Category Archives: strategies for managing NPD MIL

Event Hijacking

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Grandparent Grooming 2 – how to fight it

(Part 2 of a two part post on the psychological grooming of children by a narcissistic grandmother.)

If you are having problems with a narcissistic grandmother wheedling her insidious way into your child’s affections you need to not just understand how it is happening but what to do to counteract it. The fight back begins not by pointing the finger at your messed up mother-in-law but by taking a look at the climate she has created around the child, in the family as a whole. What has been done that has allowed this to occur? Tackle this and she is powerless forever.

So what has happened to create this grooming situation between NPD MIL and your child? I found this snippet on a online message board for people with PTSD resulting from abuse. The writer refers to an Oprah Winfrey episode where Oprah talks to child abusers in a recovery program about how they groomed kids.

“The perps identify these [the easily groomed] as people who trust easily (give it straight away rather than someone earning it – like a small child does naturally/healthily) and people who have had questionable models of ‘to what extent an individual is responsible for their own behaviour’…

…The molesters talk about recognising as molesters that kids who are in a family where denial is a central approach to issues display the type of neglect that makes the child especially vulnerable to abuse.”

Just to clarify the main points: the victims trust easily (they are not equipped to spot and call out untrustworthy or abusive behaviour in people), they have been exposed to people who do not and are not made to take responsibility for their actions and their family operates a pattern of denial of problems rather than openly discussing them.

This triad of features which increase vulnerability to grooming and abuse are all found in families with narcissists. Even the adult children of narcissists are crap at identifying unhealthy behaviour in others. That internal barometer which allows us all to gauge the appropriateness of someone’s behaviour has been meddled with if your mum is a narcissist. The adult child of a NPD MIL will see abusive and untrustworthy behaviour as normal. They do not get red flags flying up in their faces the same way that an adult with a healthy mum would. They can pass this unnatural leniency onto their kids. If dad or mum accept grandma being rude, obnoxious and needy then the kids will grow up seeing that as normal and not the warning signs of a jerk. This leads to condition 1

1: The kids are vulnerable to grooming if they don’t recognise poor/abusive/controlling/manipulative behaviour.

All narcissists refuse to take responsibility for their actions, they blame everyone else because their mental model cannot encompass the possibility of them being flawed. If they act badly it is always because someone else made them and it wasn’t their fault. If mum or dad doesn’t challenge this or worse, reproduces this behaviour in the home the kids will not have a good idea of when people are responsible for their actions (i.e. all the time!) Instead they will think bad behaviour can be excused and explained away by saying someone else provoked it and thus we get condition 2

2: Kids are vulnerable to grooming if they can be persuaded that they caused or encouraged the behaviour by an adult who won’t take responsibility.

Finally there exists the blanket of denial in narcissistic families. I’ve talked about this before in an blog post. Denial that the grandmother has a problem is very common in narcissistic families. Refusing to question or challenge her behaviour is denial, accepting her interpretation of situations and siding with her is denial, refusing to consider that her behaviour is hurting people or damaging is denial. You get the idea. Denial is rampant because without it she could not continue to operate. If everyone saw her behaviour for what it is, talked about it and the hurt it causes openly and held her fully accountable she wouldn’t have a hold on anyone. So lastly the third condition for grooming can be met in a narcissistic family,

3: Kids are vulnerable to grooming if they live in a family where weird, shitty behaviour is never acknowledged and everyone continues to act as if nothing happened and no one talks about how much it hurts.

Grasping the three conditions that make a child vulnerable to this manipulation is the key to preventing and undoing grooming:

1) teach the child that trust is earned and what trustworthy behaviour looks like (i.e. NOT grooming, secret keeping, threats, manipulation etc)

2) teach the child that everyone is responsible for their own actions (no one “makes” another person do or feel anything)

3) confront as a family the blanket of denial (not talking about it, not even admitting it) around the dysfunctional behaviour of their grandparent.

If this is done there is no way granny can weave her web around a child. It is all out in the open and discussed, healthy behaviour is understood and modelled and thus the grandparents unhealthy actions become obvious, even to a child.

Tackling the triad of grooming vulnerability

The reason small children automatically trust others is because they lack a full theory of mind. They project outwards onto others the motivations and interpretations they feel themselves and assume everyone else must be like that too. Thus if they are not able to think of acting deviously or selfishly then they will not be able to conceive of it in others. It is no coincidence that children start manipulating their parents at the same time as they develop the cognitive ability to see others and their feelings as separate. Grandma unfortunately never developed much beyond that point! A child cannot fully grasp how manipulative and devious another person can be until adolescence.

How do you tackle a child’s natural and healthy trust in others? There are books you can buy (on Amazon etc) which talk about the possibilities that others do not always mean well, “Not Everyone is Nice: Helping Children Learn Caution With Strangers” by Frederick Alimonti and Ann Tedesco is a good example. The child in the book is being spoken to by a stranger who offers her sweets and a ride home when her mum spots it and intervenes just in time. Then the family get home and look through an animal picture book and talk about how some creatures look nice, but are dangerous or poisonous and so some people can seem nice but not be.  That is your starting point. If you suspect grandma has been doing certain things like gossiping or secret keeping with the child bring that up in the conversation as an example without naming her. Does the child think that is nice? Is it trustworthy?

Now you have their attention start to discuss the differences between doing something genuinely nice and doing a nice thing in order to win affections. Children understand this if you use friendship groups as an example. Can a mean kid win friends by handing out sweets? Can a new girl act friendly towards someone but then start turning them against their old friends? What about new neighbours, are they asking you round for drinks to be nice, or just so they can borrow your lawnmower? What about arguments between cousins or aunties where people try to win allies by being “nice” to others? They need to see that anyone can behave that way in any number of situations. You need to say you are worried this may be happening in your family.  It may be that NPD grandma is not trying to divide and conquer but is overly enmeshed with the grandchild. Then the conversation needs to be around what is reasonable contact with a grandparent.

