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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20 Comments

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

20 responses to “Denial and your Spouse

  1. jsrelease@gmail.com

    This is brilliant and wonderfully written. Your blog has such useful, practical information for dealing with these issues. Thanks so much. -Jessie

  2. Kate

    This is great information and excellent advice. Thank you.

  3. thenarcissistwrites

    Very good advice 😀

  4. Anonymous

    I think that this is a tough topic for many of us here, however, it is very well written, thorough and features good, solid advice. Thank you FCW for this and I look forward to Part 2. It occurred to me that perhaps many loyal followers of this blog are hesitant to comment due to the presence of a lurking and admitted narcissist. This is unnerving to me.

    • I know what you mean, I was somewhat surprised to find someone who has identified themselves as a narcissist reading this blog too. I do moderate every post and will not tolerate anyone posting comments that are not supportive of the topic of my blog or of the people who are drawing help from it. I would hope no one is hesitant to contribute because they are concerned how that poster may reply. I can block people if necessary.

      Narcissism is a spectrum and some people can and do recognise it within themselves and work to overcome it. Self awareness and working to recognise how our behaviours affect others are good things for anyone to do.

      • thenarcissistwrites

        Didn’t mean to scare off your readers. Obviously I like searching for blogs with the tags “narcissism” and so on. I only commented because what you are saying really is good advice to anyone dealing with a narc and I figured it would be worthwhile to mention that it does shut someone like me down. For a little while anyway 😛 Anyway, I’ll refrain from commenting in the future but I hope you don’t mind my continuing to read.

  5. thenarcissistwrites, I don’t mind at all, please do read on. I admire your persistence in trying to understand yourself.

  6. Mel

    Hi, thanks so much for this blog, it’s so useful to know I’m not alone! My MIL (I believe) had narcissist personality disorder but I’m really unsure what to do as she is perfectly polite to my face and then very rude about me behind my back (in text messages to my husband) I’m unsure what to do about it as the one time I have raised the issue with her she made out that I was terrible for looking at my husbands phone and then apologized profusely the next day- it didn’t help and she was exactly the same after. I have 2 children and I’m worried about how her behaviour may impact on them as she loves them but is terribly competitive and believes I am doing everything wrong. Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you for this blog, it’s so good to read of someone dealing with it right!

    • Mel, lots of readers have asked for help in dealing with NPD MIL and their children. I have added a new post on this and will finish with a third summarising some ways that may help you manage her interactions with her grandchildren. The competitive parenting thing is a problem I have had to deal with too. Don’t take it to heart, you are fine as a mother, she is the messed up one. The thing with narcissists is that they sound so very sure of themselves it can cause you to doubt yourself.

  7. Mandy

    While I am sorry you’re experiencing this, it’s nice to know I am not alone. I’ve always known that MIL’s pime motivatation for “kindness” was purely selfish, it’s only for glory…fake altruism to feed her false-self, win admiration and be the victor of the competitions she has concocted in her mind. My husband was comfortable in seeing his mom as being motivated by guilt and making up for mistakes of the past – this way, she was still a loving mom. As MIL wrecks havoc as a grandmother, hubby is now coming to terms with the fact that his mom truly is extremely selfish and self-serving, he is having an extremely difficult time coming to terms with this. He doesn’t get angry or argue though. I’ll tell you this is a rough road. I thought your paragraph that started with “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…” was bang-on, I could totally relate.

    • Thanks for your reply Mandy. When you said “be the victor of the competitions she has concocted in her mind” I was nodding my head, yep that is the gist of it. In their minds it is perfect them versus the stupid evil rest of us all the time and she has to come out on top.

      I’m sorry to hear you partner is struggling with the impact of her behaviour. It is a slow process but each step will improve his relationship with you and your children and make his relationship with his mother healthier and more balanced. The hurt that realisation causes is unavoidable but a lot of good comes from battling through it.

  8. Natalie

    Thanks for this post! F

  9. Marie

    Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you thank you- for everything on this site. I thought I was alone and literally going insane. Knowing this is actually a problem and not just in my head with my MIL’s behavior and manipulation is seriously saving my sanity.

  10. Wow, I am so grateful for coming across your blog in the nick of time, 2 weeks before we get married. I’ve read the lot this week.

    I went no contact with my Dad 3 years ago followed by my mother 18 months ago, both have NPD. I am 44. I met my fiance 2 years ago, neither of us has been married before and we don’t have children (thank god). The road has been hard my fiance has been very supportive.

    However, the worst bit has been the discovery that he has a narcissitic mother and enabling father whose abuse escalated once we got engaged. So you can imagine how likely I am to take any shit from anybody now.

    There was a lot of love-bombing and grooming during the early months, but when we go engaged my future NMIL sat me down with a photo album containing pictures of every girlfriend my fiance has ever had. The message? You’re not special. Out of sight of my fiance of course. It was weird and creepy. Then she said that she would not be giving us any money for the wedding because she had helped my fiance and his ex out with money to buy a house, 20 years ago. I’ve always had her pegged as a possible narc because I noticed that she never asked me questions about myself and would not listen to me, frequently talking over me etc.

    When I asked my fiance if he would have a quiet word with them about her behaviour with the photo album and for the money comment, his Dad seemed to understand at first, but when his Mum got hold of it her reaction was hysterical and she then tried to paint me as a gold-digger, after her money. And now his cowardly enabling father has taken her part, because god forbid he should side with his son, that would mean standing up to his own wife. He is too invested in the status quo. I despise him for this. The problem was that my fiance didn’t tell me what their reaction had been. I just thought everything was fine and that it had just been one of those silly things people say, even though my gut told me different.

