your abuser's friendship is fake, his life with you a confabulation, his intentions dishonest and dishonorable. He is the enemy.
Abuse by proxy continues long after the relationship is officially over (at least as far as you are concerned). Do not respond to questions, requests, or pleas forwarded to you through third parties. Disconnect from third parties whom you know are spying on you at his behest. Do not discuss him with your children. Do not gossip about him.
The majority of abusers get the message, however belatedly and reluctantly. Others - more vindictive and obsessed - continue to haunt their quarry for years to come. These are the stalkers.
The court proceedings
You should distinguish the factual pillar from the psychological pillar of any cross-examination of a narcissist or deposition made by him.
It is essential to be equipped with absolutely unequivocal, first rate, thoroughly authenticated and vouched for information. The reason is that narcissists are superhuman in their capacity to distort reality by offering highly "plausible" alternative scenarios, which fit most of the facts.
It is very easy to "break" a narcissist - even a well-trained and well-prepared one.
Here are a few of the things the narcissist finds devastating:
- Any statement or fact, which seems to contradict his inflated perception of his grandiose self.
- Any criticism, disagreement, exposure of fake achievements, belittling of "talents and skills" which the narcissist fantasises that he possesses.
- Any hint that he is subordinated, subjugated, controlled, owned or dependent upon a third party.
- Any description of the narcissist as average and common, indistinguishable from many others.
- Any hint that the narcissist is weak, needy, dependent, deficient, slow, not intelligent, naive, gullible, susceptible, not in the know, manipulated, a victim, an average person of mediocre accomplishments.
The narcissist is likely to react with rage to all these and, in an effort to re-establish his fantastic grandiosity, he is likely to expose facts and stratagems he had no conscious intention of exposing.
The narcissist reacts indignantly, with wrath, hatred, aggression, or even overt violence to any infringement of what he perceives to be his natural entitlement.
Narcissists believe that they are so unique and that their lives are of such cosmic significance that others should defer to their needs and cater to their every whim without ado. The narcissist feels entitled to interact or be treated (or questioned) only by unique individuals. He resents being doubted and "ridiculed".
Any insinuation, hint, intimation, or direct declaration that the narcissist is not special at all, that he is average, common, not even sufficiently idiosyncratic to warrant a fleeting interest inflame the narcissist. He holds himself to be omnipotent and omniscient.
Tell the narcissist that he does not deserve the best treatment, that his desires are not everyone's priority, that he is boring or ignorant, that his needs can be catered to by any common practitioner (medical doctor, accountant, lawyer, psychiatrist), that he and his motives are transparent and can be easily gauged, that he will do what he is told, that his temper tantrums will not be tolerated, that no special concessions will be made to accommodate his inflated sense of self, that he is subject to court procedures, etc. - and the narcissist will likely lose control.
The narcissist believes that he is the cleverest, far above the madding crowd.
Contradict him often, disagree with him and criticize his judgement, expose his shortcomings, humiliate and berate him ("You are not as intelligent as you think you are", "Who is really behind all this? It takes sophistication which you don't seem to posses ", "So, you have no formal education", "You are (mistake his age, make him much older)", "What did you do in your life? Did you study? Do you have a degree? Did you ever establish or run a business? Would you define yourself as a success?", "Would your children share your view that you are a good father?", "You were last seen with a certain Ms. ... who is (suppressed grin) a stripper (in demeaning disbelief)".
I know that many of these questions cannot be asked outright in a court of law. But you can insinuate them or hurl these sentences at him during the breaks, inadvertently during the examination or deposition phase, etc. Narcissists hate innuendos even more than they detest direct attacks.
What about common children?
The abuser often recruits his children to do his bidding. He uses them to tempt, convince, communicate, threaten, and otherwise manipulate his target, the children's other parent or a devoted relative (e.g., grandparents). He controls his - often gullible and unsuspecting - offspring exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey. He employs the same mechanisms and devices. And he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done - which causes tremendous (and, typically, irreversible) emotional hurt.
