Dealing with the Alienating Parent

I was recently asked the following question from a targeted parent:

“What advice would you have for how the targeted parent should approach their relationship with the alienating parent?   It feels like another “can’t win” situation, so perhaps the goal is to focus on limiting the amount of damage that can occur.”

Caveat:  I cannot address the specifics of any individual situation since I have not conducted an assessment specific to the situation.  I can only offer general thoughts from an attachment-based model for “parental alienation.”  Whether or not these thoughts apply to any individual situation is dependent on the specific features of that particular situation.

Baseline Advice

Coping with the narcissistic/(borderline) personality is challenging.  In general, I would abandon all hope of changing the behavior and distorted responses of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

The goal of intervention would be to heal the damaging effects that the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent has on the child and restore the authentic child.

Our primary goal should be,

1. To protect the child from the distorting influence of the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and

2.  To alleviate the distortions to the child’s emotional and psychological development that result from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Possible Interventions with the Alienating Parent

I have had several cases where intervention with the narcissistic/(borderline) has been productive.  The central feature of successful therapy with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is to understand how and why the narcissistic and borderline processes of the “alienating” parent become activated, and then work to resolve these triggering activations in order to reduce the psychological needs of the narcissistic and borderline processes that are distorting the family’s relationships.

The primary issue within the family is an inability to successfully transition from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.  The difficulty in making this transition is due to several factors in the personality structure of the the narcissistic/(borderline) parent,

1.  Processing Sadness: the fundamental characterologcal inability of the the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to experience and process the emotion of sadness.

2.  Splitting: the splitting dynamic that is inherent to the the narcissistic/(borderline) personality that views all interpersonal relationships in polarized extremes of entirely-good or entirely-bad, with no ambiguity possible, that allows for no shades of blended good and bad.

Inability to Process Sadness

The narcissistic personality is characterologically unable to experience and process the emotion of sadness.

Kernberg (1975), one of the leading figures in personality disorder processes, describes this difficulty,

“They [narcissists] are especially deficient in genuine feelings of sadness and mournful longing; their incapacity for experiencing depressive reactions is a basic feature of their personalities. When abandoned or disappointed by other people they may show what on the surface looks like depression, but which on further examination emerges as anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes, rather than real sadness for the loss of a person whom they appreciated.” (p. 229)

The loss of the intact family triggers sadness for everyone involved.  The emotion of sadness is activated by the loss of something that is valued.  In addition, the attachment system will trigger a grief response when an attachment mediated relationship bond is severed.  So sadness will be be triggered in the brain circuitry of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent at the divorce and loss of the intact family structure.  That’s just the way the brain works.

However, the pathways along which this sadness then gets processed become immensely twisted and gnarled within the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  So that, instead of experiencing sadness, the emotion is translated into “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes.”

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent then influences the child into interpreting the child’s own sadness and grief response at the loss of the intact family (and later, at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved-but-rejected targeted parent) in the same way as narcissistic/(borderline) parent does, as representing anger and resentment loaded with revengeful wishes.  This then produces the characteristic child symptoms associated with “parental alienation” in which the child is excessively (and irrationally) angry at the targeted parent and rejects a relationship with the targeted parent as a supposedly justified and righteous revenge for some supposed injury allegedly inflicted on the child by the targeted parent.

This is the “victimized child/abusive parent” narrative offered by the child, which is approved of and supported by the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

None of this “victimized child/abusive parent” narrative is true, but the child believes it is true because the child authentically hurts (i.e., an authentic sadness and grief response, initially at the loss of the intact family and later at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with the beloved-but-now-rejected targeted parent). 

One of the primary driving dynamics in “parental alienation” is the child’s misattribution of sadness and the grief response as being “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes.”

So, based on this understanding, one potential intervention involving the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is to help this parent process the unexpressed (and unacknowledged) sadness and grief at the loss of the intact family structure (and marital bond).  On the surface, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will not display and will deny any feelings of sadness or loss.  If the narcissistic/(borderline) parent displays sadness it will be superficial and it will readily dissolve when probed by a therapist into a sense of entitlement and anger toward the other spouse.

And yet, deep beneath the surface, in the deep unconscious recesses of the brain circuits of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, there is authentic sadness and loss, but it becomes so greatly twisted and distorted as it makes its way along the brain pathways of the narcissistic/(borderline) personality that it becomes absent from view and essentially vacant.

