“In general, the more dysfunctional the family the more inappropriate their response to disclosure. Never expect a sane response from an insane system.” ~ Renee Fredrickson, Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse
Referred to as the dramatic, emotional, and erratic cluster, the four cluster~b personality disorders are antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic. As a trauma therapist in NYC I often encounter men and women seeking treatment for the mental disorders they incurred from years of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse perpetrated by their cluster~b personality- disordered parents.
Personality Disordered parents lack empathy, are egomaniacal, manipulative, and fixated on status and personae. Through shattering illusions and de-mythologizing, the victimized child awakens to the myriad strategies employed by the abusive parent to maintain power and control.
Typically these men and women committed to their recovery and growth are insightful and courageous. As they heal and dismantle the wreckage of their past, they begin to unravel the complexity of the abuse they endured at the hands of their caregivers. They also begin to expose the pernicious nature of their parents and the ruinous damage brought about by years of parental violation and neglect. They come to know that the abuser, incapable of empathy and thus indifferent to another’s pain, is intolerant of any lapses in attention, and impervious to truth and reason.
The cluster~b parent perpetrates smear campaigns against their child, vilifies and scapegoats, gaslights, willfully manipulates and physically, emotionally, and psychologically abuses with no moral compunction. The abuser skillfully plays the victim while vilifying their victimized children, and engages gullible others to target the scapegoated family member.
As adult children of parental abusers stabilize, they typically recognize the need to create distance from their familial perpetrators. The degree of pathology evidenced in the disordered parent, largely determines whether reconciliation or indeterminate estrangement will prevail.
Inevitably, the adult survivor of child abuse has to consider if further involvement with the personality disordered parent will open them up to further abuse and harm.
If the PD abuser is on the malignant end of the PD spectrum they will lack the capacity for insight and positive change. This means it is likely they will persist with predation, deny their perfidious motives, and evidence an absence of sincere remorse. They will perceive reconciliation as an opportunity to further manipulate, control, punish, and extort narcissistic supply from their prey.
To re-engage with this degree of pathology puts the adult victim at risk for regressing into dysfunctional interpersonal patterns, succumbing to guilt and cognitive dissonance, getting mired in confusing roles, and being flooded by abandonment panic. Essentially it is an act of self-sabotage, which results in chaos and corroded self-esteem.
While the malignant disordered parent intentionally maneuvers to inflict pain, perpetrators with character disorder traits as opposed to a full-blown personality disorder may have the capacity to insightfully examine how their abuse of power has harmed others.
Under these conditions, it may be tenable for adult children of parents with personality disorder traits to attempt to engage in a realistic healing process of reconciliation.
For those who feel there is a possibility of reasonable engagement, the adult child needs to be sufficiently healed and possess appropriate boundaries. These adult children of parental abusers must be adequately prepared for the possibility of a disappointing outcome, in which the disordered parent denies their actions and hence withholds apology.
For many, this constitutes a deal-breaker, which results in finality. For others, sufficient healing and realistic expectations may encourage a willingness to tolerate a relationship with disordered parents who have the capacity to modify objectionable behavior, with the full understanding that there will be enforced repercussions for inappropriate words and actions. This scenario necessitates an ability to accept a dynamic with a disordered parent who is at best able to feign a modicum of decency.
Many victims of abuse collectively resist the notion that sometimes the very best one can do is work through core injuries, assimilate destabilizing grief and rage, and completely excise the abuser from one’s life. Rather, adult children of parental abusers may fall prey to the exalted notion of forgiveness as the magic elixir. Although they believe that recovery from complex trauma is a tremendous feat, they want to believe in the uncanny ability to surmount all of life’s challenges, including forgiving what may be unforgivable.
I personally tend to veer towards Dr. Judith Herman’s contention that in the absence of repentance what might seem like forgiveness, may be in actuality be a fantasy of forgiveness.
As Dr. Judith Herman wrote in Trauma & Recovery, “Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.”
It is humbling and disillusioning to recognize that within the realistic parameters of our humanity, not all things in life are forgivable. This fate does not mean a life of despair for the victim. One achieves healing through mourning.
Mourning literal and intangible losses to let go and reclaim (to the extent it is possible) what one was robbed of, does not require forgiveness. It requires authentic processing of unbearable pain so that eventually a modicum of regulation can occur. It requires one to evaluate what is reparable and what is not.
Naturally, in the most successful cases, true repentance from the abuser is demonstrated, and with that, the establishment of a healthier renewed sense of familial connection.
Whatever the outcome, for many adult children subjected to years of abuse by their PD parents, simply confronting the abuse and standing in their truth is a powerfully cathartic act offering redemption from victimization and the sense of empowerment resulting from confronting injustice. It is a reclamation of one’s dignity, allowing for transformation and inner peace.
Most essential is trusting that reclaiming one's right to exist for oneself and breaking intractable patterns of victimization is a far greater gift to the world and to oneself than attempting reconciliation. In a paradoxical way that itself is the ultimate act of forgiveness.