How to manage a narcissistic mother-in-law part 1

Here is the first in a multi-part post which outlines ways to manage a narcissistic, difficult, controlling, emotionally abusive MIL. The first posts are positive, a summary of effective methods. I thought I’d start with this as so much material about NPD is very negative. It is reassuring to read something can be done to fight back. The concluding post is a summary of what doesn’t work or worse, what can escalate her difficult behaviour.

It has taken me a long time to work out how best to cope with and manage NPD MIL’s machinations. I met my husband more then 10 years ago, and I first met her a year later. On reflection  it should have rung an alarm bell that it took my husband an entire year before he made any attempt to introduce us. I had already met his sister, father and all his friends by that time. Back then I had no idea what NPD was nor did I have any expectation that my future MIL would be anything other than normal and pleasant. Well that assumption was slapped back in my face the very first time I met her.

It’s been a slow, painful slog through disbelief, confusion, hurt, bafflement, mounting anger, cold hatred until the red line was crossed and I put my foot down. I am a quiet person when you meet me, not brash or extraverted. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INFP. One writer commenting on personality types made the statement:

“INFPs are flexible and laid-back, until one of their values is violated. In the face of their value system being threatened, INFPs can become aggressive defenders, fighting passionately for their cause.”

You said it. She crossed the line and I finally said enough. This is what worked.

Keep Your Distance Physically.

I originally trained as a scientist. To me the word physically doesn’t just mean anything to do with my body it also means things relating to physics, like telecommunications. So lets consider how to keep a physical distance in both senses of the word.

MIL is kept at a physical distance in that I do not sit near here if I have to be in her company. I get up and move away from her frequently to have a break from her stultifying presence by leaving the room and fortunately (oh so fortunately) she lives 3 hours drive away. I am adamant that she does not live near us and would move house to keep away from her. My husband made the decision not to apply for a rare job advertised in his field because it was located near her home town.

If we go out for lunch, which we almost always do when she visits as the range of foods she will eat is small and she is unutterably snobby about anything served to her that we cook, I make damn sure I am not sat next to her. Diagonally across the table is best with my husband closest to her and I busy myself with the children. A persistent NPD MIL may try to place themselves near you or call you over to sit next to them, deciding who should sit where. Hold your ground with a firm “I would like to sit here” and put your bum on the chair with no further comment.

I feel deeply for people suffering from living close to their MIL, even in the same house as her. I cannot imagine how you cope with that. It is trite to say move away as you may have roots deep in your community or strong cultural pressures to stay with your husband’s family. If she lives in your town do not give her a spare key and always lock or chain the doors so she can’t just walk in. Put opaque blinds or curtains up in the front room so she can’t see if you are in and just don’t answer the door. If you live with your MIL get a lock and put it on your bedroom door. Make a big, outraged fuss about your privacy and if necessary imply your MIL has an unhealthy interest in your husband’s and your sex life if she intrudes.

What about electronic contact? I have no phone, email or written contact with my MIL. I have never given her my email address or phone number but she has got my mobile phone number somehow. She has sent me texts in the past and I never respond. Now she has given up. Only on one occasion when my husband and I first laid down the law to her, nearly 2 years ago, did I email her to communicate my feelings about the situation. I created an email account solely for the purpose of sending that one message and shut it down afterwards. In that one email I told her I did not want any written or emailed communication from her.

If she rings the house we have caller ID on the phone and I let it ring until the answer-phone kicks in. I do not ever pick up the phone.

I do not use Facebook or similar social media sites. If your toxic MIL has hijacked your Facebook page, quit it and after a suitable pause restart and only share your new page with select friends. Do not accept “friend” requests from her, her family members or acquaintances.

This is how far we keep our distance; my daughter’s primary school has permission forms which parents have to sign to allow the school to use photos of the kids on their website or in local newspapers. We don’t sign. That way she can’t follow what our daughter is doing via the web.

My husband now refuses to arrange separate visitations at birthdays and holidays for her to attend without the possible presence of her ex, my FIL. She won’t be in the same room as him so she doesn’t turn up to these events as often as she used to when my then deluded husband would go to the trouble of organising double birthdays etc. I don’t go and visit her in her own home, my husband takes the kids maybe twice a year. They stay for one night at most. I feel uncomfortable with this as frankly if she is too nasty for me to be around then I don’t think the kids should be there either but my husband is in the early stages of getting to grips with her behaviour so I don’t push it. If she is unpleasant to one of the girls, ever, these visits will stop.

