What is it about someone else’s Big Day that brings out the worst attention seeking nonsense in my MIL? I know I’m not the only one with this problem. I’ve read so many stories about other people having weddings and birthdays spoiled by their MIL trying to control everything or creating some drama which is all about her on the very day of the celebration.
Looking back I realise I first came across this when I got engaged to my husband-to-be and she did and said nothing. I’ve come to realise that an inappropriate non-reaction is just as hijacking as a stirring up some drama about herself.
Then there was her appalling behaviour at our wedding. She refused to take part in any pre-wedding social events between the two families because her ex-husband, my FIL, would be there. My parents who were hosting were at a loss as to how to explain to my various aunties and uncles, siblings and family friends why the mother of the groom was a no show. In an attempt to get her to take part in some of the proceedings and feel welcome and included my mother exaggerated some difficulties she was having with the flower arrangements at the church and asked my MIL to help. Well it was years before I heard the end of how disorganised and incompetent my mother was and how MIL had saved the day.
MIL did not speak to me once throughout the entire day, no comment on my dress, no welcome to the family, nothing. She did not attempt to introduce herself to my family and friends, there were about 100 people at this wedding and she spoke to maybe 4-5 people in total all of whom were in her immediate family. During the speeches she had arranged to have someone shove a Father Christmas hat on my head and on my husband’s head while he was talking as the wedding was the week before Christmas. Never mind it had taken 1 hour to do my hair that morning or that embarrassing the bride and groom in front of an entire roomful of people is very wrong. She sat with her two sisters in their own secluded area outside the main hall where the party was all night and didn’t dance or socialise, they all got drunk instead.
Similar things happened at other events large and small. I passed my driving test late in life and everyone sent a card with congratulation, except her. Throughout my first pregnancy she refused to discuss the anticipated baby or share in any excitement in case it died and she should be upset by that. She refused to hold the baby the first time she saw her, complaining how tired and stressed she was from having to drive all the way to see her! Actually refused to hold her first grandchild in order to keep the attention on her not the baby. Mind boggling.
Birthdays and christenings follow the same pattern, she arrived at her granddaughter’s second birthday with a folder full of printed out lists of my husband’s old toys, books and possessions and proceeded to talk him through the list for twenty minutes, ignoring the toddler who’s birthday it was while my parents and siblings sat open mouthed in disbelief. She didn’t even bother to turn up to the second child’s christening and left everyone wondering if she had been injured in an accident throughout the church service. No she was sat in a carpark and decided being in the same room as her ex was too much. This is the mild-mannered, introverted academic she verbally and emotionally abused for years before leaving him. She didn’t call, didn’t text, just screwed up the child’s christening gift and shoved it through our letter box. She then concocted a lie about how it was the fault of the clock in her car telling her the wrong time before weeks later admitting she did it to avoid my FIL.
All these behaviours point towards two things I think. First my MIL seems to want to downplay any attention other people may get by ignoring or minimising another person’s legitimate right to attention around special days and events. She does this by pretending it’s not happening or by ignoring the person on the day. Secondly she creates dramatic and sympathy-seeking situations on other people’s big days to make sure she gets a lot of attention instead. Sometimes her drama is around taking control of things and insisting they be done her way creating friction so she can get attention from disputes, sometimes she plays oh-poor-me, sometimes she deliberately times things to coincide with important days.
A good example of the last case was the night before my first child started school, my husband had a big job interview and I was due back to work for the first time after our second child was born. It was going to be a really stressful few days with a lot of getting used to new routines. She knew this as she had spoken with my husband several times over the proceeding fortnight. The night before she rang up to say she was being wheeled into an operating theatre to have surgery on her ankle which she had broken two weeks before and had said nothing about it until that precise moment. For absolute maximum effect all round.
Why do narcissistic people play these games?
A therapist explained it to me once as a form of need panic. Imagine you feel a bit peckish and go to see what might be available in the fridge for later. The fridge however has nothing but a wilted lettuce leaf and a hard lump of cheese. At this point some people suddenly feel even more hungry. The lack of food, even though they don’t need it right then, sparks concern and a desire to get the food straight away in case it’s not there when you do really need it. Narcissists have a need for emotional feeding, their narcissistic supply which is as ferocious inside them as hunger is to a normal person. And just like hunger it crops up several times a day, all day, everyday. People who are extremely narcissistic need almost every single encounter they have with another person to go their way, they are addicted to the supply of attention and approval.
