Monthly Archives: April 2014

Denial and your Spouse

Denial is not just failing to recognise something that others see, everybody has their blind spots. Denial is failing to acknowledge it even in the face of overwhelming evidence put right under your nose. Freud the father of psychoanalysis, first proposed denial as one of the primary defence mechanism of the psyche against thoughts, insight and feelings the conscious mind was unable or unwilling to accept.

My husband was in denial about his mother’s behaviour towards him and our family, now he is in denial about the full extent of it, preferring not to use terms like personality disorder but to say she is “difficult” instead. This demonstrates a truth about denial, it comes in various levels.

Outright factual denial takes the form of a refutation of a statement, “no I am not fat!”.  Minimization is the admission of the fact but in a way that rejects its seriousness, “yeah I like a drink, but I’ve got it under control”. Projection is a denial of responsibility by blaming someone else for behaviour, “she provoked me”.

Let me show you how this works with my husband and his denial about his mother’s behaviour. First off the outright denial of fact is not something that he does, partly because of the amnesia discussed above and partly because he is not a liar. But if I had challenged him a few years ago with a sentence such as “your mother is mentally ill, her behaviour towards us is very abnormal” I would have got an outright denial. She, on the other hand, will outright deny a statement or say something like “that isn’t the sort of thing I’d say” which has a high b******t factor, refuting it but without committing to a lie.

The second level of denial, minimisation, occurs all the time. He minimises all of her behaviour, offers excuses for it, reinterprets it into the best possible light and suggests I have somehow misunderstood it. You cannot misunderstand when you meet you husband’s mother for the first time and she totally ignores you, doesn’t shake your hand or say hello, turns her back and walks away with your partner. Ask him about this now and he doesn’t remember. At the time, after a whole day of her appallingly rude treatment, he laughed nervously and said she was just like that. Minimisation in action.

He also minimises the effect that her behaviour has on me and on our marriage. The only way to tackle this is to repeatedly and honestly tell your spouse how their mother’s behaviour makes you feel and show it. You actually need to cry, sound cross, gesticulate, sob, put your head in your hands and your heart on your sleeve. I also find referring back to her behaviour helps, “I won’t be doing that because last time your mother did this…and it made me feel…”. Confronting your spouse with a cause and effect consequence of your MIL’s actions is a powerful way to challenge minimisation. Statements along the lines of “this happened and it made me feel like this” cannot be argued with.

Projection, the last form of denial, is also a speciality of my husband’s. His mother acts like she does because her mother in turn was not nice to her. Rather than get angry with his mum, he feels angry with his grandmother. It is safer that way. Blaming another for his mother’s actions means not only does she get an excuse so she doesn’t have to change but he also doesn’t have to tackle her or her actions.

Which brings us nicely to why people experience denial at all. Some things are just too painful or potentially disruptive for the conscious mind to want to pay attention to it. Facing the facts would bring about a huge cognitive dissonance in the child of a narcissist. Our culture promotes the pervasive view of mothers as selfless, nurturing, loving people whom we all rely on as babies for our very survival, the mother as life giver and comforter, this collides head on with the stark reality that in fact your mother acts like a self absorbed bitch most of the time and appears not to give a damn about you. Faced with such a massive clash of belief with fact the adult child of your NPD MIL would experience a huge amount of stress and psychological discomfort.

The person will try to minimise the dissonance, and also to actively avoid information or situations that would increase it. So they choose to see the MIL as a good mum who is just misunderstood and put their fingers in their ears and chant “la la la I can’t hear you”.

I am slightly trivialising the issue here, it would be very painful and most likely trigger a grieving process even depression to realise your mother was incapable of loving you and all your interactions with her were on a selfish level. It would cut to the very core of a person’s belief in their own lovability and worth. To rebuild a secure sense of your self after such a realisation would take a long time and some serious therapy. You can understand why denial is such a strong feature in some spouses.

Denial is not always a maladaptive way of dealing with a situation. It is seen by psychologists as the first step in coping with information that provokes feelings and thoughts that are very distressing to the denier. In the short term it helps the denier cope with daily life and continue in the face of something that threatens their psychological or physical health or security. We are familiar with the shock and denial that are experienced by people who are faced with the sudden death of a loved one, “I can’t believe he’s dead, it’s a mistake”, “it’s not cancer, I want a second opinion”. The next steps beyond denial are anger, grief, despair, integration and acceptance of the facts and normal a person would cycle through those until a resolution with the difficult facts was reached.

