Are We Enablers?

Don’t Upset Your Father

I was reading an article on Huffington Post about enabling in families with an addict. I occasionally look at these sorts of articles as my father had a drink problem when I was a kid and even after my mother’s ultimatum led to him not getting drunk in the pub every evening he spent many years acting as a dry drunk. My mother’s words “don’t upset your father (in case he starts drinking)” became the mantra of my childhood. My mother enabled by which I mean she did certain things which protected my father from the consequences of his behaviour and from the realities of everyday life. Thus cocooned and cushioned from possible antagonism, however slight, and from the hurt he caused others, his poor behaviour was never confronted and so never changed.

This got me thinking about families with personality disorders. I’m certainly not the first person to point out the patterns of dysfunctional behaviour that occur in families with alcoholics map across to families with personality disorders. Robert J. Ackerman one of the founding fathers of the adult child of alcoholics movement points this out in his book “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics”. How do we enable the dysfunctional behaviour of our mothers-in-law? How do we enable our partners’ dysfunctional relationship with their families? And the really REALLY interesting question, why, damn it people, WHY do we enable it?

What Enabling Looks Like

I have pinched this from the Huff Post article and modified it to describe disordered rather than addictive behaviour.

1. Do you avoid potential problems by trying to keep the peace? Do you do whatever you can to avoid conflict?

2. Are you in denial about your loved one being disordered? Do you think his or her behavioural problems are just a phase and aren’t anything to be concerned about?

3. Do you minimize the situation? Do you think the problem will get better later?

4. Do you lecture, blame or criticize the disordered person?

5. Do you take over the responsibilities of the disordered person? Do you cover for and pick up his or her slack to minimize the negative consequences? Do you repeatedly come to the rescue — soothing over hurt feelings with others, managing social events to suite them etc?

6. Do you try to protect your disordered loved one from pain?

7. Do you allow them to treat you like a child? Do you enjoy being taken care of? Do you allow them to financially support you, even though you are an adult?

8. Do you try to control the disordered person? Do you allow them to control you?

9. Are you good at just enduring? Do you often think, this too shall pass?

10. Do you give him/her one more chance … and then another … and just one more?

11. Do you join him/her or overlook dangerous or abusive behaviour, even when you know he or she has a problem?

Reading through this made me think not about my mother-in-law so much as how I accommodated my husband’s family system including his way of behaving around her. I can hold my hands up to 8 out of 11 of these enabling behaviours with regard to my husband’s relationship with his mother and its effects on me and 5 out of 11 with my MIL directly. Ugh. I feel myself recoiling with a shudder from that realisation. I really was trying hard to do the best thing, so I thought, with a woman who I didn’t realise was disordered. I thought she was normal and a lot of the leeway I gave her was on the assumption that she would respond as a normal person would.

Then the beautiful light of reason broke across my cerebellum and I realised she would never change, it wasn’t me at all, she is a messed up bitch and my husband’s denial about her and compliance with her behaviour was the real problem in my life. Sigh, I can feel the weight of it all lift from my shoulders as I type that. I want to slap my younger self for not seeing it sooner but you can’t condemn yourself for what you didn’t know before you knew it.

But Why, WHY?

That knotty question. Why did I allow this to happen. I could have stepped in the first time I met her and saw her behaviour and robustly stood up to it from then on. But I didn’t. Neither did you I suppose. A lot of the readers to this blog describe how they tried to make things work, were baffled by the behaviour they saw, assumed it would change as the MIL got to know them etc. All of these are perfectly reasonable responses, for a limited time. But that time went on, and second chances became third, then fourth. That is the troublesome bit. It doesn’t fit with how I behave in other areas of my life. It doesn’t fit with how I see myself. What could be so powerful it would make me act not like myself?

Ah yes, years of being conditioned to keep the peace for my father and do whatever he needed to feel most comfortable became all to easily a pattern of doing whatever my husband and by extension his family needed to keep the peace and feel most comfortable and that meant playing along with their fucked up family system and not challenging my husband on it. A pattern so ingrained in me I did it without even realising it.

