Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

I was musing on a heartfelt comment a reader had left asking for more information about anxious-withholding attachment types. I had wracked my brains trying to thing of what else I could write and then out of the blue an article popped up in my Facebook news feed which hit the nail on the head. It was one of those ah-ha articles where I suddenly understood something, ‘ping’ the lightbulb went off.

You see I had got myself all confused about what emotionally withholding actually meant. In my mind it was all cold-hearted bastard behaviour, the guy who never returns your calls, doesn’t like cuddling, prefers not to hold your hand. You know all clenched jawed and distant, stiff upper lip to the nth degree. NO. Duh (bet I wasn’t the only one that thought that though huh?) The article which you can read in its glorious entirety is here at Ravishly.com . Really go and read it.

What it means to be emotionally available (to quote the article)

“is not just about sharing his/her emotions; it is about his/her openness with another person and him/herself. It’s about where s/he is at in this moment emotionally and staying with that discomfort, instead of running or presenting it as fixed, resolved or all sorted out.

It is not about oversharing or being dramatic for the sake of it, it is sharing what is relevant to develop that connection in an authentic way. It is about knowing the personal behaviours that avoid true openness and availability. It is at the start very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien to someone who wasn’t taught how to be available emotionally growing up.”

God how brilliant a summary is that? There are so many interesting strands to pull out of these to paragraphs. It got me thinking about Brene Brown and her work on how shame can block us from truly being open and authentic with people. Shame is one of the emotions narcissistic families are steeped in but avoid facing.

Emotional availability is not developed properly in families where you cannot be yourself, you cannot show certain emotions, you do not address problematic interpersonal behaviours, where you do not even really know who you are because someone else gets all the limelight.

It’s about their openness with another person and themselves

The children of narcissists have such deep fears of being abandoned and rejected that any part of themselves they feared their mother may turn on gets shut down. A narcissist will turn on another person’s needs and feelings as the only feelings that matter to them are theirs. The narcissists’s children’s emotions get locked far away from their own conscious minds. These children grow up and wriggle away from their feelings. They can ignore, minimise or dismiss their partners emotions because they do not know how to handle the feelings they arouse, or worse they are so conditioned to suppress emotions in themselves and others they do it reflexively with no conscious awareness of what they are doing. I think they feel fear and shame of their needs and emotions.

Donald Winnocott the British psychoanalyst describes how children in these circumstances develop a “false self” which is the face that gets presented to the world, the one mummy wants to see while the true self is hidden back behind a thick curtain. The false self has few needs, experiences a limited range of emotions, is available whenever mummy wants them, achieves publicly in ways that she deems desirable. You are all familiar with this. Some children of NPD mothers will know they keep a lot of themselves back, some will believe the false self is really who they are. The true self may never be experienced. This is especially true of the narcissistic mother was the smothering controlling sort rather than the self-absorbed couldn’t give a damn sort. Why? because the smother mother tells the child what to feel, how to react and what face she wants them to show at all times. The child grows up to expect some outside agent to prescribe their emotional state to them, they don’t really feel it themselves.

If your household growing up was one where only one person’s moods and thoughts counted no one else’s inner world was ever given the time of day then the child will become an adult who simply doesn’t know how to share what is going on in their minds. They don’t know how to be open.

It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally

My husband has struggled enormously with being aware of his emotions from moment to moment. We often experience a sort of emotional jet lag where something has happened, an awkward phone conversation with his mother for example, and then two or three days later he starts acting out. The emotions of frustration or anger at his mother have taken that long to bubble up and even then he experiences them in a displaced way, getting cross with me or the kids, being petty or passive aggressive about something. Thank God for the marriage therapist. Each sessions usually involves the therapist stopping my husband and asking him “how are you feeling right now?” and he can describe a few basic emotions now, sad, angry, that sort of thing.

This is not being emotionally available. It’s like going to your fridge and having the milk tell you it will be available for your cup of tea in a couple of days when you need tea right now. Where does that leave you the partner? Hanging around twiddling your thumbs unable to connect to your partner about what is bothering them or you. By the time they feel it it’s too late. It means in the moment when you have a need for them to be relating to you they can’t, they let you down and you have to deal with your stuff by yourself. This is a lonely, wearying experience and over years you can just give up turning to them for support or sharing in this way altogether. Winnicott describes how relationships with people acting from their false self are always unsatisfactory in the long run.

The key to moving past this is mindfullness and an emotional vocabulary. I bought my kids this fantastic set of emotions cards which show a funny cartoon of a person looking sad or excited or whatever and the word is written on it. I ask them sometimes “how are you feeling?” or “when have you felt this way?” and they pick one of the cards and talk about it, it’s like a game. Your spouse needs this kind of a game. Something like this wheel of emotions is helpful. Google it, print it out and stick it up somewhere.


It’s about sharing what is relevant to develop an authentic connection

Relevant and authentic being the key words. Relevant according to my dictionary is:

Closely connected or appropriate to what is being done or considered and appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest.

In short – appropriate and timely. I had a conversation with my spouse about something I had done the day before (stayed in bed in a dismal and despondent heap). In this conversation my husband shared how he had felt worried about what was wrong, but then went on to say he didn’t want me to tell him what the matter with me was, he just wanted to say how it had made him feel. He was dutifully doing what the marriage therapist has asked he do, share his feelings (and only his feelings), a day late. Not relevant. This is not timely because it didn’t happen in the moment while he was feeling the emotion. Not appropriate because in this scenario there was clearly something major going on with my emotions not his, but they were not made part of the conversation.