So, despite the apparent absence of sadness, loss, and grief with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the intervention must nevertheless act with the certainty that the sadness, loss, and grief are present.  In this, we must treat the sadness and loss experience and so thereby relieve the pressures that are driving the alienating parent’s manifestation of “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes” which is creating the distortion to the child’s feelings of sadness, loss, and grief.

Intervention

One intervention approach is to de-emphasize the inherent rejection associated with the divorce and dissolution of the intact family structure. 

In my work along these lines with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent I meet with both the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and the targeted parent together.  During these joint sessions I review the history of the marriage and its dissolution, carefully co-constructing a narrative that acknowledges the problems but that does not blame the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  In co-constructing this new narrative, I emphasize that the “family spousal-bonds” remain even after the dissolution of the direct marital bonds through divorce, because of the children.  Because there are children, the family will always be there.  It is just changing from an intact family structure to a separated family structure.

In this, I try to use the continuing parental bonds with the children to reactivate, and overtly keep alive, the continuing “family spousal bonds”  (I’ll explain more about this when I discuss the effects of the splitting dynamic below).

The goal is to minimize the loss experience for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent in order to minimize triggering the (buried) feelings of sadness and loss.  The communication is that narcissistic/(borderline) parent is not being abandoned by the other spouse.  The family remains.  The other spouse remains as a bonded resource. The spousal relationship is changing, but it is not being lost.  The family structure is changing, but it is not being lost. 

The goal is to minimize the extent of the loss, thereby minimizing the intensity of the sadness, thereby minimizing the intensity of the “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes” that is being triggered in the narcissistic/(borderline) parent by the buried feelings of sadness and loss.

This requires careful navigation by the therapist for the construction of the “marital narrative.”  The narcissistic/(borderline) parent will seek to construct the narrative to blame the targeted parent.  The therapist must carefully weave this narrative theme of blame offered by the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse into an overall narrative construction that blames neither spouse, thereby absorbing the narrative construction of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent (i.e., defusing it through understanding) and gradually moving the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse toward a non-blame narrative construction regarding the marriage and the divorce.

The narrative construction for the marriage and divorce must allow the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse to save face (i.e., limit the narcissistic injury), and yet must also not concede to a narrative construction of blaming the targeted parent as a means to do this.  This is accomplished in joint sessions with the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse and the targeted parent in which the blame narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse is drawn out in therapy, is allowed expression (hopefully triggering an understanding “I’m sorry” from the targeted parent), but that is not fully validated by the therapist. 

Instead, the therapist transforms this blame narrative into a more constructive narrative of transformation.

Having the targeted parent available in session to (initially) absorb the blame narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent allows for the deactivation of the intensity of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse’s hidden hurt and sadness through the resonant appreciation and understanding these feelings receive from the therapist and targeted parent, but the validity of the blame narrative must not be allowed to remain as the accepted narrative, as this will simply provoke and drive a righteous justification for continuing to punish the targeted parent. 

The narrative construction for the marriage and divorce must become one of non-blame and transformation through the active efforts of the therapist to redefine and co-construct with both marital partners a more productive meaning of their marriage and divorce.

This requires a skillful therapist, and it is not always possible.  Sometimes, the need to impose the blame narrative is a central driving imperative of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse, and no other alternative narrative construction is allowed.  If this is the case, then therapy to deactivate the narcissistic/(borderline) parent will be unproductive.

When productive therapy is possible, the goal with the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse is to process the meaning of the marriage and divorce in a way that minimizes the loss, abandonment, and narcissistic injury, which provides the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse with an indirect way of expressing his or her sadness (i.e., anger and blame) while being understood by the targeted parent, and yet also provides an alternative narrative construction to the anger and blame that allows the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse to save face without needing to blame the other parent/spouse.

Splitting

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent sees relationships in polarized extremes of all-good or all-bad.  No middle ground exists.  There is no ambiguity.  Everything is black-or-white.

So when the targeted parent become an ex-husband or an ex-wife, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent cannot simultaneously experience the other spouse as remaining a good father or a good mother.  In the polarized black-or-white world of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the bad spouse must be a bad parent, the ex-husband MUST become an ex-father; the ex-wife MUST become an ex-mother. 

This is an imperative imposed by the splitting dynamic contained in the neurological networks of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. Black-or-white. The ex-huband is also an ex-father; the ex-wife is also an ex-mother.  The bad spouse is also a bad parent. Consistency. No ambiguity is possible. Black-or-white. This is a fundamental neuro-biological feature of the splitting dynamic. 