This is a hard, bitter realisation. Each of us reading this blog has in some way enabled our MIL’s behaviour until it got too much and we started to look for help and answers. We did this partly out of social conditioning and politeness, partly out of not wishing to bring conflict into our romantic relationship and I make the bold assertion that for a lot of us partly because we have been conditioned in our own families in a way that let it happen. Don’t start fights, don’t make a fuss, wo/men know best,  s/he’ll leave if you cause a fuss, don’t put your needs first, don’t speak out.

I read the most fascinating account of an exercise done with every new intake on a psychology course. It is found in the book “Families and How to Survive Them” by Robin Skynner and John Clease. The students are assembled and left to socialise for a while in a room then the course instructors arrive and ask people to come together in small groups with people they feel comfortable with. The students are then instructed to reveal their family backgrounds to each other. And Holy Shit if all the adopted kids don’t find each other, the ones with divorced parents pair off, the single parent families all end up together, the addicted/disordered offspring are happily grouped up. They do this exercise every year and the same thing happens every year. The point for the students is to show how the unconscious patterns we absorb as children make us most comfortable with people with similar unconscious patterns. And spookily we can find these similar people in a crowd.

My friendship group includes a woman from an abusive family in China, a woman who grew up with a chronically depressed and frequently hospitalised father, a woman with a histrionic controlling mother, a woman whose parents left her in India as a child with grandparents then divorced and moved her to Europe, a woman whose mother raised her and her sister single handedly, a husband with a narcissist for a mother, my daughter’s godfather married into a personality disordered family and had his MIL try to take custody of his child after his wife died, my sister’s husband likewise has a disordered family. I take it for granted that anyone I get on well with will have some serious disruption in their family background. This is not coincidence. I am far far more likely to befriend someone with a disordered parent than the statistical prevalence of such people in the general population. It’s like we can smell each other out.

You smelt out your partner’s family. I am prepared to bet big money on your family system being partly responsible for your difficulties in dealing with their family system. That is what makes tackling the MIL so hard. To do it effectively you have to tackle your own demons, your family demons as well. You got sucked into a situation that resonated with your deepest most conditioned behaviours from childhood and on some level she knows that and plays on it. If your feeling a bit queasy right now join the club. Three things have to change to get out of the grip of the MIL; first change yourself, second change your relationship with your partner, third change your relationship with the MIL. All three mesh together and you can’t change one without the others shifting too.

I’ve talked on this blog about the problems we have with our MILs, what their disordered behaviour looks like and where it comes from. I’ve talked a bit about our relationships with spouses who are enmeshed with these women. Let’s face up to the fact we need to talk about what’s going on inside ourselves that allowed this stuff to happen around us. And then let’s stop it. Stop enabling the whole horrible mess.



Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, family roles, Manipulations, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother

16 responses to “Are We Enablers?

  1. Alabaster

    Wow That was a Real Heavy Hitter and Right on the Knocker too…….
    This is perhaps the most difficult part of the process, the part that brings us back to our own FOO and ultimately, to the inner most parts of ourselves………
    It’s the old cliche of Point Yr Finger and How Many Are Pointing Back At You and FCW, you took me back to that place…… There were parts that needed re visiting in order to heal before I could address the chaos of my NMIL and DH….. More than that though, I grew in every aspect of my adult life with the knowledge I gained from ‘Why I Am, Why They Do and How This Effects Me’ inventory of sorts……..
    I certainly don’t kid myself that this work will ever be done and I’ll be all good to go but it sure makes things a lot easier…..
    I can really relate to the craziness of not being our normal chipper assertive selves when having to deal with these types of Whacko and that’s the mystery of it all. Well it was for me anyway… I can’t count the amount of times my friends and family would ask me ‘Why do you let her bother you and This is So Not You’ huh, bloody baffling. Until we go digging for answers and then it’s ‘Oh My What in the World’… Anyway Thanks for writing this post and doing it so gently. They have a hook in us and we need to see where it’s at before we can remove it, heal it and protect it in the future.. It’s hard but So True…
    Be Blessed FCW and Thank You for all that you do..

