“Physical violence can be testified to by outside evidence: eyewitnesses, police and medical reports. With emotional abuse, there is no proof. It’s clean violence. Nobody sees anything.”
–Marie-France Hirigoyen, Stalking the Soul; Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity.
Several months ago, after I published Seven Deadly Sins Of Divorce: Pride; The Narcissistic Divorce, I received a telephone call from my dear friend and client. She was relieved. She said that she had read my article, and it described her very experience; it was the reason she was on edge all the time, not knowing how, when and why her spouse would strike next. It was the reason she lay awake at night worrying what will become of her children – will they be harmed emotionally? How could she protect them from the wolf in sheep’s clothing that was her husband?
In the weeks and months that followed, the calls, emails and comments poured in. There were so many similar stories of abuse at the hand of a narcissist. Over and over, I heard the same fact pattern of abuse and control. In light of the overwhelming prevalence of the issue, over the coming weeks, I intend to develop concerns and solutions in dealing with the abusive narcissist
Today, I will explore how the narcissist communicates, as described by Hirigoyen in her narrative, and the potential problems that may arise in co-parenting as a result:
- Refusal of Direct Communication. The abusive narcissist refuses to have direct communication about the child – there is never direct communication because he/she just simply doesn’t discuss things. Abusive individuals evade direct questions when asked.
- Distortion of Language. The abusive narcissist uses innuendo, unexpressed reproach or veiled threats to communicate. The tone is oftentimes flat and cold. Child victims can often describe the change in tone before the aggression strikes, describing it as “white.”
- Lies. Hirigoyen states that “[r]ather than using a direct lie, the abuser initially employs a mix of innuendo and unspoken hints to create a misunderstanding, which he will subsequently exploit to his advantage.” Lying is pervasive among abusive narcissists.
- Use of Sarcasm, Ridicule, Contempt. The abusive narcissist uses ridicule to create a position of knowing. Embarrassing his or her spouse can become the sole goal and objective.
- Use of Paradox. Often, an abusive narcissist will say something verbally and express the opposite non-verbally. One way to do that is to cast doubt into innocuous elements of daily life. For example: “I am so concerned about our child having the flu. I wish you would dress him for the weather and feed him healthy foods. Maybe then he wouldn’t be so sick all the time.” These feigned expressions of concern, without escalating tone of voice, can lead to doubt among even the most secure.
- Divide and Conquer. The abusive narcissist is adept at pitting people against each other by either insinuating doubt, revealing what one person said about the other, or by lying to incite people to become adversarial. This can result in parental alienation (a subject of a future blog) between parent and child or conflict between the children themselves.
- The Imposition of Power. The goal of the abusive narcissist is to dominate. The domination is typically underhanded and denied, often masked behind gentleness and benevolence.
The abusive narcissist’s behavior wreaks havoc on the co-parenting and parent-child relationship. This may pose significant issues in Court or otherwise:
- When a parent sharing decision making power fails to receive a direct response from the abusive narcissist, he or she may take actions that he/she believes are in the best interests of the child. This leaves them vulnerable in Court as he or she can be exposed to criticism by the judge for alleged unilateral actions. It certainly leaves the non-abusive co-parent open to a barrage of criticism from the narcissist.
- Often, the abusive narcissist will turn the situation around on the victim, labeling the victim the aggressor. I have seen this in my practice. Based on my conversations with forensic psychologist, this practice is known as mirroring, and is meant to deflect attention. Whether or not the mirroring can be identified will depend upon the severity of the mental illness.
- I have often heard victims describe parenting with a narcissistic abuser to be “chaotic.” The abusive narcissist refuses to commit to parenting time, or will do so at the last minute; all in a cat and mouse game of power and control.
- When the victim ultimately lashes out at the narcissistic abuser, they will essentially throw up their hands in a “Who? Me?” moment.
- Many emails will be paradoxical; nice in tone, but in practice, create conflict and strife. Sentences like “I am only trying to do what is best for the children”; or, “I don’t understand why you won’t speak to me respectfully” may pervade the exchanges.
- Many times, a narcissistic abuser will speak poorly of his/her former spouse in public regarding their actions as to the children, or making unkind allusions with no explanation to cast doubt upon them.
- Because the abusive narcissist speaks in innuendo, it leads to a lack of tangible evidence to present to the Court. One client told me in tears, worried that the judge would restore parenting time to her husband: “Physical abuse is easy to identify. But who will believe me when I tell them the pattern of emotional abuse I have been experiencing all these years?”
- The abusive narcissist loves conflict. Many times, he or she will just fight for the sake of fighting. Dominance, rather than a reasonable co-parenting solution, is always the goal.
Of course, the above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what victims of an abusive narcissist experience each and every day. In my next blog on this issue, I will address how co-parents and judges can manage the burden that abusive narcissists.
Eliana T. Baer is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or firstname.lastname@example.org.