My ex-wife is a severe malignant narcissist. We’ve been apart for more than four years, and divorced for one (your math is correct; the divorce took three years, and for no reason at all other than her high-conflict nature.) After all this time, most divorced people would have moved on and would have peace in their lives. Sadly, that will never be the case for her.
While some contact with my ex is necessary because we have kids, I’ve gone as close to no-contact as possible. I’ve worked hard to establish and enforce boundaries and build my own healthy life.
As I’ve shut her out in more and more ways, she has lost nearly all of the control she once had over me. It’s driving her crazy, which is fine, but she’s using our boys as tools to get at me, which is very, very bad.
The latest in my ex’s long track record of this abusive behavior was pure cruelty. But, bad as it was, it also just might be a watershed event in our family’s history in terms of waking me up to the fact that I need to change my tactics. But first, a brief side story…
An Unexpected Epiphany
We know a family whose two kids recently went through their parents’ divorce and now spend most of their time with an alcoholic mother. She has a long history of outrageous public behavior, and it’s no better at home. It’s having a horrific effect on the kids, and it’s heartbreaking.
Recently, I was at a graduation party with this woman, and she was in rare form. The other parents kind of rolled their eyes, as they always do. They were uncomfortable, but they were used to the behavior, and it was almost an accepted part of our collective lives.
I was as guilty of this attitude as anyone. But this time, something clicked in my brain. This behavior was not OK. Not at all. I told her the next day that my son was not going on a planned trip with her family. I had a text exchange with the dad, where I told him very directly that his kids are in danger and he needs to step up and do something. And I’ve had several conversations with other parents to try to figure out how we might be able to help.
As I thought about this sad situation, I was reminded that abuse is only possible when nobody speaks up. The #MeToo movement has had an incredible impact on our society, empowering victims to shine a light on their abusers.
A Vacation Stolen
Our divorce agreement allows each of us to take a week vacation in the summer “once activities of the children are complete.” In prior years, I took my vacation in August, while my ex took hers in July during a week that summer camp took a break.
This year, I picked a week in July, and we booked a vacation house at the New Jersey shore. The boys’ summer “activities” were never an issue, since they’re a bit older and they don’t do the camp thing anymore; they only had a few swim meets and baseball games – events which are a constant in their over-scheduled lives.
And that’s where it went off the rails.
Soon after I announced my dates, my ex started complaining about the swim meets they’d miss. And thus began a three-month war. She started a campaign to arouse anxiety in our boys over the swim meets they’d be missing. She sent harassing letters to me and my attorney. She had her attorney attack me.
We had a session with a co-parenting therapist (who, unfortunately, lacks a background in domestic abuse, and is in over his head with her.) The therapist urged us to deliver a consistent message so as not to put the boys “in the middle,” and the whole thing would have been a non-issue if she had not continued to stir them up instead.
Next, I got a letter saying that I was in violation of our agreement, because swim meets are “activities” and the agreement says that their “activities” need to be over. How ridiculous! She did the exact same thing the prior two years! Her letter also threatened that she would not turn the boys over to me at any time during the week we were going on vacation.
I did the only thing I could do: I filed a motion in Family Court to compel her to let us go on our vacation. My ex showed up with her attorney (I’m pro se,) who interrupted me before I could state my case. They both lied to the judge, saying my ex had not taken her past vacations during weeks when there were games and meets scheduled. I had proof (printed emails and schedules) in my hands, but the judge refused to look at this ironclad evidence. It was over in two minutes.
The judge said to my ex, “Taking away your children’s vacation is not a victory,” but this judge doesn’t know my narcissistic ex! To her, causing any chaos in my life or undermining my relationship with my sons is a victory – an especially sweet one.
This post is not really about legal issues, but this episode served as a huge reminder that our courts are not equipped to deal with high-conflict people and rarely provide justice in such situations. It’s absolutely critical that your divorce decree be as specific as possible, or your toxic ex will exploit any grey areas!
