There are some things which on reflection did sod all to improve the situation with my MIL and even made it worse temporarily. I’m relieved to report that I have yet to find anything that has made her behaviour worse on a permanent basis, with the possible exception of marrying her darling son.
Don’t get angry in her presence.
Getting angry with MIL doesn’t work. Raising your voice with her leads to two things, she gets angry back and ups the ante or she goes all weepy and “oh poor me”, if you’re really unlucky she does both. When my husband went to speak to her about her behaviour for the first time about 2 years ago, his voice became angry and he (shock horror) displayed his displeasure while asking her not to be rude to me. She immediately got very aggressive, snapping with her voice, all glowering rage filled face and bully-boy body language, stormed out the room and came back brandishing a letter she had written her own mother years ago (and bizarrely kept) shouting how she could get angry too. Apparently she had written down how her own screwed-up mother had really hurt her, but then never done anything with the letter. A sad vignette which shows how emotional dysfunction really does echo down the generations.
After this we had weeks of emails and angst, I even emailed her to express my feelings about how behaviour was affecting is us. I did it politely. She replied immediately saying she was “shaking with rage” about how I had “approached her”. Leaving aside how revealing is her choice of phrase (should I have curtseyed first perhaps, or in some other way have begged her leave?) her reaction highlights a truth about people with NPD, they don’t just get angry, they loose control and go into a red-faced, shaking rages. I have never witnessed it but I can well believe it when others report how NPD people assault and attack them. After her rage was spent, much like a small child having a screaming tantrum, she will go back to acting just as she did before as if nothing had happened.
So a shouting match with NPD MIL could end with her going berserk and possibly hitting someone or smashing things. Then there would be weeks of fall out. Best to to go there, unless you want an excuse to never see them again in which case provoke all you like.
If you don’t hit one of her immediate red-hot buttons what you may get instead is a wide-eyed, weepy victim act where you are characterised as the nasty aggressor and she is misunderstood (a word frequently used by people with NPD) and cruelly abused by you. There is no way out of that trap. Get more angry and she’ll wail all the louder. Calm down and she’s got what she wanted, control of you.
The only way getting angry with MIL will ever help is to give a voice to your pain and outrage. That is not an insignificant thing, you are entitled to say how you feel and to show it too. Families with NPD mothers can be extremely controlled in their displays of emotions because so much of the home life is centred on keeping the NPD mother happy. You may find your other half is very uncomfortable with your anger as they were terrified of their mother’s rages as small children. If you can’t express yourself freely your anger will build and boil over. Blowing your top can also show a partner exactly how upset you have been by MIL’s behaviour. Just don’t go all nuclear in front of the kids or you’ll scare them too.
Being passive will be taken as a display of contemptible weakness.
You may think never expressing displeasure or annoyance, never disagreeing with her and generally being placating and passive would somehow lead to the opposite of raging behaviour, maybe she would be nice then? No, don’t be silly. Then she sees you as weak and pathetic and easy to belittle, condescend and generally control all she likes and she will act accordingly. Understanding this is a crucial.
People with NPD have a deep stated feeling of extreme shame in themselves and everything they are. They cannot bear the pain this brings so they shove this aspect of their feelings deep down into their unconscious mind and only in therapy are they able to reveal this. Enough people with NPD have been in therapy for psychiatrists to report this, that deep down people with NPD are utterly ashamed of themselves. Associated with this level of self disgust are many feelings and behaviours; feeling ignorant and weak, fear, simpering, pleading, wheedling, begging, sycophantic placating all of which are what they themselves felt around their own parents. They can’t face up to this aspect of themselves.
What someone with NPD presents to the world is the exact opposite of this. They act supremely knowledgeable, in control, haughty or morally superior, demanding, grandiose, the sole competent amongst idiots, arrogant and selfish. But the rejected parts of their psyche don’t dissolve away to nothing. They sit there in the unconscious rather like an undigested bit of food can sit in your gut. Every so often the pain of an undigested emotion burps its way up to the surface. The NPD MIL doesn’t see these ghastly rejected qualities in herself. The whole process of developing a personality disorder requires severing these feelings from their conscious mind, a process so absolute they can usually never be reattached. No, when the psychological burp emerges the NPD person sees the rejected feelings and behaviours in other people. Psychotherapists call this projection. It is profound stuff projection.