Traditional fairy stories like the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson provide ample examples of poor decisions by parents and grandparents to start a conversation. Hansel and Gretel for example, seemingly nice old lady rescues children from weak father and evil stepmother. But she has an evil plan, to eat them. Clever children spot it and escape, father rebuilds his relationship with them. It’s a bit too much like a NPD grandmother treating and buying her grandkids affections isn’t it? These sorts of stories can start a conversation on who is responsible for what. Is the weak father responsible for leaving the children in the forest or did his new wife “make” him do it? Did the children deserve to be eaten for scoffing some of the gingerbread house?

Teaching children responsibility goes way beyond talking about stories and their relationship with grandma. The clear allocation of responsibility needs to be there in all sorts of ways. It is so easy to say “Little Johnny stop winding your brother up, if he thumps you it’ll be your fault” . Been there, said that. But that’s wrong, no one is making Little Johnny thump his brother, he can always walk away. Responsibility for actions needs to be modelled every day in the family. Dad can’t accuse the kids of making him loose his temper. It is so easy to fall into that way of speaking, especially in a family with a narcissist. Be on your guard for this sort of thing and call it out when you hear it. Correct yourself in front of the kids if necessary and they will follow your lead.

Another useful book is “The Huge Bag of Worries” by Virginia Ironside where a kindly lady helps a young girl unpack all the worries she is feeling and lugging around in a huge bag. Grandma’s behaviour and your reactions to it may well be causing worries in your child and this can then be talked about. You can get packs of feelings cards with different faces and characters on them which always get my kids talking about how they feel in different situations. If your child is upset about not seeing granny so much you need to work through a conversation where you ask and listen about why they feel that way. How do they feel, why do they feel it? What does granny do to make them feel good? Do they feel worried about granny if so why? How do they feel about mum and dad, why? Do they think mum and dad have been/are being mean to granny?

Once the child has been listened to and you have asked questions which probe around the topic of what has been going on with granny etc you need to explain what you are doing by setting new ground rules around contact with MIL. Explaining to your child is respectful, it will help heal any division your MIL has been creating. You do not have to explain to MIL. You are not asking for the child’s agreement either. Children feel most secure when the adults caring for them have firm and fair expectations which are reinforced reasonably. You are their rock. A dithery, indecisive parent who backs down or backs away from setting rules and expectations with anyone unsettles children and leaves room for a stronger willed person to step in and take over; cue the NPD MIL.

To explain what you are doing and why, you need to explain that their grandmother doesn’t behave normally. This strips the last layer of vulnerability away, the denial of the problem. What can you say? Some people are treated badly as children, some people don’t grow up like others, as a result they don’t know how to be understanding and kind. They don’t seem different on the outside but inside they think very differently. This shows in how they act. They treat people like toys. They can be very attentive and affectionate like a child with a brand new toy they won’t let go of, but this is not love this is excitement at having a thing to play with. They don’t ask the toy what they want, toys can’t think. They don’t ask or much care about what people want as they don’t believe other people really have proper feeling or thoughts either. Just like a spoilt child gets tired of toys and throws them away these people will end up using and badly hurting anyone who trusts them. Grandma has this problem. You want to keep the child safe from hurt in the future even though grandma seems fun now. She has hurt many other people in the past (give examples). You don’t trust her and you keep her at arms length (describe low contact, medium chill or whatever you do) so you need to protect the child until they are old enough to see the behaviour and protect themselves. Grandma will always be this way, it cannot get fixed. Part of the problem is that she believes she is always right. She is not a safe person. She is like the old woman in Hansel and Gretel. Don’t eat the gingerbread.

If your spouse is not in agreement that their mother’s behaviour is that much of a problem do all of this anyway. You are allowed to have a different view and they are your kids too. Your first responsibility is to their safety not to uphold your spouses’ family’s world view. This is hard, I know that. Divided loyalties are horrible and conflicting. Your spouse does not see the situation clearly and you don’t wish to hurt them and cause strife, but here is an opportunity to model taking responsibility. Your spouse cannot make you stay silent on this, you choose to. If you are concerned about your children being brainwashed by your MIL you need to take action. Hansel and Gretel would not have ended up at the wicked witch’s cottage is their parent hadn’t left them alone in the forest in the first place. Don’t be that parent.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, Manipulations, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Infantilization

The last post covered a type of behaviour where the narcissistic MIL uses her relationship with her adult children to get her core emotional needs met. This parentifying is a natural result of the NPD MIL’s perception of her children as extensions of her will, there to do what she wants, not as separate to herself and free to do what they wish. In order for parentifying, or any other dynamic where the children provide for the mother, to exist the children must be controlled and conditioned in ways that motivate them to continue going along with it. One way this happens is by infantilising the adult child, your spouse. It creates dependency in the adult child by treating them as if they lack the emotional and practical skills necessary in adulthood while dismissing any signs of their maturity. It is a form of brainwashing and as such is abusive.

What is Infantilisation?

Unlike passive-aggressive behaviour or dysfunctional communication which is something your personality disordered MIL can do in any situation with anyone; infantilization is the deliberate collusion between MIL and your spouse to treat them as much younger than their age. It is an interaction that exists between two people, the MIL and your spouse.

Our family of origin is a blind spot in all of us until we reach adulthood and start to see our relationships with our parents from a more detached perspective. Part of adolescence is to separate from the family of origin. To leave behind the roles you played in it and the habits there formed and forge your own independent identity.