All was not yet lost. My ex had won the right to cancel our vacation, but she could still decide not to do so. Perhaps, having the boys know she was the only reason they don’t get the full week at one of their favorite places on earth might compel her to let them go?
When the boys were next with me, I explained what had happened, and told them that they could not have their full week’s vacation unless their mother allowed it. They were heartbroken, but they both assured me that they wanted to go for the full week and that their mom told them she’d support whatever they wanted. So, if they just told her what they wanted, we should be fine.
I knew better.
Me: “If the roles were reversed, do you think I’d cancel half your vacation?”
Both of my sons: “Of course not!”
Me: “Why not?”
My younger son: “Because you’re not a horrible person!”
My older son blamed himself for the entire mess, lamenting that he hadn’t made it clearer to his mother earlier that he wanted to stay the full week. Imagine that, my poor kid was blaming himself for his toxic mother’s abuse!
The boys told their mother they wanted to go… And she said no. She said they could go for a couple of days (my normal access time for the week,) but no more.
My older son was dumbfounded, though he’s used to her dominating his life and giving him very little control. She had recently forced him to continue seeing a therapist who he had no connection with, over his objections. She attempted to manipulate him into choosing a private high school that he clearly did not want to attend. Now, she had blatantly lied to him by telling him she’d honor his vacation wishes, and then doing the opposite.
My younger son called his mom to make a final appeal. By the time she was done manipulating him, he screamed at me that “she knows what’s best for me!” and “you’re calling mom a horrible person!” (Which she is, but I’ll never, ever say that to them.) Ironic, isn’t it? He was the one who had said a “horrible person” would take away the vacation, not I.
It’s not at all unusual for victims of abuse to defend their abusers, as he was doing. Loyalty to a destructive person is called “trauma bonding,” and it’s on full display in my younger son. https://pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2015/10/what-is-trauma-bonding/
When we described my sons’ behaviors and responses to several domestic abuse counselors that we know well, they said that my boys are showing “clear signs of severe emotional abuse.”
Narcissists don’t care about anybody’s feelings in the least. My ex gleefully threw a monkey wrench in our vacation, hurting all of us. But what she doesn’t realize is that she has hurt herself most of all by betraying our children’s trust. They’re a bit young to understand how bad that is, but they are starting to wake up. They know something is really wrong here.
An Epiphany, Part II
In her excellent book, “Will I Ever be Free of You?,” Karyl McBride writes about empathetic parenting and how the healthy parent can counter the damage done by the narcissistic parent.
My approach to date has been just to be the best dad I can possibly be and model great relationships, healthy boundaries, self-respect, etc. But that hasn’t been enough – certainly not if my boys are showing “clear signs of severe emotional abuse.”
The light that went on for me with the family I described earlier is still on, and I realize now that that lesson applies in our family’s situation, too. Abuse is only possible when nobody speaks up. I haven’t spoken up enough.
It’s time to rip the mask off my narcissist ex. Not to our boys, of course – that’s what mental health professionals are for – but to our community. To our doctors, therapists, other adults my boys spend time around (selectively, of course.)
I’m worried beyond belief for my sons, but I’m hopeful, too. My ex’s abuse includes a long history of medical abuse that fits the pattern of Munchausen-by-proxy. She was investigated by Child Protective Services in 2017, but the investigation was closed as “unfounded.” The investigator explained that none of the doctors saw the activity as extreme. That’s because they weren’t talking to each other; each doctor only knew their portion of the dozens and dozens of visits for every ailment imaginable (and most were exactly that: imagined.)
So, I met with my son’s pediatrician and sounded the alarm. He generously offered to assume oversight of all treatments. My son’s medical care is all run through this one doctor, and that’s curtailed her behavior considerably.
There is hope, at least if I take action. And now, my boys need me to take action again. Refusing to stay silent for another moment is the next step.