As long as the targeted parent is an ex-spouse, then the targeted parent must also become an ex-parent. So any sort of therapy with the psychology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent must deactivate this splitting dynamic. We must achieve a change in meaning so that the targeted parent is not an ex-spouse, even though the targeted parent and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent are divorced.

The influence of the splitting dynamic is why, in some cases, the alienation process does not take off in earnest until after the targeted parent remarries.  In some cases, as long as the targeted parent remains single after the divorce the fantasy-psychology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can maintain the illusion of the targeted parent as a spouse.  In the mind of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the targeted parent still “belongs” to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. But when the targeted parent remarries this illusion is shattered.  The targeted parent is now an ex-husband, an ex-wife, and so must also become an ex-parent… (or else give up the new spouse).

In these cases, the child’s symptoms typically reflect a more distinct feature of rejecting the new spouse of the targeted parent rather than rejecting the targeted parent per se. In these cases, the rationale offered by the child for rejecting the targeted parent is often that the targeted parent “spends too much time with the new spouse” and not enough one-on-one “special time” with the child, and the child’s acting out is meant to drive a wedge in the targeted parent’s new spousal relationship. In these cases, the targeted parent is placed in a position of choosing between a relationship with the new spouse or a relationship with the child (black-or-white).

In the splitting dynamic of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the ex-spouse MUST become an ex-parent. Black-or-white. No ambiguity. No grey.

But the divorce means that the targeted parent is, in truth, an ex-husband or ex-wife.  So therein lies the challenge.

Therapy with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent needs to include reassurances from the targeted parent offered to the narcissistic/(borderline) ex-spouse that the targeted parent remains connected to the narcissistic/(borderline) ex-spouse.

During the alienation process this continuation of the “spousal connection” is sometimes expressed symbolically through alimony and child support payments to the dependent narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  In these cases, the continuing “spousal connection” is symbolically expressed through money.  As long as the money from the spousal and child support payments provided by the targeted parent reassures the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse of the continuing “spousal connection” then the active alienation of the child is held in abeyance.  If the money flow is interrupted or falls below the desired symbolic strength, then the narcissistic/(borderline) parent increases the intensity of the alienation process.

In other cases, the continuing “spousal connection” is expressed though ongoing and never-ending visitation and custody drama.  As long as the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse has “possession of the child” then the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse has something the targeted parent wants and the targeted parent can never be free from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The targeted parent cannot un-marry the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse (i.e., become an ex-spouse) because the narcissistic/(borderline) parent has what the targeted parent wants; the child.  The targeted parent must continually be involved with the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse because of the continual drama created surrounding custody and visitation. 

Years of never-ending drama keeps the targeted parent attached to the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. The marriage never ends, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent never becomes an ex-spouse because the targeted parent is forever linked in the “spousal connection” to the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse as long as the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse possesses the child who is desired by the targeted parent.

Conclusion

So therapy (or independent efforts by the targeted parent) to deactivate the narcissistic/(borderline) parent must address two issues,

1.  The narcissistic/(borderline) parent must be provided with an avenue to express the sadness, grief, and loss – expressed as blaming the targeted parent – which is then absorbed by the targeted parent (“I’m sorry I failed you”) while, at the same time this blame narrative of the narcissistic/(borderline) spouse must not be allowed to remain as the “official narrative” and must instead be transformed into a non-blame narrative regarding the meaning of the marriage and divorce.

This is challenging and may not be possible in most circumstances with a narcissistic/(borderline) spouse.

2. The extent of the loss must be minimized and the extent of the continuing “spousal connection” must be emphasized in order to reduce, to the extent possible, any (deeply) buried feelings of sadness and loss that are the driving force for “anger and resentment, loaded with revengeful wishes,” and to minimize the ex-husband/ex-wife status of the targeted parent to reduce the pressure of the splitting dynamic that requires the ex-husband to also become an ex-father, and the ex-wife to become the ex-mother.

This is also exceedingly challenging.

However, the primary focus of therapy should be on repairing the injury to the child created by the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  To the extent that treatment with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent can be productive, this would be helpful.  But I wouldn’t count on it and I would not make it a central focus of the treatment.

Treatment involves four phases,

1. Protective separation of the child from the pathogenic parenting of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent during the active phase of treatment,

2. Recovery of the authentic child,

3. Restoration of an affectionally bonded relationship of the child with the targeted parent, and

4. Reunification of the child with the psychopathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent once the restoration of an authentic and affectionally bonded relationship between the child and the targeted parent is achieved.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

References

Kernberg, O.F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism.. New York: Aronson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s