Low Contact or No Contact?

The crucial consideration in how to manage a narcissistic MIL is whether to limit your contact with her and by how much. I am not going to pretend to you that I think there is any way of dealing with a MIL from Hell other than drastically reducing her presence in your life. Reducing contact to the minimum that you and your spouse are comfortable with is what is required to stay sane.

The two of you do not have to agree on the same level of contact. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you have to do everything together. If you or they want less, respect that and work around it. One person can see them by themselves if they wish. You might think that it is the in-law who wishes the least contact but that is not always the case. I have heard of couples where the spouse wants no contact but the in-law keeps in touch and visits with the grandchildren. There is no universally correct way of handling the situation, you and your spouse will have to work that out between you.

Let’s look at what options are available in terms of contact and how to implement them. There is some jargon here I’d like to introduce you to; medium chill, low contact and no contact. Each term describes a different level of contact from the most to the least.

Medium chill sounds like a setting you might find on your fridge but it is about establishing an emotional coolness and detachment with regard to your disordered MIL. Forget emotional intimacy, you are cool, limited in your conversational content, setting clear limits to what will be discussed. You discuss nothing with her of any significance to you or your family. They are handled with a wall of small trivia, bland sentiment and neutral statements. Visits are arranged to suit you, best to organise them on your own or neutral territory not at her house and to set a clear time limit for each encounter. You have determined your family boundaries regarding her behaviour and are both prepared to enforce them.

An example of medium chill is my response to my MIL’s enquiries about my family. My brother went through a hard time, he split up with his long time partner, it was very messy involving various personal, money and property issues. He became quite seriously depressed and moved in with our parents to recover. I never, ever mentioned what had happened or why he was living back at home to MIL. If she asked how he was I made some bland comment along the lines of “fine thanks, getting on with things” and moved the conversation on or simply turned away from her. It was a dead end. This is medium chill. It is not rude or ignoring someone, it is simply keeping the MIL in a box and not letting her get out.

Medium chill doesn’t necessarily limit the number of contacts you have with MIL. She can still phone, email, send letters, come and visit or whatever. It is more to do with your mental approach to her contact. Like all managed forms of contact it is important that you are ruthlessly consistent in treating her this way.

Low contact is different in that this does include a limit on the frequency and type of contact you have with your MIL. Low means just a few, 3 or 4 visits a year. It also means deciding not to answer every call, reply to every email or as I did requesting that she not email or write at all. My MIL does email and write to my husband. She doesn’t have my email address and I have never responded to the few times she has texted me, I did not give her my phone number so I am not sure how she got it. These are my limits.

We are in a state of low contact with my MIL at the moment. The children and my husband see her maybe three times a year, me probably only once as I don’t go to meet her, I only see her if she visits our house. These visits coincide with special occasions like Christmas or birthdays. This contrasts with the situation when our first child was born where my MIL would visit every fortnight despite living three hours drive away. Infrequent visits also have the advantage of storing up lots of unimportant family news which can then fill the conversation until its time for her to leave. Low contact also encompasses medium chill in that when I do have to spend time in her company I keep it cool.

My husband continues to have contact with her via phone and email. Sometimes this happens several times a week. She goes through periods of having a lot of contact with my husband, usually because she needs something. Then we hear nothing for several weeks. We have caller ID on the house phone and mobile so we can choose not to pick up if we don’t want to have to deal with her. My husband often just scans her emails for anything troublesome then ignores them.

Low contact allows the disordered person some contact with their child and grandchildren, keeping them included in family life but in a way that is set by us. My intention when dealing with my MIL is not to use contact with her son and grandchildren as a way of punishing or rewarding her. It was a philosophical/moral decision that we would enable her to have a relationship as best as she could manage with her granddaughters. It is not her fault that she has this difficult behaviour although she does have some control over it. Provided her behaviour stayed within our boundaries we would manage it so that she could see her grandchildren while not causing grief to us both when she attended family events.

No Contact. Some people with NPD are just vile all the time, the drip, drip of poisonous contact with a MIL becomes so demoralising that one or both partners in the marriage decides enough is enough. Occasionally the disordered person does one spectacularly awful thing so that halting all contact is sudden and decisive. This is the often, sometimes unconscious, wish of the spouse in denial. They hope for a sudden coup de grace that makes the difficult decision for them. This rarely happens and it is easy to back track on a decision to have no contact after a one-off event, rather like storming away from a lover after a huge row, you can always decide to kiss and make up later and blame it on the heat of the moment.