He actually said he didn’t need to know what was going on with me, just needed to say his bit. NOT AUTHENTIC. Why? Because just doing robotically what the therapist asked him to do without attempting to discover where I was is not a genuine connection, it is obediently acting in the way a grown-up (the therapist) has told him to and actively avoiding the uncomfortable bit of asking about my feelings and sitting there and listening to the reply. And let me tell you that is how it feels, it’s like watching Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory TV show read an appropriate response from a cue card that Penny or Leonard had prepared for him. My husband is not on the autistic spectrum but sometimes it really feels like he is.


So how could that have been authentic and relevant? On the day, at the goddamn time, he could have said he was worried. He could have asked “do you want to talk about this?”, “what’s going on love, you seem really sad today”, “I’m worried and confused”, “please talk to me about this when you’re up to it”. You know because it wasn’t about him giving me some automated status update on what he was feeling like a talking emotion thermometer.

It’s about personal behaviours which avoid true openness and availability

What kinds of personal behaviours avoid intimacy? Avoiding a person or subject if you get a whiff of uncomfortable emotions around them, over analysing someone as they talk to you rather than listen and feel, jumping in with solutions, being busy all the time so you can’t talk, staring at your phone or tablet all day, not thinking about your own moods or reactions, not reflecting on how a conversation has gone, not asking for feedback, not checking in with the other person after a tricky conversation, intellectualising the conversation by quoting books or theories, outright dismissing someone’s concerns as silly, unimportant, unlikely to happen, telling them they are overreacting, using formulaic responses “how are you?”, “I’m here for you” without actually doing anything else at all. You get the idea.

At the start it is very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien

I am struggling with the robotic nature of my husbands attempts to talk about his feelings. He uses the words but isn’t actually there. He is still hiding, peaking out from behind the thick curtain to see if it is safe. It isn’t. It won’t ever be completely safe. And no one is there telling him how to do it like his mum did all those years. You just get stuck in and thrash it out.

I feel a mixture of exasperated and anguish at how he is struggling to do this, it’s like watching a toddler stumble but not rush to pick them up. I have no idea how long it will take for him to get to a point where a normal conversation about how we both are is possible. I’m not talking about big, heavy topics here, just simple ones like what colour to paint the spare room. In the meantime I feel lonely. I still don’t have a relationship with someone who can be emotionally available or supportive and I have stopped expecting or even hoping for it. You know it’s not like watching my toddler stumble, it’s like watching someone else’s toddler stumble, I feel slightly sympathetic but at one step removed, apart from the occasional miserable half-day under a duvet I get on with my life.

That is the real tragedy of emotional unavailability, they crave closeness but act in ways which sabotage it. Ultimately the person they wish to be close to gives up and walks away.



Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Communication problems in NPD, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, family roles, fear of abandonment, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, rejection, Uncategorized

19 responses to “Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

  1. green star

    Thank you thank you thank you for writing this! This is exactly where I am in my marriage too. Like you said, its not even about big conversations (gave up on those a while ago). It’s the small every day stuff. Sure, he’ll ask the standard “how was your day” courtesy question. But never does he actually want to hear about how my day was (I work in a challenging field, have had a disappointing few months professionally speaking so he steers FAR away from any specific questions about my job). He is in no way supportive of me when I’m feeling down, just like you described your husband (any negative emotion I show meets with how it made him feel, no curiosity about how i got to that place). He completely avoids anything that might resemble a struggle or conflict, which these days is a lot, so naturally we don’t talk much.
    It is so lonely to be where I am in my life right now. I wish my husband would try to see that.

  2. Al

    Its a coping mechanism they have learnt in childhood/adolescence, these children of smotheris. As soon as they say something, Mama will jump on it , twist it around, and make it all about herself. So they keep their emotions hidden. Even from themselves, sometimes. Sometimes I work hard at getting to the emotion, and feel like a monster afterwards for having forced the issue. Most times i leave it alone, all those emotions lurking behind his calm facade: i can half feel them and he cannott. It is very lonely. Make some friends with neighbors, colleagues – get some human contact some other way. The big thing I worry about is whether the kids will learn some of this.

  3. Becky

    I could have written this, and it is a very lonely place to be. Children who have been raised by narcissitic parents, especially mothers, are like the walking wounded as adults. Sometimes I can feel sad for my husband, other times I want to shake him. Neither does any good.

  4. anonymous

    It is absolutely lonely living in these marriages. What is interesting is that they have such calm facades but truly they are bubbling underneath. After some time in therapy I am learning that when I detach, his emotions surface and it is not pretty. For years I have been considered (by him) that I am the emotional one. I think I am rather like the average person. As I learn different coping strategies to live with him he is slowly coming unglued. When I was diagnosed with cancer within three weeks of my first surgery he suggested we move out of state and uproot our children who were quite settled in good schools, had lovely friends, and a wonderful community. Knowing that I would never uproot our children and leave our family and friends, he thought it perfectly acceptable to take a job and commute weekly, by plane, for his new dream job. I was left to care for our three children as I stumbled through cancer alone. I believe he couldn’t cope and given the fact he too has narcissistic tendencies. That dream job didn’t work out, but he told everyone he was coming home to be with his family. And if you can believe it ended as soon as my treatment/surgeries came to an end. When the doctors determined I had more health issues going on recently. He had no where to run and hide to like the last time as he was back working in the same state, even the same county. He did not come with me to appointments, but rather lashed out at me, and I mean lashed out at me, when he would get home, lash out that he had to drive the kids as I needed anesthesia for more testing, yelled at me about plans for my birthday with girlfriends. Did he ever ask me how I was doing with the news? Not at all. He was mad that when he came home from work, the four of us where exhausted by the draining day. It was truly unreal. I was staying calm and strong and he was literally coming unglued. Then he barely says he is sorry. He was only because I called him out, and cannot for the life of him understand why I don’t just move forward and act like none of this behavior is ever happening. His apologies are the most cold hearted thing I can imagine. They are in word only, without any sensitivity or heart involved. This is crazy making! I just need to get these kids raised and try to stay healthy. I just pray I can do it.