I cannot emphasise enough the need to keep her proximity to your physical self and access to you as limited as possible.

Plan each meeting like a military campaign

This sounds a bit over the top, but it isn’t. I am at war with this woman, I am like the Resistance in the Second World War. I am a guerrilla, a ninja. Like chess, you need to thinking several steps ahead with NPDs. This works. NPDs consider themselves more intelligent than all those around them and therefore frequently underestimate their opponents. Use this to your advantage.

Before she arrives we have an itinerary planned. We organise the visit so there is no down time when conversation may sag and give her the chance to be bitchy and manipulative. We greet her together at the door, we get tea and biscuits, we discuss the kids and general family news, then we go somewhere. This usually involves a trip to the playground or similar and then lunch out. We return home for more managed small talk. We plan a list of topics which are not to be discussed and have set phrases to shut down any attempt by her to open them up. It is easy enough to divert her into playing with the kids while we prepare some snack or drinks. Neither of us spends time with her alone without either the other spouse or the children. She is her most manipulative and downright unpleasant when she has no other witnesses.

The visit is wound up as we make it clear the children need a quiet time at the end of the day around teatime and then they go straight to bath and bed. So she knows in advance when we are expecting her to leave then. We verbally give prompts for this saying things like “darling daughter looks tired”, “are you ready for some tea daughter?” and then wave her off. In no way does she suspect that we have managed her so completely.

We arrange the seating so my husband and I are sat together on the sofa and she is apart on another chair. We sit next to each other and make sure we interact comfortably and naturally with each other including jokes, teasing, hugs and other small gestures and physical contacts.  This new arrangement of the players on the set reflects what I have insisted upon, that our marriage and family are the predominant relationships. Before my husband would hover around her like she was some duchess and he the attendant. We all felt tense and I was often sat on the floor or off to the side in my own front room.

The shift has been in power, we now call the shots. Before my husband was on side I would follow his lead, resentfully, as he nervously focussed on her and whatever she wanted. She set up the conversations, sat in the dominant position in the room and basically held court in my lounge. Ha! Not anymore she doesn’t.

Set your own boundaries with MIL

A lot of support sites for managing difficult people talk about setting boundaries. This is hard to understand at first. We both struggled with what on earth it meant. It is not rules that you impose on the offending person, it’s not at all like the boundaries around behaviour we are familiar with from rules in schools or sports. In a school a rule is a direction “do not run in the corridor” or a positive affirmation if you prefer “we walk in corridors” which have a punitive consequence attached. Boundaries are not like this.

A boundary is more like a psychological Rubicon. You don’t have to tell the other person what your boundary is. You just need to know in your own mind, clearly and resolutely what you will not accept. Then you decide what you will do to keep yourself, your loved ones and your property physically and emotionally safe if the situation arises where one of your boundaries is crossed.

My husband went to visit his mother with a list of 4 things he wanted to discuss and to ask her to stop doing them. It was a mixture of don’t do this and do this instead with the punitive consequence not spelled out. This was not effective boundary setting.

One of the 4 terms he laid out was for her to stop slagging off his father and trying to turn him against his dad. This is not a boundary. The boundary is for him to realise he hated this, to affirm this in his own mind and to just stop the conversation and tell her he would not listen to anymore, then get up and leave if she didn’t. THAT is a boundary, this far, no further. No explanation needed for your actions, you have had enough, you say stop, you remove yourself if it continues. If it happens in your house you ask them to leave.

Of course you can also have the boundary AND tell the person you have a problem with certain behaviour and you want it to change. But understand this, you cannot make them change their behaviour. You can remove yourself from situations you do not like. That is the essence of self respect.

So here we have the first few ways to effectively manage the difficult MIL. A mixture of practical things that shape the external factors of your encounters with her and psychological protection to build your resilience from the inside. In the next post I’ll discuss setting boundaries with your spouse, speaking freely about what is going on, getting psychological support and keeping your emotional distance from a toxic MIL.


Filed under Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL, Uncategorized

25 responses to “How to manage a narcissistic mother-in-law part 1

  1. Quick update to make some of the paragraphs read more clearly, no substantial changes to content.

  2. DIL

    How do you handle a MIL that hijacks your husband’s Facebook wall? I have restricted MIL off my Facebook but I don’t think my husbands has the balls to stand up to his mother.