  2. green star

    Great post! I too came from a family where my father was an alcoholic. Only he got sober, and we all did the therapy thing ( family therapy, group therapy, individual counseling), so I should have been free from that emotional baggage by the time I met my husband, right? Wrong.
    I’ve had to come to terms with how my past upbringing effects my present situation. How my peacekeeping, people-pleaser self allowed this situation to happen in my own family as an adult. Maybe I married too young. Maybe I was too naive and optimistic about other people. I had lots of excuses for my mil’s bad behavior: her lack of higher education, her small town upbringing, lack of travelling, or just a plain old closed mind as opposed to my open one (no offence to those who didn’t go to college, travel, or who live in small towns).
    And now here it is in my family, and my husband has been trying to play out those roles that were set up in his FOO in our family. And I allowed it for years, didn’t see it, didn’t acknowledge what was happening. It’s ugly and painful to know I allowed it, accepted it, reinforced it. But I’m not so young anymore, no longer naive, and not as optimistic. I’m changing, which is causing my husband great distress. I see the bullshit I put up with for so many years and say”no more!” He’s resistant, doesn’t want to see, doesn’t want to change. He’s so damaged. Changing myself, changing the way we interact with mil, all fine. Changing the way my husband and I relate, THAT’S the toughest part.

  3. Al

    FCW, you raise a really good point.
    A few years ago I went no-contact unilaterally. I told my spouse that I was done dealing with his parents. If he wanted that function in his wife, he best find another person. I fully expected him to walk away at that point, given how close they were/are and how much I had been forced to enmesh with them. To my surprise, he did not walk away, and he does not want to go visit them or deal with them by himself.
    I have been asking myself this question since then: why did I put up with their behavior. There are many factors that contribute: Yes, I was brought up to think of my needs last. In fact, I broke off only when I started seeing the damage to my children.
    There was also gas-lighting on their part. Remember that they have had many years of experience gas-lighting and denying every view point but theirs. They are still doing it in many, many forms. I still have occasional thoughts about “what if I were completely wrong about this?”. But I am holding firm (at a great cost) for now.

  4. Anonymous

    FCW, if ever there was a cure for NPD, I believe you would be the one who would find it! I don’t even know what else to say……… you are my hero, thank you.

  5. Happy Girl

    Wow, I have spent my whole afternoon reading this awesome blog thank you! I can’t believe how much it resonates with me. Someone is speaking my language and on the same page with their MIL! I always knew mine was passive aggressive and my counsellor thought she might have a personality disorder but now it makes sense, she has narcissistic tenancies also. After 13 years of biting my tongue and trying unsuccessfully following my husband’s lead of dealing with his mum, I finally stood up to her at Christmas just gone (she was plain horrible to me), and she is banned from our house, and I refuse to have any contact with her. I don’t put any restrictions on my husband or young children visiting her, I just don’t need to be involved anymore in her dealings. It’s extremely liberating. And I do regret that I/we have enabled her over the years, because everyone has let her get away with her appalling behaviour because it was easier then the consequences of speaking up. It was starting to affect the relationship between myself and husband, and he has finally over the last year or so started to wake up to her manipulate controlling ways. She never raises her voice, and is very controlled with emotion but in doing so, she still manages to be a right bully! I was onto her from day one, but chose to respect her because she was my husband’s mum, but as time has gone on, I had no tolerance left, and she needs to know her behaviour isn’t acceptable and needs to take responsibility for her actions. Though this is an issue, as far as she is concerned, she hasn’t and doesn’t do anything wrong! So she will never change. She approached me last week to see if I could move on as she thinks I have had plenty of time to get over it, but still made no acknowledgement of what she has done, so therefore I bravely told her no, I was still not prepared to talk to her and she straight away turned it around on me. So I knew then, I have done the right thing for my well being and sanity and I will never let her bully me again. I can’t wait to keep learning more from your blog 🙂

  6. green star

    FCW: Sorry, a bit off topic. If you take requests on posts can you do a post on the effects this type of toxic upbringing has on our spouses? I started researching avoidant personality disorder last night and my hub has A LOT of the characteristics, which would explain the difficulties we’ve been having. He also gets pretty severely depressed at times. And not that long ago his brother was diagnosed with bipolar depression. I’ve tried searching myself, but I can’t seem to find a concise web page or article on the subject, just lots of blogs from ACONS that are hard to slog through. Many thanks!

