Monthly Archives: July 2014

Infantilization

The last post covered a type of behaviour where the narcissistic MIL uses her relationship with her adult children to get her core emotional needs met. This parentifying is a natural result of the NPD MIL’s perception of her children as extensions of her will, there to do what she wants, not as separate to herself and free to do what they wish. In order for parentifying, or any other dynamic where the children provide for the mother, to exist the children must be controlled and conditioned in ways that motivate them to continue going along with it. One way this happens is by infantilising the adult child, your spouse. It creates dependency in the adult child by treating them as if they lack the emotional and practical skills necessary in adulthood while dismissing any signs of their maturity. It is a form of brainwashing and as such is abusive.

What is Infantilisation?

Unlike passive-aggressive behaviour or dysfunctional communication which is something your personality disordered MIL can do in any situation with anyone; infantilization is the deliberate collusion between MIL and your spouse to treat them as much younger than their age. It is an interaction that exists between two people, the MIL and your spouse.

Our family of origin is a blind spot in all of us until we reach adulthood and start to see our relationships with our parents from a more detached perspective. Part of adolescence is to separate from the family of origin. To leave behind the roles you played in it and the habits there formed and forge your own independent identity.

If your family of origin is dysfunctional or abusive in some way then it is often difficult to go through this process of separation and independence. There are a few reasons for this. Each family member is under a large degree of emotional control and conditioning to accept the family situation as normal and allow the abusive parent to continue the abuse. Keeping the family secret and accepting the family way of behaving takes precedence over normal growth and development, even if this harms the children. The children raised in a family with a narcissist are not encouraged to separate and become independent, they may not go through the usual teenage rebellion against their parents values. On the contrary they are encouraged, bullied and coerced into being dependent. As far as a narcissist is concerned they exist for the narcissist’s benefit. Something small children do is hero worship their parents. As you grow you are more able to see your parents’ flaws and faults and their sacrifices and admirable traits also, they become human not heroes. This is an appalling prospect to a narcissist.

Narcissistic mothers infantilize their adult children in order to control them. This ensures they maintain a supply of people willing to do whatever they want and mollifies their of fear of abandonment by keeping their children dependent. Infantilization can happen even  out of rivalry with the children who are kept enmeshed so they can’t achieve more than she did.

Part and parcel of keeping the children trapped in the web of the narcissists making is to feed them the idea that they really can’t cope on their own, that they are weaker, less mature and capable than they really are. This can be done directly by actually telling them that or indirectly through actions, body language, tone of voice and what is not said or done.

My MIL manages to convey through her actions and the way she relates to her adult children that she still sees and views them as her little kids, not her now adult offspring. Most adults I know call their parents mum or dad, she insists on being called mummy, and refers to herself as mummy in emails or on birthday cards. Mummy is a term used by small children.

She constantly refers to things from my husband’s childhood in a way that makes it still present, for example she kept, boxed and categorised in a folder (I’m not kidding) all his old toys and rarely fails to mention how she has some Lego, cars or train sets of his and what does he want to do with them. She sends him old childhood memorabilia in the post, an old comic, a picture. Childhood pets are brought into the most inappropriate conversations and what she sees as humorous incidents that invariable have my husband or his sister acting in a particularly silly or childish way, she tilts her head and smiles at them indulgently as if they were still those children. She calls her daughter by a baby pet name that no one else uses. She calls my husband “my big boy” and practically pinches him on the cheek, bleugh. He is thirty eight for goodness sake.

If the adult children mention a problem or mistake they are dealing with she uses the exact same voice you would use to speak to a toddler when picking them up off the floor, all exaggerated sympathy concealing a core of parental disapproval. She takes what was an adult-adult interaction and twists it over and over again into parent-child. She even had my husband’s birth certificate, which you need in the UK to get your passport and various other official documents, in safe keeping until he was thirty six years old and then presented it to him in an over the top manner, presumably as she now thought he was just about old enough to have it himself. He took it rather bemusedly wondering why on Earth she was making such a big fuss of it. In contrast, I’ve had my birth certificate since I was a teenager.