    • I only joined Facebook in May this year so have little experience of how to manage settings and things which may help you. You could be sneaky and if you know his password, log onto his account and block her while pretending to be him. Unfriending someone doesn’t send them a message or anything saying your have done this, or so I have been told! Alternately block your husband and say you won’t let him back until he sorts out the amount of junk his mother spews onto his wall. Anyone else got any ideas? Is your husband unhappy with her hijack or doesn’t he mind?

    • Monica

      I had to delete my Facebook because of the friends of friends ability to see my profile. She would get her mutual friends to show her my posts. I went with Instagram instead and deleted anyone that was friends with her to keep her out. Have privacy set on.

  3. victim

    I am married for almost 15 years and from the second time i met my husbands family, i noticed something is wrong. it took me quite some time to realize how bad it is until i came to the conclusion that his whole family are narcisst (he himself also has narcissist signs)

    I live in a different country (luckily) and when i used to visit them, they gave me money to spend for shopping but they decided what i must shop. then when i had my baby and spoiled him, they told me off all day long how i am doing things wrong and being crazy for not letting him cry to sleep in a dark room and for checking on him after he fell asleep every so often. then they complained how crazy i am for not spending all day shopping but enjoying my time with my kids instead.

    after 9 years marriage i stopped visiting them and my relationship to them is limited with their visits once or twice a year. but every time i meet them, i feel its unhealthy for me. do you have an advice how to deal with their sickening behaviour? last occassion my MIL called me an idiot for not keeping my kids with babysitters (because she is definately jelous on me for being a good mum, while she was never around for her own kids) They invite me out for dinner with my family and then let me sit on a table myself with the kids. while they take their own table ordering themself a whole garmin meal, they order for my kids and me just about a slice of pizza…)

    their whole life is surrounded about themselves, not interested in anything else but their own life. all what counts is their holidays, their luxury, their house, but never have a spare penny to give away. they will always find a complain about anyone and only they themselves are good. everyone must be like them or else you are the crazy one. my husbands sisters complain to us for not going with them on a trip, but then when we make an arrangement together, they would always back out. And my husband will never defend me, he doesnt want to start an argument. the truth is i know he is scared that they will also look at him as the one not fitting in the CLAN. for being different. for him its more important to please them than to please me. thats how much he is under his familys control. but when they are not around, he behaves different…. anyone can advice me what you would do in my situation?

  4. Anna

    Thankyou for this. I have read this and felt strangely relieved, as I have a similar situation with my husband’s step mother, who is also a chronic heavy drinker. Your article has confirmed a lot of the things that I have been doing to keep sane, and has helped me to understand more about boundaries and how to approach them. These days my husband takes our daughter to his dad’s house for a visit by himself, as I decided that I would not go over to them unless it was unavoidable. They also live about 20 minutes from us, but we rarely see them.

  5. Lisa

    My husband is terrified of his mother. She truly is a witch. Everyone in his family is scared of her tantrums. If you have a narcissistic mil and you always prided yourself of being a nice person, that won’t work. What you have to do is be very firm. Like you are dealing with a bratty five year old. Be blunt, if mil comes into your house and calls you an idiot, you say if you call me an idiot again, I will ask you to leave. My husband just can’t stand up to her. I made it clear that I am not taking abuse if she starts with me. Luckily she does not try much because she knows I will directly confront her. She is afraid of direct confrontation since she is also passive aggressive. A narcissist is intimidated by another woman with confidence. So stand tall around her. The biggest thing is don’t let her see you sweat. She wants to bring you down. Never become as ugly, vengeful and self absorbed as her. You must be firm and set boundaries but don’t think about her much. Get on with your life and don’t miss out on the good things because of the hate and bitterness of another. It has been freeing for me at least to just put up the hand and walk away when the nasty comments and cold stares show up.

  6. Monica

    I enjoyed reading this article!! I suffer from MIL NPD for over twenty years and it is emotionally stressful and terrible.

  7. Sirisha

    Oh my god!! This is what i was looking for!!
    Thank you for sharing this knowledge. I am at my wits end as to how to deal with my mother-in law. My husband still doesnt realise what she is and she has made him feel guilty with all her ” i have done so much for you” talk. But i just couldnt think of how to handle her.

  8. Hi FCW – Just wanted to say I am missing your wonderful posts. I “think” I remember you mentioning you were working on a book…or perhaps you’ve taken the summer off. I’m not writing to put pressure on you, just to say I miss you, and to let us know if there is a book out soon. Hope all is well in your life. Sincerely, NMIL Daughter-In-Law

    • Hi, that’s very thoughtful of you. I have been retraining and had attended a full time course over the summer with exams and coursework to do. I now have a new qualification and I’m busy setting up a business venture.