If your family of origin is dysfunctional or abusive in some way then it is often difficult to go through this process of separation and independence. There are a few reasons for this. Each family member is under a large degree of emotional control and conditioning to accept the family situation as normal and allow the abusive parent to continue the abuse. Keeping the family secret and accepting the family way of behaving takes precedence over normal growth and development, even if this harms the children. The children raised in a family with a narcissist are not encouraged to separate and become independent, they may not go through the usual teenage rebellion against their parents values. On the contrary they are encouraged, bullied and coerced into being dependent. As far as a narcissist is concerned they exist for the narcissist’s benefit. Something small children do is hero worship their parents. As you grow you are more able to see your parents’ flaws and faults and their sacrifices and admirable traits also, they become human not heroes. This is an appalling prospect to a narcissist.

Narcissistic mothers infantilize their adult children in order to control them. This ensures they maintain a supply of people willing to do whatever they want and mollifies their of fear of abandonment by keeping their children dependent. Infantilization can happen even  out of rivalry with the children who are kept enmeshed so they can’t achieve more than she did.

Part and parcel of keeping the children trapped in the web of the narcissists making is to feed them the idea that they really can’t cope on their own, that they are weaker, less mature and capable than they really are. This can be done directly by actually telling them that or indirectly through actions, body language, tone of voice and what is not said or done.

My MIL manages to convey through her actions and the way she relates to her adult children that she still sees and views them as her little kids, not her now adult offspring. Most adults I know call their parents mum or dad, she insists on being called mummy, and refers to herself as mummy in emails or on birthday cards. Mummy is a term used by small children.

She constantly refers to things from my husband’s childhood in a way that makes it still present, for example she kept, boxed and categorised in a folder (I’m not kidding) all his old toys and rarely fails to mention how she has some Lego, cars or train sets of his and what does he want to do with them. She sends him old childhood memorabilia in the post, an old comic, a picture. Childhood pets are brought into the most inappropriate conversations and what she sees as humorous incidents that invariable have my husband or his sister acting in a particularly silly or childish way, she tilts her head and smiles at them indulgently as if they were still those children. She calls her daughter by a baby pet name that no one else uses. She calls my husband “my big boy” and practically pinches him on the cheek, bleugh. He is thirty eight for goodness sake.

If the adult children mention a problem or mistake they are dealing with she uses the exact same voice you would use to speak to a toddler when picking them up off the floor, all exaggerated sympathy concealing a core of parental disapproval. She takes what was an adult-adult interaction and twists it over and over again into parent-child. She even had my husband’s birth certificate, which you need in the UK to get your passport and various other official documents, in safe keeping until he was thirty six years old and then presented it to him in an over the top manner, presumably as she now thought he was just about old enough to have it himself. He took it rather bemusedly wondering why on Earth she was making such a big fuss of it. In contrast, I’ve had my birth certificate since I was a teenager.

Transactions and Your Spouses Role

So that is her behaviour, but what about the spouse? Well for this to work at all, they have to play along. It is a trap and it keeps them under her control. Both my husband and his sister went along with calling her mummy until I pointed this out, at which point my husband did a double take, thought about it and stopped. Hallelujah! She constantly tried to rescue him from completely normal incidents, which conveys the message that she doesn’t think he can cope and he would accept her help and the implied comment on his capabilities. Now he doesn’t. Such over-involved and unnecessary parental rescuing is rejected and batted back, as it should be.

For example, he is looking for tenure at a university, a process which involves many, many applications for funding and positions most of which are rejected. After such a rejection she delivered a completely over the top reaction. She was so sorry and how dreadful it must be and he was so clever and how hard it was. Were our kids being extra good to make it all easier for him? Then followed up with an email where she had searched and found cheap holiday accommodation in a town near her by the sea as a trip to the seaside would make him feel better and she would love to see us. You would think someone had died. What made it even stranger was that she only did this for that one, not particularly special rejection; he had had a load more that elicited no comment at all. Clearly she needed to play “good mummy” at that point for her own egotistical reasons.

Something my husband works hard at is being assertive with her as he has a tendency to revert to an automatic childlike demeanour when in her presence. He would not hold my hand or show a natural level of physical affection, not even touching my arm, around her.  He would sit slightly hunched over, taking up little space and his voice even took on a higher pitch when talking to her, even on the phone. We half jokingly invented a “man-pose” where he would stand with his feet apart, chest out, arms on his hips when talking to his mother on the phone to counteract that. I can tell whether he is talking to on the phone purely from his manner. He hates the way she makes him feel.

The best and most robust response to infantilization is to continually rebuff all attempts to turn the interaction into parent-to-child and respond over and over again as adult-to-adult. This requires a combination of assertiveness (and you can be trained in that) and an understanding of transactional analysis or TA.

TA is a way of studying the interactions between people. It helps to identify the childhood scripts that are being played out in relationships, family or otherwise, and the recognition that complementary communications are the most effective, that is when people relate in a matched way, adult to adult or an actual child to their actual parent. The narcissistic mother sets up transactions with her children that never move out of parent to child. Break out of the ingrained way of responding to her and you open up a whole world of more assertive and more adult behaviours.

The problem with NPD MIL is that even if you phrase a transaction in an adult way she will respond parent to child. This is an example of what the founder of TA Eric Berne called crossed transactions. He wrote a seminal book called “The Games People Play” all about crossed transactions and messages that have one overt meaning but another covert one. Another good reference on this whole subject is the book “Peoplemaking” by Virginia Satir a renowned family therapist. Understanding the way the NPD MIL communicates with your partner, and in turn with you, goes a long way towards breaking the pattern.

She will protest. No change in your spouse’s interaction with their mother will occur with any willingness on her part. She may ramp up the infantilizing behaviours to see if your spouse will crack, she may get sulky that they won’t play along, she may ridicule it saying things like “ooh, your being very serious darling” with an exaggerated pout, or “if you say so dear” which is just so patronising. Do not respond or let your spouse respond, to do so would be to fall into the child role again.

Insisting that conversation by kept at an appropriate adult-adult level is a boundary worth considering. You can withdraw from any conversation where someone persists in treating you as if you are a child.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, Manipulations, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Low Contact or No Contact?