Transactions and Your Spouses Role

So that is her behaviour, but what about the spouse? Well for this to work at all, they have to play along. It is a trap and it keeps them under her control. Both my husband and his sister went along with calling her mummy until I pointed this out, at which point my husband did a double take, thought about it and stopped. Hallelujah! She constantly tried to rescue him from completely normal incidents, which conveys the message that she doesn’t think he can cope and he would accept her help and the implied comment on his capabilities. Now he doesn’t. Such over-involved and unnecessary parental rescuing is rejected and batted back, as it should be.

For example, he is looking for tenure at a university, a process which involves many, many applications for funding and positions most of which are rejected. After such a rejection she delivered a completely over the top reaction. She was so sorry and how dreadful it must be and he was so clever and how hard it was. Were our kids being extra good to make it all easier for him? Then followed up with an email where she had searched and found cheap holiday accommodation in a town near her by the sea as a trip to the seaside would make him feel better and she would love to see us. You would think someone had died. What made it even stranger was that she only did this for that one, not particularly special rejection; he had had a load more that elicited no comment at all. Clearly she needed to play “good mummy” at that point for her own egotistical reasons.

Something my husband works hard at is being assertive with her as he has a tendency to revert to an automatic childlike demeanour when in her presence. He would not hold my hand or show a natural level of physical affection, not even touching my arm, around her.  He would sit slightly hunched over, taking up little space and his voice even took on a higher pitch when talking to her, even on the phone. We half jokingly invented a “man-pose” where he would stand with his feet apart, chest out, arms on his hips when talking to his mother on the phone to counteract that. I can tell whether he is talking to on the phone purely from his manner. He hates the way she makes him feel.

The best and most robust response to infantilization is to continually rebuff all attempts to turn the interaction into parent-to-child and respond over and over again as adult-to-adult. This requires a combination of assertiveness (and you can be trained in that) and an understanding of transactional analysis or TA.

TA is a way of studying the interactions between people. It helps to identify the childhood scripts that are being played out in relationships, family or otherwise, and the recognition that complementary communications are the most effective, that is when people relate in a matched way, adult to adult or an actual child to their actual parent. The narcissistic mother sets up transactions with her children that never move out of parent to child. Break out of the ingrained way of responding to her and you open up a whole world of more assertive and more adult behaviours.

The problem with NPD MIL is that even if you phrase a transaction in an adult way she will respond parent to child. This is an example of what the founder of TA Eric Berne called crossed transactions. He wrote a seminal book called “The Games People Play” all about crossed transactions and messages that have one overt meaning but another covert one. Another good reference on this whole subject is the book “Peoplemaking” by Virginia Satir a renowned family therapist. Understanding the way the NPD MIL communicates with your partner, and in turn with you, goes a long way towards breaking the pattern.

She will protest. No change in your spouse’s interaction with their mother will occur with any willingness on her part. She may ramp up the infantilizing behaviours to see if your spouse will crack, she may get sulky that they won’t play along, she may ridicule it saying things like “ooh, your being very serious darling” with an exaggerated pout, or “if you say so dear” which is just so patronising. Do not respond or let your spouse respond, to do so would be to fall into the child role again.

Insisting that conversation by kept at an appropriate adult-adult level is a boundary worth considering. You can withdraw from any conversation where someone persists in treating you as if you are a child.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, Manipulations, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Parentification and your Spouse

A couple of readers have specifically requested some information about the overlapping phenomena of parentification and for want of a better phrase, spousification.

A disordered mother can flip between two unhelpful states when relating to her offspring; one treats them as helpless and dependent (infantilisation), the other puts them in the position of parent or in the case of a mother and her golden son, surrogate spouse. Both of these ways of relating to your adult child are dysfunctional. A healthy way of relating would be to recognise the adult child as autonomous and capable while at the same time respecting the mother-child dynamic and not subverting it. A child can never parent their own parent. That state of unconditional love and nurturance should not be passed up the generations and children cannot compensate for the NPD mother’s lack of adequate parenting, but she will try.