    I noticed though that when I went to their house they would be very cold and distant with me and very authoritarian. They came over for a meal and she physically barged me out of the way to open my bedroom door and stood looking at a pile of t-shirts I had left on the floor. So much other stuff. Very triggering because I have worked very hard to overcome an awful childhood and finally ditch those people who were scapegoating me for so long.

    I finally got very upset after an incident this week where his Dad was shouting at me about wedding plans, having never offered to even be a part of them or help in any way. I kept my cool with the Dad, I just stared him out and I let the conversation hang, not attempting to fill the silence. My other half said nothing, because it is normal to him and he has been in denial or avoiding them for years. I lost my rag with him (thank you for saying that it is ok to be upset at your in-laws and show your other half you’re upset), and said I would call the wedding off rather than be married to a weak man with non existent boudaries, who would happily chuck me under a bus rather than face disapproving his parents.

    He gets it now. I have stated clearly what my boundaries are (basically that I would be avoiding them from now on) and he has said that is ok. He has also opened up to his trusted brother and SIL (she has had 25 years of this shit) about what has been going on since our engagement, because MIL is busy spreading news to the extended family about my heinous gold-digging tendencies, and he wanted to make sure we got our story heard, covertly, too. I’m just going to medium chill the hell out of the situation on my wedding day, and I have primed all my relations to come and rescue me if she gets her claws into me on the day. Oh yeah, I’m talking, she is not going to silence me with her made-up bullshit. After all, as I said to my OH, we have the manual on her behaviour, she doesn’t know what to do with me. I’m going to be as fake as she is, I will attend family gatherings and look like I’m playing my part, and that I love her, meanwhile I will never go to their house again, it is like walking into the lion’s den. I may go for coffee with them all occasionally but that’s about it. I’m not scared of her.

    Thanks for your very insightful blog. I will be following everything you post.

    • Anon

      I don’t have a helpful response to this, but I laughed out loud at her branding you a gold-digger! I’m so sorry, but narcs are the most stingy people I have ever met; and I can ENTIRELY imagine that you are the furthest person who would stick around with this (after 2 NPD parents yourself) for “her” money?! Especially after she “gifted” her son money for a house 20 years ago… he surely would have paid it all back by now were it a loan! The sad part is how badly they believe THEY are the victims!

      And as for the photo album… been there, done that… I went to their house for the first time and was greeted with photos of his first wedding to his ex-wife in every, single, room of the house. Lovely. He was mortified because he divorced her after she ran off with another man. He was devastated and I was horrified that she would elect to “prove a point” to ME over genuinely caring that the whole event triggered terrible grief for her son! She cared more about setting a complete stranger straight by flaunting wedding photos of his adulterous ex-wife who wasn’t even her child, over her son. The lack of empathy is scary.

      Keep digging for gold, you strong woman, you!

  11. Anonz

    Yes, but what if your spouse turns around and says; “yeah my mother is like that so you better just learn to deal with it”. Then pushes the blame back to you implying you are at fault for not brushing their appalling behaviour under the carpet ….

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. In your case you are not dealing with denial. You are dealing with disrespect and boundary violations. Your partner is saying clearly how little they value you, you come third to their own difficult feelings around their mother which is why they are so angry and defensive, and to their mother’s behaviour itself. By pressuring you to adopt their own method of dealing with their mother’s behaviour (brushing it under the carpet) they are violating your absolute right to a) talk about this problem, b) have your own ideas about how it should be dealt with and c) have a partner who hears you out and meets you half way.

      If you cannot “just learn to deal with it” I would strongly advise you to leave this person and build a life with someone else. Not just because they have such a dysfunctional mother but because they are treating you very badly, no loving partner in a healthy relationship would say such a thing to their girlfriend or wife. Sometimes the result of being raised by a disordered mother is an adult who really has little or no clue what is acceptable behaviour in an adult relationship. What you are describing is not acceptable behaviour, it is in fact borderline abusive. Unless you want to spend years trying to educate this person, to “fix” them, so that they can behave more appropriately I think you need to evaluate what you are getting out of your relationship and if it is really worth it.

      Anyone who can treat your concerns on this issue so callously will do exactly the same on other issues too, they do not respect you.

      • Anonz

        Thanks for your reply! I really appreciate your frankness.
        I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog. There are times when I have thought I was losing my mind and to blame for my relationship with my mil, fil and sils (yes the entire family are a little odd).

      • I hope it wasn’t too frank! I have been told I can be very blunt, I’ll call a spade a spade. It is possible that your partner is using the reply he has given you to avoid discussing something he knows is a problem. If that is the case pushing gently and stating how his reply is not acceptable or respectful and that he is going to have to deal with his mother’s behaviour and your feelings about her if he wants your relationship to last may cause him to reconsider his response. Sometimes people torn between their dysfunctional family issues and their present relationship needs just have a little tantrum and lash out. It is so much safer for him to push back at you than his mother. Try talking to him again. If repeated attempts to talk meet with the same response and you have clearly communicated how important it is for you and your relationship that he takes this seriously then you have your answer. He is putting protecting himself from dealing with his mother ahead of your relationship and that is not viable in the long term.

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