Erin Pizzey on the ‘Family Terrorist’

February 6th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Anyone who’s ever been through a divorce and anyone who follows events in family courts knows that divorce and custody proceedings are among the most fraught with emotional difficulty.  Where one’s loveability is involved and particularly where one’s children are, emotions run high, to say the least.  In those situations, people do and say things they’d usually never dream of.  That would be true even if family courts and family lawyers didn’t do their best to exacerbate the bad feelings, but often enough, they do.  That’s particularly true in cases involving parties with money.  Every divorce lawyer knows that the greater the conflict, the greater the fee.

All of that would be true if divorcing parents were all emotionally well balanced, but unfortunately, the blow to the ego and the threat of the loss of children and family often conspire to exacerbate personality disorders that might otherwise go undetected or at least be kept under wraps.  Enter stage center, the “family terrorist.”  That’s the term given by Erin Pizzey in this fine article to those whose own personality disorders result in the abuse (sometimes physical, always psychological) of their nearest and dearest (A Voice for Men, 2/4/13).

Erin Pizzey is the woman who started the first domestic violence shelter in the United Kingdom in 1971.  She was concerned about family violence and decided to do something about it.  To her surprise, the majority of the women who came to her shelter told tales not only of violent mates, but of their own violence.  Her eyes opened, Pizzey declared that to help female victims of abuse, we had to help them learn to refrain from abusing their partners.  That simple realization directly contradicted the political views of the budding domestic violence movement and Pizzey was summarily shown the door.  Her life was threatened, her dog was killed and she made straight for the United States.  That was the birth of the movement that today is seeking half a billion dollars from the United States Treasury to continue doing what it’s always done – pretending that women aren’t abusers and don’t need help except as victims of men’s abuse.  Given that false premise, it should come as no surprise that, almost 20 years since its passage, the Violence Against Women Act shows no evidence whatsoever of reducing rates of DV.

Meanwhile, Pizzey has been telling the truth about domestic violence, and the linked-to article is no exception. In it she describes the family terrorist who, in Pizzey’s experience, is usually a woman, although men sometimes merit the title.

 In my work with family violence, I have come to recognize that there are women involved in emotionally and /or physically violent relationships that express and enact disturbance beyond the expected (and acceptable) scope of distress.

Such individuals, spurred on by deep feelings of vengefulness, vindictiveness, and animosity, behave in a manner that is singularly destructive; destructive to themselves as well as to some or all of the other family members, making an already bad family situation worse. These women I have found it useful to describe as ‘family terrorists.’…

We have had thousands of international studies about male violence but there is very little about why or how women are violent.  There seems to be a blanket of silence over the huge figures of violence expressed by women.  Because ‘family terrorism’ is a tactic largely used by women and my work in the domestic violence field is largely with women, I address this problem discussing only my work with women…

The terrorist is the family member whose moods reign supreme in the family, whose whims and actions determine the emotional climate of the household. In this setting, the terrorist could be described as the family tyrant, for within the family, this individual maintains the control and power over the other members’ emotions.   The family well may be characterized as violent, incestuous, dysfunctional,  and unhappy, but it is the terrorist or tyrant who is primarily responsible for initiating conflict, imposing histrionic outbursts upon otherwise calm situations, or (more subtly and invisibly) quietly manipulating other family members into uproar through guilt, cunning taunts, and barely perceptive provocations.   (The quiet manipulative terrorist usually is the most undetected terrorist.  Through the subtle creation of perpetual turmoil, this terrorist may virtually drive other family members to alcoholism, to drug-addiction, to explosive behavior, to suicide. The other family members, therefore, are often misperceived as the ‘family problem’ and the hidden terrorist as the saintly woman who ‘puts up with it all.’

All of that is an exercise of power within the family.  Understandably then, the prospect of family dissolution via divorce threatens the family terrorist’s hold on power, and this she resists.

Family dissolution, therefore, often is the time when the terrorist feels most threatened and most alone, and most dangerous.

In this position of fear, the family terrorist sets out to achieve a specific goal.   There are many possible goals for the terrorist, including:  reuniting the family once again, or ensuring that the children (if there are children in the relationship) remain under the terrorist’s control, or actively destroying the terrorist’s spouse (or ex-spouse) emotionally, physically, and financially.

Obviously, the family terrorist is not a well-adjusted adult, but a person with a disorder that’s rooted deeply in childhood.

Thus, it is primarily the residual pain from childhood – and only secondarily the pain of the terrorist’s current familial situation – that serves as the terrorist’s motivating impetus.   There is something pathological about the terrorist’s motivation, for it is based not so much on reality as on a twisting, a distortion, a reshaping of reality.

Because the emotional terrorist is a violence-prone individual, addicted to violence, the terrorist’s actions must be understood as the actions of an addict.   When the family was together, the terrorist found fulfillment for any number of unhealthy appetites and addictions.   When that family then dissolves, the terrorist behaves with all the desperation, all the obsession, all the single-minded determination of any addict facing or suffering withdrawal…

To the family terrorist, there is only one wronged, one sufferer, only one person in pain, and this person is the terrorist herself.   The terrorist has no empathy and feels only her own pain.   In this manner, the terrorist’s capacity for feeling is narcissistic, solipsistic, and in fact pathological.

Family Courts Enable the Family Terrorist

Sound familiar?  Yes, it’s what I write about almost daily.  It’s the stuff of parental alienation, false allegations in custody cases, child abduction, visitation denied.  And Pizzey notes that the family court system is quick to enable the family terrorist, particularly if she’s a woman.

When, however, one party to the divorce is an emotional terrorist, then both the confrontational divorce procedure and the resultant open-ended divorce settlement provide infinite opportunity for the courts, lawyers, and the entire battery of psychologists called in for evaluations, to be used a the terrorist’s weapons.

In these cases, the court and the divorce procedure provide no boundaries for the terrorist; instead they allow the terrorist to continue to behave boundlessly…

Furthermore, for anyone dealing directly with the terrorist, reassurances, ‘ego boosts,’  ‘positive strokes,’ and consolations are lamentably counter- productive.   Mrs. Roberts (a family terrorist) soon found for herself a feminist therapist staunchly supporting the erroneous belief ‘All feelings (and therefore behaviors) are valid.’

Mrs. Roberts is told by this therapist that she has a right to feel and to behave in any manner she chooses, in callous disregard for the devastation inflicted upon the children.   Such reassurances serve only to fortify the terrorist’s already pathological, solipsistic, and eternally self-justifying perspective.

Sadly, all too often, the family court system constitutes a support group for mothers like the ones Pizzey so aptly describes.  As a therapist, Pizzey advises that there’s “no negotiating with terrorists.”  That is, hard boundaries must be set by all who hope to control the family terrorist’s destructive behaviors.  That’s true of judges, psychologists, lawyers, guardians ad litem, custody evaluators, everybody.  But as we know, much of the family court system seems to believe that anything a mother says is true.  That’s about as far from a constructive way to deal with these people as it’s possible to be.

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