Parentifying

There are two ways of parentifying a child. The first is in practical terms, the child or adult child takes on responsibility for task, chores and actions that the adult parent should be managing. This may occur in a family where the parent is too drunk or unavailable to perform the tasks associated with running a home. So one elder child becomes the adult instead and takes their siblings to school, runs the bath, put them to bed, pays the bills. This tends not to happen so much with a narcissistic mother who probably closely controls everything about running the household.

The second way is for the child to become an emotional support for the adult. An NPD mother will use their children in this way as they see their kids as being there for them in whatever capacity they need at the time. They do not see how fulfilling their needs can possibly be to the detriment of the child. Using the child for emotional support or emotional intimacy is just another way of them showing how much they love mummy. This should never happen. Adults should be emotional supports for children and should use other adults for friendship or reassurance, as confidants or mediators in family situations. When the mother starts to use her children to talk about her problems with her partner, about adult topics they cannot possibly comprehend, to intervene in matters such as finances or sex, as a go between or message carrier in a row then she is parentifying the child.

Over the long term emotional parentifying produces very distorted boundaries in the child. They either have none and have a hard time knowing what they want in life rather than what the parent wants and look to other people to see how they should feel or think. Or the other extreme is achieved and the child is so used to carrying the burden of their parent’s emotions they have rigid boundaries and keep people at arms length, afraid of emotional intimacy and unable to ask for help or express their own needs. I see both of these patterns in my husband’s family, he adopted the first and his sister has the second.

My MIL was quite used to using my adult husband as her emotional confidant. She would ring up and offload all her problems onto him making him feel crap and never doing the same in return. Often her gripes would involve derogatory references to his father whom she left and divorced. In the end my husband did what all people who find themselves in this situation should do and set firm boundaries. He told her to stop talking to him about his dad or he’d hang up the phone and pointed out how much of her conversation with him was about her problems and feelings of upset and indignation. I went further, I told her to stop using my husband as her therapist.

I think if you are married to the daughter of a narcissistic mother you may well find the emotional parentifying is strongest. I know of one couple where the mother not only was at breakfast with the newly married couple the day after they married but expected to be phoned by her daughter daily throughout the honeymoon because she needed the emotional contact. If your wife says things like “my mother is my best friend” you should be concerned. Of course a woman can be close to her mother, but best friend? That is a relationship between equals and a daughter is never going to have equal status to the woman who gave birth to her.

NPD sufferers do not have successful relationships, either being divorced or remaining in a very dysfunctional marriage. The daughter becomes her mother’s outlet for her isolation and misery and all that is wrong in her life and is expected to be available at any time to listen to mummy unburden herself. The bizarre thing is how willing some daughters are to go along with this, seeing their mothers as the victims that the NPD MIL works so hard to portray themselves as. They believe they have a special relationship with their mother, that only they are the one she can talk to and that they are obligated to listen “because she is my mother”. A daughter may well develop a sort of functioning relationship with her NPD mother where in return for acting in the bestest-friend-forever role she gets a few crumbs of attention thrown her way and so keeps it up as the alternative to being on the end of mummy’s wrath. There are some websites and books on the topic of daughters of narcissistic mothers and a large portion of this material is devoted to the emotional stranglehold such mothers have on their female offspring. It is worth taking a look at some of these resources if your wife is the daughter of an NPD mother.

One thing female children of narcissist don’t have to contend with is the altogether creepy inversion of the adult child relationship sometimes called emotional or covert incest. On the comments to some of my blog posts I received a post from a fellow sufferer who specifically spoke of the ways in which her husband was not so much parentified as made a surrogate spouse by his mother. How does that happen? Read on.

The Surrogate Spouse Syndrome

My MIL seems to have a love-hate relationship with men, mostly hate to be honest. She wouldn’t describe herself as a feminist or anything of that sort, she has a deep anger and feeling of superiority towards men. Her relationship with her own father was very difficult. She reports blazing rows between her parents in the family home (although she is so emotionally repressed what you or I may regard as a normal row would seem over the top to her). Her parents eventually divorced when she was in her teens and she had next to no contact with him for years. My husband saw his grandfather only once or twice, at a motorway service station because she wouldn’t go to his home or have him come to hers.