A more objective and rational decision is to sit back and weigh up the long term effect of continued contact with someone who despite your best efforts at managing her is still causing problems and strife. This may lead everyone to conclude that just cutting the person off is the best approach. This is also a hard thing to do. It seems callous and ruthless. It is the point where you emotionally are so worn down and disgusted by the constant abusive behaviour you can’t take anymore.

Sometimes no contact is used for a limited time to give everyone a break. We have used it in this fashion after my husband first confronted his mother about her behaviour. She followed up his conversation with weeks of emails and phone calls, increasingly dramatic and self pitying, even at one point writing vaguely threatening sentences in white font at the end of emails. So he said no contact for a month – a cooling off period. It had the desired effect in that it brought the emotional temperature right down.

Permanent no contact is a serious undertaking. For it to work effectively it really means no contact under any circumstances; it is like declaring “you are dead to me”. Dead.

No contact means no phone calls, texts, emails, parcels, presents, messages through third parties, no chat, no gossip from anyone, no news passed on, no casual enquiries, no invitations, no response to hearing they are sad, hospitalised or dead. Anything other than this is a variant of low contact and will always mean the door is left open for further and fuller involvement with them. No contact is not for wimps.

You do not have to inform someone that you are cutting them off although some people do and use this as an opportunity to express how hurt they have been by their parent’s behaviour. Some people return any letters or parcels but no contact purists would argue by returning them you are in fact having contact, binning them is better. In almost every circumstance you will be contacted by a third party trying to “find out what happened” or pass on how upset the MIL is. This is called rather prosaically an attack of the flying monkeys.

In the classic film version of the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch sends her troop of flying monkeys to capture Dorothy, the monkeys go off and do her bidding and her dirty work. Be warned the monkeys will come. You will need to be ready to ignore them too, they may well be close family and this can create strife that spreads beyond your relationship with your MIL. Like I said, no contact is not for wimps.

So there you have a range of options to consider. You do not have to let your mother in law have unfettered access to you, your children, your house, your time, energy or emotions. You decide what if anything you are comfortable with. Your spouse can decide for themselves and together you can consider the contact you feel is appropriate with your children. With good boundaries in place your MIL can be managed so her impact on your life is reduced to that of mild irritation rather than crazy, out of control abuse.

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16 Comments

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

16 responses to “Low Contact or No Contact?

  1. LD

    It took me 26 years and the spectacularly awful event to go No Contact. I disconnected our landline, changed my cell number and email address. I attend no events where there is even a chance they might attend. I know who the flying monkeys are, and I shut them down immediately. My husband is a grown man and can do as he pleases while respecting my boundary. My children are adults and are low contact. It’s been nearly 5 years and it was the best decision I ever made. Life is good!

    • Hi LD, thank you for sharing your experience with no contact. You sound like you have clear boundaries that work for you. I am curious, if you don’t mind me asking, what was the awful event which made you decide to cut her off altogether? It is interesting and informative to hear what individuals regard as their own personal line in the sand. But I completely understand if you’d rather keep it private.

  2. BT

    Hi There! Thank you for writing this blog! I’m sorry that you have to deal with this situation. I completely understand what you have been going through. So many of the stories that you have shared are virtually identical to what I have been through with my NPD MIL. I have known my NPD MIL for 14 years. The first 6 we tried to have a normal relationship, the middle 6 years varied from low to no contact and the last 2 were strictly no contact (which were the best 2 years that my husband and I have had together!). My NPD MIL has just reached out recently to try to move forward from the no contact. We met with both NPD MIL and FIL, but only to learn that things have not changed. The quote of the day from NPD MIL was “My therapist said you are not entitled to your feelings about how I treated you and the problems you claim to have with me are not real problems.” This was a dagger to the heart, yet again by NPD MIL. Fortunately, after many ups and downs in my marriage and being on the brink of divorce over how to deal with NPD MIL, my husband and I are finally on the same page about her. He couldn’t believe she said that to us. What made it crazier is that my FIL just sat there nodding his head in agreement with that statement. It’s so sad. At any rate, we are again in the process of deciding how we want a relationship to move forward with them – No contact or low contact. You offer so many good pros/cons for each situation. Thank you for laying this out so clearly. This is certainly helpful as we decide how we want to proceed. Thank you again!

