The potential for family terrorism may rest dormant for many years, emerging in its full might only under certain circumstances. I found that in many cases it is the dissolution, or threatened dissolution, of the family that calls to the fore the terrorist’s destructiveness. It is essential to understand that prior to dissolution, the potential terrorist plays a role in the family that is by no means passive. 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 of the emotional terrorist 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.”)
While the family remains together, however miserable that “togetherness” might be, the terrorist maintains her power. However, it is often the separation of the family that promises to rend the terrorist’s domain and consequently to lessen her power. Family dissolution, therefore, often is the time when the terrorist feels most threatened and most alone, and, because of that, 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.
To take an extreme parable, when it was evident to Adolph Hitler that winning the War was an absolute impossibility, he ordered his remaining troops to destroy Berlin: If he no longer could rule, then he felt it best for his empire to share in his own personal destruction. Similarly, the family terrorist, losing or having lost supremacy, may endeavor to bring about the ruin (and, in some extreme cases, the death) of other family members.
The family terrorist, like the political terrorist, is motivated by the pursuit of a goal. In attempting to “disarm” the family terrorist, it is vital that the practitioner begin intervention by trying to recognize and understand the terrorist’s goal.
The source of the terrorist’s goal as in the case of the political terrorist, usually can be understood to spring from some “legitimate” grievance. The grievance’s legitimacy may be regarded in terms of justified feeling of outrage in response to an actual injustice or injury, or the legitimacy may exist solely in the mind of the terrorist. Whether this legitimacy be real or imagined, the grievance starts as the impetus for the terrorist’s motivation. One hallmark of an emotional terrorist is that this motivation tends to be obsessional by nature.
Whence this obsession? Why this overwhelmingly powerful drive? In many cases, that which the terrorist believes to be the grievance against the spouse actually has very little to do with the spouse. Although the terrorist may be consciously aware only of the spouse’s alleged offense, the pain of this offense (real or imagined) is invariably an echo of the past, a mirrored recreation of some painful situation in the terrorist’s childhood.