She also took out her anger and spite on her ex-husband, my FIL. His did not stand up to her, instead he was very passive and gave little or no response. “She’ll calm down” he would tell my husband. She ruled the roost completely, emasculating my FIL to the point of getting him to work at weekends, moaning constantly about his low earnings and her low standard of living (they had two foreign holidays a year, one skiing, and both kids went to private schools) and then had complete control of the household budget handing him out small bits of cash for anything she agreed he could have, oh you know like a magazine or new pair of socks. Eventually they lived almost separate lives under one roof, he slept in another room entirely and became very withdrawn and depressed.

It is easy for the narcissist to project all that is negative, despised and weak about men onto a passive husband and makes him the scapegoat that she has to endure, and a target for her criticisms and belittling. Having successfully demolished the standing of the adult man in her life she will transfer all that is good and wonderful about manhood onto her son. He becomes the alpha male of the family in the eyes of the mother. Problems between the mother and father in a family can lead to a situation where one parent turns to a child of the opposite sex and starts responding to the child’s love in a way that mimics that of an adult romantic partner.

What separates parentification from covert incest/the surrogate spouse is the nature of the interaction between the adult parent and the child. Leaning on the child for comfort or affirmation, misbehaving and allowing the child to discipline or clear up the mess is parentification. Leaning on the child for emotional intimacy, physical comfort (hugs) and a shared experience of life is creating a substitute spouse.

Emotional or covert incest is really abuse. The adult child of someone doing this will have grown up being groomed to accept it in a way that is similar to the grooming that young sexual abuse victims receive in order to accept their abuse. The mother in this scenario is not conscious of her behaviour, she knows she needs her son to be there for her but hasn’t actually acknowledged the extent of her own unconscious sexual motivation behind the interactions. If she has projected her ideal male fantasy figure onto her son there will be unconscious sexual motives in her actions.

In order to continue with the relationship she has established with her surrogate spouse she will inevitably control personal aspects of his life, as a controlling wife would with her husband. Her control of the son extends to choosing his clothes, his cologne, advising on his household purchases, washing, ironing, shopping etc well into adulthood. A narcissist will attempt to control everything about her child including his sexuality. They control by invading their teenage children’s privacy or set stringent conditions around visits and visiting by girlfriends or boyfriends, openly expressing their disapproval of whomever has been brought home. Alternatively they can be quite inappropriately revealing about their own sexual behavior and almost egg their children on, behaving flirtatiously with their son’s friends or daughter’s boyfriends. They do think they are attractive no matter what their actual physical appearance is like.

Hostility towards the son’s girlfriends and eventually his wife if he marries is inevitable in this context as the NPD MIL sees her son’s partner as a rival for his attention and affection, and to her control of his domestic arrangements. The spouse becomes the other woman.

I have read of and been told about numerous actions by various NPD MILs who have actively set out to damage their son’s marriages by spreading lies about his wife, by dividing the wider family against them, by using her communications and influence on her son to constantly portray the wife’s actions in a negative way and turn him against her. Some outright tell their sons they would be better off without the wife, that a previous girlfriend or woman they know would have been so much more suitable. The MIL seems to have a personal interest in her son choosing what she sees as the most impressive mate possible, so that her son and by extension herself are admired for their ability to snare the best sort of woman. What is this ideal wife like? Someone who will allow the spousification to continue, a sort of wife-in-name-only. I really wonder if mothers in this situation, unable to have a sexual relationship with their spouse/son view the actual wife of their child as a sort of dirty whore who caters to the son’s sexual needs and is tolerated with utter distaste while the “proper” relationship remains between him and mummy.

A trickier dynamic arises if the golden son plays along with his mother’s attempts to turn him into her surrogate spouse. Spouses who accept their mothers kissing them on the lips, sitting coiled up next to them like a lover or other inappropriate physical contact have been groomed just like a child abuse victim to accept as normal  what the rest of us see as bordering on incestuous. It is incestuous, albeit unconscious on the part of the mother. This level of psychological conditioning is very hard to shake.

If it is normal in your house for mum to kiss her son on the mouth, buy his underwear and sit with her hand on his leg close up to him on the sofa it will take a big cold splash of horrified reaction from several people outside the family before he smells the coffee. This would usually occur in adolescence when friends mercilessly tease boys with over attentive mothers and they tend to get the message. If your husband is still like this then either his family never had friends round (ask him and see) or his mother has been very careful to keep it below the radar. You see it because she wants to visibly assert her claim on your husband, you are the threat.