  9. Katherine

    oh how I wish I had someone to REALLY give me advice!
    10+ year relationship with son of NMIL … we live in her house … he does not and will not EVER think his momma is a manipulator and I cannot move away (and he won’t leave her home), I have no means financially to do so alone and we run a business together.

    I cannot say anything negative about her to him (he’s protective of her to the death). So … I am alone in my situation. I see through her, recognize her disorder and the toxic relationship I am in. Currently … I’m wanting to pull my hair out – I am planning his 50th birthday and she is insistant on her daughter baking a “special” cake (they always taste/look horrible) I told her I would make the cake this year which clearly ruffled her feathers. A week later she said they were still making a cake!! WHAT?! I reminded her AGAIN but her reply is “it’s ok, we’ll have extra” OMG – how pushy!!

    I really am lost on how to stop her – it’s insulting to insinuate that mine would not either be delicious or enough for guests (we’re having the party at our work place) I don’t know how much more I can take. As a side note: at every party or gathering we have where she is invited, she sits at the table, trying to get me to sit with her (I won’t – I don’t!) so instead, she stares at me the whole time. It is extremely uncomfortable to have someone watching your every move – at 58 years old, I do not need monitoring – yet I won’t dare even have a cocktail in front of her (which I could use at these times) because she finds it offensive – she will even ask “what are you drinking” when I have a coffee container in my hand (not cleverly concealed alcoholic beverage) … what am I to do?? How do I put her in her place without her sabotaging my relationship by complaining to her “golden boy” son??? aarrgghhh
    “suffering in PA”

    • Alyssa

      Stay humbled with her almost like you’re catching onto her little games. But always remain pleasant, never mean, that will just do the opposite of what your trying to accomplish. Start to acknowledge her behavior as weird and but not judgmental to your husband, just like a concern of yours and don’t wait to long to acknowledge her behavior, in other words be concerned about your own feelings.

      Don’t push too much on him. He does not think her intentions are bad. Watch her, like see how she reacts to certain things like you being affectionate with your hubby, intruding your alone time with hubby etc. in other words get clarification for yourself of her jealousy.

      Change your behavior ( for the good be nice but very distant and firm like she is so firm in her behavior of ruining your life and plans). Get a friend or family member that has known you before you’ve became this broken woman, a tough/non bullshit/a FIGHTER yes a fighter a person that’s not scared of anyone more importantly someone you know loves you and DEFENDS you because you’ve lost site of the importance of your feelings (maybe not your mom) they will more than likely want to help you and you can find that courage you need to take on this new challenge.

      Be observant of what she’s doing to you. She’s treating you like your beneath everyone, see that even if she see you or if you feel weird. Love yourself and defend yourself or no one else will. This is crucial because your mate may not even realize what they are allowing because they think that’s how you want to coexist and your MIL is loving it. Step to that bitch give her a taste of her own medicine without her noticing it’s an issue. The more you get accomplished the more comfortable you’ll be standing up for yourself. Trust yourself first! Believe your worth it no matter what it takes! Never be aggressive or mean most men do not like that, a good way to find out is to learn from the demon itself.

      What does your man like about your moms personality?? Start to build your own self love, respect, and boundaries or no one will know you have them. Start to include/talk about your family and wants so he can realize you have needs too. Support him, listen to him, cook, be positive with him but do not fill in his mother’s shoes so he can separate the two in his own head so she won’t always be put first like the way it is now.

      You need to get your mind/self respect in place a little first. Go out with family, workout, meditation are some good examples. Find things you guys have in common and work on some things you’d guy like to improve on as a couple such as a healthier diet, workout together. Build his trust after building yourself or while doing that by listening and supporting him be very loving and sweet to him even if you feel weird and get all squirmy he doesn’t know exactly what you’re thinking. Be dedicated to helping him create healthy boundaries with his mom and eventually everyone in his life, it is your duty as his chosen one.

      Mom wouldn’t be threatened if there were no chance of him shifting. Build yourself up to believe in yourself. You are god sent for him. He’s crying out for your help and he doesn’t know it. Stay humbled , observant, and pleasant. Do not crowd him with everything your thinking he will get mad. Good luck your a star. Also build a relationship with god that is #1 he will let you know in your heart where your supposed to be!

