Many adult daughters of narcissistic mothers I’ve spoken to say something like, “My mother was terrible, but my dad was a great guy” or, “He was the perfect dad- I couldn’t have asked for better.” They also say things like he didn’t stop Mom from abusing them. It wasn’t his fault though – he traveled for work, worked long hours, she was awful to him too or she was in charge. The roles also can be reversed with narcissistic fathers where the adult children say their mother was a great mom, she couldn’t stop him, but it wasn’t her fault, etc.
They fail to realize that both of their parents were narcissists.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all people who marry narcissists are bad people or are narcissists!! However, many times when a narcissist gets married, it’s to another narcissist.
Narcissists come in two forms – overt & covert. Most familiar are the overt narcissists, since they are the bold type. They are loud, boisterous & cocky. They demand to be the center of attention at all costs, even if it means making them look ridiculous. Covert narcissists are much harder to spot. They tend to fade into the background, look innocent, naive, generous even to the point of martyrdom. If someone is upset in their presence, they claim innocence & turn the situation around to where they are not only innocent but the real victim. Often they expect their adult children to cater to them, even after that child has a spouse & family.
Many times, an overt narcissist & a covert narcissist will get married & have children. This situation is a nightmare for the children.
When you grow up with two narcissistic parents, it is incredibly difficult to accept the fact. Accepting that one parents is a narcissist is bad enough, but both?! That is just too much. Besides, growing up with an overtly narcissistic parent, a child is so starved for love, she often can’t accept that neither parent genuinely love her. So instead, many people accept that the overtly narcissistic parent is a narcissist, & put the other parent on a pedestal. This isn’t healthy!
Being in that situation, you naturally will be closer to the “good” parent than the narcissistic one. The overt narcissist will take this as you & the other parent being against her, often taking the rage she feels out on the child, & the covert narcissist will gain narcissistic supply from your attention.
This situation also sets the stage for emotional incest, a psychologically abusive & damaging situation where the child is responsible for the parent’s emotional well being instead of the other way around. It leads to a great deal of stress & anxiety, guilt, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility & more in the child, even into adulthood.
Covert narcissists are extremely good at creating an emotionally incestuous situation with their child. They come across as needing protection, & often their children feel it is their job to protect them, even protecting them from their other, overtly narcissistic parent. That creates more friction between the child & the overtly narcissistic parent, especially when the child intervenes in their problems. Sometimes the overtly narcissistic parent responds by creating their own emotionally incestuous relationship with the child, & the child is stuck in the middle. This is how it was for me as a child, & my parents still do this to this day. I have to set boundaries by changing the subject or suddenly saying I have to go or hang up the phone to put a stop to it. Even as an adult, it’s still extremely stressful, & has triggered some flashbacks.
When you see that your “good” parent isn’t as good as you thought, it helps you to stop the covertly incestuous situation with him. You see it for the unhealthy relationship it is & learn to set healthy boundaries. You also take that parent off the pedestal & see him in a more realistic light. You accept that you are not responsible for catering to any & every need that parent has especially at the expense of your emotional or physical health, finances or your immediate family. You can relate in a healthier way with that parent, even if he doesn’t like your new boundaries. You no longer fall for the subtle guilt trips & manipulations, possibly even noticing them for the first time.
Although this realization is very good for you, it isn’t easy. I started to get very angry with my father when I realized he wasn’t the great dad I always thought he was. I began to see he had no trouble throwing me under the bus to my mother if it meant he was protecting himself. He has lied to her about me a few times, & she got mad at me for what he said. I also realized he uses me to dump on when he’s angry with my mother, which really makes me feel stuck in the middle. He also wants my comfort, even if I’m having a problem. For example, when my husband’s job eliminated his position a few years back, he said he was scared. How would we keep our home? What would we do if we lost the house? Where was he going to find another job? This is bad & upsetting him! Upsetting him?! He wanted me to reassure him that we’d be ok, when I wasn’t sure if we would be or not. This really added a lot to my anxiety at first, then made me angry. I realized I was the one in need of comfort yet he demanded it from me – how dare he?!
Those revelations made me VERY angry & hurt. It took a long time to process my feelings, but it did happen in time. It took me writing a lot out in my journal, complaining to God about how unfair it was & sometimes talking to understanding friends. Realizing how my father was also showed me how many people have no idea how he can be towards me. They buy his act of innocence & naivete, & accept nothing else. I realized I have to be careful who I talk to about our relationship because some people will get angry with me for not “being more patient” with him. After all, he needs me! He’s married to my mother & needs someone to support him. I’m his daughter so it’s up to me to take care of him, I’ve been told.
This type of situation could easily happen to you too. If you too have come to realize that your “good” parent is a covert narcissist, then by all means, be careful who you discuss the topic with! When this discovery is new, you feel very sensitive & emotionally raw. People who don’t believe you or shame you for exaggerating, lying, etc. will hurt you more than normal when you are in that sensitive state. Make sure to share your feelings only with non-judgmental, supportive people. Maybe even someone who has been through a similar situation.
Even being careful, you may be invalidated or shamed as I have been by those you trusted. If that is the case, I’m so sorry. It’s very painful, I know, to be invalidated, but especially when it comes from someone you didn’t expect to behave that way.
Being invalidated on this topic also may make you doubt your judgement. You may wonder if you’re being too harsh or judgmental. After all, since you learned about narcissism, you feel like you see it everywhere. Maybe you’re reading too much into things. When you feel this way, talk to God. Ask Him to tell you the truth! He truly will! And when He does, stand strong in that truth! Don’t let others make you doubt!
Also ask God what you need to do in this situation. Now that you know just how dysfunctional it is, you’re going to need to respond differently to that covertly narcissistic parent. Naturally, you’re going to need to set & enforce good boundaries, but since each narcissist is an individual, what works for one may not work for another. God can give you creative & effective ideas. All you have to do is ask & listen.
As painful a time as this is for you, it truly is for your best interest to learn this information. Continuing in the dysfunction only will make you miserable. Use this painful situation as an opportunity to learn & grow. Be gentle & understanding with yourself. Don’t get mad at yourself for slipping into old, dysfunctional patterns, but instead understand this happens sometimes. Remember it so you don’t do that again, & go on. Vent your feelings as you need to in a safe way, whether to God, a trusted friend or in your journal. Don’t bottle them up as it will only hurt you to do so. Most of all, trust God to help you get through this painful time.