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.
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.