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.


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.




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

26 responses to “Parentification and your Spouse

  1. Another insightful post!
    a) My sister in law is almost everything you describe… my MIL “best friend” is the only person they go on vacation with, genuinely “feels bad” and her actions demonstrate her feeling of obligation to be THE ONE to comfort her mom, confide in her, etc. It’s so incredibly sad. I can’t have a relationship with her as a new sister in law (recently married) because when I try to set up time to spend with JUST her, her response is “oh, let me know when I can find out when my mom is free.” even when the MIL was never mentioned at all! She’s constantly trying to “seek approval” from my MIL and yet my MIL is always trying to “be cool” and capture the attention of my husband – to which (thank god) he seems right through.

    b) When I first started dating my husband I noticed that my MIL would almost always bring up in conversation his ex girlfriends, “Oh, how’s that girl in San Francisco? Do you talk to her? How’s she doing? She was so nice.” I didn’t say anything after the first couple times, but then I had to say something to him.. mainly to see if he noticed. He did – sort of – then asked me if I wanted him to tell her to stop. I told him now because I figure that’s making a bigger deal out of something I don’t want any sort of deal. He understood and agreed – no fight needed with the MIL. Instead when she had brought it up he responds with “No, I don’t talk to her anymore. We broke up for a reason.” and the subject is dropped. Phew! Thank goodness.

    • How sad your SIL won’t go out with you without her mum. That is weird. Have you tried explicitly saying that you just want to get to know her?

      And I still think you have a great husband, he dealt with the past girlfriend comments really well and so did you for brining it up with him. I wish I had been more confident with doing that when I first started out with my husband, I was far too concerned about upsetting him by causing trouble with his family and mistakenly thought I was being mature by not raising my feelings on his mother’s behaviour.

      • I have to toot my own horn – or maybe just praise my parents – I feel like I was brought up in a way that allowed me to emotionally mature at a very young age, to be very self aware of my thoughts emotions, how I deal with them. In terms of the number of years relative to my 38 years of being alive, I’ve had a lot of experience. My husband and my SIL on the other hand… barely any.

        Maybe you’ve already written on something like this, but I feel that since my MIL has NPD and shouts and rants and basically never deals with her own emotions, instead forces them on others to deal with them for her coupled with an alcoholic father who didn’t deal at all and rather made jokes, avoided confrontation, or turned to alcohol to drown them, the two of them have never been shown how to properly deal with hard times – hard emotions.

        I often hear – “you know how I am with these types of situations” … “you know how she gets with stuff like this” etc – to me all I hear are excuses to not handle situations differently. Bothers that HELL out of me. I’ve always been shown/taught/told you focus on things within your control which directly relates to my own perspective – the ability to make decisions with as much confidence as I can so that even if the situation doesn’t turn out the way I wanted, I have no regrets. But I think that might be more emotionally mature than most and is not easy to do.

        Just this morning I tried to tell him that he needs to internalize his own decisions and reactions. To accept and build his own confidence in what HE thinks is the right thing to do and not try to get me to validate his decisions. I know he wants to bounce his thoughts off me, which is part of our partnership, but sometimes I feel like there is a fine line between getting feedback and superficially relying on someone else to validate your own decision.

        If you’ve written something about this I’d love to read it and if not, I’d love to hear your insights.

  2. alabaster77

    This is the most confronting issue for me yet. I’m guessing it’s been about 12 hrs since you posted this and 4-5hrs of those have been spent trying to respond. After much reflection and many pages and tears later. All I can say is THANK YOU for shining some light into this darkness.

    • alabaster I wish I could hug you! I’m sorry this is so hard for you. Can you explain why it upsets you so much? Do you feel your partner is abandoning you to his mum, a sort of emotional unfaithfulness? What is so hard about dealing with an NPD mother in law is the way it opens up very vulnerable spots in our own psyches and emotions. This is no accident, I think our partners choose women who are a counterpoint to their mothers. This sometimes means the main areas that she controls and dominates are the areas which expose our weaknesses.