    • Hi BT, thanks for your comment. “My therapist said you are not entitled to your feelings about how I treated you and the problems you claim to have with me are not real problems.” OMG! Is her therapist for real? I mean you could be struck off for saying something like that here in the UK. Of course you are only hearing MIL’s rather subjective version of what the therapist did or did not say 😉

      I am so glad your husband is seeing things the same way as you, there is so much potential for marital strife when your in laws are a nightmare to deal with. Good luck with your decisions, take the leap and see how you feel after a while. It takes a few months to really settle in.

  3. future DIL to NPD MIL

    Hello! I cannot thank you enough for your expertise and wise words. I wonder if you might comment about the process of planning and preparing for your wedding day with the NPD future MIL. I have since realized that my future MIL suffers from NPD but she seems to be crumbling as our wedding day approaches. Her behavior at events held in my honor has been nothing short of atrocious and I am bracing for the worst of it yet. My future spouse is the hero/caretaker and I am unworthy of him– in her eyes. She takes every opportunity to exclude me while heaping praise on her hero/golden boy. Nothing that I say or do is recognized and I am continually put down for not taking good enough care of her prize. She tells everyone who will listen that her son is a perfect prince. In contrast, she refuses to acknowledge my existence let alone my personal or professional accomplishments. She has taken photos of our bridal events and posted them to the internet, situating herself in such a fashion so that it appears that she is the honored guest; needless to say, I appear nowhere in any of these photos. I fully expect that all of this will get much worse,as our wedding day looms. I wonder if you might provide any guidance and insight as to how I might best protect myself and my family during this supposedly happy time in my life. Thank you, again, for this blog– your work is remarkable and spot on.

    • green star

      Hi future DIL. Congrats on your engagement and condolences on the NMIL. Its a tough road, being married into such a family. My husband and I will be celebrating 15 years this year, and its only been the past two that I’ve realized what was going on with my own NMIL. For years she played me like a fiddle, but its good to see that you are aware of the situation before your marriage has even started. This will be a great benefit to your relationship, as you should be able to set boundaries from the start and be united as a couple. I wish i knew then what i know now! Future NMIL sounds like the engulfing type? How does your fiance see things? Does he recognize her behavior for what it is? Does he know how you feel about her behavior?
      You can expect your wedding day to be all about her. And as you mentioned, her behavior will get worse as the day approaches. Its impossible to predict what she might say or do, but be prepared for sabotage. Set limits with your fiance on what kind of behavior is acceptable from her. Let go of expectations that she might behave normally. It may not be possible to uninvite her from the wedding or other related festivities, but you can definitely busy yourself with preparations to limit your contact with her. Is there a family member you can confide in? Someone she also knows, who can be given the task to perhaps “rein her in” a bit when she gets too feisty on your day? Certainly her atrocious behavior has been noticed by others, and everyone loves to help out a bride on her wedding day. And don’t be shy about setting expectations with your fiance too. If he’s the type to do mothers bidding, then she will most certainly cause a commotion during your event which would require him to attend to her needs instead of yours. Best to give that task to someone else, at least for that one day, so that you can enjoy yourself and your husband and someone else can take care of her (selfish) needs.
      You can’t control her behavior but you can control your reaction to it. Don’t be afraid to put it “back on her.” Its ok to ask her, “why would you say that?” or “why would you do that?” Naming it and making her own up to her own actions might help her realize that others can see what she’s doing. And appearances are everything to a narc.
      Best of luck to you and your husband! Hope this helps some.

      • Green Star, thank you for responding to future DIL. You give great advice and when I have got a spare moment I’ll describe what we did to minimise disruption of our wedding. Having someone to literally frogmarch her away if necessary is a good idea. I am going to write a post on the whole topic of MIL’s seizing control of big family occasions, weddings, birthdays, baptisms etc. I’m glad we are all able to step in and give each other advice. Thanks.

  4. future DIL to NPD MIL

    Green Star & Fierce Cork Woman, I greatly appreciate your words of wisdom. The dynamic between by future MIL and future husband has many layers, most of which I find terribly inappropriate. My future husband has elected not to invite his father to the wedding, so I fear that, as usual, MIL will attempt to substitute by future husband as her date. She loves to dance and with no husband in the picture, future husband always accommodates. He is her golden child. He provides her with emotional support, financial support, and otherwise, does her bidding. I have not had much success speaking candidly to my future husband as he avoids addressing the subject as much as possible. He admits, infrequently, that she can be “crazy” but becomes extremely defensive when I objectively describe her behavior as manipulative.