  7. Hopeful

    I feel the hugest sense of relief and encouragement from finding this blog! I have felt so alone and overwhelmed and at times hopeless as I have had to handle my narcissistic mother-in-law. I have found a lot of support for people who have dated or married narcissists and even quite a bit of info for daughters of narcissist mothers. Being the DIL is a very unique situation. It is amazing to know I am not alone. You have written so beautifully and honestly. I feel encouraged and built up and hopeful. I read every post of your blog in one day. What a true blessing this blog is. You’re a wonderful writer and very educated about NPD. I have read about it extensively and you have shared a lot of new info for me. Thank you so much for showing support and love and having the courage to share your story in your blog. Thank you 100 times over

    • Oh my goodness Hopeful I can feel the relief coming across in your words and it is so nice to know writing about my horrible MIL is helping someone else. I remember getting all my first information about NPD from the sorts of places you describe. Can I recommend a book I found helpful, “When He’s Married to Mom” by Kenneth M Adams, it’s the closest to a book for DILs of narcissists that I’ve found, the focus is on the effect on the husband and his relationship with you.

  8. Anonymous

    I agree with you Hopeful with everything you just posted in the above comment. Fellow DIL of NPDMIL is very difficult and I am so relieved and happy to have found this amazing blog!

  9. Jen

    My husband had an affair with his mother’s prize employee – she was the prize because she stroked egos like nobody’s business. She also looks and acts like my mil. When the 6 month affair ended, my husband had to tell his mother what had happened – as its a family business and the affair partner reported directly to my husband. Mil responded, “there will be no changes at all in this company”, so I had to deal with that second betrayal. I approached her for support over 2 years ago and have never heard from her again. I asked him to leave, he called his mother who replied, “great, I just put a new duvet cover out in the guest room, wait til you see it.” When my h told mil he was going to fire the other woman and commit fully to the marriage, she responded, “you realize that you’ve just given Jen back all the control, right?” And that’s when her masked slipped. She was not supportive of his family and his 20yr marriage – she wanted him all to herself. She’s a marriage therapist, by the way. My therapist has encouraged me to remain no contact.

    That’s when he realized that she really enabled his affair by constantly subtly insulting and undermining me, while she and the other woman (married with 4 kids, ugh) praised him incessantly. He justified his affair because I was bad, and his mommy said so. He takes full responsibility for his actions, but realized that the people who should have been slapping sense into him were just whispering in his ear to demonize me. Subtly. He wants to reconcile, has low contact with his mother now, and moved me 1000miles away from h’s family.

    And I have guilt for hating her. These narcs are good.

  10. Chimocamper5

    Can a NMIL cause multigenerational trauma? Can adult grandchildren become enablers as well? If the answer is yes, how can we help our children understand and cope as they grow up?

    I’ve been married for 25 years and with my husband for 30 years. I first met my NMIL at the inexperienced/amiable age of 21. I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time, and I was an enabler for the first 10 years. After that I became a Cassandra, and all these years later, my husband is just starting to see the truth about his mother. Now I’m concerned how the trauma this woman has caused could impact my children as adults, and even linger to affect my own future grandchildren.

    My SIL has gone through extensive counseling recently, and was at long last given a name for her mother’s behavior. It was the first time any of us learned that the term, narcissist, is a diagnosed personality dissorder, not just an insult. So I started my own meager research on the topic and discovered your blog.

    Prior to this diagnosis (very late in the game for us unfortunately), we just operated on instinct. Consequently, there has been decades of miserable conflict, that has been very confusing. I now realise that as a narcissist, MIL cannot respond in a logical way to others, especially to me as a DIL who threatens her influence in her son’s and grandchildrens’ lives. I’m now glad I gave up my quest to please her, and my husband, 20 years ago. I finally understand why I was feeling trapped by a mean, manipulative MIL, and had no support from my husband, who turns out is conditioned to always put his mom first.