    • greenstar

      Sorry to hear about your situation. That is awful to be going through a health crisis alone with no support. Do you have family nearby that you can rely on? I find that my husband will turn things around on me too. If I point out his behavior I must be “having a bad day” or “in a bad mood” or something like that. Introspection is something that (I have to assume) wasn’t modeled very well while he grew up with his N family, but deflection certainly was. I hope you are supported by family and friends during this stressful time.

    • Archana I have to say I think y ou’re a stronger person than I am. If he is really lashing out at you when you are ill like that perhaps it is worth considering whether you should continue to allow yourself to be treated like that. Especially in front of your kids, as that is an example to them of how to expect to be treated by future partners. I am thinking of you during your struggle, and wish you health, happiness and love, one way or another x

  5. Lonely

    My husband leaves me to deal with every adult decision. I feel as if I am drowning because of his inertness. He can’t express his feelings except through extreme anger and irritation. He is not interested in my feelings and if I display emotion or unhappiness he shuts down and leaves the room. It’s the loneliest, most chaotic life.

  6. archana

    i am also dealing with a narcissist mil .My life is like a hell because of her.Whenever i talk with her son she cries loudly.some of her & my husband & sister in law behaviour i cant understand can someone help. whenever my sil come to my house my mil don’t allow us to talk for a sec & say that sil is god & i have to serve her.they both talk for hours & i have to serve them & my husband just watch comfortably. whenever i use to be ill my husband avoids me & just go to bed & lie down for hours.he never ask me about my feelings & if i tell about my he gets panic.on holidays he never took me for an outing mt mil use to shout on everyone & he use to lie down comfortably .sometimes it seems he is very comfortable when she shouts on me & children.pl answer my query.

  7. Male in his 40s

    Yep, I hear you. My (now estranged wife) struggled with emotional intimacy. She couldn’t even say the words ‘I love you’ or write them either. And the thing about staring at a phone or a tablet… I wish the iphone had never been invented for that reason. Now she she has gone I don’t feel as alone anymore – except when the kids are not with me.

  8. I have to say sometimes reading your writing hurts and I have to take breaks during an article. My partner is not quite as extreme as yours in terms of he can be very demonstrative but it is a constant battle to make him comfortable enough to behave that way and ”get it out of him” and sometimes I wonder why I should have to emotionally babysit anybody.
    But then I see how childlike and vulnerable she makes him feel and I feel more determined than ever to help him get rid of these demons.
    We have moved all the way from the UK to Australia and she is doing her best to be emotionally manipulative over Skype, emails and Facebook. She started sending him 4 emails a day and when he didn’t respond because we were out and about she then texts me to tell him to check his emails, and I hate I’m being deliberately used by her, so I’ve resolved to just no longer relay her messages.
    I actually think therapy would do the world of good to my partner but I know he would never even consider it and quite frankly we couldn’t afford it if we wanted to. She just keeps exceeding my expectations in her lunacy.
    When he’s in the right frame of mind he will talk about her and agrees with a lot of what I say about her being unacceptable and emotionally using her kids as a crutch for her bad marriage as they were ”what got her through her alcohol addiction”. In fact he’ll say it unprompted. But if I ever am the first to point out she’s being unreasonable he immediately defends her and says she’s always been great to me, and says she’s been a great mum. I find his yoyo behaviour very confusing, and when it feels like we’ve made a huge leap forward, we then just take another huge one back, ending right back where we were in the beginning. I don’t believe in God but I pray to WHATEVER every day that he can just have the strength to stand up to her when eventually the time comes he can no longer avoid the issue like a whipped puppy. Thinking of you all dealing with your own struggles guys, keep your heads high and your spirits up. This is a war not a battle….

  9. Thanks intended for giving many of these amazing articles

  10. crystalstardustblog

    Dear fiercecorkwoman

    I have stumbled upon your blog yesterday whilst looking for more information that relates directly to my situation.

    I have bought and devoured countless books about controlling people, narcissists and coercive controllers. Mostly these books seems to be written from the perspective of someone who is in a romantic relationship. I have read psychological books relating to the subject of narcissism even follow and interact with another wonderful blog written by a rare self confessed high functioning narcissist. He himself has written many books, again mostly aimed at the romantic relationship.

    I,like you, have an issue with my mother in law. I don’t know for a fact that she’s a narcissist. But I believe she has many characteristics of one at the very least. I would love you input. If you would be so kind as to read this lengthily post. I will try and keep it to bare essentials. I would be so grateful to hear what others think. Here’s my story;

    So 6 years ago, I was newly separated from my ex husband. My children and I had moved to Be nearer my mother and father.I felt free and independent again after years of marriage to someone was absent and drank far too much. I got myself a little part time job, began to have friends and after about 6 months, I started dating again.i was happy albeit a little lonely of an evening.

    Fast forward 6 months, I met my partner (through some mutual friends) He wasn’t the type I usually go for but one thing was for sure, we laughed a lot. He made it clear that he liked me and the kids loved having him come over to visit. Once he walked half a mile in the snow to get to me as the cab wouldn’t come that far up the road.

    He seemed lovely and we quickly fell in love. His parents lived pretty far away so I didn’t get to meet then for a few months. Before we met face to face, we exchanged a few messages over social media and over the phone when my partner called his parents. She seemed so kind. She was interested in my kids and when she did come to visit the first time. She was laden with gifts for them.

    My partner had hinted that his parents were well off. I didn’t think much more of it. Money (as lovely as it is) has never impressed me other than when I daydream about the material things I’d like for myself and the family. However, on our first meeting, not only were the kids thoroughly spoilt, but I also had gifts. Jo Malone perfumes (which I know now are not cheap) and some other little things that must have set her back a couple of hundred pounds total. I was blown away that someone who’d never met me would be so kind. I stammered my thanks and felt embarrassed because I didn’t have anything for her. I mentioned this to which she laughed and said it was her pleasure.