      My husband is passive and emotionally unavailable like his father, anxious and needs lots of reassurance. My father was like this in a different way, anxious which he self medicated by drinking, unavailable as a parent (it felt like I had was raised in a single parent household) and our family life revolved around soothing his anxiety. My husband kind of expects the same. Deep down what I need is a strong man who is there for me to kick against and what NPD MIL has created is the opposite, a dependent man who shies away from conflict. Thus I find myself struggling with a partner whose behaviour is the most problematic for me, who is in turn struggling to free himself from the conditioning which has created his behaviour.

      What I’m trying to say is that your reaction to this topic is more about you and what hurts you and why than it is about NPD mothers in law. It has exposed a wound in you. Only by understanding why it hurts you will her actions and your partner’s stop having such a powerful effect.

      • alabaster77

        Your right on… I know there’s more to how I feel… As disturbing as the level of depravity is with my NMIlL I can see it now. I know it and see it for what it is… It’s the whole grooming for this experience ( how did I manage to get involved in this mess of a family and how well I played my part)
        Why am I the first to see it in his family? It’s the threat she represents and not as competition so much as in a fear and threat to my physical/ psychological safety……. The fear is so psychological it’s what I would imagine feeling like if rescued from a cult as I was just about to drink the poison for a mass suicide pact… And the subsequent de programming to a point of some clarity about what u went through. The result I imagine would be FEAR!!! Fear that someone could and would, have that kind of power. My whole childhood is best described as Fearful. I was always scared and definitely well groomed for NMIL. I play the mental tape of my childhood and see it like a movie, without the emotional connection to it.
        Hhhm, that’d be Denial Right!!!
        Thank You for more than u can imagine. We Slay one beast and before you know it, another takes it’s place… Dang! It’s morning and I’ve been up all night…. I definitely feel better though!

      • alabaster77

        Ok, after some rest and sunshine I definitely see the Same Beat Different Drum emotional reaction to this issue… And I have suspected as such for awhile, Clarity Here, Fog over there, transference yep, probably!!! 😉
        It was an experience during intimacy that was totally uncharacteristic of DH that set ‘Covert Incest’ alarm bells ringing. It was the catalyst for needing answers to many many questions… My experience with NMIL playing Surrogate Spouse are;
        Actually introducing herself as Wife to our Pastor. Freudian Slip.
        Referring to herself as Mommy to my children. An attempt to train them to call her Mommy!!!
        Take over running of household, laundry, cleaning, cooking etc etc
        Joint bank accounts, Aaaaggh
        Constant people pleasing and attending to the every imagined whim of DH
        Suitcase loaded with framed 8×10 portraits of DH at 16 yrs old.
        As a new wife she sent me a parcel of photos and letters from his 1 ex girlfriend from yrs prior…. This relationship ending during her visit to meet his parents for first time. Within 1 week in Nmils home it became apparent that she was emotionally unstable, mental issues is the spin. Hmm Really!
        Her physical feelings towards DH are suggestive rather overt touchy feely.
        I’ve seen her stroke, massage my 2 sons and it’s really creepy. She’s as emotionally connected as a piece of cardboard and her feigning affection is gross…
        Her Resume for character assassination, gas lighting and triangulation is a whole different ball game.
        Thanks for the Clarity!

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you again FCW, I feel like you are a friend. I first want to start with when I first started dating my husband. We went to a wedding (we were young in our early 20’s) with my husband’s parents. To make a long story short, a fight ensued between my future husband and another male guest who made a disgusting gesture towards me. My husband’s stepfather tried to break up the fight, which quickly was over. I went over to my future husband and my future MIL said: “Oh don’t worry it’s all over. He just called you a little slut.” She then tried to shoo me away. Another inappropriate thing I witnessed was after we were married and we were visiting NPDMIL’s sister’s house who had 2 young sons. We were outside in the yard, MIL straddled on top of her 11 yr old nephew and was tickling him like it was almost torture. I was so uncomfortable and offended that I had to just get up and leave. MIL’s sister did nothing to protect her son about this. I was appalled and my husband knew it. Another time inappropriate behavior surfaced was when MIL was having trouble in her marriage. She stayed the weekend at our house, our children were very young, one was 4 yrs old and the other a baby. In the morning, MIL came down in a very short, feminine, girly nightie and robe. It was not something a Grandmother would wear to the breakfast table, let’s just put it that way. There was also an occasion backtracking to when we were dating where she casually mentioned in front of me, my future husband and his sister (she was 13 yrs old) that MIL said something about having champagne and strawberries in the bathtub with her husband. Talk about crossing boundaries and covert incest?! Finally I will say that my SIL and I will never have a relationship, ever. NPDMIL will not allow it nor does she want her children to have a relationship with each other. My husband and I have never been alone with SIL and her husband without NPDMIL being in the picture. We don’t even know SIL’s spouse, it’s quite sad.