Some offenders - mainly in patriarchal and misogynist societies - co-opt their children into aiding and abetting their abusive conduct. The couple's children are used as bargaining chips or leverage. They are instructed and encouraged by the abuser to shun the victim, criticize and disagree with her, withhold their love or affection, and inflict on her various forms of ambient abuse.
As I wrote in Abuse by Proxy:
"Even the victim's (children) are amenable to the considerable charm, persuasiveness, and manipulativeness of the abuser and to his impressive thespian skills. The abuser offers a plausible rendition of the events and interprets them to his favor. The victims are often on the verge of a nervous breakdown: harassed, unkempt, irritable, impatient, abrasive, and hysterical.
Confronted with this contrast between a polished, self-controlled, and suave abuser and his harried casualties - it is easy to reach the conclusion that the real victim is the abuser, or that both parties abuse each other equally. The prey's acts of self-defense, assertiveness, or insistence on her rights are interpreted as aggression, lability, or a mental health problem."
This is especially true with young - and, therefore vulnerable - offspring, particularly if they live with the abuser. They are frequently emotionally blackmailed by him ("If you want daddy to love you, do this or refrain from doing that"). They lack life experience and adult defenses against manipulation. They may be dependent on the abuser economically and they always resent the abused for breaking up the family, for being unable to fully cater to their needs (she has to work for a living), and for "cheating" on her ex with a new boyfriend or husband.
- Co-opting The System
The abuser perverts the system - therapists, marriage counselors, mediators, court-appointed guardians, police officers, and judges. He uses them to pathologize the victim and to separate her from her sources of emotional sustenance - notably, from her children. The abuser seeks custody to pain his ex and punish her.
Abusers are insatiable and vindictive. They always feel deprived and unfairly treated. Some of them are paranoid and sadistic. If they fail to manipulate their common children into abandoning the other parent, they begin treat the kids as enemies. They are not above threatening the children, abducting them, abusing them (sexually, physically, or psychologically), or even outright harming them - in order to get back at the erstwhile partner or in order to make her do something.
Most victims attempt to present to their children a "balanced" picture of the relationship and of the abusive spouse. In a vain attempt to avoid the notorious (and controversial) Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), they do not besmirch the abusive parent and, on the contrary, encourage the semblance of a normal, functional, liaison. This is the wrong approach. Not only is it counterproductive - it sometimes proves outright dangerous.
Children have a right to know the overall state of affairs between their parents. They have a right not to be cheated and deluded into thinking that "everything is basically OK" - or that the separation is reversible. Both parents are under a moral obligation to tell their offspring the truth: the relationship is over for good.
Younger kids tend to believe that they are somehow responsible or guilty for the breakdown of the marriage. They must be disabused of this notion. Both parents would do best to explain to them, in straightforward terms, what led to the dissolution of the bond. If spousal abuse is wholly or partly to blame - it should be brought out to the open and discussed honestly.
In such conversations it is best not to allocate blame. But this does not mean that wrong behaviors should be condoned or whitewashed. The victimized parent should tell the child that abusive conduct is wrong and must be avoided. The child should be taught how to identify the warning signs of impending abuse - sexual, verbal, psychological, and physical.
Moreover, a responsible parent should teach the child how to resist inappropriate and hurtful actions. The child should be brought up to insist on being respected by the other parent, on having him or her observe the child's boundaries and accept the child's needs and emotions, choices, and preferences.
The child should learn to say "no" and to walk away from potentially compromising situations with the abusive parent. The child should be brought up not to feel guilty for protecting himself or herself and for demanding his or her rights.
Remember this: An abusive parent IS DANGEROUS TO THE CHILD.
- Idealization - Devaluation Cycles
Most abusers accord the same treatment to children and adults. They regard both as Sources of Narcissistic Supply, mere instruments of gratification - idealize them at first and then devalue them in favour of alternative, safer and more subservient, sources. Such treatment - being idealized and then dumped and devalued - is traumatic and can have long-lasting emotional effects on the child.
