If you marry someone who’s mother is a narcissist you are marrying damaged goods. That is very hard to read I know, it was pretty damn hard to write. They can survive a childhood with a narcissistic mother quite well provided they have some other close family member like a father or grandparent to treat them normally. But the fact that their first human relationship, the one with their mother, was formed with someone who put themselves first will leave an indelible mark on their psyche.
There are a variety of ways in which a person can respond to growing up in a family with a narcissist. Following from the Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) movement, psychologists began to recognise similar traits in the children of very dysfunctional families even if alcoholism wasn’t an issue. The traits are given names by psychologists; the Scapegoat, the Rebel, the Hero, the Lost Child etc. They describe the ways in which a child can adapt to find space to survive in the relationship with their mother. In an alcoholic family often one child also develops addiction problems. Sadly in a narcissistic family it is not unusual for one child to develop the same personality disorder. Copying the disordered behaviour or adapting yourself quite profoundly to fit in with it are the options available. Neither option is healthy for the psyche of the child.
My husband took on the role of the Hero/Caretaker, his sister is a Lost Child. Their father took the role of family Scapegoat and was the one who was told he didn’t earn enough, was emotionally unstable, caused problems etc. He was very passive and retreated from confronting her giving her full reign over every facet of family life. Her moods dominated everything and reading them and making things right for her was the role my husband took on.
This means he is very emotionally aware and considerate of others, which are good things to be. It also means he is scared of anger, distress and emotional pain in others and himself and anticipates others’ needs to soothe them and by extension himself. He engages in the same indirect communication patterns and passive-aggressive behaviour when stressed as his mother does. He is terrified of her disapproval and is a self-confessed over achiever.
Here is a brief description of some of the roles and adaptations that the child of a narcissist can make. One of these roles may well be the one your spouse adopted. The first four roles are the classic ACOA roles, the later two are additions that some authors have identified in dysfunctional but not necessarily alcoholic homes.
The Good Child or Hero – these children are high achievers who look good to the outside world, providing the family with esteem and an acceptable face that conceals the dysfunction. They are perfectionist, overly control their emotions to the point of being unaware of them, they are unable to play or ask for help and struggle to be flexible or spontaneous. They take on adult responsibilities and self-sufficiency at a young age. They have a deep fear of failure and need for success and external approval. They can be very driven as adult. They have a hard time admitting their family or themselves had a problem.
The Lost Child or Adjuster– these children withdraw from the dysfunctional family be making themselves as quiet and unnoticed as possible so as not to provoke the wrath of the dysfunctional parent. They may retreat into books, fantasy or excessive TV watching as solitary activities. They deal with the difficulties in reality by retreating from it. They may abuse food by overeating, bulimia or anorexia. They can be overly independent. They may be shy and scared of emotional intimacy. They may have problems developing relationships as adults. These children are most likely to feel depressed or suicidal.
The Mascot – this child deals with the family situation by making jokes, larking about and being the one who lightens the atmosphere even at the expense of being ridiculed as the family clown or idiot. They are attention seekers, distracting and immature and have a hard time dealing with negative emotions which they work so hard to cover up. They could also be the super-cute, ditsy airhead, the one getting into silly scrapes. They have difficulty making decisions and focussing on a task or career.
The Scapegoat or Rebel – this child acts out, often spectacularly, which diverts attention away from the problem and onto fixing the child. They are the most emotionally honest of all the children overtly displaying the fall out of the dysfunction within the family. This takes the form of direct confrontation with parents, drunkenness, addiction, trouble with the law or school authorities, teen pregnancy, running away from home. They can be very angry and self-destructive and are often the first member of the family to get help and start recovery.
The Caretaker or Placater – This child takes on responsibility for the emotional temperature of the family and tunes into the moods of the household with acute sensitivity. They people-please to smooth over any upsetting situations or potential flashpoints. This comes at the expense of awareness of and attention to their own needs. They have intense dislike of conflict and negative emotion. As adults these people can gravitate towards caring professions or relationships where they can “rescue” someone.
The Mastermind – this is the child who can make use of the family situation to their own ends, they are manipulative of those around them. Lacking empathy and with a strong sense of their own entitlements they sit back and work out how to play people off each other to get what they want. They may be divisive. They’ll be the ones who say “well if Dad is drunk, I’ll take the car”. While adopting strategy and cunning to survive they are also denying their and others emotional responses and risk becoming abusive of others themselves.
I have a confession to make here, I am very familiar with these roles from well before I met my husband and his mother. My father had a drink problem when I was a kid. I recognise the roles written out here from my own family and siblings, there are four of us. What I want to emphasise to you is the idea that these roles are not rigid and fixed. I have behaved in more than one role in my life. I was very high achieving in school and a lost child at home for some years. Then it all got too much and I flipped and started acting out, my grades slipped, I stopped doing any school work, I got very depressed and angry, started verbally fighting back at my dad and I became the child with the problem (mental health in this instance) and was the first to get outside help and blow the family situation open which is the role of the rebel.
I can see the roles in my husband’s family also although there are only two children there. He and his sister are very high achieving, the hero role; to this day his mother takes great personal pleasure in having them look good to the outside world. But in the home he was the caretaker-placater and his sister the lost child. These are roles both of them still act out in their adult lives, not just with their mother either.
I could see these behaviours in my husband’s family and I knew where they came from having read all about the problems faced by children raised in homes with alcohol problems (thanks Dad). For years I kept my thoughts on MIL’s behaviour and my husband’s relationship to her to myself as I thought it was unacceptable to out and out criticise my husband’s mother to him, even though she was so vile to me it made me feel sick and stressed every single time I had to see her. I dislike confrontation myself and I thought maybe she would come round after a while and mellow. Ha, wrong. These things do not change by hoping they will go away. Only bravely facing up to the realisation that your spouse has some pretty dysfunctional behaviours (thanks MIL) will you be able to do anything to change it.
It is my husband’s relationship with his mother that is the key problem, not her or her behaviour but his mechanism for coping with it. The adaptations he made to be able to live with her are not so useful in relating to other non-disordered people and do not get him what he wants or needs out of life. He has had to slowly work out there was something wrong with his behaviour around her, what exactly it was that was wrong, what he wanted instead and how to get it. He still hasn’t got it completely. If he had a better mechanism for coping with her, one which allowed him to see her clearly and detach from her influence, he and our family wouldn’t have quite so hard a time dealing with her.
It is worth considering if your spouse has adopted one of these classic roles as a result of growing up with a very difficult mother. How does this impact upon your relationship with them? The roles get carried over into marriages, friendships and careers. In the next post I’ll consider the ways these roles could crop up in a relationship and what to do about it to stop them from causing long term problems.