Gifts with Strings Attached

It is my youngest child’s birthday soon. She will be two, just a tiny wee thing. My elder child is nearly three years older and has to be constantly reminded not to take things from her little sister. Like a magpie is attracted to shiny things so is the eldest attracted to whatever her sister is playing with, and to a lesser extent the youngest is interested in what her sister has. The youngest has a healthy pair of lungs and can shout “MINE!” and “NO!” firmly enough to make her point when her sister’s designs on her toys get too intrusive. So far so normal.

Narcissistic MIL couldn’t choose a gift, she never can, so we offered a suggestion. She then sent an email explaining how she was sending extras of the consumable parts of the present as she thought the two year old should share, yes share her present with her elder sister. She went on to describe the youngest in a derogatory way as being “possessive” and that expecting her to share her new present would be “quite interesting”. Yuck, I can actually see the sick smirk on her face as she wrote that imagining the tantrums she was orchestrating. Narcissists love to create trouble and strife.

Before Christmas MIL phoned up my husband and informed him that he had looked a bit scruffy when she had seen him and she would be sending some money. She then went on to specify the exact way the money was to be divided between us and the children and it was all to be spent on new clothes.

These are examples of giving gifts with strings attached. Here the strings are blindingly obvious sets of instructions and commands. MIL has to control everything, even presents. No amount of money is ever handed over without explicit instructions as to what she thinks it should be spent on.

There are less overt ways of attaching strings to gifts than actually specifying what they are to be spent on and how and when they should be used. Strings can be unspoken expectations of some behaviour in return. Here are some ways that gifts can have strings.

Here is my gift…

  • now I don’t want to hear anymore about how I have upset you
  • now aren’t I nice, you need to show gratitude and that means doing what I want today (even though it’s your birthday)
  • now I have done that for you, you do this for me
  • now you owe me
  • now I want access to children/grandchildren
  • now our relationship has to continue

Under-pinning all of this is the almost universal anthropological behaviour of acceptance and reciprocity in kind that is attached to gift giving. In fact in many cultures the gift giving occurs so as to create an obligation in kind on the receiver. The anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote all about this in his treatise “The Gift”. Mauss wondered why did exchanging an object produce such strong feelings of obligation in the recipient and of entitlement in the giver. He described how it was as if a part of the giver’s soul went with the gift, that it was never completely separated from the giver and to reject a gift would be to reject the social  bond between the giver and recipient.

My narcissistic MIL buys into this theory 100%. She goes even further though, as her gifts don’t just have to be accepted, and reciprocated in some way, they also convey a message like the ones listed above and by accepting the gift you effectively agree to the message’s content.

Another sort of string is the requirement to accept the gift. MIL wanted us to let her buy all our children’s clothes for one season, all their summer wardrobe. Leaving aside the fact that they didn’t need a whole set of clothes, it is our responsibility to clothe our children and we told her as much whereupon she got very stroppy and indignant. For six months she went on about this, bringing it up every time we met or when she phoned. She would not let it drop. You see we had to accept, she had offered so we HAD to take it. Saying no thanks that is not appropriate or necessary was defiance. She correctly saw it as a rebuffle of her attempt at control.

How do we deal with this? We explicitly set a boundary with her that was gifts do not come with strings attached or we refuse the gift. When she sent the email about our daughter’s present she was told that was not how we treated our children and that they had to fully and solely own their toys or they would never truly understand what it meant to share.

We said we would accept money from her but without instructions on what to spend it on. My husband asked what she would feel like if we did the same to her, to which she cheekily replied that we didn’t earn enough to give her a similar gift of money. Another narcissist trait, sidestepping and deflecting from their poor behaviour. We persisted in refusing the strings. She said she had to tell us what to do with money as in another situation with a different person she had been misled about what was happening with some money. A lie. She had acted against the strict rules of probate by moving some of her mother’s savings into an account jointly in her name. Anyway what has that got to do with us? We persisted still. She said she no longer wanted to give us any money then. Fine by us.

If you can stomach all the bulls**t from the thwarted narcissist that comes with setting boundaries ultimately they have no option but to cave. Refusing a gift is just as powerful as obligating someone by giving it with strings attached. My therapist is even more mercenary. She says gifts are fair game. Smile sweetly and accept the money then blatantly go out and spend it on what the hell you want.

It all boils down to the same thing, you don’t have to play by a narcissist’s rules. Cut the strings.

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7 Comments

Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, NPD MIL and grandchildren

7 responses to “Gifts with Strings Attached

  1. Amanda

    My boyfriends mother is one, she got so bad that she called the police on him and had him arrested for holding a pan over her head which he never did, of course the police believed her, she always called me names said I was all sorts of things I was cheating on him and my son was not his. She also stated she wanted to kick me
    In the stomach while I was pregnant, she’s now trying to drop the charges so she can see her son, my bf will not listen when I tell him his mother just needs to stay away, he refuses to see what she does. She blamed me
    For her problems and god forbid I try I help her, if I did that she liked it than got mad at it later. Tried to get 40
    Bucks outta my Bf for beer got mad when he didn’t give it to her and ended hating a panda bear my Bf bought me Cuz he choose not to give her money so she could get beer.