    After 10 years, I boldly declared very low contact. I didnt realize I had been an enabler, I’d just had enough. By then I had two children, and my maternal instincts drove me to protect them from their grandmother. A few years later, and after our 3rd baby arrived, I reduced to no contact. My husband was very upset by this, yet he never acknowledged his mother’s behavior or its impact on us. So the marriage suffered immensely. NMIL was achieving her goal of driving us apart. We miraculously have stayed together, and had our 4th baby ten years ago. Over the years my husband took the kids to visit his mom when she was in town. Lucky for me, she moved to the opposite side of the country and rarely comes back our way. They always met at a restaurant, because I was determined that my house would be a safe place for me (she always found flaws in our house no matter where we lived).

    My main concern about having a NMIL is the impact it has on future generations. This has been a traumatic experience for our children and I wonder how it will affect their future marriages and children? Perhaps it sounds far fetched to think a NMIL could cause trauma generations down the line. However, I have watched my older children, now 21 and 18 years old, process this relationship and react with their own anger, hurt and confusion. My younger two, ages 15 and 10, seem to be more accepting because they’ve had so much less contact with their grandmother than the older two . But time will tell if NMIL’s behavior and subsequent conflict between my husband and I, plus my lengthy rift with her, will have lasting damage on all four in their adult lives.

    Many of the responses in your blog discuss coping with a NMIL while a couple are raising babies and young children. In my experience, managing a NG (narcissistic grandmother, is that a phrase that’s used?) changes as the child grows up. In adolescence it’s particularly challenging. Preteens and teens are supposed to begin the process of becoming independent from their parents. They do this in a very emotional, erratic manner that gives the teenage years the stigma it has for being challenging, even if very normal.

    Well, the grandchildrens’ teen years are when NMIL can be even more powerful. My NMIL loves the opportunity adolescence provides to create a rift between her despised in law and her grandchild. Without the support of my husband, our teens have used the relationship problems with their grandmother as a weapon when they had conflict with me. The older two no longer do this, I think because they’ve matured, have started their adult lives away from home and have their naturally yearned for independence. By their own choice they have low contact with NG, only occasional Facebook exchanges. They have not met her when she’s in town for a few years now. NMIL has thus far been unsuccessful in officially dissolving our marriage and driving a lasting wedge between my children and I. She won’t stop trying until her dying day though. How do I help my children understand their NG?

    Please write your book on this topic. The way you have applied your research and personal experience to find solutions to coping with a NMIL is profoundly helpful to those of us in this situation , but who are less skilled in analyzing the why/how. Thank you for taking time to maintain this blog!

    • Hi there, you ask a very thought provoking question regarding the intergenerational effects of disordered family members. In short I think yes a narcissistic or otherwise abusive person can cause intergenerational trauma but with one big caveat, abusive behaviours pass down in a family in denial. Once dysfunctional and abusive behavioural patterns are exposed and talked openly about the potency of the behaviour reduces. Awareness must then extend from recognising the collective family trouble to recognising and addressing how each individual has responded to the dysfunctional dynamics.

      I would suspect if my own experiences are anything to go by that the medium through which grandchildren experience the effects of their disordered grandmother is through the parent, in your case their father. He will have various ways of coping with her learned in childhood which helped in the very specific and unusual environment of having a NPD mother but which will be far less functional and in fact problematic in other situations. That means in your marriage and in his parenting of the children he will have demonstrated behavioural patterns and habits which are not helpful as ways to maintain relationships and get on with people. This is the most direct route through which intergenerational trauma passes down. Direct contact with the grandmother won’t result in any where near as significant dysfunctional patterns of behaviour. They don’t live with her. They did spend years unconsciously absorbing all the unspoken “rules” around how to behave and what couldn’t be discussed or faced within the family.

      They grew up with your husband modelling behaviour where he put another woman first and allowed her to interfere with your relationship and parenting. They will probably have some unconscious assumptions about how marriage works and what people are like which reflects this. Maybe they will find it hard to establish healthy boundaries in their own relationships or will be unusually accepting of dysfunctional behaviour in others like failure to take responsibility for one’s actions as this is what they saw their father do. But they also saw you stand your ground and refuse to have anymore to do with someone who treated you badly and that is a very helpful thing to have been modelled by their mum.

      In all circumstances the most damaging things to happen are not the actual cruel acts of disordered people but the denial of what the victim knows to be true and the utter refusal to discuss it or take their feelings seriously. Time and time again adult survivors of horrible abuse say how not being believed or being told to shut up about it was the worst betrayal. One renowned expert on child abuse stated that he considered emotional abuse and the erosion of ones ability to trust reality and others was the worst abuse he dealt with, more than physical or sexual abuse. Alice Miller a prominent psychoanalyst who specialised in abusive parenting said “as long as [the experience of cruelty] remains hidden behind their idealised picture of a happy childhood, they will have no awareness of it and will therefore be unable to avoid passing it on. It is absolutely urgent that people become aware of the degree to which this disrespect of children is persistently transmitted from one generation to the next, perpetuating destructive behaviour.” (Alice Miller, “The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for Self”).

      To minimise the effect of your NPD MIL on your own children you must be completely honest and open about how she is, what it was like and how their father and you enabled her behaviour, what you wish you had done etc. Once these things are made conscious within each individual and within the family conversations they can be processed, understood and seen clearly by everyone. This then gives people the awareness and the choice of how to behave themselves. No one can deal with an issue which is never discussed or only hinted at.

      You could buy them all the book “Rethinking Narcissism” by Craig Malkin which is very readable and reasonable, not demonising NPD sufferers and suggesting ways to manage their self-absorption if your children choose to maintain a relationship with their grandmother. The author is a world expert on treating people with NPD and had an NPD mother himself. He also describes the behavioural pattern, which he calls Echo, which meshes with narcissism. It’d be a good starting point for a conversation to ask what roles various family members play in relation to each other. Email them links to websites and articles you find, they may not read them now but one day understanding themselves and their family will be more relevant, maybe when they become parents themselves.

      Everything you are doing now will work to counteract and dilute the effect of their NPD grandmother. They didn’t have an NPD parent themselves so they have been cushioned from her abusive behaviour already. We all want to protect our children from any harm but cannot. We can guide them in how to deal with harm when it arises and self-awareness, healthy boundaries and empathy are key. Keep them informed and keep lines of communication open.

      I know it is horrifying when all of this comes out and you see the ugliness and damage laid out. In a while, maybe a few months, maybe a couple of years, NPD will become something less horrifying and you will feel less urgency and dread regarding your children’s future. The worst is over and she will have done less damage to them than you are now fearing. After all they choose to have little to do with her, that really says something. Take some time to look at what harm has been done to yourself, it is very undermining to spend years living with someone in utter denial about such a big problem. I wonder if your concern about your children is displacement of a deep concern for yourself and your marriage. It’s been a very traumatic experience for YOU, what about your future? You deserve to heal and be protected from her in just the way you are looking to protect your kids. Look after yourself too!

  11. Reblogged this on Parental Alienation and commented:
    1. Do you avoid potential problems by trying to keep the peace? Do you do whatever you can to avoid conflict?

    2. Are you in denial about your loved one being disordered? Do you think his or her behavioural problems are just a phase and aren’t anything to be concerned about?

    3. Do you minimize the situation? Do you think the problem will get better later?

    4. Do you lecture, blame or criticize the disordered person?

    5. Do you take over the responsibilities of the disordered person? Do you cover for and pick up his or her slack to minimize the negative consequences? Do you repeatedly come to the rescue — soothing over hurt feelings with others, managing social events to suite them etc?

    6. Do you try to protect your disordered loved one from pain?

    7. Do you allow them to treat you like a child? Do you enjoy being taken care of? Do you allow them to financially support you, even though you are an adult?

    8. Do you try to control the disordered person? Do you allow them to control you?

    9. Are you good at just enduring? Do you often think, this too shall pass?

    10. Do you give him/her one more chance … and then another … and just one more?

    11. Do you join him/her or overlook dangerous or abusive behaviour, even when you know he or she has a problem?

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