The crucial consideration in how to manage a narcissistic MIL is whether to limit your contact with her and by how much. I am not going to pretend to you that I think there is any way of dealing with a MIL from Hell other than drastically reducing her presence in your life. Reducing contact to the minimum that you and your spouse are comfortable with is what is required to stay sane.

The two of you do not have to agree on the same level of contact. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you have to do everything together. If you or they want less, respect that and work around it. One person can see them by themselves if they wish. You might think that it is the in-law who wishes the least contact but that is not always the case. I have heard of couples where the spouse wants no contact but the in-law keeps in touch and visits with the grandchildren. There is no universally correct way of handling the situation, you and your spouse will have to work that out between you.

Let’s look at what options are available in terms of contact and how to implement them. There is some jargon here I’d like to introduce you to; medium chill, low contact and no contact. Each term describes a different level of contact from the most to the least.

Medium chill sounds like a setting you might find on your fridge but it is about establishing an emotional coolness and detachment with regard to your disordered MIL. Forget emotional intimacy, you are cool, limited in your conversational content, setting clear limits to what will be discussed. You discuss nothing with her of any significance to you or your family. They are handled with a wall of small trivia, bland sentiment and neutral statements. Visits are arranged to suit you, best to organise them on your own or neutral territory not at her house and to set a clear time limit for each encounter. You have determined your family boundaries regarding her behaviour and are both prepared to enforce them.

An example of medium chill is my response to my MIL’s enquiries about my family. My brother went through a hard time, he split up with his long time partner, it was very messy involving various personal, money and property issues. He became quite seriously depressed and moved in with our parents to recover. I never, ever mentioned what had happened or why he was living back at home to MIL. If she asked how he was I made some bland comment along the lines of “fine thanks, getting on with things” and moved the conversation on or simply turned away from her. It was a dead end. This is medium chill. It is not rude or ignoring someone, it is simply keeping the MIL in a box and not letting her get out.

Medium chill doesn’t necessarily limit the number of contacts you have with MIL. She can still phone, email, send letters, come and visit or whatever. It is more to do with your mental approach to her contact. Like all managed forms of contact it is important that you are ruthlessly consistent in treating her this way.

Low contact is different in that this does include a limit on the frequency and type of contact you have with your MIL. Low means just a few, 3 or 4 visits a year. It also means deciding not to answer every call, reply to every email or as I did requesting that she not email or write at all. My MIL does email and write to my husband. She doesn’t have my email address and I have never responded to the few times she has texted me, I did not give her my phone number so I am not sure how she got it. These are my limits.

We are in a state of low contact with my MIL at the moment. The children and my husband see her maybe three times a year, me probably only once as I don’t go to meet her, I only see her if she visits our house. These visits coincide with special occasions like Christmas or birthdays. This contrasts with the situation when our first child was born where my MIL would visit every fortnight despite living three hours drive away. Infrequent visits also have the advantage of storing up lots of unimportant family news which can then fill the conversation until its time for her to leave. Low contact also encompasses medium chill in that when I do have to spend time in her company I keep it cool.

My husband continues to have contact with her via phone and email. Sometimes this happens several times a week. She goes through periods of having a lot of contact with my husband, usually because she needs something. Then we hear nothing for several weeks. We have caller ID on the house phone and mobile so we can choose not to pick up if we don’t want to have to deal with her. My husband often just scans her emails for anything troublesome then ignores them.

Low contact allows the disordered person some contact with their child and grandchildren, keeping them included in family life but in a way that is set by us. My intention when dealing with my MIL is not to use contact with her son and grandchildren as a way of punishing or rewarding her. It was a philosophical/moral decision that we would enable her to have a relationship as best as she could manage with her granddaughters. It is not her fault that she has this difficult behaviour although she does have some control over it. Provided her behaviour stayed within our boundaries we would manage it so that she could see her grandchildren while not causing grief to us both when she attended family events.

No Contact. Some people with NPD are just vile all the time, the drip, drip of poisonous contact with a MIL becomes so demoralising that one or both partners in the marriage decides enough is enough. Occasionally the disordered person does one spectacularly awful thing so that halting all contact is sudden and decisive. This is the often, sometimes unconscious, wish of the spouse in denial. They hope for a sudden coup de grace that makes the difficult decision for them. This rarely happens and it is easy to back track on a decision to have no contact after a one-off event, rather like storming away from a lover after a huge row, you can always decide to kiss and make up later and blame it on the heat of the moment.

A more objective and rational decision is to sit back and weigh up the long term effect of continued contact with someone who despite your best efforts at managing her is still causing problems and strife. This may lead everyone to conclude that just cutting the person off is the best approach. This is also a hard thing to do. It seems callous and ruthless. It is the point where you emotionally are so worn down and disgusted by the constant abusive behaviour you can’t take anymore.

Sometimes no contact is used for a limited time to give everyone a break. We have used it in this fashion after my husband first confronted his mother about her behaviour. She followed up his conversation with weeks of emails and phone calls, increasingly dramatic and self pitying, even at one point writing vaguely threatening sentences in white font at the end of emails. So he said no contact for a month – a cooling off period. It had the desired effect in that it brought the emotional temperature right down.

Permanent no contact is a serious undertaking. For it to work effectively it really means no contact under any circumstances; it is like declaring “you are dead to me”. Dead.

No contact means no phone calls, texts, emails, parcels, presents, messages through third parties, no chat, no gossip from anyone, no news passed on, no casual enquiries, no invitations, no response to hearing they are sad, hospitalised or dead. Anything other than this is a variant of low contact and will always mean the door is left open for further and fuller involvement with them. No contact is not for wimps.