    I think that your advice is solid– to have individuals in place to monitor and rein her in. She opened my gifts at the bridal shower, so I may need to make sure that someone is on hand to prevent her from doing this and from cutting the cake for us. I may also need to discuss the number of dances which are appropriate for my future husband to dance with her. I am certain that she will sob hysterically during her mother-son dance and otherwise cause a scene. I wonder if this dance should be the last dance to minimize her ability to cause a scene.

    Intellectually, I understand that I cannot control her but I can control my own actions. But there is a lot of resentment building within me. I really need to develop coping mechanisms to monitor my own reactions. This is what always proves most difficult.

    I very much look forward to your posts on how to manage NPD MILs during special occasions.

  5. Male in his 40s

    Dear future DIL, I read the last comments with much interest and concern. I think, If the MIL can go as far as opening your gifts, then that proves she has an absolute and total disregard for boundaries. It sounds like your fiance is in denial about his mother (he may always be) – and if this is the case then this might raise a huge concern about your next possible milestone… Having children…

    From my experience, it was from this moment that things started to get very difficult with my relationship with my wife – it almost seemed like that they weren’t just our kids they were also the MILs and I was powerless to enforce any boundaries, due to the control the MIL has over my wife. Also my relationship with my wife also deteriated as she started to act out the persona of her mother in varying degrees after we had kids, and especially over the last couple of years. It just became awful to live with.

    If your MIL has no boundaries regarding your gifts and other stuff, imagine what she will be like when it comes to you having a baby (assuming that’s what might happen). Good luck in enforcing boundaries surrounding your own kids when you have a partner that is controlled by his NPD parent – it probably ain’t gonna happen. My own MILs lack of boundaries surrounding my children, caused the biggest conflict between my wife and I and very nearly blew apart our family and everything we owned and worked for, and it still hasn’t been fully resolved… I ended up going from being a strong person mentally and emotionally to being treated for PTSD at the start of this year.

    Just a suggestion, perhaps it might be an idea to engage a psychologist (for you) that specializes in NPD/victims of NPD. It could be valuable for you moving forward, learning how to stand your ground, effective communication and valuable decision making. I know that if I had done that many years ago, things would be very different for me now.

    Good luck!!

  6. green star

    Future dil, she opened your gifts!?! Male in his 40’s is right, definite boundary issues there. Are you using a wedding planner? Sometimes they can be invaluable as they have encountered these difficult family situations many times in their line of work. Or find mil a date for the wedding – call an escort service if you must! 🙂 I joke, but understand the seriousness of your situation. You want to look back on your wedding with fond memories, not resentments and anger. It sounds like you are doing a good job of setting boundaries where you can and understanding where your future husbands limits are when it come to discussing his mother. FCW’s post on denial is very good, she gives great advice as to how to discuss these things with your spouse. Resentment is something I’m dealing with too.

    Male in his 40’s, you are right about how things change once children come into the picture. How grateful I am that we lived on the other end of the country from my nmil when my kids were born! There is something about starting your own family that really brings out the dysfunctional behavior in our nmil’s. I guess it’s because they know best and did such a great job raising their own children, right? 😉 And our spouses, not knowing any better having been raised in that environment, often carry on that legacy of dysfunction. Sorry to hear how much it has affected your marriage. It’s tough, we had to go through some marriage counseling and found that helpful, but there are scars that remain.

  7. SoManyQuestions

    Future DIL,
    So many great ideas in these posts and you being aware of future MIL’s narcissism are way ahead of where many of us were at the same time in our own relationships. Whatever you can do to build a strong support system now will help maintain your sanity down the road – friends, a family member from your family of origin, your own mom, or maybe there is an SIL who has also married into the N family and sees what is going on. Enlist their support during your wedding as well. Consider inviting a friend of MIL’s, I use that term loosely since they don’t seem to have any REAL friends, to keep her engaged.