If you act in a way that reminds NPD MIL of her rejected feelings she will go ahead and belch out an entire gut full of her unconscious mind all over you and then self righteously pity and hate you for reeking of what she despises.
Best not go there either.
Meeting like with like just leads to more like
There is a third option which is to be as passive-aggressive and manipulative as MIL is. The problem there is that she has had years and years to perfect her techniques in this area. Eventually, if you are normal, this approach will make you feel sick to your stomach. It consumes large amounts of your time and emotional energy to be pulling everyones strings and orchestrating epic sulks and paybacks. MIL doesn’t mind doing this, she loves it. This is her raison d’être, she is a native speaker of this language.
If you take this line you will find it spreads like wild fire as MIL recruits wider family members, friends, neighbours, countrymen to her cause. It will make you a worse person and sets an awful example to your children and frankly makes your partner think they have mother mark II living at home with them. Not good.
Just as with a selective display of real anger, a selective use of her own weapons against her can be very cathartic and bluntly, amusing. Sometimes it is good to know you can get one over the old cow. A pithy comment disguised as all innocence, a deliberately misunderstood remark, taking her “oh poor me” act at face value and treating her as a slightly senile old dear is funny and the immediate way she will drop the act is revealing.
MIL has for some time now made a big deal about how hard it is to find our kids presents for Christmas and birthdays. Apparently there is nowhere in her town of more than 30,000 people to buy toys, nowhere. So she presented our eldest with some play dough and moaned about how hard it was to find. A few weeks later she emailed my husband to say she’d got a load of play dough in lots of colours. I pointed out this inconsistency to my husband, he emailed her and said innocently “I thought you said you had problems getting hold of play dough?”. Absolute silence followed for two weeks then she replied saying this was old play dough she had already bought and stored in the loft.
We know we caught her out, she believes her lie was convincing, that doesn’t matter as I still smile every time I think of it.
Supposing you are not being angry, or passive but are trying to use cool logic to tackle your MIL’s behaviour? In a rational and dispassionate way you challenge a behaviour or viewpoint in conversation, surely logic will win the day? Nope you can’t win there either.
One way my MIL likes to behave is what a teacher friend of mine calls getting all legal. She starts to dissect each argument into tiny little elements and then tries to pick holes in each tiny part. Attempts to logically confront her behaviour lead to an ever expanding mess of minutiae taken to absurd extremes. My teacher friend uses the phrase because teenagers are apt to do this when caught out misbehaving in school. Imagine the head of year gets called to a classroom incident and Little Johnny disputes the minutiae of the teacher’s version of events, no he didn’t take the blow up globe and kick it round the classroom, it was already on the floor and the teacher hadn’t told him not to touch it so how was he supposed to know, and she hadn’t told him to sit down but had told a couple of other boys so that’s why he was still out of his place and so she was lying and picking on him blah, blah, blah. Sadly this sort of BS is what teachers hear everyday. Oh and we hear it from MIL also.
She is the absolute master of refusing to see the wood for the tiny little twigs on the branches on the trees. If you aren’t very careful, attempting to argue back at her ends up with the whole point of the discussion being lost and most likely diverted onto some mistreatment she wants to highlight. This legalistic dissection of other people’s statements appeals to her sense of greater intellect. That is the tactic, she can feel smug about how clever she is while evading having to address the issue you raised. Even though she can contradict herself in the course of such a “rational” discussion she will never admit it and we have had emails pages long where she has gone on to argue every tiny point in a short remark.
You don’t actually have to give any reason for making a statement about what you want to MIL. Don’t JADE, that is don’t Justify, Argue, Defend or Explain. You are an adult and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. The statement “I don’t want that” is sufficient. If you feel you need to explain or defend something to a person with NPD then that is because you anticipate their disapproval which in turn means you are fearful of that disapproval and have somehow got yourself into a situation where their approval matters. You will never have their approval so stop tying yourself up in knots trying to get it.