You do not have to inform someone that you are cutting them off although some people do and use this as an opportunity to express how hurt they have been by their parent’s behaviour. Some people return any letters or parcels but no contact purists would argue by returning them you are in fact having contact, binning them is better. In almost every circumstance you will be contacted by a third party trying to “find out what happened” or pass on how upset the MIL is. This is called rather prosaically an attack of the flying monkeys.

In the classic film version of the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch sends her troop of flying monkeys to capture Dorothy, the monkeys go off and do her bidding and her dirty work. Be warned the monkeys will come. You will need to be ready to ignore them too, they may well be close family and this can create strife that spreads beyond your relationship with your MIL. Like I said, no contact is not for wimps.

So there you have a range of options to consider. You do not have to let your mother in law have unfettered access to you, your children, your house, your time, energy or emotions. You decide what if anything you are comfortable with. Your spouse can decide for themselves and together you can consider the contact you feel is appropriate with your children. With good boundaries in place your MIL can be managed so her impact on your life is reduced to that of mild irritation rather than crazy, out of control abuse.

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Filed under Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL, Uncategorized

Managing a Narcissistic Grandmother

OK so how do you manage the minefield that is grandchildren interacting with a personality-disordered grandmother? You do need to manage it. You need to recognise that this woman is not normal and you can’t treat her as a normal grandparent. While her behaviour will not be as damaging to your grandchildren as it was to her own children it can cause harm.

Favouritism between siblings must be dealt with firmly. We spelt out that if we thought one child was getting nicer, more expensive or more frequent presents than the other, all presents to everyone ourselves included would be rejected. Equal treatment or no treatment. We would stand together as a family. As my MIL uses gifts as a way of trying to control people or convey messages of worth rejecting all her gifts would be a real kick in the teeth. So she has a choice, not display favouritism through gifts or loose out on being able to manipulate anyone with gifts forever. So far she has chosen to keep gifts to equal value for both children.

Not all favouritism is that obvious however. At Easter an arrangement was made for MIL to meet my husband and daughters in a city half way between our two hometowns. The eldest child became ill and was on antibiotics so plans changed and my husband said he’d just bring the youngest, less favoured child. MIL cancelled the visit. She then proceeded to do a classic bit of psychological projection and attributed all her thoughts to the eldest child, “she will be feeling upset, she will want to see me, it will disappoint her” etc. At no point in any of the conversations around this matter did she mention the younger child, it was as if her other grandchild didn’t exist.

Now my MIL is slippery, she would argue that by cancelling the visit because she couldn’t see the eldest, favoured grandchild she was in fact treating both children equally. So you need to be clever too. Cancelling the trip doesn’t bother me, what bothered me was how she made no reference to the other child at all. That is where the unequal treatment is evident so this is what should be tackled. “We feel upset that you have made no mention of youngest daughter and what she may want in this conversation. Someone listening to this would think you had only one grandchild. Both our children deserve equal recognition”. Equal treatment and equal recognition, you can’t argue with that.

What you do if this request is not complied with to your standards is up to you but there needs to be something done. Not reacting to an infringement of your boundaries is tantamount to not having any in the first place. Shut down any conversation by saying “I’m going to hang up because…” or “I am not continuing this conversation because…” where there continues to be a problem with the way one child is talked about or ignored. There will be some times when one child has won a prize or been in a show when they do warrant some extra recognition but within reason. If MIL is constantly harping on about one child’s achievements spell it out, “goodness you are going on a bit, she’s not won an Oscar”. She will be huffy about that sort of comment, but so what.

The same applies to any manipulation and emotional abuse that you witness, it must not be tolerated, “do not manipulate my child”, “do not criticise my child” call it out and name the behaviour. Your child needs to see you standing up for them. If MIL cannot take the message then she is ejected from your house or you leave hers.

At this point I want to briefly talk about “making a scene” as my mother would phrase it. This was generally regarded as bad thing in our house when I grew up. Now there are several reasons for that, a big factor being that my mother was an immigrant. They were poor, Irish and regarded as second-class citizens in the UK when they arrived. It was important to them, as it is to many immigrant families, to keep their heads down, work hard, not get into debt and generally be accepted in their community. Hence not wanting to “make a scene”.

Many people are brought up believing the best thing to do in a situation is maintain a calm and pleasant manner. This is especially true of women who are still not encouraged to be ballsy and assertive. I remember reading a survey which revealed that most women would stay in a train carriage seated next to a man who was creeping them out rather than get up and move and be thought of as rude. Oh boy. When the majority of women would compromise their own personal safety in order to keep up appearances you can see how many of us just sit and wince but still just sit, while MIL does nasty things to the kids.

For goodness sake stop doing it. Move away from the creepy man in the train, who bloody cares if it looks rude. Get some boundaries in place and stop tolerating your MIL. What is the worst thing she could do, the absolute worst thing, the thing that stops you acting, what is it? Could it be that you will cause such strife and upset with your MIL that your spouse will leave you? That your spouse won’t back you up and you’ll be left trying to stand your ground looking increasingly isolated and ridiculous? That they will assault you?

Will that happen, I mean really happen, if you say something like “we don’t speak to the children like that MIL, it is hurtful please apologise” and then “if you are unable to apologise we would rather you left and came back when you felt able to respect our families rules”? No. You will have been assertive while polite. If your spouse would rather allow the kids to be treated badly, do you really want to be with them? Should their own behaviour be looked at a bit more closely? Parenthood means protecting your children.

Which brings us nicely to babysitting. My rule is MIL is never left alone with the kids. You can decide your own but you need to spell out your expectations regarding her behaviour and your family rules regarding, food, manners, bedtimes etc and also be very clear on what you will do if these are not respected. Do you say no more babysitting or some other sanction?

What if you need the grandmother to babysit so that you can work? Think about it, do you really need someone with a personality disorder to babysit your child; is there no one else more suitable? You get to choose who looks after your children, that is not set by other family members. Any expectation that they will automatically get babysitting rights needs to be quashed early on. If you have not done this already then a simple statement that you have had a rethink regarding childcare and will be starting a different system is all you need to say. Remember don’t justify, argue, defend or explain you decisions, you are an adult and they are your kids.

