In the last post I discussed things that have worked for my husband and I when managing MIL’s behaviour around us. We keep our distance from her physically and have limited contact by phone, email or whatever. We carefully manage the visit when she does come, planning an itinerary for the day and sticking to safe topics of conversation. Finally we have discussed and established the beginnings of boundaries around her behaviour.
There are three more tips for managing the NPD MIL which I will outline below. They are setting boundaries with your spouse, talking openly about the problem and getting psychological support.
Set your own boundaries with your spouse
Hang on a minute, you may be thinking as you read this, my partner is not the problem, their mother is the problem! Nope. I am going to write a whole post on this topic but fundamentally your partner is the problem. If they had an adult, healthy relationship with their mother you would not be on the receiving end of her bad behaviour. Sure she’d still be a bitch. But there would be very clear practical and psychological limits in place around what she could do to infiltrate your family life.
But those limits aren’t there are they? No, which is why you are having troubles with your messed up MIL and why you are here reading this article at all. Of course your partner is not solely the problem, you are the problem too. Yep, I definitely need a whole post on this topic but I will summarise what I did here.
I had set boundaries with my husband because he was still in utter denial as to the extent of his mother’s manipulations. I said I would not go and stay with her one holiday. I point blank refused and that stance is what triggered the whole cascade of events which led to his complete realignment of his relationship with his mother. I did it to protect myself. I had severe post-natal depression and couldn’t imagine spending any time in close contact with her. There was no way, no earthly way I would have spent 3 nights under the same roof as her cooped up in a holiday cottage marooned miles from nowhere. The instinct for self-preservation is a wonderful thing. My boundary unshakeable and was this: I don’t like your mother, I am not going to see her, you go if you wish.
Why I didn’t like her didn’t need to be explained at that point, no justification required. My actions were clear, I am not going. I only have control over myself so I made no attempt to control my husband, you can go if you wish. I don’t know what made this simple statement so powerful. Maybe I was exposing a core of steel which my husband saw straight into. He didn’t argue with me, no “but why?” or “do it for me” what he said was “how will I explain that you aren’t there?”. His concern was not to ruffle his mother up the wrong way and to avoid a confrontation with her. He had accepted my boundary.
The other interesting thing that this boundary exposed was my husband’s vulnerability around his mother. He was anxious about seeing her on his own. I realised that I had been a human shield in some ways, having me there made him feel safer. Even though this meant she would make all manner of digs, snide remarks and slights at me throughout it was better for him to have me there than to see her by himself. I refused to be his human shield anymore and that left him facing a choice, to go alone or cancel the holiday. He cancelled.
That choice was not just turning down a free holiday, it was him aligning himself with me and our children rather than with his mother. At that point my boundary had actually triggered one in him, one that he had been unconscious of. When push came to shove he chose us over her.
I also have had boundaries with my husband around how he speaks about my relationship with his mother. I won’t accept being blamed, being guilt tripped, being told how I think or feel about things or being made to share his feelings of indebtedness and fear about his mother. I do not have to share his world view and that has really shaken him up. Before he expected me to fall into line and act and feel like he did, because he couldn’t imagine any other way to relate to MIL. I changed things and the world didn’t end. One of the things I had to change was how I let my husband call the shots with his mother. I effectively took back my control of the situation having abdicated it to him on the grounds that it was his family so he must know what he was doing. He didn’t.
I sound very sure of myself as I read over this section of the post but up until that point I wasn’t Wonder Woman. I had gone along with all the crap for years. Gradually I began to express more and more disquiet at what was happening, how MIL treated us and first one child then the next. Finally I told him I hated her. Why did it take so long? that takes some explaining about my background. Suffice to say all this standing my ground did not happen overnight.
Be completely honest with people about how MIL behaves
Narcissists flourish in darkness, deceit and diversion. I openly and honestly talk about MIL with friends and family and now my husband. I feel so stupid that for years I didn’t openly tell him how much I hated her and was hurt by her behaviour. I have told health visitors, doctors, colleagues, random mums in toddler play groups, all sorts of people when families come up as a topic of conversation that my MIL is a controlling, evil nutcase. They are often gobsmacked by the examples I describe. Sometimes I meet other people who have relatives like this too. That makes for a very interesting conversation.
Another way I talk about what goes on is by writing this blog. It is anonymous in that my real name and location don’t appear anywhere and no names are used but I know other people read it. I also joined an on line community of people with a forum where the trials of knowing someone with a personality disorder are discussed. At first this felt wrong, my heart would quickly beat, my stomach turn and a slight sweat would appear on my hands as I typed. It felt as if somehow she would know. Isn’t that so indicative of the fear I had absorbed, my husband’s fear. Why should I be scared of accurately describing what has happened and how she acts? The fear is of the nameless, formless yet dreadful payback that will follow. This fear is what silenced my husband for years. It, that is her obvious mental disorder, is not spoken of in the family.
I use the words personality disorder and narcissism comfortably in conversation although my husband cringes away from that description. A spade is a spade so call it so. It is powerful and liberating to give words and a voice to that which has bound and harmed you. Name something and you contain it somehow. It is observable, quantifiable and can be examined. Keep it nameless and it resides not in the conscious mind but the subconscious where it can control you. Harry Potter said “Voldemort” outright, none of this “he who must not be named” crap and he defeated Voldemort.
NPD relatives should not be some horrible secret you must keep hidden away. There are parallels between the conditioning that emotionally abused people absorb and the conditioning that sexually abused children receive to keep them silent about what occurs in their families. Don’t tell or… … NO! Tell, shout it out loud, point and tell it like it is. And it shrinks away to skulk in the shadows and your fear of them goes scuttling along with it.
Get psychological support
Narcissists mess with your mind. The technical term for this is crazy-making or gas lighting. It is a trait common to many manipulative people but is particularly true for those with NPD. The process of crazy-making is to discount, indeed even deny the other person’s mental processes and replace them with your preferred version, for example “I never said that you are wrong” when you did actually say it. It makes people pause and momentarily doubt themselves, over a long period of time the doubt becomes almost constant. Narcissists do this because their world view really is the only one they can comprehend having little empathy for other people. So if they don’t want to think of themselves as having said or done something they will deny it straight to your face and they sound so sure of themselves.
You need some external reality check. A person or persons who are not internally screwed up. Go and find a good therapist and someone in the real world or online with similar problems. There are good online forums. I used outofthefog.com. Good therapy is priceless. I have spent a lot of my savings on it but it has helped enormously. My anger was vented safely away from my husband and MIL and I was able to see why I had participated in the sick behavioural mesh which had us all caught up. I also was able to see how I had “given away my power” which is a bit of a poncey way of saying I wasn’t speaking up and taking a stand.
The forum helped me see other people in the same situation and those further along the road who were managing it all better than I was. My MIL really preoccupied me for a while. I had rants at my MIL going round my head and could feel my blood pressure rocket when she came up in the conversation. Now not so much. Reality checkers help you see the longer term, bigger picture and also help you pull back and put yourself first.
And so there it is, the ways I’ve learnt to manage my MIL;
- keep her at a distance and limit all forms of contact to whatever you feel comfortable with,
- determine the lines in the sand in your own mind where if they are crossed how you will act,
- discuss and plan how to orchestrate any visits by MIL and make the plan comprehensive and watertight,
- do not take on your partner’s emotions and world view – you have the absolute right to your own, starkly different take on things,
- talk openly about the problem to everyone,
- get psychological support.