  4. SoManyQuestions

    FCW, you hit the nail on the head with the Surrogate Spouse post. I’ve reread it 2-3 times just to glean every bit information. My NMIL is a clone of yours – I can relate to everything you wrote – from verbalizing her hatred of men to me in front FIL, to having a “supposed” domineering father, to taking anger out on passive FIL even though he afforded her a very high standard of living – full time housekeeper, country club, ski vacation homes, private boarding school for her sons, luxurious foreign business trips, etc.
    Since FIL wasn’t around much, she then must have directed her attention to my DH. I never realized DH was the golden son because she triangulates and bad mouths him to the others, probably because he is very successful which she sees as a negative (the other sons have been groomed to be financially dependent on her which allows her to dictate their visitation time commitments – infantilisation). She is the only person I know that expects her sons to spend long periods of time visiting her and entertaining her without their families being present.
    MIL thinks my DH is the “most fun and best looking” which is why she says she wants to spend time with him. Attempting to kiss him on the lips has become a game and outright challenge to her. During one failed visit when she ended up leaving early, my DH was getting her suitcase out of the car and unbeknownst to him she leaned in and went for the kiss on his lips and said “I finally got you.” And there have been many more of these scenarios over the years. Such extremely grotesque behavior to both of us, he makes a point to physically not be in arms reach of her.
    Tales of eyeing my husband’s best friend from his college days and telling me about a highly inappropriate conversation she claims to have had with him of a sexual nature made my skin crawl. The thought of this is so reprehensible to my husband that he blameshifted and got angry at me for telling him about the bizarre discussion. Blameshifting…everyone in this N family seems be so good at that. I come from a family where personal accountability is #1 so this seriously goes against my grain and value system.
    You also touched on NMIL wanting to control domestic arrangements. This is SO true. Before your post I never understood why she would ALWAYS try to take over as lady of the house – especially the cooking. I think cooking is related to the food issues I touched on in my other reply. FCW, you mentioned possibly doing a post on food issues – that would be incredibly insightful. I’ve read they see food/plate as an extension to what they are entitled to. Also, I think my MIL sees family dinners in the context of projecting the perfect family image. I call it the “Walton Family Dinner” just like the old American tv show.
    I REALLY want to thank you for writing about the surrogate spouse topic. I, and I’m sure others, have struggled to find any information remotely addressing this. It really touched on everything I have experienced. BTW, I just realized NMIL always calls my husband “honey,” and she has always spoken in this fake, very high pitched voice, like a 3 year old girl. I’m sure that has something to do with the surrogate spouse syndrome as well!

  5. my parentified husband moved us far from home so he could help his mum with her business after she lost her husband (not my FIL). I was very against it but once she cooed her way back into his life and made him her spouse, I was pushed aside. It was a train wreck from the get go. She had always been physically creepy with him, kissing on the lips too much, whispering in his ear when in a group – gross gross gross. two months into the new job with glowing mama, he started an emotional relationship with one of the employees – a woman who had had a suspected affair with the late husband of the boss was now having an affair with the son of the boss. she looks just like my mil too and is married. My world fell apart, even before i found out about the affair, our marriage was a mess because you can’t lie to a spouse and have a good marriage. Once the whole thing blew up in an ugly way and the affir was over, they had to tell my MIL about it since it affected the business. The other woman was fired. My mother in law hasn’t spoken to me since – it’s been 7 months. The omniscient, always full of the right answers, perfect grande duchess of narcissism has cut me out of any contact. What exactly is this family business? Marriage therapy practice and social work – boundaries are pretty key here, people. Yet I still struggle with guilt that our poor relationship is my fault, since hating your mother in law is not right, and I’m an educated logical person. Is there a pill to get rid of that feeling? because I’m pretty sure I’m not the issue – she’s a marriage counselor, my husband had an affair with a co worker, I was in the dark and far from my support system yet I’m still the one on the outside. I often feel like they can just have each other, although to say my husband’s eyes have been opened to his mothers behavior would be quite an understatement. Not sure if I want my marriage to continue, too much stupid going on. Her latest move? She rekindled with her ex – my FIL – after 25 years of hating each other and announces everywhere she goes that they will spend the rest of their lives together. The parading around has caused her children so much distress. My guess is her son’s stupid affair took attention away from her so she needed a bigger story. Im putting my $$ on this adolescent romance not lasting. Makes you want to run out the front door screaming.

