Considering my therapy-positive attitude, you might think someone hacked into my website and posted a hate blog about psychologists. No, it's me. With a family story. And despite the outcome, I'm therapy-positive.
At the time this story took place, I didn't know anything about narcissism and even though I'd gone to therapy myself, no counselor ever questioned the state of my marriage (which I thought was special); or questioned my Holy Optimism (which I thought was healthy); or my belief in eternal marriage (which I thought was a joint commitment).
So even at the risk of sounding hypocritical, it feels important to write about an experience narcissistic families may have experienced, too. Like recognizing your daughter is in trouble and talking it over with your spouse, twisting his arm until he agrees to let you call a therapist and then being told by the therapist that your husband was simply AMAZING. The most amazing specimen of manhood a family could ever wish for and if anyone was having problems with Captain America, they must have a chemical imbalance in their brain.
Before explaining how psychologists failed our family, you must know it's also true that good therapy made our lives better. Good therapy was and continues to be invaluable. Bad therapy deteriorated family relationships. Bad therapy is worse than none at all. My prior positive experience with therapy is what prompted me to hand over my daughter without questioning the therapist's qualifications, which I wouldn't have known how to do much less felt qualified to demand. This was the state of my thinking back then, which is probably reflective of most parents who trust professionals to help their children, to help their family, to know things they're supposed to know because we don't.
Educating Therapists about Pathology
I've been listening to Dr. Craig Childress explain attachment-based "parental alienation". Even if my family wasn't dealing with parental alienation per se, his descriptions of the narcissist/borderline pathology have been illuminating---as in blinding flashes of "duh". It's pretty clear that my effectiveness as a mother was being undermined throughout our marriage, despite Captain America punishing our kids for disrespecting me, a narcissistic projection. He disrespected me and punished our kids for his "sins". It was confusing to watch a man who mocked my mothering, spank his kids for having mirror neurons.
Other haunting situations have been clarified (haunting being a euphemism for self-blame). One of those situations was failing to get proper help for a troubled daughter. In the article below, Dr. Childress chastises the psychological community for not recognizing the narcissist/borderline personality driving the family system. Considering the trust parents invest in psychologists, his criticisms need be taken to heart.
"The first step to securing mental health as an ally is to clear the field of professional incompetence, so that ONLY professionally knowledgeable and competent mental health professionals treat this “special population” of children and families." ~Stark Reality by Dr. Craig Childress
To reiterate, I'm applying pathogenic parenting descriptions to my family even though our adult children were not diagnosed with clinical symptoms of parental alienation. They were adults when we divorced, capable of disagreeing with their father's behavior and distancing themselves while adjusting to an unforeseen reality. If my children were alienated in any way, it was not my doing---not during the divorce and certainly not while we were married! The narcissist/borderline parent may believe they're being alienated by a malicious ex, and they might convince people they're being bad-mouthed to the kids, but that's a paranoid perception. There are justifiable reasons why a child might distance themselves. A child's rejection of a parent is only attachment-based parental alienation when:
"A clinical assessment of the parenting behavior of the rejected parent provides no evidence for severely dysfunctional parenting (such as chronic parental substance abuse, parental violence, or parental sexual abuse of the child) that would account for the child’s complete rejection of the parent." ~Dr. Craig ChildressI was inspired to write out this story when Dr. Childress suggested narcissist/borderline parents had been alienating their children before the divorce. Now why alienation-throughout-the-marriage came as a shock to me is another world wonder. I've been studying NPD for ten years. It only makes sense that a narcissistic parent would interfere with normal bonding, would affect the way children felt about themselves and how they perceived the other parent. Those looks of contempt on the narcissist's face? Kids see them, too. Those insults thrown at the other parent? Kids hear them, too. Narcissistic/borderline parents influence children to see the other parent as inferior, incompetent, or even irrelevant. I think that's fair to say. That triangulation occurs in the family is no surprise. That the narcissistic/borderline parent devalues the other parent is no surprise. That the narcissist/borderline parent convinces his/her children that their mother/father deserved to be punished, ought be no surprise, either. This explains a lot about our family dynamics even though our children did not meet the requirements for attachment-based parental alienation. Now my nephew who moved in with me when he was five? That's another story worth writing about! Thank you God bless you Dr. Childress.
My daughter adored her father. She wanted to be like her father. He was her great protector. She idealized him in such an over-the-top way that her friends confronted her. They knew she couldn't talk to him without bursting into tears. "You adore your father who makes you cry whenever you talk to him?" they'd ask. And she'd say, "Fuck you."
Had I known there were even a remote chance my husband had a narcissistic personality, I'd have reserved a lifeboat just in case with three woolen jackets, extra cash, and donuts just in case. And binoculars. Then the kids and I could gaze at the stars while drifting safely to shore. Instead, we almost went down with the ship while Captain America rowed away in his lifeboat built for two.