In a family where the mother is behaving in a very damaging way denial of the problem becomes a way of life that allows everyone to continue acting as if they were a normal family. Your spouse was raised in that environment. To them denying that mum is messed up and cruel is second nature. Denial of the situation has stopped being a stage in the process of assimilating a difficult lesson and instead has become a way of life. It has a massive pay-off for the spouse, it allows them to love their mother and see themselves as loveable. To tackle denial you are going to have to be clever as it is a very stubborn psychological defence. The bottom line is that a person cannot be made to face up to a problem they are in denial about until they are ready.

Two things may trigger a person to come out of denial, one is a sudden crisis that shocks them into facing reality as it is rather than as they choose to interpret it, the other is a slower process where you confront someone repeatedly with hard evidence that contradicts their interpretation and also call out each time they use some argument or trick to try and divert you from your task. A psychotherapist would gently use the second method to tease out the emotions and thoughts that an individual is hiding behind the denial. How on Earth do you do it?

Firstly be aware of the methods your spouse uses to deny what you say to them. There are emotional ploys, logical tricks and rhetorical arguments that get pulled out of the bag when a person in denial is pushed to see what is really true about their situation. They may also get angry and very defensive so you need to be subtle and keep yourself calm. Do not attempt to tackle the entire thing in one go! Choose a specific thing and stick with it.

For example, maybe your MIL has made a catty remark to you. Raise it with your spouse, “your mother said…and it made me feel…” then confront any minimisation or denial, “oh she was just tired” gets challenged with “how do you know she was tired?”, “is it OK for me to speak to you like that when tired?” or “she didn’t mean it that way” is met with “how do you know that?”, “why is your interpretation better than mine?”, “are you the most objective assessor of your mother’s behaviour?”. Then leave it. You only have to do this a little bit at a time. What counts is that you do it repeatedly and in a calm and genuinely sympathetic way. Glaciers melt one drip at a time.

Set some boundaries around any denial conversations where you walk away if your spouse gets too angry, starts name calling or shouts at you. Respond to the logical, factual bits of what your partner says, don’t respond to the emotional content. I have actually replied to the line “she’s my mother!” with ” I am aware of your biological relationship but that doesn’t alter…”, she’s my mother is not a get out of jail free card. You could spell that out at the start of the conversation if you want.

I can recommend a good website http://onegoodmove.org/fallacy/howto.htm which summarises some common logical fallacies your spouse will no doubt make good use of if you confront their denial. These are an academic description of the ways everyone argues back when they are not trying to write philosophic essays for professors. Avoiding these fallacies is the goal of philosophical essays, the rest of us can be forgiven for using them in normal conversation. If you know what they are you can counter them.

Always be ready to acknowledge when they have a point, you too can be defensive and after years of putting up with MIL you probably do have some chips to get off your shoulder. The more calm and reasonable you sound the more weight your words will carry. It is all too easy to dismiss you as ranting or hysterical otherwise.

Finally don’t protect your spouse from the consequences of their denial. To do so is to be complicit in it and codependent in their abusive relationship with their mother. If they deny she is being a bitch and this makes you want to spend the weekend with your folks instead, go and stay with them. If denying she is a fussy eater means you serve up food you know she won’t eat so be it, then leave him to deal with the fallout. Don’t rescue them from the problems caused by their refusal to see reality as it is. Good luck.

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Filed under Denial, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Narcissistic MIL and Grandchildren Part I

Management of the MIL takes on a whole new level when grandchildren appear of the scene. The overriding priority when dealing with MIL and her interactions with her grandchildren, your children, is what is best for the kids. Remember that as you reflect on your own experiences and read through a few of mine. I haven’t always got this right but of all the interactions I have had with my MIL the ones concerning my children are those which I feel most sure of. My instincts kicked in early on and I have never really given a damn if she disagrees or disapproves of my childrearing. My kids, my rules, suck it up MIL.

Narcissistic grandmotherly interventions start with the announcement of any pregnancy. There are predictable responses that a narcissistic MIL may select from. First is jealousy that the pregnancy will take attention away from her. She may choose to minimise or ignore the pregnancy or suddenly develop some health problem or other crisis in her life to get some attention back on herself. Alternatively she may decide to take over the pregnancy and give all manner of advice and opinions solicited or not, research the best birthing methods, the best baby equipment, even invite herself along to the hospital on the day and right into the delivery room.

My MIL opted for the first approach and after being told we were having a baby (her first grandchild) she refused to discuss it or get excited “in case something goes wrong” which was a very tactless thing to say to a woman expecting her first child. This lasted the full nine months. Every time she visited or spoke to my husband on the phone any news about the pregnancy was deflected and dismissed. After the birth she managed to say “congratulations” literally that one word to me and nothing else. No enquiries about how the birth went or a chat about how lovely the baby was, nothing. As I mentioned before in the section on abuse amnesia she refused to even hold the baby on her first visit which she made sure was only brief and spent the entire time moaning about her own mother whom she had been visiting, she saw us on the way back from her mother’s, we were not the priority that was clear enough.