If your spouse is in denial they may feel their mother has a right to babysit and compare your views on your MIL babysitting with your attitude towards your own parents babysitting. Why should it be one rule for your family and a different one for theirs? A fair question. Give them a straight answer, you don’t want MIL to babysit your child, explain why and insist on it. You don’t think their mother is normal, she is not emotionally safe to be around, you are not having it.

It may be necessary to spell out to your other half that they are not objective about their mother’s behaviour, that they are in denial. If you spouse gets cross, explain your feelings, calmly give examples, don’t get drawn into compromising. If this is a line in the sand for you tell your spouse that. Should you find yourself wavering then that says something about your and your spouse’s relationship. Where is the give and take? You should be able to assert a different opinion and they should be able to make a sacrifice over something that means that much to you. You in turn may need to sacrifice having your mother babysit to keep things fair in your spouse’s eyes, but so be it, hire someone instead.

How much time your children spend with their grandparents will depend upon how much time you and your partner wish to spend in her company. The amount of contact with a personality-disordered parent follows a predictable pattern. Initially no one accepts there is a problem and a high level of contact occurs, all birthdays, high days and holidays with weekend visits thrown in too. Then the problem starts to become more conscious in your and your spouse’s minds. Visits feel strained and fewer occur. Conversation becomes guarded; phone calls are not returned or ignored. Then a decision to lower the level of contact is made openly between the partners. Eventually a decision to cut off all contact may occur.

Denial of the problem leads to attempts to act normally or even try to use the grandchildren to build a bridge to the disordered grandmother. Increasing awareness of the damaging behaviours she exhibits leads to less contact and a conscious decision is made on the amount and type of contact with the MIL. This is inevitable and is the topic of the next post.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Narcissistic Grandmothers and Abusive Behaviour

Abusive behaviour towards children takes one of several forms; physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. It is very rare for a grandmother to sexually abuse her grandchildren. A narcissist is far more likely to be emotionally abusive or neglectful but physical abuse and cruelty can also occur.

I’ve described the tendency for NPD MILs to demonstrate favouritism towards their children and grandchildren. This is a form of emotional abuse. It compares and excludes and thus implies inferiority or flaw in the excluded. Such conditional affection is typical. Demonstrations of love by an NPD sufferer really depend on what you can do for them. Sadly they often decide that the best thing one grandchild or set of grandchildren can do is provide them with an archetypal “bad” family for them to dump all their negative emotions on. Psychologists call this splitting. The damaged personality of your MIL is unable to contain good and bad and all shades in between in their mind at once so all the good gets projected onto one child or grandchild and all the bad onto the other. That way they enact their own internal split between the false perfect self they display to the world and the deeper flawed self they are so disgusted and ashamed of.

If your spouse was the disfavoured child when small, seeing this repeated in their own children can be incredibly hurtful. It is baffling as it is wounding to see one new little helpless baby being ignored while the older child is doted on or vice versa. It can be just the smallest thing that triggers the rejection. In the case of our children the eldest had blonde hair and thus reminded MIL of herself and her own children, the youngest had brown hair when born and so looked like me and was rejected. There is always some justification in the MIL’s mind for the favouritism, the rejected child did something to deserve it.

Other emotionally abusive behaviours towards grandchildren include name calling including unkind nicknames, belittling, undermining, unfairly comparing siblings or cousins, criticism, mockery, withdrawing affection, sulking, passive-aggressive acts like “forgetting” a birthday, withholding praise or compliments, denigrating parents or friends.

I think one of the most insidious things a MIL can do is undermine parental authority thus creating confusion in the child’s mind as to how their parents’ rules should be viewed. Narcissists think they know best and my MIL positively enjoys feeling she has got one over on an authority of some kind. Combine these two and you can see how she is never going to accept our parental authority over our children. If you say bed at 7pm and grandma who is babysitting cheekily ignores this, whispers to the child how this is their little secret and sends them to bed at 8.30pm you have one confused, guilty and manipulated child.

Any conversation with a relative where a child is pressed to keep a secret is abusive in my opinion. I try to use the word surprise rather than secret when talking about birthday presents or plans. A surprise is something that is kept quiet for a while before being revealed, a secret is something you never tell to anyone. Children should not be asked to keep secrets from their parents by anyone. This interaction is abusive. By taking a child into their confidence an NPD MIL elevates them to equal status, something that should not happen because they are not intellectually or emotionally the equal of an adult. Then using their status as an adult relative they coerce silence and cooperation. The only way people can or should keep a secret is if they are equals and they do so through mutual consent. Children cannot do this. If your child tells you “grandma says it’s a secret” or similar you need to take action. This is a red warning flag of further manipulation and emotional abuse.

Even normal conversation can result in the child being used as a go-between “Little Jenny, will Mummy let you have a biscuit?”, “Little Johnny wants to go to the park, don’t you?” as people with personality disorders struggle with direct communication. Watch closely how your NPD MIL phrases things, children can be made to feel they have to serve their grandmother’s needs, “Grandma is sad, give me a cuddle”, “I want to read you a story, come and sit with me”.  Manipulation at its heart is the use of covert ways to get someone to do something they would not have otherwise done. Some NPD MILs will goad a child into doing something wrong, “go on take the biscuit, no one is looking” a then go and tell on the child, watch them get told off and delight in rescuing the child from the nasty mum or dad who is disciplining them. They have little empathy and play with people creating discord and antagonism and they enjoy doing this.

My MIL views her grandchildren as treats to be wheeled out for her enjoyment. On one of her birthdays she wanted our two year old to be delivered to her to be taken out all day as MIL’s birthday treat. I said no. Children are not objects to be ordered like a new toy, played with then sent away when bored. They are little people. Narcissistic MILs will not appreciate this fact.