  6. ML Doff

    I cannot thank you enough for your blog. It has become so important to me because it shows me that I am not alone. I have dealt with my NPD MIL for 18 years now…I limited my exposure about four years ago but didn’t know why she acts the way she does. After lots of professional advice, I now know that she is the poster child for NPD. My husband is very supportive. I worry about her influence on my children, but especially my teenage daughter as she has always obsessed over her and continues to play games. Please continue your blog. You truly give all of us so much support in knowing that we are not alone. Thank you.

  7. mandy

    Thanks again Fcw. Like other readers, i find your posts very helpful.
    I experience the issues outlined in this blog on a lesser scale. NMIL definately competes with and envies my role as wife and mother. She has a history of confiding inappropriately to my husband as well.
    What is really interesting here is the bbffhg

    light shed on the SIL dynamic

  8. My soon to be mother in law used my fiancé to fulfill her needs growing up. My fiancé is aware of some things but she struggles to label it abuse and defends her mother like a person in a codependent relationship with an addict would Her first marriage failed and was with an addict.

    i think she needs to cut contact to very little but she feels guilty because a bunch of her family and friends cut them off. I was finally honest and told her I see what the rest of her extended family sees. She realizes things are unhealthy and if she had remained ignorant I would have called off the engagement but she is an amazing woman besides this.

    As a married unit do I have a say in having minimizing the contact she has with her? They text everyday and her mom does it to feel emotionally needed. I almost was shocked at the amount of nonsense her mom texts to her all day long. Things you would normally share with a spouse at the end of everyday. My fiancé has cut it down before but always feels guilt and that she owes her mom friendship. I lost respect for her mom when she told my fiancé she was a terrible daughter and not there for her when her husband should have been the one there for her through an emotional time.

    They do not have a healthy relationship and both use their daughter for emotional fulfillment rather than each other.

    I am going to check out that book you mentionened as I sense an area of my fiancé’s life is so enmeshed with her mother’s that she never fully created a seperate identity. I first sensed this when I was asking her questions about herself and many times she would mention her moms thoughts or ideas first. Thank god that has stopped and even she says for the first time in life she is feeling like an independent woman not going to mom for Input or her mom’s friends for advice all the time.

    Any input from people who have been through this would be great. It is getting much better but a long way to go.

    • Ryan you’ve got a great understanding of the situation and you are helping your fiancé slowly see the enmeshed and yes your right codependent relationship she has with her mum. It is completely inappropriate for an adult to be receiving that many texts from their mother all day everyday. You have identified the problem, your partner is being used as emotional support for your future MIL. It seems that your partner is open to hearing your thoughts and beginning to see the behaviour as controlling her. Talk about it often, be sure of your stance on this as she will draw on your confidence, introduce her to books and articles which deal with this issue. She is waking up and it will be scary and feel very insecure to her at times as she is having a parasite psychologically removed from her life. She will feel it’s absence and the change can drive someone back into the old pattern if they are not secure in where to draw on support without it.

      Your partner will assume that this level of enmeshment is what love is. She may well think she has to reproduce it with you and do all the caretaking in your relationship. Establishing her own identity free from her mother, you, her ex-husband and everyone else is the key to her recovering from this unhealthy dynamic. She would do well to read “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie as well as “Will I Ever be Good Enough” and “Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers”. Can she afford to see a therapist herself? Or research to see if there is a local branch of codependents anonymous which is an offshoot to the 12 step alcoholics anonymous program but for spouses.