Some abusers are jealous of their offspring. They envy them for being the center of attention and care. They treat their own kids as hostile competitors. Where the uninhibited expression of the aggression and hostility aroused by this predicament is illegitimate or impossible - the abuser prefers to stay away. Rather than attack his children, he sometimes immediately disconnects, detaches himself emotionally, becomes cold and uninterested, or directs transformed anger at his mate or at his parents (the more "legitimate" targets).
Sometimes, the child is perceived to be a mere bargaining chip in a drawn out battle with the erstwhile victim of the abuser (read the previous article in this series - Leveraging the Children). This is an extension of the abuser's tendency to dehumanize people and treat them as objects.
Such abusive partners seek to manipulate their former mate by "taking over" and monopolizing their common children. They foster an atmosphere of emotional (and bodily) incest. The abusive parent encourages his kids to idolise him, to adore him, to be awed by him, to admire his deeds and capabilities, to learn to blindly trust and obey him, in short to surrender to his charisma and to become submerged in his follies-de-grandeur.
- Breach of Personal Boundaries and Incest
It is at this stage that the risk of child abuse - up to and including outright incest - is heightened. Many abusers are auto-erotic. They are the preferred objects of their own sexual attentions. Molesting or having intercourse with one's children is as close as one gets to having sex with oneself.
Abusers often perceive sex in terms of annexation. The molested child is "assimilated" and becomes an extension of the offender, a fully controlled and manipulated object. Sex, to the abuser, is the ultimate act of depersonalization and objectification of the other. He actually masturbates with other people's bodies, his children's included.
The abuser's inability to acknowledge and abide by the personal boundaries set by others puts the child at heightened risk of abuse - verbal, emotional, physical, and, often, sexual. The abuser's possessiveness and panoply of indiscriminate negative emotions - transformations of aggression, such as rage and envy - hinder his ability to act as a "good enough" parent. His propensities for reckless behaviour, substance abuse, and sexual deviance endanger the child's welfare, or even his or her life.
Minors pose little danger of criticizing the abuser or confronting him. They are perfect, malleable and abundant Sources of Narcissistic Supply. The narcissistic parent derives gratification from having incestuous relations with adulating, physically and mentally inferior, inexperienced and dependent "bodies".
Yet, the older the offspring, the more they become critical, even judgemental, of the abusive parent. They are better able to put into context and perspective his actions, to question his motives, to anticipate his moves. As they mature, they often refuse to continue to play the mindless pawns in his chess game. They hold grudges against him for what he has done to them in the past, when they were less capable of resistance. They can gauge his true stature, talents and achievements - which, usually, lag far behind the claims that he makes.
This brings the abusive parent back a full cycle. Again, he perceives his sons/daughters as threats. He quickly becomes disillusioned and devaluing. He loses all interest, becomes emotionally remote, absent and cold, rejects any effort to communicate with him, citing life pressures and the preciousness and scarceness of his time.
He feels burdened, cornered, besieged, suffocated, and claustrophobic. He wants to get away, to abandon his commitments to people who have become totally useless (or even damaging) to him. He does not understand why he has to support them, or to suffer their company and he believes himself to have been deliberately and ruthlessly trapped.
He rebels either passively-aggressively (by refusing to act or by intentionally sabotaging the relationships) or actively (by being overly critical, aggressive, unpleasant, verbally and psychologically abusive and so on). Slowly - to justify his acts to himself - he gets immersed in conspiracy theories with clear paranoid hues.
To his mind, the members of the family conspire against him, seek to belittle or humiliate or subordinate him, do not understand him, or stymie his growth. The abuser usually finally gets what he wants - his kids detach and abandon him to his great sorrow, but also to his great relief.
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Coping with a paranoid ex-spouse
Coping with stalking and stalkers