  2. Sarah

    Thank you so much for this invaluable information. I have been struggling with my MIL for years, feeling like I’m totally crazy since my husband couldn’t see her bad behavior. She finally crossed the line this Christmas, and my husband is furious. He confronted her, and we’re now getting the silent treatment as punishment. She’ll be back to cause more grief once she takes a break from the silent treatment, so I’ll be using your methods soon. Again, thank you!!

  3. Pingback: Inappropriate Gifts | Narcissistic MIL

  4. Colleen

    I have gone through this with my MIL numerous times. I have taken the view that gifts from this woman are simply formalities. She is on autopilot with birthdays and Christmas, and the gifts to her DILs aren’t for the DILs. They’re actually for her sons to symbolize she really does care about their wives, which is total bull. And as the DIL, if I do not emotionally react to the feigned generosity in the way my MIL expects me to react, she doesn’t come after me directly; she goes through my husband, crying and carrying on that I don’t like her, I’m unappreciative, so on and so forth. What she is certainly accurate about is that I don’t like her. I have expressed this openly and honestly with her. And I have let her know my dislike is in regards to her behavior. She has set the stage for the relationship, and she has herself to thank for the tension and strain. I have given this woman every opportunity to apologize and address her actions by using direct, fact based communication, and my lovely MIL’s last response was, “In my mind those things never happened. And don’t you have other things to worry about? Like your father’s cancer for instance?”. After that point, I told my husband I’m done. That was 2 years ago, and I’ve only seen her twice: at my husband’s law school graduation and at a wedding. I’ve told my husband that for his sake I will see her on occasion, but it will be on neutral territory. I’m not setting foot in that woman’s house as long as she continues to be a bully and not take any ownership for her despicable behavior.

    One might ask, how does all of this relate to the gift giving? On birthdays and Christmas, I open my MILs gifts quietly and move on, which upsets my husband because he gets interrogated by my MIL concerning how I responded to the gifts. I remind my husband gifts can’t make up for the vicious treatment I’ve been subjected to by his mother. Until last Christmas, my husband would say that his mother’s way of apologizing is through gifts. Give me a break. (And to add insult to injury, every birthday and Christmas the gifts I receive from her are items from the museum gift shop she volunteers in; the woman who owns a Porshe, Mercedes, and a boat.) He finally stopped saying that seeing I didn’t buy the bull****.

    My 30th birthday was just this past Saturday, and I thought I’d be able to get through my own birthday without it being all about HER. I could not have been more wrong. Friday evening, I traveled to meet up with my family and friends, and my husband was coming to meet up with all of us Saturday. He called me after I got to my hotel Friday night, and informed me there was a package from his parents at our home and asked if I wanted him to bring it with him when he came up. I told him I could open it when I returned home Monday; I didn’t want him to be bothered bringing something up one of us would simply be bringing back. So I got through Friday night and had a wonderful day on Saturday. My husband returned home Sunday due to work, and I was coming back Monday. The only person from my husband’s family I actually, directly heard from on my birthday, was my SIL, my husband’s brother’s wife. On Sunday evening, while talking to my husband, he and I were discussing how nice it was I heard from her. I mentioned it was a shame I did not hear from anyone else. My husband’s entire tone shifted and he said “Well my parents got you a gift! I guess you just want me to throw it out!”. I told him those were his words not mine. I hung up and on Monday morning, talked to my SIL.

    See on Sundays, my husband is expected to call my MIL. My SIL unfortunately is roped into going to the beloved Sunday dinners each week because she lives nearby, and she happened to be present when my husband called home to mommy dearest. I was informed that when my MIL got hold of the phone she took it into the bedroom and shut the door to talk to my husband. My SIL estimated my MIL was in there talking for about 40 minutes. Now my husband’s words with me make complete sense! He talked to my MIL, she dumped all of her crap on him regarding me and the wonderful gift, he didn’t assert himself with her, her crap ate away at him, he started to resent being put in the middle, was not able to acknowledge his mother as the one putting him in that position, and then when opportunity showed itself, he was able to lash out at me. I am beyond sick and tired of how everything, EVERYTHING ends up revolving around this woman and her feelings. I’ve gone on more than I should have, but it makes me so sick how I think after 5 years my husband if finally making progress in seeing her for the evil she really is, and then all hell breaks loose again over a stupid, meaningless object.

  5. Hello, all the time i used to check weblog posts here early in the morning, since i enjoy to gain knowledge of more and more.

  6. Annie

    I cannot thank you enough for these incredibly useful words of wisdom. The idea of simply refusing to buy into my NPD MIL’s insane logic of control and transactionalism seems so obvious after reading this… but I’ve spent years treating her like a normal person who simply has a “different approach” to life (one that is soul destroying and crazy making). I am about to read every last article on this blog. They all apply to our situation so much it’s uncanny!

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