How NOT to manage an Narcissistic MIL

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.

Don’t JADE

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.

In summary

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.


Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

16 responses to “How NOT to manage an Narcissistic MIL

  1. anonymous

    Thank you so much for this post! My mother-in-law is a narcissist. It took me a long time to realize it but when I started reading up on it, I realized she fit most of the description. She loves to stir up drama and then when I get angry and tell her off, she plays the victim. She thinks she’s better than me and she’s even told me that she will never accept me into her family (I’ve been with my husband over 12 years). I have tried to deal with her in every way you’ve listed here and I can definitely say, it doesn’t work. Now, I just try to keep her at arms length. Now I’ve got to try to work on not venting about her to my husband. He realizes how she is, but at the same time, he instinctively defends her. He usually tells me that I am just taking things the wrong way (when I know I’m not) Anyway, again, thanks for this post! I look forward to reading more!

  2. Dear Anonymous, thanks for your reply. It is reassuring to know that you too have tried some of these tactics for dealing with MIL and found they didn’t work. So much of the experience of having a dysfunctional MIL is isolating. You end up isolated even from your husband as they defend their mother like you say. Hold firm to your interpretations and feelings, you are more objective than your husband is and I doubt you are taking it the wrong way!

  3. lbs

    I just stumbled upon your blog and after reading several of your posts I am already feeling some of my stress melting away. My MIL seems to be a lot like yours and I’ve reached my breaking point, most recently pushing me to the thought of leaving my husband. I’m ashamed to even write that, but I’m at my wit’s end. I think your blog is going to be a good starting point for me to get the help I need first, followed by the help I know my husband needs. Thank you.

    • You’re a brave woman to be so open about how you feel. Please, if you can, find a support network be it a professional therapist or a friend with similar problems. Try The best of luck to you.

  4. Sue

    I just “woke up” in this past year to the reality that my MIL has at the very least narcissistic tendencies. This cosmic baseball bat to the head came after she brought an old girlfriend of my husband’s into the fold (MIL wrapped her in a bow, told my H that she would support him leaving me& our son to start a “real life ” with this better choice of a woman for him because I am “sucking the life out of him” & he deserves to be happy) Long story shortened – he bought it hook line & sinker (for about 4 months) he then woke up to the horror of what he had believed & done BECAUSE the new(old ) GF was even more narcissistic than mommy dearest & that made him “see ” mommy for EXACTLY what she is…a selfish self absorbed bitch who plays her games with false sweetness & light & that wonderful “support ” she doles out when she chooses to be around to feed off her supply(my H)
    sorry I’mventing a bit here & as most of you know from your own experiences, there is WAY more stories of my experience. I tried all of the above over the years without realising her PD (I just ‘knew’ something was ‘off’ about his family of origin) I even tried being her ally & actually stupidily thought we were friends until last year where the horrid reality hit me right between the eyes. So I guess I’msaying don’t EVER think they have your back…when you no longer serve them they attack full force, especially if they feel their grip on their “precious” baby is slipping – which is exactly what was happening when dealt her death blow last year. NEVER EVER let your guard down, even you live miles apart, you’re not safe – it’s the one thing they can be very patient about – setting traps & waiting (sometimes YEARS ) for the perfect time to strike.
    I can say that as horrible as last year was it was the ‘thing ‘ that woke BOTH me & my husband up to the cleverly disguised she-demon his mother really is…yes, a lot of therapy now but we are BOTH finally free & trying to learn a new better way to live – which would be in reality. It’s painful but real & I now actually have hope for the future. Mommy dearest has been banished! it’s the only way to deal with her which is-not at all. We’ve moved 3000 miles away, she has no way to contact us directly. No phone numbers, email addresses…she doesn’t know where we are at all…this may sound harsh but there’s more to this story. ..tip of the iceberg!

  5. Cls

    How do you deal with a narcissistic mil/grandmother if you live with her ? I can’t exclude her from the house as we live with her in her house. It’s a nightmare !!!

    • Oh Gosh you are in a tricky situation. Work towards moving out, save up, work two jobs (seriously) get out ASAP. Get locks on your bedroom door. Make it clear that living in her house doesn’t mean she calls the shots on your relationship with your other half or your kids. I feel for you I really do. How are you stuck in this situation? Why are you living with her?

  6. Alice

    How does one deal with the barrage of emails and texts my partner gets from his mother. This woman has repeatedly told my partner that l don’t love him and that l am selfish and then finally when he had done little respect for me he had an affair which she encouraged and was apparently disappointed when it discontinued. I have to smile and do nothing because my partner thinks she’s normal.

    • She is not normal. If your partner has cheated on you and shown little respect to you I think you may want to consider why you are with him and if you would be better off without both of them.

      Dealing with a horrible mother in law is bad enough, if you don’t have a good relationship with your partner either then why stick around? It is usually love that keeps couples together in the face of a difficult parent.

  7. SwedeMom

    Late to the party here, I just re-read the sites contents. I’ve made the decision 2 months ago to have no contact to minimal contact. That is the only way to deal w my MIL. Took me along time to come to this conclusion but being in her presence always trigger the please her, be nice and make her feel great about herself.

    Never in 18 years, did I hear one nice compliment to me. If there ever was any attention on me I quickly ‘debunked’ myself, made fun of myself ….what a horrible way to live. No wonder after visiting with them and ‘drinking the koolaide’ aka….have that glass of wine…and it’s a MIL love fest. I always went home feeling HORRIBLE. Because I fell for her litte web she cast to glorify her.