The Dreadful Day our Family Went to Therapy
|"Ahhhh...what a nice Daddy!"|
I guess I'm a little angry we missed a window-of-opportunity because it wasn't easy convincing my daughter a therapist could help. And it sure-as-hell wasn't easy convincing my husband to attend a therapy session with his family. How that happened, go figure. It still shocks me. I suppose he was confident he could bamboozle the psychologist while discrediting me for suggesting our daughter was depressed. He, by comparison, wasn't judgmental like his overly protective wife. He, by comparison, saw authenticity and intelligence, not mental illness. He almost had me believing her behavior was nothing worse than a teenage rebellion and right on cue, I felt pangs of guilt for even thinking she had a problem. In my heart though, there was valid cause for concern and even if her problems were my fault, dear counselor, Please Help Her. That the Captain's daughter needed psychological treatment was of less concern to him than his image as a father. That's a mean judgment on my part, but hey---I'm not above making judgments today, or being mean.
"A narcissistic injury to the parent may result from the realization that his/her child has the profile of behavioral disturbances...Clinicians find that a narcissistic parent often tends to report less problems with their child in order to minimize their own narcissistic injury." ~article linkTo reiterate: Narcissistic parents report fewer problems in their children. There are many reasons for that, one of them being they aren't even aware of a child's behavioral changes. Plus, there's that pesky image thing again. Narcissistic parents fear children's problems reflect poorly on them.
A story about a narcissistic mother was told to me by a dear friend who had hurt herself as a young girl after jumping off a roof and breaking both her feet. She crawled an entire summer before standing upright again. What did her mother do? She punished my friend for wailing. She refused to take her to a hospital because doctors would say she was a bad mother for not protecting her daughter. I know. Boggles the mind, doesn't it? P.S. Surgery corrected the broken bones in my friend's feet once she had medical coverage through her marriage. Fifteen years later.
We Want to Believe Their Shtick
It's not easy letting a narcissistic partner be just as awful as they really are.
The treating child psychologist not only missed the Cluster B presentation sitting in in her office, she also seemed to miss devaluation of the mother and unhealthy idealization of the father. She missed the cognitive dissonance when my daughter said, "My Dad is the most amazing man in the world. I can't talk to him without crying." That alone should have led to deeper inquiry. I think a therapist trained in recognizing narcissist/borderline personalities would have intervened rather than insisting family dynamics had nothing to do with my daughter's distress. (!) She suggested putting my daughter on medication and added, "Wouldn't every girl dream of having a father like that!"
I was proud he was my husband. Then not understanding why, cried all the way home. Partners of narcissists do a lot of crying without understanding why.
* * *A brief pause in this story to tap my forehead and repeat: "I unconditionally love myself for being naive; and unconditionally forgive myself for failing to get the help our family needed."
* * *
In retrospect, I wasn't very articulate or knowledgeable about psychology. I couldn't explain my feelings and would never have described my partner as abusive! I was overwhelmed with concern for our children who were my responsibility in a traditionally constructed marriage. I was deferential to my spouse which was part of the problem too, reinforcing the lofty things he said without confronting his fabrications. The narcissistic family's dilemma is that confrontation leads to argumentation; we back away, too tired to tangle, preserving energy for bigger battles. Unfortunately, when narcissism is rewarded, it's reinforced. When no one confronted his performance in the therapy session and the therapist applauded his amazing fathering, his narcissism was rewarded. The rest of his family was pushed deeper into self-doubt and denial.
I wanted to believe my husband and the kids wanted to believe him but nobody wanted to believe him as much as himself. Eventually, the family man shtick was too hard to maintain. It isn't easy being a family man if you can't put other people's welfare ahead of your own, if you can't see your wife as your equal, if you can't embrace all those soft values connecting human beings to one another.
And what did my daughter tell the therapist about me, you might ask? She said I was nurturing, funny, selfless, she kinda loved me like a pet. I'm exaggerating yea, but the years since my divorce have allowed us to get to know one another in ways that wouldn't have been possible in our narcissistic family. My time and attention was always divided between the Captain and his
P.S. I have taken therapists' advice to heart--even when it made me uncomfortable. Sometimes it felt like they were repeating stereotypical responses based on my role as a stay-at-home-mother but even then, no suggestion was ignored. I've also spent a lot of time in Alanon-for-parents learning how to stay connected to my children while respecting their autonomy. Were you wondering if Captain America went to parenting classes with me? Nah, of course not. He didn't need 'em. Wouldn't every child dream of having a father like that?
Dr. Childress's blog
A List of Articles by Dr. Craig Childress
Childress. Diagnostic Checklist for Pathogenic Parenting
Childress. Video lecture: Treatment of Attachment-based "parental alienation" (1:47:08)
Childress. Video lecture: Parental alienation: an attachment-based model (1:46:03)