There is no quick fix to parentifying or surrogate spouse syndrome. In each and every situation the remedy is the same. The adult child must realize what is happening, that this behavior is not normal and what a healthy interaction should look like. Then they can set some boundaries and choose how much involvement they have with their mother’s practical and emotional issues. The boundaries need to include what sort of physical contact they are comfortable with or consider appropriate for a mother to an adult son. Bear in mind that some people are more openly physically affectionate than others and that in itself is not a problem. It’s a problem when your gut instinct says “woah, eww that is making me uncomfortable”. Just come out and say it. Your spouse needs to hear a reality check from someone outside of the NPD bubble and you may well be the first person who has ever poi ted out to him or her what normal family physical contact looks like.

The partner of a spoused/parentified son needs to recognize that her MIL sees her as a rival and will act like a jealous wife. Do not respond like a mistress! You are his wife not her, his first loyalty is to you so make damn sure he and she knows that. Do not let her encroach upon your domestic arrangements, buy his clothes or “advise” you on how he likes his food cooked or anything else. A simple reply “we don’t do things that way” is enough. Notice the use of “we” which makes it clear you two are a unit and how you need not give any explanation or justification for what you have stated. None is necessary.

 

 

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother

Spouses and Family Roles

If you marry someone who’s mother is a narcissist you are marrying damaged goods. That is very hard to read I know, it was pretty damn hard to write. They can survive a childhood with a narcissistic mother quite well provided they have some other close family member like a father or grandparent to treat them normally. But the fact that their first human relationship, the one with their mother, was formed with someone who put themselves first will leave an indelible mark on their psyche.

There are a variety of ways in which a person can respond to growing up in a family with a narcissist. Following from the Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) movement, psychologists began to recognise similar traits in the children of very dysfunctional families even if alcoholism wasn’t an issue. The traits are given names by psychologists; the Scapegoat, the Rebel, the Hero, the Lost Child etc. They describe the ways in which a child can adapt to find space to survive in the relationship with their mother. In an alcoholic family often one child also develops addiction problems. Sadly in a narcissistic family it is not unusual for one child to develop the same personality disorder. Copying the disordered behaviour or adapting yourself quite profoundly to fit in with it are the options available. Neither option is healthy for the psyche of the child.

My husband took on the role of the Hero/Caretaker, his sister is a Lost Child. Their father took the role of family Scapegoat and was the one who was told he didn’t earn enough, was emotionally unstable, caused problems etc. He was very passive and retreated from confronting her giving her full reign over every facet of family life. Her moods dominated everything and reading them and making things right for her was the role my husband took on.

This means he is very emotionally aware and considerate of others, which are good things to be. It also means he is scared of anger, distress and emotional pain in others and himself and anticipates others’ needs to soothe them and by extension himself. He engages in the same indirect communication patterns and passive-aggressive behaviour when stressed as his mother does.  He is terrified of her disapproval and is a self-confessed over achiever.

Here is a brief description of some of the roles and adaptations that the child of a narcissist can make. One of these roles may well be the one your spouse adopted. The first four roles are the classic ACOA roles, the later two are additions that some authors have identified in dysfunctional but not necessarily alcoholic homes.

The Good Child or Hero – these children are high achievers who look good to the outside world, providing the family with esteem and an acceptable face that conceals the dysfunction. They are perfectionist, overly control their emotions to the point of being unaware of them, they are unable to play or ask for help and struggle to be flexible or spontaneous. They take on adult responsibilities and self-sufficiency at a young age. They have a deep fear of failure and need for success and external approval. They can be very driven as adult. They have a hard time admitting their family or themselves had a problem.

The Lost Child or Adjuster– these children withdraw from the dysfunctional family be making themselves as quiet and unnoticed as possible so as not to provoke the wrath of the dysfunctional parent. They may retreat into books, fantasy or excessive TV watching as solitary activities. They deal with the difficulties in reality by retreating from it. They may abuse food by overeating, bulimia or anorexia. They can be overly independent. They may be shy and scared of emotional intimacy. They may have problems developing relationships as adults. These children are most likely to feel depressed or suicidal.