      As for your question about your influence on her as a married unit, you need to discuss this with her and ask bluntly if she wants your views on what is best for her to be taken seriously in your marriage. Legally as a husband you can’t force no contact with her parents. But the marriage ceremony does clearly and symbolically involve the two people leaving their families of birth and joining together to make a new unit which supercedes their previous family units. She owes more to you as your wife than she owes to her mother as a daughter. That is how marriage works otherwise mummy is in your marital bed and you feel like a third thumb. It must feel like a form of emotional betrayal to find she has such intimate conversations with her mother rather than you. If it were with another man than you would clearly see she was having an emotional affair with him, as it is her mother you feel unable to definitively step in and shut it down. You need to make it clear to her that this is how it feels and how hurtful that is to you.

      Her guilt is a result of the manipulation she has been exposed to from birth and needs to be openly talked about and she needs ways to manage that. Is she a church goer? A pastor or priest could discuss how important emotional fidelity is within marriage and that may lessen her guilt about reducing this level of contact with her mother. I think the key sticking points are the guilt as she needs to become comfortable with reducing contact and getting her to understand how unhealthy and abusive this is. You must be utterly honest about how wrong you think it is and how and why it disturbs you.

      You are providing a strong counterpoint to all this enmeshment. Keep at it, this will take a while and it is so important to your relationship that you clearly talk to her about how it disturbs you. So much damage can be done between partners who don’t tackle this strongly enough when they first realise something is seriously amiss and then it takes a good few years to sort out, both parties willing. Not every relationship can last the damage it causes between the spouses and then stick around to repair it late in the day. Best of luck.

    • Male in his 40s

      Yay! Another male here. FCW has given you some great advice. And I admire that you have worked a few things out before marriage.

      I am around 10 years further on than you with two kids. !0 years ago I thought that narcissism was about people admiring themselves. I know a lot more about the subject now though…

      When I first met my wife, she was everything I could of wished for. There were a few red flags early on (which at the time I didn’t join the dots). There did seem to be a little bit of an over the top relationship with her Mother, but at the time, the Mother was also occupied with her own boyfriend (who has sadly passed away).

      When we had our first child, the dysfunction started to ramp up. After child two, bounderies really started to be crossed (and that was 6/7 years into our relationship).

      Just over two years ago I had my first major run in with the NMIL. It was over enforcing boundaries. What I recieved was narcissitic rage plus more. I discovered my wife had been controlled during our entire relationship by a toxic loan of a massive sum of money, that I never knew anything about.

      It was ugly, really ugly. Life as I knew it was a complete lie.

      Since then, my wife and I have had huge relationship problems and it is mainly because she will not acknowledge in the face of all the evidence, that her Mother is not trying to harm and undermine our marriage, and because I refuse to allow her to control us, and because I actually do not want anything to do with her Mother.

      I think my wife has Stockholm Syndrome as well as a Cluster B PD herself.

      And me, I am depressed and I think quite possibly on the brink of an emotional breakdown.

      So I guess the reason for writing this down, is I urge you to really think long and hard about what you are getting yourself into. I know everyone’s relationship is different, and everyone handles things differently, but in 10 years time, when you might have children and your wife is putting Mummy before you, and supporting Mummy’s abuse of you, you are going to feel lousy.

      Given my time again, if I new about NPD, and could have identified it, would I have married my wife? The answer is a big no…

      Good luck

    • Jessica

      I have a similar problem with my narcissistic mother. As far as being an enmeshed daughter. I was neglected very badly as a child, and isolated. Around when I was 9 years and up my mom emotionally dumped on me. I cringe when she calls and says “What did you do today?” “What did you do yesterday?” It’s like being molested. She knows I won’t say “None of your business!!!” They take advantage of their child’s good nature and kindness and use it against them. I have a man who loves me and does not abuse me. We have a nice apartment and 2 used cars. All she can do is be shitty to me because we were able to move out of a hotel room into an apartment. We were able to buy a smart tv and some used furniture. Instead of being happy for me , (and my fiancé) she said “What, did you win the lottery?”.

      That was when I had her over to our new apartment which is the best place we’ve lived in for 7 years.
      I have been able to limit phone calls during the week but have found myself manipulated into a fake regular sunday visit where she calls me and says “I’m ready” (oh did I mention she’s old? and pretends to be dependent on me & does not have a car?). So I played both ways saying I had no plans to do anything with her and other times acting surprised but gave in. So I have it down to once a week enslavement where it’s apparent she is expecting to be “entertained” or driven around. That’s down from a few years ago when I used to “treat” her to lunch out.
      I try to keep my fiancé out of the weekly enslavement but it does not work because I talk to him for hours about her.

