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Coping With Narcissistic Behavior

Question:

My wife’s ex-husband is diagnosed with NPD and antisocial behavior. He continues to torment my wife on a regular basis, and even worse has been mildly successful in alienating my 14 year old stepdaughter against us and our life in general. We’ve made it this far by turning the other cheek and taking the higher road but I cannot bear the thought of completely losing the relationship with my stepdaughter if he continues to "brainwash" her against us, or if God forbid he moves on to physical and/or sexual abuse with her as a next step. He does seem to be slightly intimidated by me though I’ve never got in the habit of getting in the middle of things. So my question is, can I use intimidation and threats as a means to successfully alter his behavior? I’m not asking you to advocate physical violence or anything of that nature. As an example, I would possibly threaten to show his family and friends the psychiatric evaluation that talks about his personality disorders and abusive behavior. What are the chances that this would be successful, and more importantly would there be a chance that the backlash is in fact worse than what we’re dealing with now?

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Answer:

You’re in a complex and difficult situation, no doubt. There are several layers of problem going on here, and I think that in addressing your question, we will be best served by laying each out separately.

The first major problem layer is that there are what are known as boundary problems happening here. See my essay on relationship boundaries for detail about boundaries. In a nutshell, however, boundaries are barriers that both allow and also prevent the sharing of information. Family relationships work best when there are clear boundaries separating the parents from the children, for instance (e.g., the parents share information between themselves that they do not share with their children), and when there is a boundary around the family as a whole, which serves to help family members to identify with one another as a unit.

Because of your wife’s divorce and subsequent remarriage, boundaries are naturally complicated in your family. They would be complicated even if your wife’s ex was not a narcissist, but that he does have these personality problems makes things even more complicated. His presence in your family makes it difficult for you all to draw a boundary around yourselves, because he is necessarily included; half in and half out. He is your step-daughter’s father and cannot legitimately be excluded unless and until he becomes abusive to her and/or a judge rules that he has no custody rights.

The second layer of problem has to do with the abusive nature of your wife’s ex-husband. You say that he "torments" your wife, and that you worry that he may physically or sexually or otherwise abuse your step-daughter. I don’t doubt that you have cause for fear, but you do not make that cause clear to us readers; we don’t know what your grounds are for being so worried. For the moment, we’ll take you at your word that there is cause to suspect this man capable of sexually abusing his daughter, but as an aside, I think you should review the evidence you have to suspect that this is a real danger. Has he physically or sexually abused anyone in the past? Are you using "torment" as a figure of speech when you describe his interactions with your wife or is he indeed verbally abusive and/or threatening to her? Past and present behavior is generally the best predictor of future behavior, so the more this sort of thing has occurred in the past, the more you have to worry about for the future.

The third layer here has to do with the narcissism and antisocial personality disorder diagnoses. Suffice to say that if these diagnoses are accurate, you are dealing with a man who is fully capable of being cruel and even abusive to other human beings because he lacks an adequately developed sense of other people as important valid beings in their own right. Narcissism, as I understand it, is a sort of developmental delay specific to social maturity. As chance would have it, I have just written an article on the subject which you might want to read. The cruelty of the narcissistic person is roughly equivalent to the cruelty of small children who haven’t figure out yet that other people have the same feelings and needs as they do, probably because narcissists have not progressed significantly in their thinking about the nature of relationships since they were small children. While narcissists are perhaps more capable of abusing other people than socially mature adults, this is not to say that narcissism equals abuse. Most all narcissists act like insensitive jerks (like cruel little children), but not all of them are capable of physical or sexual assault on another human being.

The final layer we can talk about has to do with your uncertainty over your masculine role within the family. Should you "intimidate" this ex-husband, or stay out of the way as you have been doing mostly. Will intimidation (by which you mean the threat of blackmail (e.g., exposure as a person with documented psychiatric problems)) work or will it backfire? I think I sense the urge to punch this guy in the mouth lurking somewhere in the background, but I think you are smart enough to know that won’t make the situation better.

That is a lot of layers.

The narcissist’s motto is generally, "It’s all about me". Taking everything you say at face value, I think it is entirely within the character of a narcissist to view himself as a victim, and to (out of a misplaced sense of self-righteousness) yell at your wife for leaving him and "messing up his life" or something to that effect, and to expose your step-daughter to the same venom whenever he sees her. At age 14 and the product of a divorce that no doubt cracked her world, your step-daughter may be sympathetic to such messages. I don’t think that any "intimidation" you might come up with will help things.

If you were to make him an "offer he can’t refuse" (e.g., to physically threaten him) you might scare him silly, but then again you might not. If you did scare him silly, you’d have driven away the father of your step-daughter and she will likely find out and hate you for that AND you will put yourself and your family at risk of legitimate legal action he might take against you, or worse, set you up for a worse beating than you can handle. The threat of physical violence just won’t help you at all, though I understand the fantasy is compelling.

Most narcissists are remarkably thick skinned, at least in public, in my experience. I think threatening such a person with "exposure" will only fan the flames of his self-righteousness and make him feel more of a victim and thus increase rather than decrease the abuse and venom your wife and step-daughter are exposed to.

In general, I think that your intimidation strategy is not a good one. I think it will make you into a "bad guy" and play into the victim mentality of the ex-husband, when that is not what your family and particularly your step-daughter needs you to be.

I do think that your step-daughter needs information from yourself and your wife:

I think she needs to be aware of any risks of abuse she may be exposed to. Not just random fears you may have of sexual abuse, but data – evidence that such abuse is likely.

I think she needs to know about different kinds of abuse, such as verbal abuse. This article on abuse is a good starting place, and might be accessible to a 14 year old with good reading skills. At the very least you and your wife can read the article, and then explain it to your step-daughter.

The concept of narcissism is probably too abstract for a 14 year old, but the concept of immaturity is not. I think she needs some information on what it means to be a mature adult vs. an socially immature adult. Your wife likely divorced this man because he was acting immature and potentially abusively towards her. This can be communicated to your stepdaughter (preferably by her mother), although hopefully not in an overly angry manner. You both (you and your wife) can demonstrate what mature loving parental behavior looks like through your actions. You both can communicate to your daughter some ideas about what mature adult behavior should look like (e.g., Mature adults are capable of empathy; see how other people are feeling and alter their own behavior in response. Mature adults don’t bad mouth other adults or blame all their problems on others, etc.). In so doing, you can help inoculate your step-daughter against the worst of her father’s venom (e.g., by pointing out that it is venom and not a balanced portrayal of the true situation). This message should not badmouth the ex in any way, I don’t think, even if it speaks poorly about how he might behave. You want to communicate the love and concern you feel without the venom you are generating. If you badmouth this man, you attack a father, and that won’t work except to drive her further into this immature man’s hopefully parental arms. If you express some real love you feel; if you allow a little vulnerability to show that you are worried that you might lose your step-daughter’s affection (not too much or you will frighten her; just enough to make your fear known) she will likely respond positively to that.

I think family therapy is *a very good idea* and that all the family members should participate. This situation is complex and likely to be turbulent, and it is a good idea that you and your wife receive ongoing professional guidance and advice from someone who is familiar with the family dynamics (including the dynamics that involve the ex-husband, who, as I have pointed out, cannot be truly banished from the family).

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