    Unfortunately, it is after the wedding that things progressively ramp up. Male in his 40’s and green star’s posts regarding how kids provide a new gateway for despicable behavior are painfully true. My MIL had little to do with us before we had children so I was somewhat blissfully ignorant, but once babies appeared on the scene, she realized she had a built-in venue to insist on interacting with us much more frequently. I wanted to add a somewhat different perspective than what others have posted on how children change the family dynamics in case someone else has come across this as well. My MIL is so unbelievably selfish and primarily craves adult narc supply that she could care less about the grandkids (this could partially be she is well aware they are on to her since I am not shy about naming her odious behavior) – no birthday gifts, no Christmas gifts, no acknowledgement of their outstanding academic achievements, no nothing. Instead, she only uses them as a excuse to interact with my husband and as a means to stay at our house. So after your nuptials, if children are in your future, be prepared for added headaches…umm, I mean interaction and manipulation! FCW has really delved into the specifics of this subject over the last several months.

    Just a thought – as an outlet for your frustration and resentment consider keeping a log or journal of your experiences. Alabaster has also mentioned this, and I really wish I had done that since everyone conveniently forgets the details and experiences as time goes on. I didn’t do it early on because I was worried about what my husband would think if he stumbled upon it – looking back I shouldn’t have cared. Also, opening up to close friends has been a life line. Interestingly I’ve found that friends who are most supportive are ones who have their own battles with various types of family dysfunction – they can certainly relate.

  8. Melissa

    I know this is a pretty old post but I was hoping you or other commenters could offer me suggestions on my situation…I am currently contemplating low contact with my NM. I have three boys, 7, 3 (will be 4 in January), and 2. My 3 year old is what you would call her “flying monkey” and asks to see and speak to her frequently, especially when he is told no by me or my husband. The times when I do let him speak to her, he will basically ask for her help and tell her what he has not gotten that he wants. For instance, recently during a phone conversation (in which she is always on speaker phone) he told her that he was on a punishment for taking super glue out of my room (my husband and I have a personal bathroom) and leaving it out where his little brother could get to it. He told her that because of that, I took away his tablet. So my NM tells him that she will buy him one. He didn’t quite get it so he told her that I already bought him one, which I had. She’s also in the past told my sons to keep secrets from me and their father, especially regarding junk foods, which we rarely allow in our house. So I wonder how I can keep the conversations from getting too personal with her manipulation on my 3 year old and help him to understand without looking like the bad guy.

  9. lilmumma

    Thanks for everything you’ve shared, it’s been very helpful! We were at low contact with MIL when she decided to take legal action to see our kids without having to see us. Mediation was a bust, the threats of further legal action and manipulation of the children kept coming thick and fast, so we cut contact. Now we are going to court to defend ourselves. She expects us to deliver our children to her door once a month. Just wondering if anyone else has been through this?

    • lilmumma, I am in the UK and here there are no laws which give grandparents legal access to grandchildren. The only situations where it arises is if the grandparent has been raising the child as the parents are incapable for some reason. I can’t give you legal advice (and nor can anyone else on this site) but we may be able to find someone with a similar experience if you can tell us which country you are in. I am so sorry you have to go through this. To use courts and the financial impact of that to control people is despicable. I think every parent is perfectly entitled to bar anyone from their children if they consider them harmful to them.

  10. Relieved

    Hi lilmumma, I am in Australia. We do have grandparents’ access rights here, but my investigations based on fears of what you’re going through showed that it isn’t all that easy for them to be used. The most important thing for you to do is to engage a family lawyer who has experience in this area, which from the tone of your post it seems you have done. In your favour is the fact that you and your partner both agree the grandmother is bad (as opposed to your partner siding with your MIL in a divorce situation). Hopefully you also have available to you your children’s other grandparents (ie your parents), who can attest to your character and any abuse which they have witnessed. As FCW says, we can’t give you legal advice, but my practical advice is to take your lawyer’s advice and be as reasonable as you can bear. If you remain cool, rational and loving to your children, hopefully your MIL will be revealed for what she is.

  11. Although long ago, I had the MIL from hell. Reading this is the first time I have seen anything that has come close to what I experienced. Difficult from the moment I met her she was full of vitriol for me and I was constantly shocked that anyone could be so appalling.
    My husband insisted she look after our little boy. It only happened once. When we arrived home her speech was incoherent. It was then that I found out she took a lot of medication. She never looked after him or the younger children. I was very definite about it.
    As time went by I had to choose not to visit her at all. My husband continued but eventually she stepped too far with her insulting and hateful words and behaviour. He cut her off. This is a tiny piece of the story. I am so grateful for the reassurance from your article that what I did was the right thing.

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