      So baby steps: Keep in mind this is from a dysfunctional person still enmeshed who has not fully stood up or pulled away from her narcissistic mother

      1.Live far enough away so she cant drive, walk or take the bus by your house. Easier for me because mine does not drive.

      2.Dont always answer the phone or texts immediately. Even if you have a cell phone you can pretend its on the kitchen counter all day and never heard it ring or text. This phone on your hip thing is so easy to take advantage of. Say you forgot to charge it. They will take advantage of your unwillingness to lie to protect yourself or your time. Gradually spread the response time out. Force yourself (your wife has to do it to set boundaries). She should not respond for hours then try to step it up to an entire day once in a while. Mother will ask “what have you been up to?”

      Just say “Laundry” bluntly, or “feeding the birds”. Or if you can “none of your business!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” , Which I find myself unable to say yet. I have said “Whatever I wanted!!” but the problem was just back the next week with mother wanting to know my every move. Why? because she was not invited and can not be happy for me just to be alive and happy. She is always treating me like I have more than she does.

      3. Stop sharing information with her. Don’t share failures or shortcomings with her. In my case financial, health, weight gain, basically anything she can use against me ( mainly due to the fact that she shares all of my failures with my narcissistic sibling, and if I have anything good she (mother)wants in) Talk about the weather or what you had for lunch. Don’t give her any ammo for latter. She wants her child sad and lonely and maybe financially a reck or even depressed or suicidal so she will come crying to mommy for help over and over again. Don’t give her the satisfaction. Always appear “Fine” or “Good” or “Happy” because if she sees a weakness she’ll pry her claws in to grab her little girl back so she can have a lifelong emotional slave or dumping ground or physical slave or in my case both.

      • Good advice here, thanks for your comment. Keep your distance emotionally and physically and don’t feel under any obligation to answer intrusive questions, I agree these are necessary steps to disentangling yourself from an engulfing mother.

  9. Momofthree

    I just found your blog 2 days ago and read it as “non-stop” as a mom of 3 young boys ranging in age from 5 years to 3 months can do. It has changed my life. Thank you so much for writing and sharing everything you have shared. Every post has made me want to stand up and yell “YES!!!” But this one really hit home. To say I have been having extreme problems with my NMIL and husband as a result is an understatement. When my oldest son turned 2, my MIL and FIL (also a narcissist) asked to take him to a specific location. They “forgot” the phones that are usually attached to their hands, and came home hours later bragging about how they sat at a bar talking to some 20 year olds and now had to lay down because they drank too much wine. YES, WITH MY 2 YEAR OLD SON IN TOW. Obviously, they were never allowed to be alone with him (and later my other sons), let alone take him anywhere. During the fight that ensued, my MIL told me that she hated me because I took her son away from her. (This, by the way, isn’t even close to the meanest or most outrageous thing she has said to me in the past 3 years…). Before having kids, I have witnessed my husband and MIL holding hands across a dinner table while eating at a restaurant with my entire family and holding hands during a movie. Laying in bed as a family for hours on end is “normal” for them and I don’t know what I’m talking about because my family isn’t very physically affectionate. During a family vacation, my MIL repeatedly came into our bedroom in a condo the whole family was sharing and laid on the bed with my husband for hours. At one point, I walked in and found them picking out a couch for our new apartment. I said something and she just stared me down until I was forced to leave. I later spoke to my husband about it, and he yelled at me for being upset and thinking it was inappropriate that he was laying in our bed with his mom picking out a couch without me. “It’s not like I’m actually going to buy the couch she wants if you don’t like it!” Seriously, the issues with my kids are so much worse than this. I could go on all night, or even write my own less-informative, less-eloquent blog detailing every beyond fucked up thing about my situation. I just wanted to say thank you for changing my life. Your blog has put words to all of my fears surrounding my kids, explanations to the issues I’m having with my husband, words to use to set firmer boundaries if she is ever to see my kids again (she instilled a “no-contact” with us because I “obviously don’t want her in (my husband’s) and the kids’ lives.” It was the best thing that ever happened to me, but unfortunately was short lived…). Most importantly, you have made me feel less alone and SANE! I have been researching narcissism a lot lately, and my husband (also a narcissist, surprise, surprise!) can not grasp that there is anything wrong with his mother. Your blog has helped me understand everything going on all around me and, although I know I’m not crazy, has helped me feel sane and validated that, yes, this situation/my NMIL really is as bad as I feel it/she is and my family needs protection from the harm she has/could continue to cause. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  10. Finally all makes sense