I have heard tales from others with and NPD MIL about how they completely dominated the whole pregnancy with their interference. From buying the right vitamin pills, insisting on certain doctors only at certain hospitals, trying to use money to buy the treatment they wished for their DIL, trying to dictate the birthing method and environment, even inviting themselves to be the poor woman’s birth partner. Thank God I never had to deal with that. Her disinterest was a relief to be honest. Pregnancy is a vulnerable enough time without extra pressure from someone you dislike trying to control your every move.

There was one incident with my second pregnancy which to this day is a sore point but that was more to do with my husband than with the MIL. She knew the pregnancy had been hard, ten weeks of twenty four hour a day “morning” sickness, pelvic girdle pain, an unexpected bleed and admission at 31 weeks, then a sudden concern about my blood sugar and the babies growth rate (high) led them to put me on a special diet for the last four weeks and demand finger prick tests six times a day.  MIL decided she wanted to come and help by staying for four days when I was 38 weeks pregnant. I felt ill at the very thought. She graciously told me she wouldn’t be offended if I wanted some time to myself, in my own house, when nine months pregnant. Offended. As if my overriding concern at that time was if I was causing her offence. Mercifully the doctors decided to induce the baby early. I was so disgusted that my husband had joined in an applied pressure on me to allow his mother her chance at “helping” rather than do what was best for me which was to arrange an easy and relaxing last couple of weeks of the pregnancy. It rankles me to this day.

Having declined to show any interest in our newborn child the first time, she arranged her own special visit a couple of weeks later. This was when she started to accelerate her interest in the baby. First she insisted on buying some clothes she thought we would need. Then some more, then toys. Then she came every two to three weeks for the next six months. Each time the baby was bought more and more stuff. A lot of it was second hand from charity and thrift shops. Piles of stuff wholly unsuitable for the baby like a gardening set when she was three months old. She wanted to be the grandparent who bought all the significant items. Upon hearing that we had taken the baby to get her first pair of shoes she sent a cheque covering the cost (which I never cashed), as she wanted to buy them.

Not content with buying everything she could lay her hands on she also indulged in competitive parenting. Shades of anything you can do I can do better. For example our daughter sat playing with a jigsaw and her grandmother had to show her the correct way to do it, offering a running commentary the whole time on how she was educating the child through her interference. She went on to relate how she had done this sort of thing with my husband and SIL and then with sickeningly sweet coyness practically fluttered her eyelashes and remarked how of course not all parents did this (as she glanced across at me), maybe it was just her. The implication was clear, that somehow I was not stimulating the child sufficiently. She even commented to me that I had a much lower level of interaction with the baby than my husband did because I just sat watching the five month old play with her toes one day rather than talk to her. That I spent all day, everyday with the baby and therefor hardly needed to be constantly in the child’s face evidently did not occur to her.

One other issue over which MIL had an epic sulk was the naming of our daughters. The first was not a problem, the second was. We had first heard her unusual name when my husband started lecturing a course for a professor at his lab who had that name. We both liked it and called our second daughter after this professor, a lovely and successful woman. When MIL heard it she sulked. She assumed we had chosen it because it was also the name of her ex-husband’s aunt, a fact she was aware of as she extensively researches family trees in the belief that she is descended from aristocracy. Neither of us had any idea that we had chosen an old family name. My FIL has a large family on one side, seven aunts and uncles and he is not terribly forthcoming about these things. He only mentioned it to us some weeks after the child had been born and named. Apparently MIL had been hoping we would somehow just know that she wanted us to choose her mother’s name or her own name. The old telepathy trick again, expecting mind reading and getting upset when it doesn’t happen.

These behaviours are irritating but not dangerous or damaging. There are ways in which narcissistic grandmothers can behave that do actually tip into worrying. Outright disobedience of any rules you make regarding your children is one of these. This is a concern for several reasons. Firstly it is a continuation of her disrespect and attempts to control you and your other half, it is about power not love. Second it undermines you as parents in front of your children showing them that your rules do not need to be obeyed. Lastly it can be dangerous if your rules are designed to ensure your children’s safety.

The next post will cover some of the more concerning behaviour you may experience from a narcissistic MIL and what to do about them.

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Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren

Inappropriate Gifts

In response to a comments on the blog where several of you readers discussed weird gift giving behaviour I’ve put together some of my own experiences with this topic. It links in with the blog post on “Gifts with Strings Attached“.