For a long time I underestimated quite how strong the narcissists need for supply actually is. They not only need it right here, right now but they panic if they anticipate that the need may not be met in the future due to some circumstance like another person’s wedding or birthday. That’s why these events result in worse than normal behaviour from NPD MIL. What seems to go through their head is “but what about me? what about MEEEE!!! I need you to notice me not be distracted by THAT!”. They even get angry if they hear you talking about the event that is not all about them.
The closest I have come to understanding it was watching my 4 year old daughter have a bit of a meltdown and refuse to take part in party games at her older sister’s birthday. All the attention on the other sibling, her friends round for tea, lots of gifts got too much and the little sister burst into tears and flopped down in a corner. That is age appropriate behaviour for a 4 year old but my MIL is in her 70s! But that’s what it is, a need panic tantrum.
How to manage events and limit hijacking
This is what I have learned from dealing with my MIL. Firstly you have to anticipate the reaction. She absolutely will have a problem if anyone is hosting a big event and the more people who will be there or the more significant it is the worse she will be.
I have sat down and brainstormed every way she could cause a problem and then put in place some strategy to deal with it. For example
- MIL doesn’t show up when she has RSVP’d to say she would – one phone call and one text message at the start of the event to check if everything is OK. After that another person (family member) not one of those taking part in the main event calls later at a convenient time. If we get no reply then we leave a message saying the police will be contacted to check she isn’t lying in a hospital and then we leave it.
- MIL arrives but diverts proceedings and inserts some urgent topic (could be her holiday pictures at a child’s party or whatever) – this is shut down with “not right now, today is about … we’ll discuss that later” and we move on ignoring any subsequent attempts to engage with her.
- MIL creates a health or emotional crisis the morning or event (or night before) – the event goes ahead, unless she has actually had a heart attack, we do not let her drama scupper things. We identify a more suitable family member she can offload on and make it clear that we will be proceeding as planned and our attention will be on the event and the guests.
- MIL causes problems during an event – we have briefed a family member or friend on how difficult she can be and enlist their help in literally steering MIL away from the main event and it’s participants if necessary, “why don’t I see if I can deal with that MIL…” etc or your can respond with “I can’t help you right now, I have guests to see to” which is honest and reasonable. She’s an adult and should be taking care of herself.
- MIL attempts to organise the event herself – oh no, that’s where boundaries come in. You can throw her a bone if you like, something unimportant that she can sort out to feel special but if it’s your event, you have the say on how everything goes. If you are accepting her money to pay for the event then you need to make clear from the start what exactly she expects in return and that YOU expect to have control over your event even if she offers to pay for it. If you ask for her money then you may have to go along with some of her ideas if they are reasonable and fit with your general intentions. But let’s be clear, she offers money to pay for YOUR wedding or whatever she does so voluntarily as a gift. In no way does this oblige you to do it her way, it is YOUR wedding and she knows that.
- MIL ignores an important event – if it is to your face, so to speak, like refusing to hold her grandchild then she can be called out on the spot, “you seem to be ignoring ….. that is not appropriate given the circumstances mother/MIL, something important/special is happening here”. If they ignore by refusing to talk about it or send congratulations or a card then that can be dealt with in a conversation or message, “I noticed you didn’t acknowledge…. that made people feel…. . We will be talking about the birth/graduation/promotion again and would appreciate if you could join in as part of the family”.
Underpinning all responses to an attempted hijack is the medium chill setting on how to respond to MIL. Medium chill is when you keep a clear emotional distance from MIL, having little or no expectations of a sympathetic response from her and choosing to keep your own emotions well out of the way, keeping conversation very superficial. I have learned that if I expect her to act up, anticipate and discuss her likely behaviours beforehand and then remain emotionally aloof from her nonsense on the day that it doesn’t anger and distress me like it once did. She really is like a toddler having a hissy fit.
It took quite sometime to make the shift in thinking to this new place. Before I felt hurt, sometimes really personally, deeply hurt that she behaved so callously on days which were very important to me. I did think she was doing it with the intention of conveying her contempt for me personally. It re-opened a long held emotional wound about having my needs and emotions ignored by people, my family of origin. Only by realising how she was triggering old patterns in me and seeing how very immature and needy her behaviour is did I manage to take back the power I was passing to her in these situations. Now I just roll my eyes and pretty much ignore her antics.
So in summary I anticipate and plan for her actions just like I might arrange for my small child’s best friend to come along to her older sister’s birthday or have Granny or a fun uncle on hand to distract her with some one to one attention. I wouldn’t let a child’s tantrum disrupt a party and we can benefit from viewing MIL in the same way.