    My love and I found out his mother is a Narcissist. I’ve always felt like she did not like me, but insisted she did and told him that. She would be nice to me but I never felt like it was real. Very forced. But never said anything as the rule #1 is: don’t talk about about his mother!

    However, after something that happened today we realize she is. We currently stay with her and are planning on leaving soon. Our bedroom door is broken, but can close. She walked in on us twice having sex, on purpose. When she does, she stares and slowly walks out. My fiancé gets angry but she gaslights him and says things like, “oh, who cares” and I felt disrespected.

    She would also demand the door be open and she claims its because the cats try to go in at night and scratches until my fiancé or I let’s him in.

    So my fiancé and I both decided we were going to make a new door with a lock. We did, she became EXTREMELY moody and my fiancé didn’t understand. “You’re always complaining about the cat noises, and I fixed it. What’s the problem?” He would say. She said nothing.

    My fiancé and his mother got into an argument because he brought up a time where his mother walked into his room while sleeping..started BEATING him and saying you’re the reason we are poor and why dad left..she kept saying she never did that. And she changed the subject. That’s the moment I started doing research because I don’t think she cares about her son as much as claims. Of course she loves him. But this is abuse. We are in our twenties by the way, but struggling so sorry if we seem elementary.

    Here’s the incest-y part. We were in his bedroom cuddling and we were touching each other. We heard his moms foot steps so we quickly went all the way under the covers, with my hand still on his penis.

    I kid you not, she waltzes right in (after him saying to knock) and JUMPS ON TOP OF HIM, and made weird “happy” squealing noises. Note: he ALWAYS tells her to stop, he yells but she laughs and says “why? Im your mother you can’t survive with me silly” and walks away. WTF

    Now at the time I brushed it off. Hard. I did not want to think the worst.

    She hugs him tightly randomly and calls him by his baby nickname.

    After reading this article we now know it is not normal.

    He is hurt and has decided to distance himself from her by moving out ASAP.

    Can you guess why he lives at home in the first place and not at his own?

    Well it’s a trick question. It’s not easy to guess: she controls his bank accounts. And pays all his bills. She never tried teaching him she did everything for him. But I’m not going to belittle my fiancé. He is brilliant but is used to his mom cleaning everything for him.

    Prior to me, he used to tell all his stuff to his mom. Like his friends, games he’s into and the likes because his mom would always just walk into his room. She tried asking about our relationship but he said it’s none of her business, we are well…(she wanted to know about “problems”)

    But we concluded that she feels replaced which is completely inappropriate to feel I know now. She will ALWAYS be his mother no matter what but I guess that’s what she hates!!! My fiancé is creeped out.

    • Male in his 40s

      Hey ‘Finally’, I haven’t posted in a while – I have been dealing with the aftermath of my NPD destroyed family. I will give you one word of advice – the same someone gave me over three years ago and I didn’t listen. If you don’t have children with him. LEAVE. Pack your bags and leave. It will only get worse, really worse. Leave and never look back. I thought I could handle it – I am a strong person. I have been destroyed in every way and and clinging onto the hope I get decent custody of my kids. Narcs have no limits to what they will do. They do not have a conscience and they do not have the capacity for empathy, fairness or simply being human. If you think of having children children with him, Watch Rosemary’s Baby first. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but these people can be so toxic – they will set out to destroy you. Take care…

    • Oh my Goodness Finally Makes Sense! None of this is normal!!!

      Nowhere on Earth does an adult parent walk into their adult child’s room without knocking AND WAITING FOR A REPLY before entering. She is deliberately trying to catch you. This is wrong in so many ways. She jumped on top of her son while he was in bed with his girlfriend. OMFG! This is blatantly incestuous and extremely disrespectful, she has zero boundaries. You said you didn’t want to think the worst, no please do go ahead and

        think the worst.

      This is one of the worst cases of covert incest I have had described to me.

      Please do take every step to ensure you are physically living as far away as possible from this woman. Make sure she doesn’t get a key to your house/apartment. Set clear and strict boundaries around when she can visit and for how long. We meet my MIL at neutral spots like parks, coffee shops etc so we can control when we leave.

      Finally it all Makes Sense this is going to be hard to read but I can’t not say this, your fiancee has serious emotional issues he needs to work through with a qualified therapist before you even think about proceeding with a wedding. There is NO WAY he has spent years having his mother violate every normal parent-child boundary and come through it unscathed. You may not see it now but he will enact the same behaviour with you in your relationship or with any children you may have without professional help. Once the heady infatuation stage of your relationship wears off he will do what everyone does and fall back into familiar, familial patterns. You need to have clear boundaries in any intimate relationship and he has shown himself to be incapable of this, he is not protecting the boundary around the two of you as a couple from outside interference and he is not protecting himself.

      And now what about you? Ask yourself why didn’t you immediately see this behaviour as out of control and completely unacceptable. I would be standing at the door shrieking at the women to get the hell out of the bedroom. This is an outrageous violation of your boundaries too and yet you are not defending them. Undefended boundaries may as well not be there. If it makes you uncomfortable it must stop. What has happened to you in your life to undermine, cloud and confuse your enforcement of appropriate behaviour? Disordered people will push at every boundary to see if it budges in their attempts to get their own needs met, people with weak or undefended boundaries often find themselves in relationships with or associated with such disordered people because everyone else with healthy boundaries has got the hell out of there ASAP. You did not get out and you are not seeing how your fiancee has enabled her behaviour.

      If he has made a rule which says you can’t talk about a topic that should be a huge red warning flag about that topic. It screams HELLO!!! HUGE PROBLEM HERE. No healthy relationship ever has topics which cannot be discussed, ever. Taking things off the table in this way is a form of emotional abuse. If you are serious about marrying this person you have to sit them down and very bluntly explain that EVERYTHING will be discussed between you both at all times in your relationship. Do not tolerate this from your fiancee. This is not normal either!

      What do your friends and family say when you describe her behaviour to them? Don’t they tell you how weird and horrible all this is?

      Finally it all Makes Sense I want to reach round the world to you, pull you out of there and sit you down with a roomful of older, wiser women who can listen as you describe this and slowly, gently point out all the ways this is a car crash of a marriage waiting to happen. I’m guessing you are in your twenties? Don’t rush, slow down, get help for your fiancee to come to terms with his mother’s behaviour and most importantly with the way that behaviour has warped his understanding of human relationships. Then your future together will be so much stronger. Without fully exploring the impact she has had on him (which will take time, I mean years) I really fear you will live to regret it.

      • Nicky

        Hi. If you have no kids run! And don’t look back. I didn’t and I have too much crazy in my life. My NMIL has no boundaries. I was stupid n didn’t want to think bad n she ended up showering with my kids. When confronted she said her sons’ balls are hers and therefore so are my son’s!

  11. jj

    To say that female persons do not have to deal with emotional incest from mom is incorrect. Plenty of mothers are closeted bi or homosexual.

    • Hi JJ, yes you are correct that the comment in the blog is rather heterosexist. I try to use inclusive language (spouse/partner) when talking about relationship issues in my blog as I know NPD MILs can occur in single-sex relationships as well as heterosexual ones.

      I will try to be more careful about not assuming the MILs are heterosexual as they too could be in single-sex or mixed sexuality marriages.

      I disagree that “plenty” of mothers are bi or closeted lesbians. As a bisexual woman myself with a gay brother, I am well aware of the figures around the number of people who identify as LGBT in society. In the UK 93.5% of people identify as straight or heterosexual. Even taking into account the fact that twice as many people are bi as either gay or lesbian the figures are still in the low percentages.

      The psychosexual dynamic of emotional incest is complex as NPD mothers seem far more likely to treat their female children as mini-me’s or as their shadow projections whereas male children carry the mother’s projections around men, carrying issues around her own father in particular. The development of Oedipal/Electra feelings between a gay parent and same-sex child is not something I have read about so can’t comment on.

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