The Mascot – this child deals with the family situation by making jokes, larking about and being the one who lightens the atmosphere even at the expense of being ridiculed as the family clown or idiot. They are attention seekers, distracting and immature and have a hard time dealing with negative emotions which they work so hard to cover up. They could also be the super-cute, ditsy airhead, the one getting into silly scrapes. They have difficulty making decisions and focussing on a task or career.

The Scapegoat or Rebel – this child acts out, often spectacularly, which diverts attention away from the problem and onto fixing the child. They are the most emotionally honest of all the children overtly displaying the fall out of the dysfunction within the family. This takes the form of direct confrontation with parents, drunkenness, addiction, trouble with the law or school authorities, teen pregnancy, running away from home. They can be very angry and self-destructive and are often the first member of the family to get help and start recovery.

The Caretaker or Placater – This child takes on responsibility for the emotional temperature of the family and tunes into the moods of the household with acute sensitivity. They people-please to smooth over any upsetting situations or potential flashpoints. This comes at the expense of awareness of and attention to their own needs. They have intense dislike of conflict and negative emotion. As adults these people can gravitate towards caring professions or relationships where they can “rescue” someone.

The Mastermind – this is the child who can make use of the family situation to their own ends, they are manipulative of those around them. Lacking empathy and with a strong sense of their own entitlements they sit back and work out how to play people off each other to get what they want. They may be divisive. They’ll be the ones who say “well if Dad is drunk, I’ll take the car”. While adopting strategy and cunning to survive they are also denying their and others emotional responses and risk becoming abusive of others themselves.

I have a confession to make here, I am very familiar with these roles from well before I met my husband and his mother. My father had a drink problem when I was a kid. I recognise the roles written out here from my own family and siblings, there are four of us. What I want to emphasise to you is the idea that these roles are not rigid and fixed. I have behaved in more than one role in my life. I was very high achieving in school and a lost child at home for some years. Then it all got too much and I flipped and started acting out, my grades slipped, I stopped doing any school work, I got very depressed and angry, started verbally fighting back at my dad and I became the child with the problem (mental health in this instance) and was the first to get outside help and blow the family situation open which is the role of the rebel.

I can see the roles in my husband’s family also although there are only two children there. He and his sister are very high achieving, the hero role; to this day his mother takes great personal pleasure in having them look good to the outside world. But in the home he was the caretaker-placater and his sister the lost child. These are roles both of them still act out in their adult lives, not just with their mother either.

I could see these behaviours in my husband’s family and I knew where they came from having read all about the problems faced by children raised in homes with alcohol problems (thanks Dad). For years I kept my thoughts on MIL’s behaviour and my husband’s relationship to her to myself as I thought it was unacceptable to out and out criticise my husband’s mother to him, even though she was so vile to me it made me feel sick and stressed every single time I had to see her. I dislike confrontation myself and I thought maybe she would come round after a while and mellow. Ha, wrong. These things do not change by hoping they will go away. Only bravely facing up to the realisation that your spouse has some pretty dysfunctional behaviours (thanks MIL) will you be able to do anything to change it.

It is my husband’s relationship with his mother that is the key problem, not her or her behaviour but his mechanism for coping with it. The adaptations he made to be able to live with her are not so useful in relating to other non-disordered people and do not get him what he wants or needs out of life. He has had to slowly work out there was something wrong with his behaviour around her, what exactly it was that was wrong, what he wanted instead and how to get it. He still hasn’t got it completely. If he had a better mechanism for coping with her, one which allowed him to see her clearly and detach from her influence, he and our family wouldn’t have quite so hard a time dealing with her.

It is worth considering if your spouse has adopted one of these classic roles as a result of growing up with a very difficult mother. How does this impact upon your relationship with them? The roles get carried over into marriages, friendships and careers. In the next post I’ll consider the ways these roles could crop up in a relationship and what to do about it to stop them from causing long term problems.

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Filed under Effects of NPD on others, emotions, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL