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Anyone who’s experienced life as the family scapegoat knows how hellish it can be. To be in this position is to be the communal emotional (and sometimes physical) punching bag—the one who provides an outlet for everyone else’s stress, frustration, and various other negative emotions.
So, what happens when the scapegoat walks away?
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you deal with the emotional upheaval of leaving a family dynamic where you were scapegoated. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
What is a family scapegoat?
First and foremost, let’s revisit what it means to be the family scapegoat.
In dysfunctional family dynamics, the scapegoat is the person who receives the brunt of scorn and abuse. Usually, it’s the child of a narcissistic parent who’s forced to don this mantle, and they end up being barraged from all sides as a result.
The narcissist parent generally has a “golden child” who can do no wrong. In contrast, the family scapegoat is the one who can’t do anything right. They’ll be blamed for everything that goes wrong, even if they have nothing to do with it.
The parent might have had a bad day at work and will come home and scream at the scapegoat for not wearing the right socks, or they blame them for drinking all the milk, even if they’re vegan. Then, if the scapegoat tries to defend themselves or speak up in any way, they’re punished for back-talk/disrespect.
Other family members may take advantage of this situation and blame other wrongdoings on the scapegoat in order to avoid being abused themselves. As you can imagine, the scapegoat inevitably ends up doing one of two things: having their will broken and accepting their fate or leaving the situation to save themselves.
Let’s take a closer look at the latter of these, where the scapegoat leaves.
What happens to the family dynamic in those left behind?
This depends on how much contact the scapegoat has after they’ve left. Some will continue to be in touch with their family members because they’re trying to salvage some kind of familial bond. Others maintain contact because they want to keep tabs on people in the home they actually care about.
Basically, instead of burning their bridges, many people refrain from going no contact because they’re afraid of how their absence will affect other family members. They’re often younger siblings, but they might also be another parent or caregiver who’s fragile and vulnerable rather than being a co-abuser or enabler.
When and if the scapegoat walks away, the family’s dysfunction increases. Without said scapegoat to project and dump all their negativity onto, they don’t know what to do with themselves. As a result, they turn on each other and chaos ensues.
They’ll still try to use the scapegoat as their punching bag from a distance, of course. Even though they’re not in the house anymore, they’ll still get blamed for everything that goes wrong. If the house is dirty, it’s because that jerk moved out instead of helping, and so on.
They’ll harass the scapegoat on a regular basis, and might do things to punish them, such as sending police over for a “wellness check” under the guise of being concerned. It all depends on just how petty, spiteful, and unbalanced they are.
This projection and torment may last for a long time, unless said scapegoat changes their number, moves across the country, or gets a restraining order. Of course, once they do that, then the abuser might get extended family members and friends involved to help them with their abuse. They’ll insist that they’ve been terribly wronged by the scapegoat and recruit others to assist with continued torment from afar.
This is known as recruiting “flying monkeys“: much like those flying menaces used by the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, they’ll do the abuser’s bidding if the abuser can’t take care of things themselves.
Going no contact often requires drastic measures to keep oneself safe. As for those left at home, once the scapegoat has left the building, the family dynamics will get far more chaotic.
The foundation crumbles.
Quite often, everything falls apart once the scapegoat walks away. The main abusive parent may start to unleash all their negativity on their spouse or other child(ren), who are significantly less tolerant than the scapegoat was. As such, the parents may end up getting divorced, and the children may choose to go with the other parent or move out on their own.
Alternatively, if a new scapegoat is chosen who’s more mentally or emotionally fragile, they may develop depression or personality disorders, or simply break down entirely.
Sometimes, in order to avoid splitting up the rest of the family, everyone will try to suck the scapegoat back into the fold, simply to get things back to how they used to be. Someone might invent a crisis that only the scapegoat can fix or that they need to handle “as a family.”
Others may try to guilt trip or manipulate them so they’ll come back. Anything to get things back to the abusive dynamic that everyone (except the scapegoat) appeared to be comfortable with until this point.
The key here is the word “appeared.” Quite often, the other family members will be fully aware of what’s going on, but know that nothing they say or do will quell the abuser’s ire. There’s often resistance from these other family members—be that passive or overt—but said resistance never results in any lasting change.
For example, a grandparent might chastise the abusive parent for their poor behavior, and end up being screamed at for interfering. Then the abuser will double down to prove that they’re in power and in the right.
Abusers don’t give up power easily.
It’s important to note that the main abuser will often make a concerted effort to keep tabs on the scapegoat after they’ve left. They might show up at their home or workplace unannounced or hound them via phone or social media. They do this because they need more ammunition to validate the idea that everything they said and did to this person was justified.
I once had a housemate who was the scapegoat of her family and moved across the country to get away from them. Her abusive, narcissist mother would call her regularly at 2 or 3am simply to wake her up.
She even surprised my housemate once by flying to our city and showing up at her workplace. Her mom made an awful scene and had to be escorted out of the building by security, after which she went full victim and blamed my housemate for “unwarranted humiliation and cruelty.”
The abuser will cling to their personal narrative with every fiber of their being. If they don’t have this as their unshakeable foundation, their familial authority and delusions will start to crack.
You may have noticed that people tend to cling to their perceptions at all costs, regardless of the damage they do to others in the process. Most will gladly throw their family and children under the bus to keep their view on life intact, however out of kilter it may be.
What if the scapegoat goes no contact?
Should the scapegoat refuse to be drawn back into the fold and instead choose to maintain zero contact, things will continue to fall apart at home. As mentioned, the others may try to choose a new punching bag to take their place, but this rarely works out.
This is because said scapegoat was chosen for a very specific reason. Usually, they’re the one family member who posed a threat to the narcissist/main abuser. They might be strong-willed and defiant, thus undermining the abuser’s position of supreme authority.
Alternatively, they remind the abuser of aspects of their personality/past that they despise.
Finally, they may pose a threat in terms of competition. A perfect example of this would be a strong-willed son of a narcissist or abusive father. The adolescent son may show signs of being taller, stronger, and/or more intelligent than he is. Said father, instead of encouraging his son to achieve everything he’s capable of attaining, goes into full-on competitive mode. He’ll put his son down, try to control him, and make him the family dumpster so he doesn’t surpass him in any way.
Part of this is instinctive, as the parent knows deep down that adversity makes an individual stronger. That said, one also has to nurture and care for children as they mature. If the child is punished and put down at every turn, there will be nothing but conflict, which will result in estrangement and loss all around.
When there’s a designated scapegoat in the family, everyone gets used to treating them as such. Siblings will unleash on them so as to curry favor with the abusive parent.
Meanwhile, the enabler (usually codependent) parent wants to stay on good terms with their nightmare spouse, so they won’t defend the one who’s being mistreated. They might not go full-on with abuse of their own. In fact, they might be kind to the scapegoat in secret, giving them gifts or special treatment when no-one else is looking.
Once the scapegoat is gone, however, you can envision how all hell will break loose.
The best comparison is rather like what would happen if the one toilet in the house suddenly disappeared. You can only imagine how the situation would go downhill very quickly.
The abuser/scapegoat dynamic can be downright parasitic in nature. A parasite needs its host in order to continue thriving. As such, once the link is severed, the parasite (abuser) will try to leap to the next host to continue drawing the energy that they need and reassure themselves that they’re still in control.
What happens when the scapegoat becomes successful?
Think of the various fairytales you’ve read over the course of your life and how the character who’s mistreated often wins in the end. A family scapegoat is often the whipping boy/Cinderella of their own sad tale. Once they leave the family and walk away, however, things tend to turn around for them.
Since they’re no longer being tormented day and night, they have the opportunity to live for themselves. They can determine who they are and what they want, and dedicate their time to doing what they love instead of perpetually running damage control.
They might decide to pursue higher education or find a job that fulfills them. All of a sudden, they’re doing well in life and family members may hear about it.
At this point, the abuser might turn around and start treating the scapegoat better in the hopes of benefitting from their success. Instead of being on the receiving end of torrents of abuse and examples of gaslighting, the scapegoat may receive cards or little gifts, filled with nostalgic notes about the one or two less-than-excruciating experiences they had together.
The wounded child inside the scapegoat might desperately want to believe that they’re being sincere; that after so long, they finally see them and are ready to start treating them like a real family member, rather than just a punching bag.
If you’re experiencing this, don’t fall for it.
This is commonly known as “love bombing,” and it is another technique that abusers use to lure their victims back into the fold. Nothing in the dynamic has actually changed, other than the fact that they’ve found a new use for you. They don’t want a real, healthy relationship with you. They just want you to share in your success.
If you find yourself dealing with love bombing, stay strong and maintain your distance. Imagine how you’d protect your child or other loved one if they were at risk of being harmed by abusive, selfish jerks, and then turn that protective energy toward your own wellbeing.
On a similar note, if you want to help your other family members, then make sure it’s done in such a way that the abuser can’t interfere with or benefit from your generosity.
Finally, and it’s awful to even have to broach this subject, be aware that your abuser may try to sabotage your success.
I’ve heard horror stories from former scapegoats about things their abusers have done in order to interfere with their happiness. The people who mistreated them the most when they were young have contacted their employers to lie about them or filed false complaints with the police to try to get them in trouble.
They’ve interfered with their romantic relationships and even tried to have them placed in psychiatric facilities by making false claims about mental instability, self-harm, or threats toward others.
If you’ve gone no contact, you might want to have a private word with those closest to you (as well as your employer) to give them a heads up about your abuser’s behavior.
The best type of success is living a happy, authentic life.
Success is measured in many different ways, but aside from monetary wealth, fame, or other renown, one of the best types of success is a happy life.
That said, it can be difficult for many scapegoats to experience true happiness without help. A lot of them bear emotional scars and unhealed wounds from having been horribly mistreated for years.
They may have deep-seated anger toward those who were so awful and unfair to them, high anxiety from hypervigilance, or extreme guilt about leaving their family despite the abuse.
Some may be attracted to the same types of abusers they grew up with because they’re most comfortable in those types of dynamics. Others may be fixated on getting back at those who damaged them, “eye for an eye” style.
None of these scenarios are easy to contend with, and may continue to cause damage over time. This is rather like clinging to a hot coal that keeps burning you, instead of learning how to put it down and walk away.
Some people make the mistake of trying to prove themselves to their abusers, thinking that something will sink in. It won’t. In fact, it’ll just add fuel to their fire and give you more grief in the long run.
If you’ve cut ties with your family and are struggling with guilt or lasting damage from going no contact, or if you haven’t left yet and need some reassurance that you’re doing the right thing, consider talking to a therapist. Many situations are much less daunting if you have a helping hand to guide you through them.
Similarly, that therapist can help you to decide how to move forward if your other family members reach out to reconnect after the abuser is no longer in the picture. There will undoubtedly be feelings of resentment and betrayal for their past behaviors, so it’s up to you to decide what role(s) you’d like them to play in your life, if any.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
Too many former scapegoats try to muddle through and do their best to overcome complex issues that stem from their family experiences. Most never really get to grips with it all. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
Ultimately, if you can get to a point where you can look back on your experiences without reacting with rage, but instead wish these people well (albeit from a distance), then that’s a huge sign of success right there.