    I thought she was so completely full of shit, pathological, mean, cruel and I would call it out to my husband. Never worked and I always felt bad that I threatened the dirty little enabling secret of the family my husband would get aggressive with me. Why was this so hard? I came to the conclusion that it would never ever be ok — she saw me as week bc I would have meetings with her trying to discuss the issues ….trying to make it better. What a joke…fact is she was playing a game with me starting day 1 and NEVER had any intentions of a good relationship. I was naive enough to think there could be one.

    I like a lot of others couldn’t believe that the hell of abuse I grew up with was only going to have a second coming with my MIL and my husband’s family. What a grave disappointment to feel I got abused all over again…differently…but to be around someone that degraded me in all ways no matter if she said one word to me. How naive I was.

  8. Hi fiercecorkwoman,

    It has been a few years since you started writing on this blog, but I want to say that it is still helping people like me. I really hope that you, your husband and your girls are doing very well (and even your MIL) and that you are not in the same mental place which prompted you initially to start this blog in order to find your voice.

    I am stuck in a bizarre situation, and thankfully, I figured out something is wrong with the people around me pretty soon (3-4 months). Your blog posts made me cry with relief that I am not alone and you articulated what I have been going through EXACTLY. I mean – the lying for petty things, the absurd rages yet the disdain for “acting up”, the lack of concern for my wellbeing, the gaslighting, etc. – I felt I am the one going crazy. I have a ray of hope now. I am seeing a therapist, but I will now tell her I might be dealing with NPD abuse here. I am from a loving family and my parents never let me feel insecure, so maybe it raised my alarm bells really quickly to be in this place where everyone SAYS I am loved, but I still feel unsafe or my wellbeing is at risk.

    Your blog posts have helped to reinforce what I’ve started learning by myself.

    However, could you please consider writing about what one might do if one doesn’t have a choice and must live with their NPD MIL? It is really difficult to set boundaries, and even claim a bedroom+bathroom for myself and my husband. Meanwhile, the facade presented to the world is totally different.

    It is totally fine if you are not writing anymore, just wanted to reach out and say thanks.

    PS: We have something else in common, I used to be a scientist too.

    • Hi there, thanks for your comment. I occasionally have someone remark about living with their MIL, they have been living with their MIL for cultural reasons (from the Indian subcontinent) or for financial reasons (young couples). It’s not clear from your comment which of the two situations you are in.

      My advice is limited I am afraid as I have no direct experience of this myself and I don’t feel comfortable writing on topics I know nothing about. I would advise you to get out and live by yourselves. Under all circumstances, no matter what financial pressures or traditions you live under, get out. Your sanity and marriage are worth more. Set clear boundaries in writing if necessary even if she doesn’t agree to your requests and have realistic measures in place to remove yourself if she breaches your boundaries. Put locks on doors. Care for yourself by spending time with friends who will believe and support you. What is your husband doing about his mother’s bad behaviour? His first loyalty should be to you and your marriage and any children.

      The honest truth is that my situation never improved. Removing my MIL’s pernicious influence merely exposed how much of her behaviour my husband was capable of reproducing in our relationship. After 3 years of marriage therapy he still resorts to narcissistic tactics himself whenever he feels his needs aren’t being dealt with which is most of the time. We are getting divorced.

      • Jamie

        I often wondered how long you would last. I too am getting divorced. My NMIL and husband can have each other. My health took a terrible toll. I unearthed how duplicitous he was our entire marriage. An absolute sham. He is the victim type that is religious. Makes me vomit.

  9. Pingback: Am I a victim? | The Twin Sisters: Tales of Narcissism and Abuse

  10. Anonymous

    Hello! I have just recently found your blog. My wonderful husband is on the same page as far as seeing his mothers behavior for what it is, controlling, toxic and narcissistic.

    We had a sit-down with them, and it was awful. She even got up and screamed in my face. Fast forward to two years of no contact, and my son, now 7, who was the object of all of their affections and weekend overnight grooming, and had even started telling me the negative things that she would tell him about me. He still asks for them and misses them terribly. It is hard to not feel guilty.

    Are we damaging our son? He asks things like, “Why are you keeping them from me?” I have answered with, “We will always continue to invite them to your birthday parties, they make the choice to not come.” and “It is not your fault.” It is a tough situation because they still send gifts in the mail, and the monthly magazine subscription for him. The magazine subscription is a slight sore spot for me because she wanted to stop it, so I said go ahead. When she realized that I wasn’t going to pick up the tab, she kept it going. How can I help him cope with not having them in his life anymore?

    • Hi there, thanks for your comment. In answer to your question “are we damaging our son?” NO YOU ARE NOT. You would be damaging him by continuing to allow him to have close contact with people who are undermining his parents and sabotaging their authority. You son needs one, consistent set of rules and messages about what is acceptable behaviour in your family and he should be getting those rules from you and your partner no one else. Children need security and predictability. I don’t see how keeping your child safe from emotionally damaging people is something to feel guilty about. I’d be feeling a damn sight more guilty if they were counting to mess with his head and I stood by and did nothing.

      As for his questions – I would be honest and answer directly. Children will fill in any gaps in their knowledge with something, from TV, a friend, anyone they over hear, to make sense of their lives. Without enough information your son will imagine all sorts of scenarios. So tell him outright what happened and why you don’t see them. Their behaviour was rude and hurtful, you spoke to them and they reacted very badly, you are keeping them at a distance for everyone’s sake. Grandparents shouldn’t be acting that way, other people’s granny and grandpa don’t do those things, some people just aren’t nice. I wrote an article about grandparent grooming and using the Hansel and Gretel story to show how some people can first appear nice but are actually unsafe.

      A final point, by receiving gifts and inviting them to birthdays you are not no contact. No contact would be nothing, no communication of any kind. Some people even throw presents out without opening them.

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