It is a universal truth that people with NPD are poor at giving gifts. Remember that a person with NPD has little or no empathy with others and therefor have little chance of choosing something appropriate and welcome. To do so would require them to be able to imagine you as a separate person with your own valid interests and preferences, that just isn’t going to happen this side of Hell freezing over.

There are various ways in which my MIL’s attempts at giving have fallen short of normal never mind desirable. When gifts are bestowed for birthdays or Christmas she struggles to buy them without a huge fuss, struggles to get them delivered without a huge fuss and what she does choose is weird if not outright insulting.

My MIL can become stuck on one thing, having deduced correctly or otherwise that I like chocolates I will be given the same type every year without fail until I’m sick of the sight of them. Why? Because she simply can’t be bothered to put in any more effort to find out what I would really like, there is no pay off in that for her.

I mentioned once to MIL in passing that I liked writing in purple or green pen. This she took to an unnecessary level by insisting on tracking down all sorts of different green and purple biros and giving them to me one birthday. You may think this was very considerate of her but no, every pen was delivered with the most laboured description of how hard it was to find them to ensure the entire transaction was focussed on her extraordinary benevolence. Even though I hadn’t asked her for them.

Narcissists will give gifts that are all about them; a framed photo of themselves that they expect to see on your wall, a photo mug that they expect you to drink from every time they come round or something they would actually like for themselves, as why on Earth wouldn’t you want what they want? So I get sent garden centre vouchers, books on topics she likes to read about, costume jewellery that she would wear.

One year she sent me two small pairs of pliers for my birthday taken out of their packaging and wrapped up with no explanation. Yep, I was as baffled by that as you probably are. Then when I arrived at her house for a family visit weeks later she presented me with about a dozen tiny parcels that constituted the rest of my present. I had to sit and open each one in turn in front of her, talk about excruciating, while she smirked as I unwrapped small plastic bags of ugly beads and wires. She likes jewellery you see, and TV shopping channels, and had ordered some jewellery making bits and bobs on special offer. This explained the pliers. What it doesn’t explain is why she sent such a weird gift to arrive on my birthday and why she waited until I visited her house before subjecting me to trial by endless mini parcels. The explanation for that of course is control.

She uses gifts to try and control our kids also. We were adamant that we didn’t want our children stereotyped into roles before they were old enough to choose for themselves so requested generic toys that either sex would enjoy and specifically asked for no pink, girly princess stuff. Every other family member shrugged and said yeah, ok. MIL did not take kindly to be told. She sent our then 2-year-old daughter a pink, flowery tea set. When this was pointed out she denied that she knew it was pink and flowery. Despite having seen it in the shop, picked it up and carried it to the counter, taken out and wrapped it at home, despite the front being clear cellophane and the words “Pink Flower Tea Set” being written on it, despite the photo of the contents on the box, no she just hadn’t noticed.  The tea set went to a charity shop. She sulked for weeks and only sent money, no presents, for two years afterwards presumably as some sort of punishment.

The best way to deal with inappropriate presents is to laugh. Give them away and don’t expect to ever get anything really nice from her then you won’t be disappointed. Or offer them back to her, “my what a lovely picture of yourself, wouldn’t that look so much nicer hanging on your wall…”

There is another more insidious way in which a narcissist can manipulate people with gifts; they can use them to show status. Narcissists often have a preferred child or set of grandchildren. The lucky recipient of their golden child status will be bestowed with numerous and expensive presents. The unlucky one singled out for disdain and disapproval gets little or nothing. My first child was deluged in presents from her grandmother. In the first two years of her life she was given more things by MIL than the rest of the family put together. When our second child was born she got nothing for a whole year, not even a pair of booties.

We made it clear to her that if this continued we would refuse to accept any gifts at all.  The children were to be treated equally if she wanted to continue having access to them. It is trickier to deal with a grandmother who favours one set of grandchildren over another. What if your sibling’s kids get better treatment than yours? If the sibling is on your side you both sit down and talk about it. If not, the sibling has always been the favoured one, then you are stuck with this situation I’m afraid. Don’t take it personally; you do not need her approval or her presents. Be completely honest with the children, you do them no favours by trying to cover up her misbehaviour. For them to properly recognise and deal with nasty behaviour themselves they need to see you respond appropriately. That means acting honestly and with integrity. For example: “Grandma gives cousins Jane and John better presents because she is not a very well person and has little idea how to properly and fairly treat others. This is not our fault or Jane and John’s. They are not better than us. Grandma is playing favourites, a nasty game. We will not play along by getting upset about it.”

Money is also used to convey a message of worth to MIL. She uses the amounts to reflect her favour. One Christmas my husband got a cheque for £100, the grandchildren got £50 and I got nothing.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, strategies for managing NPD MIL