I have not experienced my MIL being physically abusive or hurting our children. She has done that to my husband under the guise of discipline by forcing him to eat pureed food from the meal before that he hadn’t finished, or “jokes” like spraying him with cold water from a hose repeatedly until he ran away down the street and also through outright neglect by leaving him unattended and uncovered on a beach for so long he had second degree sunburn. I can make sure this doesn’t happen, she does not have contact with our children without myself or my husband being there. She cannot slap, poke, pinch, shove or otherwise interfere with them under our noses.

The first and only time I left my MIL to babysit was in her own house with our then just two-year-old while my husband and I went to the movies. We arrived to stay for a few days and found the front room filled with dozens of toys, books, colouring pens, paper and thirteen jigsaw puzzles piled up in boxes on the floor. She didn’t think this was enough however and said she would go up into the loft and get yet more down. Now this was unnecessary and since our daughter had worked out how to climb up loft ladders we said we’d prefer if MIL didn’t do that. While we were out this instruction was ignored.

I have no idea what my very overweight and arthritic MIL did with our daughter while she waddled into the spare bedroom to set up the wobbly stepladder she uses to squeeze herself through the loft hatch. MIL’s house has never been childproofed with safety catches and poisons out the way, we arrived one day to find she had taken up the carpets and left all the carpet grip exposed for the baby to crawl over.  Our daughter was either left alone out of sight and sound of her grandmother who risked knocking the ladder away from the hatch, getting stuck or falling, or she took the toddler into the loft with her, despite being sufficiently incapacitated that she struggles to get herself up from the floor. All for some paltry, plastic toy. Both of these scenarios would have exposed our small child to a significant risk that MIL failed to recognise. If our childminder had done this while caring for our daughter I would have complained, I would never leave a friend’s child unattended out of sight and sound and go rummaging around in our loft if I were babysitting. Would you?

Then to run salt in the wound she bragged about having done this in a phone conversation with my mother. She bragged that my husband had been upset when he found out that she had done exactly what he advised her not to. It was funny to her and worthy of a boast to show how she wasn’t ordered around by anyone. My mother was sufficiently disturbed by this to ring me and ask if I knew that MIL had left our child unattended while supposedly babysitting.

Narcissists overestimate their capabilities and this includes their physical abilities. They think they can manage physical feats and take risks that you or I would think twice over. MIL has rung us to say how she has been up a ladder chopping trees with a chainsaw or walking along the sea wall while huge waves are crashing around her. She does not see herself as nearly seventy, obese and creaking at the seams. In her mind she is fit, strong, attractive and capable and how dare we suggest otherwise. Narcissists think they are omniscient so don’t need to be told to keep their eyes open for cars or dogs loose off their leads when out with small children, they just know, right? This is something that makes a narcissist dangerous when around children. They do not correctly assess their own capabilities, they think they know best and so they are poor at determining risk and acting sensibly to minimise that risk. I cannot trust MIL with our kids and she hasn’t babysat them again. She never will.

If you have an NPD MIL your children will be in a relationship with a woman who has a track record of harming people close to her. Just read that through again to make sure you have grasped the full importance of that sentence. Your MIL is a bitch and you know it. She will be a bitch to your kids, it is simply a matter of time. She will make them feel bad, she will manipulate them and she will do these things to you in front of them.

Unless you have some very firm boundaries in place they will see her do this and think that either it is OK to treat others that way or that the best way of dealing with hurtful behaviour is to meekly take it. Your reaction to her abusive behaviour potentially more damaging than the behaviour itself as your relationship to your kids is much closer. They will follow your example, not just with her but into all relationships with difficult people. This includes school bullies, boyfriends or girlfriends as teens, work colleagues, their boss, their spouse.

So how should you intervene to ensure as little harm as possible comes to your children if you decide it is worth them having contact with their grandmother? Managing the narcissistic grandmother is the topic of the next post.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Denial and your Spouse

Denial is not just failing to recognise something that others see, everybody has their blind spots. Denial is failing to acknowledge it even in the face of overwhelming evidence put right under your nose. Freud the father of psychoanalysis, first proposed denial as one of the primary defence mechanism of the psyche against thoughts, insight and feelings the conscious mind was unable or unwilling to accept.

My husband was in denial about his mother’s behaviour towards him and our family, now he is in denial about the full extent of it, preferring not to use terms like personality disorder but to say she is “difficult” instead. This demonstrates a truth about denial, it comes in various levels.

Outright factual denial takes the form of a refutation of a statement, “no I am not fat!”.  Minimization is the admission of the fact but in a way that rejects its seriousness, “yeah I like a drink, but I’ve got it under control”. Projection is a denial of responsibility by blaming someone else for behaviour, “she provoked me”.

Let me show you how this works with my husband and his denial about his mother’s behaviour. First off the outright denial of fact is not something that he does, partly because of the amnesia discussed above and partly because he is not a liar. But if I had challenged him a few years ago with a sentence such as “your mother is mentally ill, her behaviour towards us is very abnormal” I would have got an outright denial. She, on the other hand, will outright deny a statement or say something like “that isn’t the sort of thing I’d say” which has a high b******t factor, refuting it but without committing to a lie.

The second level of denial, minimisation, occurs all the time. He minimises all of her behaviour, offers excuses for it, reinterprets it into the best possible light and suggests I have somehow misunderstood it. You cannot misunderstand when you meet you husband’s mother for the first time and she totally ignores you, doesn’t shake your hand or say hello, turns her back and walks away with your partner. Ask him about this now and he doesn’t remember. At the time, after a whole day of her appallingly rude treatment, he laughed nervously and said she was just like that. Minimisation in action.