    We lived in a pretty small house with no spare room, so she stayed in a hotel for the 2 nights she was visiting. The hotel we chose was old and beautiful and not too cheap but it was one of several choices and she had picked this one. We had arranged to go out one night (my mother babysat) and she told me that as it was close to my birthday, she’d like to get me a gift. I told her she’d done more than enough. She insisted that my partner and I spent the night in a hotel which was luxurious as a present. I protested at first and then she used an argument on me that would become a regular Favourite from her. ” now, my son has told me how kind you are, he’s always saying how you live to give, now you know how good it makes you feel when you give? Yes? You wouldn’t deny that to someone else now would you?, I love to give, it gives me pleasure and you would do this for your own children and will when they’re older I’m sure” I was stunned into silence.

    After arguing with her for a good five minutes prior to that, I literally had no comeback, yes I like to give and of course, if I had loads of money I would buy my kids whatever I felt that wanted/needed and birthday and Christmas would be immense… I don’t know. I felt defeated and with one last weak protest about how I felt she didn’t have to, my partner and I were booked in.

    Fast forward a year. We decided to move closer to where my mother in law lived for work reasons. My partners parents both decided to help us out and offered for all of us to stay in their (large enough) house for a few months until we saved some rent money and got on our feet. We were very grateful for this idea as we had no savings and had both lost jobs.

    A week before we moved, we were shocked to discover that I was pregnant. we had talked about having more, until I met my partner (let’s call him John for reference sake) I had decided I didn’t want anymore children, in my experience even married, I had been a single parent and had to do it all alone anyway and I didn’t want that again. John made me think again. He was so helpful with my kids and loved them and helped out with the parenting almost from day one. So we had decided that in the future we’d try for another baby just not that soon!

    His parents were not happy and for a few weeks before we moved, they were a little frosty on the phone with John. By the time we moved, all was well and things were ok. The spoiling never stopped. More often than not it was clothes, for the kids , for me, for John. Usually clothes that you’d imagine on a perfect family in a catalogue. Button up shirts, trousers with a crease, floral printed dresses with sensible necklines. Let me just explain that I am naturally more at home in floaty dresses and bare feet in the summer and jeans and jumpers in the winter. My kids used to dress however they wanted with a touch of guidance from me with regard to colour /pattern clashes.

    I didn’t noticed at the time, but if you look back over photos, you can see us all morphing into the “rich kid” look. All except John who maintained his jeans and shirt look year round. I didn’t notice , I protested as always when we were offered or bought things but as time went on it just seemed to happen. The first time things went wrong, was when we’d been living there about 4 months. I had failed to find a job or even get more than one interview during my time there. My partner had managed to get a job but he hated it and worked all hours.

    He had an idea for a business which his parents liked and they offered to front the money for it. John was so excited but seeing as he was rubbish wit paperwork and accounts, I offered to do it to help out and save money. I was beginning to show anyway so getting a job was out of the question.

    I was miserable living there, I felt a failure, I felt we were sponging off of his parents, I felt I was not contributing at all and was useless all round. The kids were doing well at school but that was the only good thing that seemed to be happening for me.One day just my mother in law was home with me and she saw I was upset (probably stress and hormones) I broke down and confessed my fears for the future, I was worried I’d never see John, id lose my identity as I had in my previous marriage, I felt awful that I couldn’t contribute. I sat on my bedroom floor this whole time crying and she stood a few feet away from me saying things like “well you know it’ll work out, it is gonna be hard for a few years but you guys are strong. You’ll get your own life again once the baby goes to nursery etc….” I thanked her and said sorry for being such a let down or something to that extent, then it was over. We didn’t speak of it again.

    Meanwhile,John was excited and threw himself into getting ready for the new business. I got busy opening bank accounts and seeing as he didn’t have an account with the bank we had chosen for business, the advisor suggested we link it to my account just to get things started as otherwise his was going to slow things down. While doing this we decided I should had a card to the business account as I would be running errands for the business on occasion once the baby was born.

    We organised all of this and then shortly after, we all went to visit my mother back where we’d lived before. The visit was a nice break for everyone (I’m sure for the in laws too) upon our drive home, we called ahead to the in laws to say what times we’d be home. John noted when he got off the phone that his mother was frosty and had said we needed to talk when we all got in… We were confused and spent the rest of the journey stressing over what we might have done…

    We arrived home and were taken into the kitchen (Johns sister and brother in law to be at the time took my kids up to bed)
    The in laws sat on one side of the huge kitchen island, we sat on the other. They both had their arms crossed, the suspense was killing me. What on earth was wrong? Johns dad leaned forward to get to envelopes on the middle of the island and threw them towards us. One was addressed to me and one to John. Then he said “I hope those are not what I think they are”

    We both picked up an envelope and began to open them. Immediately I understood, we hadn’t been great with money, as well as supporting us living there, while we lived in the other house, I’d run up and been unable to pay 2 months rent (my ex stopped paying money after 6 months and I wasn’t able to make ends meet) and a large electric bill was outstanding. My father in law at the time had offered to pay, again despite my protests , both John and my father in law insisted he just wants to help us get on our feet. Let them help. I would have only ended up paying it off in instalments if the didn’t help but either way. It was a kind offer and maybe I should have held firm but I said yes.

    So, the fact that it looked possibly, as if we’d both ordered credit cards must have looked bad. Immediately I was relieved and said “oh no, these are not credit cards! They’re just debit cards for the new business account” johns’s got one but they had to open the business account with my name otherwise johns wouldn’t have been ready in time and we needed to start making payments… I was cut off :

    ” no! You are not to have a card, that money was for you (she was looking at John) to provide for them ” (she gestured towards me with her chin but there was no eye contact”

    I was floored, the conversation carried on, basically, after my tearful breakdown, she had decided I was a flight risk, after all Id left my other husband , taken the kids and told her with a giggle because I’d lived in so many places that I was a bit of a gypsy at heart. She had twisted this into me being untrustworthy, I wasn’t allowed my name on anything to do with money otherwise they’d both pull the plus on the money they’d offered to front… We were both stunned, then they told us to think about it and went to bed.

    Johns sister and brother in law came in to talk to us as we sat there absorbing it all. His sister (let’s call her Jenny) began to explain (the first of many times that she’s “translated” her mothers thoughts and reasons to us whilst trying to be kind. Jenny I believe, is the “mirror” and does not express her wishes, thoughts and desires very much, I suspect because she knows she’ll get beaten down. Don’t get me wrong, both her and John are very strong willed when they feel strongly enough and will argue with their mother. But Jenny, especially, is a peace keeper. She recently got married, and as brides go, she was the most unbridezilla like bride I have ever met. She gave virtually no opinions or choices on anything. Colours, decor, favours, she let her mum choose everything. Now I realise why.

    So back to that evening in the kitchen. John immediately became angry with his parents not understanding and asking me if I wanted to walk away from it all. He said he was sorry for ever introducing his parents to me and sorry they basically accused me of being an untrustworthy person. Jenny gently tried to explain how and what her mother (and apparently by proxy) her father felt and why. I personally felt like a 30 year old parent being chastised like a 15year old who’d been caught stealing money, smoking and having sex with someone all at once by her parents… They weren’t even my parents.

    After that, I told John, of course we shouldn’t walk away, it’s your business, one of your dreams, take your chance, we’ll suck it up. Things changed after that and everything I did, or didn’t do around the house became an angry comment or nasty word, or worse, a barked order when my mother in law and I were alone.

    In desperation, I began to search and apply for council homes. Of course we were not high on the list of priorities. We had our own room, the kids both had theirs. We had food, water, clothes… I was just so miserable I wanted to run away.

    Finally, after johns business got up and running, we were able to move out, weeks before the baby was due. Again his parents agreed to help us and pay rent for 6 months until we got on our feet. The business was located about half an hour from the in laws home, we only had one car and with the 2 kids being heavily pregnant and john being gone from 11-12 (13 hours) made things difficult. When we first looked for houses, the mother in law had gone on holiday, just my father in law and I in the evenings, he told me to find homes and view them and then let him know. I found a lovely 3 bed house close to the business with good schools nearby.

    John liked it, father in law liked it. Called his wife to let her know and after a minute took the phone in the garden. He came back in with a face like thunder and said “sorry , it’s gonna have to be a house nearer here for the kids schools” I was gob smacked. Surely it was my choice, or mine and Johns choice where OUR kids went to school? Also, houses were more expensive where the in laws lived so I’d found a larger house for less money than the pokey little rat holes for more money closer to the in laws.

    What could I do but agree? After all they were paying. I felt so trapped, so undermined. It all seemed so unfair and so so controlling. So we moved, to a pokey little 2 bed for six months. Started making our own money and we moved, despite mother in laws protests, to where we wanted, the kids educations weren’t ruined as she’d predicted. In fact they’ve both done so well.

    Anyway. That’s one of 3 occasions where I’ve or we’ve upset mother in law and it’s then turned into a power game. I’ve not engaged until now. We’ve always gone head bowed, tail between legs to apologise for whatever imagined wrong was commuted. Usually we had no idea what we’d done and waited to be told. Each time the same “court room’ situation with us on one side and them on the other. I won’t carry this post on with more examples for now as its long enough… However, I am currently upset with her, as is John.

    We’ve had a huge fall out with her over something she totally imagined happened. Which I either didn’t do at all (turn my back on her while she was talking) this apparently (once she eventually told me face to face what I’d done) she told everyone else a laundry list of things I’d done wrong. Some to Jenny, some to John. Different each time , probably because she realised her own story carried no weight. At least no weight to take t as far as she did. She didn’t speak to me for 5 weeks. Never initiated a grown up talk. I did that in the end. And when we did meet, I brought with me (mentally) a list of things I’d done wrong for discussion. What she said was ” none of that matters, what matters is you turned your back on my husband and I and we were more he than we’ve ever been” *insert eyeroll*

    Let me clarify, the incident (which I didn’t recall that way at all) consisted of us passing in a hotel reception and having a hurried in passing discussion of where to have lunch because I was a) trying to locate john and b) chasing after our 2 year old who is non verbal. I was so stressed out from packing, it being hot and trying to wrangle the other kids as well as stop the little one from running away. It could very well be that my answer was cut short and due to the above, that my back was psychically turned on her and her husband. However, I assured her that I had not Intended to be rude. I certainly hadn’t meant it in a deliberate nasty way. The thing is, after almost 5 years, you’d think she’d know me well enough to know that I’m not malicious or spiteful like that. We all get pissy sometimes, but this was totally not the case. So after that, no eye contact, short sharp answers and by the time we got home it was apparent we were in the dog house.

    I had had enough, enough of being treated like I’d murdered someone just because I’ve accidentally upset someone. Tell me someone who hasn’t u knowingly upset someone and I’ll show you a liar. The thing is, it wouldn’t have been a big deal f she’d said something …to ME… Not her son and daughter… after 5 weeks, I called and asked to meet. We did, we talked, I told her I hadn’t realise let alone meant to rude or hurtful. That I myself was hurt by the lack of contact and thought it was childish to “sulk” (the woman goes on hunger strikes in her room for days at a time when someone pisses her off) she said all her family were very happy and that she was never going to change. at that point, I resisted the urge to say “yeah so happy that your adult son was crying on the sofa at 2am the other day, so happy that your daughter is flapping around stressing and trying to fix it all” and so happy that your husband is calling my husband to be and saying “please can we all fix this, I can’t bear to go home at the moment. But I didn’t. I said I was sorry we couldn’t resolve it, she reminded me how good they’ve been to me and my kids. I said yes you have and I’ll always be grateful. And we left it at that.

    I’ve seen her at 3 family engagements since then, the last one we told her were getting married next year, in European country, (I should mention originally they had offered to pay for our wedding in another foreign country) she didn’t say a single word. Just nodded. Only later on did she tell my fiancé that we’ve chosen “the worst possible place” for her and her husband . Again, flabbergasted, because I forgot were meant to choose the wedding destination with the in laws in mind (eye roll). Anyway, bottom line is now, he’s hurt but doesn’t wNt to say anything and trigger WW3 again, I’m pissed off and sick of her behaving like a brat.

    When things were going great they were awesome, now they’re crap. I fee for my husband. So after reading this book of a post, if you’ve had time… Thank you first of all… And second. Do you think we are dealing with a narcissist?

    Thank you.

    • Hi CrystalStarDust, I am not able to say if you are dealing with a narcissistic individual as I am not a qualified psychotherapist. In fact no one can make such a diagnosis over the internet not even a qualified psychotherapist. Only someone who had sat with that person for several hours who was highly trained in what to look for could suggest that as a possible term to describe their behaviours and possible underlying motives of such behaviours. I would be immediately very suspicious of any who told you they could make such a diagnosis.

      Secondly I’m not sure what such a diagnosis would do to help you anyway. Why does it matter to you so much to know? You already know what the problem is. You have become utterly financially dependent on and beholden to a very controlling person in the midst of a family of people who are enabling her behaviour. Narcissistic or not that is your problem.

      What to do about it is similarly straightforward, you need to be financially independent, in a house you own or rent with money you earn from a source not involved with your future-in-laws. You need to discover what you are comfortable with them knowing about you, your kids and your future plans, what you are comfortable doing with them, how often you want to do it, where you wish to see them, when, what sort of manner you wish them to have around you, what behaviour is and is not acceptable to you. Once you know this you need to work out what you are prepared to do if they don’t comply with your personal limits on their behaviour. And you may or may not choose to communicate your expectations and the consequences of not meeting them to them. Then you need to ACT ON THIS. You have no boundaries. At no point in your story did you once mention setting and enforcing a boundary.

      You describe your ex-husband as someone who was absent and drank too much, in other words you were in an abusive relationship. You are now in a relationship with someone who has an abusive, toxic family. While reading your story red flags went up for me at the start when you mentioned how interested your future-MIL was in your children. Yet this did not seem odd to you. Crystal, you need to be asking yourself some long hard questions, not about your MIL’s possible mental health issues but about yourself. How did you walk out of one abusive unacceptable situation and into another one? How did you not see what was going on sooner? How did you become so easily under this woman’s control? Over 500 comments have been left on this blog and your is the first one where I am just shaking my head and thinking Dear God she’s a sitting duck and she doesn’t even see it.

      Get a therapist, for you and for your kids sake. Work out what happened to you in your past that has led to you repeating the scenario of being controlled by someone and having no boundaries in place because that is common to living with someone with a drink problem and with what your MIL is doing. You are letting yourself be controlled. Fear of abandonment, fear of provoking anger in others, fear of something is stopping you from saying no I will not accept this gift, this money, a house from you, no you do not tell me where to live, speak to me like that. NO!

      It is interesting you describe her reactions as WW3. That is how it feels to you, like a war zone. Doesn’t that tell you something about how attacked and scared you are when people try to dominate you? Not everyone would describe a row as world war 3, they would just call it a row and shrug it off. Like many of us who end up caught in a narcissistic family system you are triggered badly by the emotions around this bullying person. Someone without those triggers would not be feeling WW3. Where do these triggers come from? One adult asserting their perfectly reasonable rights to another adult is not akin to a world war and shouldn’t be feeling that way inside you. She is not making you feel like that, you are. Again this is something you can explore with a therapist.

      I sincerely hope when establishing the business your partner has started that proper legal protections were put in place regarding who is responsible for what and that your future-in-laws are not actually the owners and underwriters of the business. Mixing family and business is fraught with problems unless clear lines of demarkation around legal and fiscal responsibilities and rights have been spelled out in black and white with contracts and lawyers. If this has not been done it needs to be sorted out BEFORE you get married or you will become liable for any financial fallout and by extension your children by your previous husband.

      Crystal I wish I could hug you, you are in a shitty situation. I can’t give you legal advice or diagnose is your mother-in-law to be has a personality disorder. But from your own words in this story you have told you have let action after action after action go by without ever putting your foot down, worse you have become more and more embroiled and dependent on her. This has to stop. Why are you still resisting the urge to say anything? Why is a short sharp comment and no eye contact messing with you so much? Only you know the answers to this and I’ll bet serious money it has more to do with YOUR family of origin than your MIL.

      • crystalstardustblog

        Wow! Thank you your honest reply. I feel I may have misled you in my excitement to have discovered a place Where people understand what I’ve been going through. If you would like and have the time. I’ll try and correct a few things that I’ve accidentally misled you to believe no doubt with my gabbled story.

        I wanted to start from the begging in with my story. Yes you are right, we were dependant on my in laws… Almost totally for 6 months as we lived with them in their house with my sister and brother in law. This all happened in early 2013 when I was pregnant with out son (now nearly 3) and for a couple of months while we both looked for work unsuccessfully. Yes they helped us with the business and after that initial unpleasantness with the business, you are right, both my partner and I backed right down and kept our heads low and we ran the business for 3 years. As of this spring, the business folded, they were OK with it as they were ok with us at the time.

        I should mention that in the past 3 years, they moved away for my father in laws work and we only saw them every couple of months for a week at a time. The unpleasantness was completely gone and I was told “you’re one of ours Crystal” I was humbled and flattered as like I said, when things are good, they’re Kodak moment perfect. I don’t want you or anything to think that I’m materialistic. I was just so happy to be a part of a large and happy family where we all had fun and laughed and joked all the time. For the next 2.5 years after the horrible blow up, things went well. Maybe this was because we didn’t live near them. I face timed her everyday and told her about my personal problems . I really looked upon her as another mother (even though I get on well with my own mother who is very loving, supportive and not at all controlling)

        I do realise again, that these were mistakes. I over shared, I gave away my feelings about everything, I even told her about a couple of big rows I’d had with her son… I almost fully expected her to either take no position or side with him. She actually took mine and while she never said anything to him. She advised me to stay strong and not take any crap. This is another reason I’m so confused. She can be everything you’d want in a mother. She expressed (or fakes extremely well) empathy and when someone is sick or when my dad died (shortly after i got with my fiancé) she came right over to do whatever she could. I realise this all COULD very well be a love of drama or narc supply.

        Either way, you get the picture, we had a rest relationship… Fast forward to today. They moved back to live in our area in March. Also in March was her daughter (my sister in laws wedding) it was at the end of this destination wedding, that I, in stressing on the last day, unknowingly committed the worst crime possible within the family and turned my back on both her and my father in law. After this, what ensued was what happened before, the lack of eye contact. Monosyllabic answers, then as I chose to ignore it (finally saying if she had a problem she could speak to me because at the time I had no idea what I’d actually done, just that she was angry.) I told my partner that either she’d get over it or talk to me…

        Instead, weeks ensued of her speaking to both my partner and my sister in law who has always had the mediator role. Every time they spoke to get they’d tell me a new thing that I was meant to have done on that holiday/wedding. I went back to work after we returned home and carried on my life. My other half asked if we could all go and sit and talk. I said no, I said I’m not going back into the “courtroom” of their kitchen table where I’m treated like I’m on a murder trial even though I’m not even sure why I’m in the dog house and also, 5 weeks passed and I’d not heard a word from my MIL.

        I reasoned that if she really wanted to resolve things , she’d put on her big girl pants and do what All normal adults do when they have an issue with Someone and go meet for a coffee to discuss things.

        I told my parent this, he relayed the information back. Nothing happened. She became more and more Desperate toward my partner who had finally seen the truth for himself and was standing by me in my decision to not engage. Said then decided to turn the tables and instead of being angry, realising her relationship with her son was at stake, she began coming over while I was at work. She would sit in the living room and cry and say she hoped her relationship with her son could still be saved. He said he was heartbroken because his family was torn apart. The time dragged on and the issue was only between her and me yet not a single word had been exchanged.

        During this time, she called my father in law and my partner one day sobbing and saying she was a terrible mother and didn’t know how to love anyone. My partner was alarmed as it was unlike her to apologise or be self critical. He called me, I told him if he felt he should go over that he should, but that I smelt manipulation. He chose to go around there. His father in law answered the door and said “what’s going on then” as if my partner had caused his mother to call sobbing and make him come home from work. They talked, apparently my MIL said, “she won’t even meet me for a coffee” I was stunned. Anyway, after the visit. I saw how upset my partner was at the state of the usually close family. I decided enough was enough.

        I text my MIL and asked if she wanted to meet for a coffee. I was so angry, not only about all the things she’d been saying about me and all the things I’d “done wrong” but I was angry most of all that she’d not even attempted to contact me.

        I said I wasn’t interested in a character assassination but that we could discuss things calmly. She said if we weren’t allowed to talk about things what was the point. I said we could talk about whatever, but that I wasn’t prepared to sit there and be judged about some of things I’d heard I’d done wrong.

        We agreed to meet and she began by telling me that ALL of the things I’d heard that I’d done wrong (8 things in total and all things I’d said or done totally innocently that had been twisted into a different perception which made me seem like a nasty or u great duo person) I met with her, as calm as I could but still all fired up and ready to defend all of the points I’d made. This was when she totally took the wind out of my sails by saying all of the things I’d heard were not the problem. We’re just said in anger. That the real problem, the whole 5 week , silent treatment dragging everyone close to her through her bad moods, crying and angry tantrums was because I’d apparently turned my back on her while she and I were talking. Didn’t matter that I was stressed, didn’t matter that I was chasing after our three excited kids (the youngest is autistic) or that I was preoccupied with finding out how much our room service bill was (my partner was paying at the reception so I wanted to get to him) there was so much going on.

        All of the heartache though, the pain. I’d found my fiancé crying downstairs one night alone because he was so upset about his family being ripped apart.

        My sister in law had had her head bitten off trying to mediate and get people to talk. (I told her to stay out of it in a nice way because she was getting hurt)

        And my father in law called my partner from work about a week before we met and said “can we please get this sorted because I dread going home at the moment” so the three people she claimed to love most were all upset.

        When we met and talked, I apologised for turning my back on them, even though , I said, I hadn’t realised or meant to have done it. But I did say I thought this whole situation was ridiculous and that she was going to push it this far over something like this when I was meant to be “one of her own” didn’t make sense. I told her I was angry an hurt that she hadn’t come to me but had talked about me to others. I also told her that if I hadn’t have made contact she wouldn’t have ever done it. She agreed and said I was right. She said she’d alsways been this way and why should she change? She said her whole family were perfectly happy. I said no they aren’t, and that I didn’t want this being done to my kids when they grow up. She Then got an ugly snarl on her face and spat the words “we’ve done a fucking lot for you” I agreed and said I was great full and always would be.

        So that’s pretty much us up to date. This happened about 6-7 weeks ago. We’ve seen each other 3 times. Once was a family party, she was very friendly to me then and pulled me in to dance. The 2 occasional (before and after that party) we’ve visited her at her home . She’s been cool with me. She will speak but it’s on the frosty side.

        We have lived in our own house (rented) for the last 3 years and I have worked since my partners business started folding (last year) so I have become independent. I feel we have both (my partner I and I) grown a pair. It’s uncomfortable for me, and new. It was my partner who said he didn’t want to trigger WW3. That’s because when his mum is angry with any of us, she goes full on silent treatment, then monosyllabic, then gradually defrosts and goes back to normal… I was honest and told her that her “sulking isn’t normal” so we are civil when we see each other.

        My partner hasn’t read any of the narcissist stuff that I’ve been reading, I’ve mentioned some of it, I just don’t know if he actually gets it and makes the connection. His goal is to have that relationship back with his mum … I told him as long as it doesn’t affect me, it’s not my business .

        Of course I wish he’d just leave her out of a lot of stuff. Recently she’s commented on our up coming nuptials next year. She’s said some nasty things about our choices and this was when my other half said he didn’t want to say anything and have it all kick off again.i am angry that she’s upset him, but feel maybe I should stay out now? It hasn’t been said to me after all. When he told her about or wedding, she was there, but she didn’t say a single word, just nodded… Then became a bit more frosty with both me and him. Yet I came home the other day and she’s on FaceTime with him ” HELLO MY DARLING” I’m bitter and angry, maybe I do need to see someone . The only person I talk to about this is my best friend. She says she’s not sure I’m the one who needs therapy. I’m just frustrated and angry and fee this is all so unfair… So that’s my more recent update, I think this covers most of the points you made: either way, thank you for taking the time to respond!

  11. crystalstardustblog

    And I realise that re reading your paragraph about it being more to do with me and my family than her, I have totally ignored. I don’t know. My mum has been telling me to stand up for myself my whole life. I have always been a people pleaser and have in the past gone without to get people presents to make them happy… Who knows? I didn’t think it was that much of an issue. I think my partner and my sister in law both make it seem normal with my MIL. They have grown up with it and like I said before, my SIL actually translates her mothers feelings for others , my partner has always just tried to laugh and joke his way back into her good books. Until now, it was all ok for them because it’s all they’ve ever known.

    As for the comment about red flags and her being interested with my kids… She was a teacher and worked in special ed. my eldest son has a syndrome that she had experience with and she actually had lots of helpful advise and I guess having just left a relationship? I thought “awesome I’m moving into this wonderful family where she’s gonna be a awesome grandmother. I believe it takes a village with raisin kids. I just didn’t realise how messed up this particular village was until it was too involved.

    My kids love her, why wouldn’t they, de guys their love. Kids see things differently . I don’t know. The more life goes on I feel the less I know about it…

  12. A lovely ex of mine was like this. He had real trouble handling emotions, his and mine. Initially he was great, but as time drew on, he realised that my emotions and their tangled state were here to stay. Conversations about how I felt slowly dropped off the radar. I know now it was the right decision to walk away, but I’d been doing the rescuing and it wasn’t working. X

  13. Madeline

    I’m so glad I found this blog, thank you for your writing. I have a set of narcissists for in laws *yay* who are unfortunately very powerful people within the legal community in the city that my partner and I live in. I’m really glad that you wrote about giving a name to what you’re experiencing, even in casual conversation, so that it’s not hidden. My in laws have summoned us to court since our relationship deteriorated after my daughter was born for contact with her, and I kept it hidden for a long time because it felt so bizarre and embarrassing, it also felt too “huge” to bring up in casual conversation. Also, the way that I used to talk about it left me feeling defensive in every conversation. So, thank you for the strategies that you have outlined on your website, they have been really helpful in my ongoing process of living while experiencing the kind of abuse that narcissists inflict.

  14. Marilyn

    Wow! You put into words what I’ve been trying, for years to find an article about. Thank you so much for writing this. This is my husband, exactly. But, he doesn’t seem to notice it in himself. This article gives me encouragement that the way he relates to me (or doesn’t) is due to his emotional wounds, and not because he’s trying to manipulate me. I’ve delt with a lot of one sidedness for a long time, due to his deep woundedness. I kept hoping that my loving him for who he is would let him know he can trust me and trust having a close, personal relationship. But, what I did never seemed to be recognized. He never wanted to talk about our intimacy issues. A couple of years ago, I forced the conversation. He told me, that night, he wondered if we should separate. Then I got the silent treatment from him for quite a while. Once he decided he’s staying, and we’re going to make this work, he acted like that time was “in the past”, like I’m supposed to be ok with not knowing what was going on inside his head. A lot of what he does to avoid emotional intimacy is considered emotional abuse, and I feel the effects of it. He so instinctively protects himself from emotional pain, that he doesn’t realize what it does to those closest to him. Now that he’s starting to realize, he is behaving much better. But, with the lack of emotional presence, I sometimes find myself wondering if, instead of the false shame he has from his mom, he’s not letting me know him because he’s hiding that he’s purposely manipulating me to get what he wants.

  15. Brii

    So what do you do in big instances, where your spouse is this every day… For example when you find out you can’t, more specifically he can’t, have children? You try and be there for him while you’re also grieving… you need each other but they’re just not able to vocalize anything. You ask questions and get nothing. You’re patient for years, still nothing. You have a yearning still to start a family, something you know was a God given desire and he won’t participate in a conversation on next steps just says robotically, “whatever you want is fine with me.” I’m exhausted and can’t help but feel time slipping away. I’ve been patient for over 4 years. I’m about to be 37. I love him and want him to be happy in a decision we make together, whatever it may be but I get nothing. Meanwhile I have my NPD MIL and my enabling FIL telling him our miracle will happen because that’s what they’re praying for. Just be patient. I’m exhausted, I’ve never felt more alone and defeated.

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