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.