      • This is definitely one way to chip away at the denial our partners have regarding their mothers. Softly and kindly but with firm boundaries. Good advice. I heartily agree with the importance of expressing your needs to your partner, and getting support from outside this dysfunctional situation. Good self care is vital. I feel so much better having started lifting weights and taking up running. It gives me a way to release my pent up feelings and makes me feel badass.

        Your observation “Mom wouldn’t be threatened if there were no chance of him shifting” is hitting the nail bang on the head. Narcissistic people are addicts for approval and affirmation and you are threatening their supply. That’s why they attack. Thanks to you Alyssa for sharing your experiences and supporting Katherine.

  10. Bob cuddly

    She’s the mother in law from hell, my wife is under her spell and she comes down to our house and stays up till am with my children, yes on school holidays, also wife works nights – treats me like I either don’t exist or when I call my wife on phone like it’s a chore to answer. Lastly she lives a few hours away and never goes home, I believe she tounges her way of the single parth peception although could be paranoid.

  11. Alyssa

    Oh my goshhhh… you are so funny. This is exactly what I need to do and like you mentioned it is hell.**** I live with her****. I’ve went through the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced dealing with this. I even had to break up with my boyfriend because I didn’t know what was wrong with me or what was happening. I now know it wasn’t me all along and I feel a sense of relief that I’m not the issue. I think my boyfriend needs my help and I now see why God has put me into his life for so long (10 + years). I’m on my mission to open his eyes (gracefully) and put him at peace. Thank you so much you sound just as fed up and driven up a wall as I am. Good news I’ve got about 8 months to do so (we are moving out together). I am so blessed to have run across Narcissistic Reviews and your story. It has truly saved my life. I am not crazy or a jealous girlfriend. Thank you again. God will bless you for the blessings you’ve given. Bless you heart!!

    • **** I live with her****!!!! OMGosh you poor thing! Sounds like you have found the strength to stand up to her nonsense, you are definitely not the crazy one. Your boyfriend is lucky to have someone to fight in his corner.

  12. Pen Childs

    I have no backup from my husband, he thinks his mother is the best mother ever

  13. PDUB

    Hi, Thank you so much for your post. After 31 years of marriage and dealing with both Narcissistic Mother and N Mother In Law, I sought counselling to begin learning how to manage these crazy makers. One lives close and the other 5 hours away.

    Over the years we have had many family functions and needless to say, these women get on each others nerves and drive the other crazy. Then, each complain to me later how the other one hurt their feelings or how they felt demeaned or attacked. You know, the usual narcissistic responses. I have actually learned that a great way to manage their behaviour, although always temporary, is to tell them about the others rude, childish, selfish antics and its hysterical how they go out of their way to be the opposite of each other.

    Neither of them recognize these traits in themselves, but they will literally draw attention to their ” respectful, good” behaviour to prove they are better than the other. Don’t get me wrong….its an ongoing job to keep a step ahead of them but at least I have found another weapon in my arsenal that also provides some amusement. Who knew the answer was there all along?

  14. Kelly Vettese

    Omg, this has been the best advice I have heard yet. I’m done being pleasant with my mil..and I am done sugar coating the miserable situation that I have allowed happen to me and my family due to my controlling narcissist mil. DONE!! The best part is that she finally has done something so bad that her son my hubby has finally seen the light. Thank you for reassuring me I am on the right path.

    • Sara

      Unfortunately I am in the same situation as you where before. Still waiting for my MIL to do something so bad that my husband understands how dangerous she is. But, he no longer defends his parents nasty behavior at least. They are terrible grandparents to our kids and my husband sees how friendly and loving my parents are. I read that narcissists do get their eventual karma. They end up alone because they have nothing to give. Even then, they will still feel like the victim even though they made others lives a living hell.


    To me, the only way…..the only real way to deal with a NMIL is no contact/grey rock…leave them in the past if you can. You will be received that you no longer have to deal with them. Saved my spirit in doing so…

  16. Pixxie

    When will part 2 be available? I can’t find it anywhere! I really need help with my toxic MIL. She’s crossed the line again and my OH is so conditioned by her BS that he and the rest of their family defends her actions so they don’t have to upset/anger her and can avoid dealing with her wrath. It’s so abusive. Now I have a daughter I’m lost I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to end up divorcing because of this.

      There is a further post titled “What NOT to do”. You can find all posts listed chronologically in the Contents tab at the top of every page.

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