He also minimises the effect that her behaviour has on me and on our marriage. The only way to tackle this is to repeatedly and honestly tell your spouse how their mother’s behaviour makes you feel and show it. You actually need to cry, sound cross, gesticulate, sob, put your head in your hands and your heart on your sleeve. I also find referring back to her behaviour helps, “I won’t be doing that because last time your mother did this…and it made me feel…”. Confronting your spouse with a cause and effect consequence of your MIL’s actions is a powerful way to challenge minimisation. Statements along the lines of “this happened and it made me feel like this” cannot be argued with.

Projection, the last form of denial, is also a speciality of my husband’s. His mother acts like she does because her mother in turn was not nice to her. Rather than get angry with his mum, he feels angry with his grandmother. It is safer that way. Blaming another for his mother’s actions means not only does she get an excuse so she doesn’t have to change but he also doesn’t have to tackle her or her actions.

Which brings us nicely to why people experience denial at all. Some things are just too painful or potentially disruptive for the conscious mind to want to pay attention to it. Facing the facts would bring about a huge cognitive dissonance in the child of a narcissist. Our culture promotes the pervasive view of mothers as selfless, nurturing, loving people whom we all rely on as babies for our very survival, the mother as life giver and comforter, this collides head on with the stark reality that in fact your mother acts like a self absorbed bitch most of the time and appears not to give a damn about you. Faced with such a massive clash of belief with fact the adult child of your NPD MIL would experience a huge amount of stress and psychological discomfort.

The person will try to minimise the dissonance, and also to actively avoid information or situations that would increase it. So they choose to see the MIL as a good mum who is just misunderstood and put their fingers in their ears and chant “la la la I can’t hear you”.

I am slightly trivialising the issue here, it would be very painful and most likely trigger a grieving process even depression to realise your mother was incapable of loving you and all your interactions with her were on a selfish level. It would cut to the very core of a person’s belief in their own lovability and worth. To rebuild a secure sense of your self after such a realisation would take a long time and some serious therapy. You can understand why denial is such a strong feature in some spouses.

Denial is not always a maladaptive way of dealing with a situation. It is seen by psychologists as the first step in coping with information that provokes feelings and thoughts that are very distressing to the denier. In the short term it helps the denier cope with daily life and continue in the face of something that threatens their psychological or physical health or security. We are familiar with the shock and denial that are experienced by people who are faced with the sudden death of a loved one, “I can’t believe he’s dead, it’s a mistake”, “it’s not cancer, I want a second opinion”. The next steps beyond denial are anger, grief, despair, integration and acceptance of the facts and normal a person would cycle through those until a resolution with the difficult facts was reached.

In a family where the mother is behaving in a very damaging way denial of the problem becomes a way of life that allows everyone to continue acting as if they were a normal family. Your spouse was raised in that environment. To them denying that mum is messed up and cruel is second nature. Denial of the situation has stopped being a stage in the process of assimilating a difficult lesson and instead has become a way of life. It has a massive pay-off for the spouse, it allows them to love their mother and see themselves as loveable. To tackle denial you are going to have to be clever as it is a very stubborn psychological defence. The bottom line is that a person cannot be made to face up to a problem they are in denial about until they are ready.

Two things may trigger a person to come out of denial, one is a sudden crisis that shocks them into facing reality as it is rather than as they choose to interpret it, the other is a slower process where you confront someone repeatedly with hard evidence that contradicts their interpretation and also call out each time they use some argument or trick to try and divert you from your task. A psychotherapist would gently use the second method to tease out the emotions and thoughts that an individual is hiding behind the denial. How on Earth do you do it?

Firstly be aware of the methods your spouse uses to deny what you say to them. There are emotional ploys, logical tricks and rhetorical arguments that get pulled out of the bag when a person in denial is pushed to see what is really true about their situation. They may also get angry and very defensive so you need to be subtle and keep yourself calm. Do not attempt to tackle the entire thing in one go! Choose a specific thing and stick with it.

For example, maybe your MIL has made a catty remark to you. Raise it with your spouse, “your mother said…and it made me feel…” then confront any minimisation or denial, “oh she was just tired” gets challenged with “how do you know she was tired?”, “is it OK for me to speak to you like that when tired?” or “she didn’t mean it that way” is met with “how do you know that?”, “why is your interpretation better than mine?”, “are you the most objective assessor of your mother’s behaviour?”. Then leave it. You only have to do this a little bit at a time. What counts is that you do it repeatedly and in a calm and genuinely sympathetic way. Glaciers melt one drip at a time.

Set some boundaries around any denial conversations where you walk away if your spouse gets too angry, starts name calling or shouts at you. Respond to the logical, factual bits of what your partner says, don’t respond to the emotional content. I have actually replied to the line “she’s my mother!” with ” I am aware of your biological relationship but that doesn’t alter…”, she’s my mother is not a get out of jail free card. You could spell that out at the start of the conversation if you want.

I can recommend a good website http://onegoodmove.org/fallacy/howto.htm which summarises some common logical fallacies your spouse will no doubt make good use of if you confront their denial. These are an academic description of the ways everyone argues back when they are not trying to write philosophic essays for professors. Avoiding these fallacies is the goal of philosophical essays, the rest of us can be forgiven for using them in normal conversation. If you know what they are you can counter them.

Always be ready to acknowledge when they have a point, you too can be defensive and after years of putting up with MIL you probably do have some chips to get off your shoulder. The more calm and reasonable you sound the more weight your words will carry. It is all too easy to dismiss you as ranting or hysterical otherwise.

Finally don’t protect your spouse from the consequences of their denial. To do so is to be complicit in it and codependent in their abusive relationship with their mother. If they deny she is being a bitch and this makes you want to spend the weekend with your folks instead, go and stay with them. If denying she is a fussy eater means you serve up food you know she won’t eat so be it, then leave him to deal with the fallout. Don’t rescue them from the problems caused by their refusal to see reality as it is. Good luck.

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Filed under Denial, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL