Megan and Ryan decided to go to marriage counseling after their last fight resulted in the police being called. After being married for 7 years, the marriage was falling apart, and Ryan now had a police record for domestic violence as a result.
The conflict did not start with Ryan hitting his wife, as the arrest record portrayed. Rather Megan was aggressive towards him – throwing things, hitting him, and physically blocking his only exit. In an effort to defended himself and get away from her, he shoved her. But when the police arrived they saw a 6’ tall man, Ryan, and a 5’ tall woman, Megan, so he was arrested.
Desperate to make his marriage work, Ryan reached out for help from a therapist. Megan was more than happy to go to a therapist now that Ryan had a police record as she believed that inoculated her from any wrongdoing. But it wasn’t too long into the session that the therapist identified Megan as a narcissist and Ryan as a co-dependent.
Narcissists and people pleasers are strangely drawn towards each other. While opposites do attract, the bond between these personalities is strong as each unknowingly meets the dysfunctional needs of the other. Here is how:
Distorted perception. Narcissists think of themselves first and very little of others while people pleasers think of others and very little of themselves. Both, however, believe that their way of perceiving is correct. It is not. The neglect of others (narcissism) is selfish and causes unnecessary distance, confrontation and lack of intimacy. The neglect of self (people pleasing) creates unwanted exhaustion, increased anxiety and contributes to a lack of intimacy. Without a balance of self and others, a person cannot be fully intimate.
Driven to rescue. Narcissists and people pleasers love to rescue others however, they do it for very different reasons. Narcissists gain a sense of superiority from saving others because they were able to solve something the other person could not do on their own. In exchange for the help, narcissists demand unending loyalty. People pleasers gain a natural high from the same act as they love to feel needed. This strokes their ego and impression of self as a selfless person. In exchange, people pleasers expect friendship.
Craving admiration. This is the key to both personalities: the need to be admired by others. Narcissists believe they should be adored because of their expertise, superiority, beauty, intelligence, or accomplishments. It does not matter if they have achieved anything special, narcissists believe they are above others and deserve constant admiration. The term “people pleasers” defines the essential need for satisfying others and seeking their approval. Without admiration, people pleasers and narcissists become starved usually resulting in an emotional explosion.
Misguided affection. Affection is not intimacy. Sex is not intimacy. Affection is not sex. However, narcissists and people pleasers are unable to make these distinctions. They see all three as the same thing. Affection is showing tenderness, kindness, and gentleness towards another person. Sex is a physical act which is designed to bring pleasure to both parties. Intimacy is a deep connection between two people where they are equally transparent with one another. Narcissists and people pleasers crave affection but are frequently willing to settle for sex. Often the sex is one way: narcissists seek to satisfy themselves and aren’t concerned with pleasing others. People pleasers want to satisfy the other person and sacrifice themselves. Neither are comfortable being transparent with another person.
Need for control. Both parties have control issues. Narcissists control through demands, manipulation, and abuse. They are often very aggressive about insisting on their own way and expecting others to fall in line because they said so. Controlling others feeds their self-righteous ego. Because people pleasers cannot be seen as aggressive or assertive, they often use others to control through guilt trips, excessive kindness or passive-aggressive behavior. They are masters at concealing the need to control through niceness. They must control others to feed the desire to be liked by everyone.
A pattern of unforgiveness. Narcissists won’t ask for forgiveness instead they expect others to make excuses for their poor behavior. They also don’t grant forgiveness to others, even for the same offense, and instead, tend to be very vindictive. People pleasers grant forgiveness without being asked and ask for forgiveness even when it is not their fault. However, they are unwilling to forgive themselves for similar offenses. This unequal scale for both the narcissist and people pleaser stem from a belief that they are different than everyone else. The narcissist believes they are better and the people pleaser believes they not worthy.
Exposing these areas for Megan and Ryan took considerable time and effort. Both were highly resistant at first because at some level, their dysfunctional relationship worked for both of them. But to achieve the level of healing that they desired in their marriage, this dysfunction needed to be revealed, processed, and eliminated. Once it was done, they discovered a new functional attraction to one another that was far healthier than the trauma bond of before.
There is hardly a day that doesn’t go by in my counseling practice where someone brings up the concept of parental alienation. The problem is that the term is frequently misused. For some, it is a catch phrase used to describe any and all poor parent/child relationships. After all, it is far easier to blame the ex-spouse for the child’s poor behavior than it is to look at one’s self. This article is an attempt to clear up some confusion and answer some basic questions about alienation.
What is parental alienation? Parental alienation occurs when one parent encourages their child to unfairly reject the other parent. The child might display signs of unwarranted fear, hostility, and/or disrespect toward one parent while displaying signs of loyalty, unconditional trust, and/or empathy towards the other. The contrast in behavior, emotional responses, and thoughts towards each parent are dichotomous. The child may or may not be able to communicate logical reasoning for the difference.
What are the variations of alienation? There are three primary ways alienation occurs from the parent’s perspective: naively, actively, and obsessively.
What about the child? Children who are the innocent victims of parental alienation fall into two categories: oblivious and hostage. The oblivious child is unaware of the alienation efforts by the one parent and even when it is brought to light, still defends the parent. However, the hostage child is more aware of the deception but feels powerless to do anything about it. Even when confronted, the child defends the parent, although it is not a believable defense. The hostage child also shows other behavioral problems which often manifest at a school where the child feels freer to release some of the pressure of home.
What parental alienation is not. Having looked at the definition of parental alienation and the different types of parents and children involved, there are some occasions which may appear to be parental alienation, but they are not. The two categories discussed below are child-induced alienation and reverse parental alienation.
What is child-induced alienation? In this case, the child feels unsafe around one parent due to something they have witnessed or experienced. This is usually a traumatic event, abuse (physical, mental, emotional, verbal, sexual, spiritual, or financial), neglect, abandonment, and/or substance usage. The child makes a conscious choice to avoid said parent due to some dysfunctional action on the parent’s part. Even when the “safe parent” encourages the child to engage with the other parent, the child refuses. The child wants no part of the unsafe parent and refuses all efforts to bond or attach to the parent.
What is reverse parental alienation? The parent in an effort to enact revenge on the other parent tries to convince the child of the other parent’s incompetence while also treating the child poorly either through neglect, over-parenting, unfair punishment, and/or abusive behavior. In this case, the parent intends to alienate the other parent. However, it backfires, and they are alienated by the child instead. The child becomes wise to the parent’s methods and often mimics the very same tactics with the parent. This quickly escalates into a hostile home environment in which the child is frequently solely blamed, only reinforcing the child’s growing hatred for the parent. Meanwhile, the other parent doesn’t have to say or do anything because their ex is doing all of the work unproductively.
What can be done? As soon as any of these behaviors are detected in a child, they should be seen by a therapist who understands parental alienation and is comfortable working with both parents in the process. Parental alienation in the obsessive sense is harmful to the child in a long-term situation because it causes the child to trust only the perception of the one parent and not trust the other parent – or worse yet, not trust themselves. This is very damaging to a child who will eventually need to be able to rely on their own instincts in dangerous and fearful situations.
I hope that this article clears up some confusion while generating enough concern that a parent seeks out a neutral party such as a therapist to evaluate the child. Ultimately, it is all about the child and their health and helping to create and maintain the most nurturing environment possible.