Don’t EVER break down and cry in front of her
Oh God, you may as well expose your jugular and hand her a sharp knife. Once she knows what will make you cry she’ll do it over and over again in different ways and smirk while she does it, then pretend she had no idea it would upset you. She will question your emotional stability to all and sundry behind your back. She will only ever offer the most false of apologies, “I’m sorry you felt bad” which implies the problem is your reaction not her action, not a sincere apology, “I’m sorry for what I did” which takes personal responsibility for the action.
Walk out of the room, go to the loo whatever you need to do and regain your composure. Crying is most effectively done in front of your partner so they can see how their mother’s behaviour affects you. Ideally it will never get to the point where she makes you cry as this is what boundaries are supposed to do. Once she starts being so catty and nasty that you feel stung and tearful you need to say something like “that comment is unacceptable to me, I don’t want to hear that again” and then remove yourself or tell her to leave if she doesn’t get the message.
What if your children are upset by her treatment of them and she makes one of them cry? I’d instinctively be angry and jump to their defence. It is very hard for NPD MIL to defend making a child cry without criticising the child, which they will do. This leaves them on dodgy ground though as reducing or cutting contact altogether on the grounds that they are cruel to your child would be a good reason to most people. MIL once made one of our kids cry after she had left. The whole visit had been short and nasty and our eldest burst into tears as we drove away from the restaurant where we had said goodbye. There was no opportunity for addressing her behaviour, it just left me simmering with anger and resentment. If your MIL makes your children cry, blames them for it and you do nothing about this you are being abusive to your own kids and really need to sort yourself out.
Ranting at your partner will alienate not motivate them
A lot of my intense anger at my MIL was actually anger at my husband that I had redirected towards her. Feelings such as “how can she treat me like this?” were at their heart more like “how can he watch me be treated like this?” but it was safer for our marriage for me to direct that anger at her not at him.
Being very angry with your partner is scary. I had thoughts of leaving him, of issuing blunt ultimatums; her or me, of throwing him out with a “go live with her then” followed by a flying suitcase and a slammed door. This is where having outside support really helps. I ranted at the therapist instead and tried to understand my husband and work with where he was in his relationship with his mother rather than demand that he immediately see it from my perspective. Good God this was hard. If he ever doubts I am committed to our marriage I will cite this as evidence. I bit my tongue and held off spelling out the (to me) bleedin’ obvious more times than I care to remember.
Pure anger at her behaviour made him defensive. He would immediately present her side of things and was really just parroting what she would have said for herself, he was being her proxy in the argument. Rows have this tendency, they polarise people and in the opposite corner to me was his mum so he took that corner. By venting my spleen to the therapist I could be calmer and more moderate in my conversation with him which meant we met in the middle ground and he began to see my side too.
The therapist also pointed out something psychoanalysts are very familiar with but I wasn’t. A marriage binds two people on an unconscious level especially if one or the other of you are very empathic people. Feelings can then be shared between the pair of you, some of my feelings get transferred and felt by my husband and vice versa. This is commonly experienced as getting angry for someone or feeling their embarrassment. I was getting angry for my husband and worse my husband has a real problem with displaying anger as it was strictly clamped down on in his childhood. So I ended up displaying all the anger we both felt. As soon as I stopped ranting openly my husband visibly got more irritated with his mother and started reporting dreams where he was shouting at her. All the raging conversations with her that I was having in my head started to dissipate and I no longer feel like a bomb about to go off.
Don’t take on all the anger and don’t hurl it at your partner. They have been damaged by having an NPD mother more than they consciously realise. Nothing subverts your NPD MIL’s intentions more than having a strong, supportive marriage. And nothing would make her happier than seeing the two of you fight.
Your options for dealing with MIL are really restricted to a calm, consistent, clearly defined and assertively imposed set of expectations with immediate withdrawal from her company or expulsion from your house as the consequence of transgression. Being aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive or defensive will lead to a worsening of her behaviour and can harm your relationship with your partner.
This does mean that you will never have an easy, relaxed and natural conversation with your MIL about anything. So be it.