Tag Archives: difficult people

Spouses and Family Roles

If you marry someone who’s mother is a narcissist you are marrying damaged goods. That is very hard to read I know, it was pretty damn hard to write. They can survive a childhood with a narcissistic mother quite well provided they have some other close family member like a father or grandparent to treat them normally. But the fact that their first human relationship, the one with their mother, was formed with someone who put themselves first will leave an indelible mark on their psyche.

There are a variety of ways in which a person can respond to growing up in a family with a narcissist. Following from the Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) movement, psychologists began to recognise similar traits in the children of very dysfunctional families even if alcoholism wasn’t an issue. The traits are given names by psychologists; the Scapegoat, the Rebel, the Hero, the Lost Child etc. They describe the ways in which a child can adapt to find space to survive in the relationship with their mother. In an alcoholic family often one child also develops addiction problems. Sadly in a narcissistic family it is not unusual for one child to develop the same personality disorder. Copying the disordered behaviour or adapting yourself quite profoundly to fit in with it are the options available. Neither option is healthy for the psyche of the child.

My husband took on the role of the Hero/Caretaker, his sister is a Lost Child. Their father took the role of family Scapegoat and was the one who was told he didn’t earn enough, was emotionally unstable, caused problems etc. He was very passive and retreated from confronting her giving her full reign over every facet of family life. Her moods dominated everything and reading them and making things right for her was the role my husband took on.

This means he is very emotionally aware and considerate of others, which are good things to be. It also means he is scared of anger, distress and emotional pain in others and himself and anticipates others’ needs to soothe them and by extension himself. He engages in the same indirect communication patterns and passive-aggressive behaviour when stressed as his mother does.  He is terrified of her disapproval and is a self-confessed over achiever.

Here is a brief description of some of the roles and adaptations that the child of a narcissist can make. One of these roles may well be the one your spouse adopted. The first four roles are the classic ACOA roles, the later two are additions that some authors have identified in dysfunctional but not necessarily alcoholic homes.

The Good Child or Hero – these children are high achievers who look good to the outside world, providing the family with esteem and an acceptable face that conceals the dysfunction. They are perfectionist, overly control their emotions to the point of being unaware of them, they are unable to play or ask for help and struggle to be flexible or spontaneous. They take on adult responsibilities and self-sufficiency at a young age. They have a deep fear of failure and need for success and external approval. They can be very driven as adult. They have a hard time admitting their family or themselves had a problem.

The Lost Child or Adjuster– these children withdraw from the dysfunctional family be making themselves as quiet and unnoticed as possible so as not to provoke the wrath of the dysfunctional parent. They may retreat into books, fantasy or excessive TV watching as solitary activities. They deal with the difficulties in reality by retreating from it. They may abuse food by overeating, bulimia or anorexia. They can be overly independent. They may be shy and scared of emotional intimacy. They may have problems developing relationships as adults. These children are most likely to feel depressed or suicidal.

The Mascot – this child deals with the family situation by making jokes, larking about and being the one who lightens the atmosphere even at the expense of being ridiculed as the family clown or idiot. They are attention seekers, distracting and immature and have a hard time dealing with negative emotions which they work so hard to cover up. They could also be the super-cute, ditsy airhead, the one getting into silly scrapes. They have difficulty making decisions and focussing on a task or career.

The Scapegoat or Rebel – this child acts out, often spectacularly, which diverts attention away from the problem and onto fixing the child. They are the most emotionally honest of all the children overtly displaying the fall out of the dysfunction within the family. This takes the form of direct confrontation with parents, drunkenness, addiction, trouble with the law or school authorities, teen pregnancy, running away from home. They can be very angry and self-destructive and are often the first member of the family to get help and start recovery.

The Caretaker or Placater – This child takes on responsibility for the emotional temperature of the family and tunes into the moods of the household with acute sensitivity. They people-please to smooth over any upsetting situations or potential flashpoints. This comes at the expense of awareness of and attention to their own needs. They have intense dislike of conflict and negative emotion. As adults these people can gravitate towards caring professions or relationships where they can “rescue” someone.

The Mastermind – this is the child who can make use of the family situation to their own ends, they are manipulative of those around them. Lacking empathy and with a strong sense of their own entitlements they sit back and work out how to play people off each other to get what they want. They may be divisive. They’ll be the ones who say “well if Dad is drunk, I’ll take the car”. While adopting strategy and cunning to survive they are also denying their and others emotional responses and risk becoming abusive of others themselves.

I have a confession to make here, I am very familiar with these roles from well before I met my husband and his mother. My father had a drink problem when I was a kid. I recognise the roles written out here from my own family and siblings, there are four of us. What I want to emphasise to you is the idea that these roles are not rigid and fixed. I have behaved in more than one role in my life. I was very high achieving in school and a lost child at home for some years. Then it all got too much and I flipped and started acting out, my grades slipped, I stopped doing any school work, I got very depressed and angry, started verbally fighting back at my dad and I became the child with the problem (mental health in this instance) and was the first to get outside help and blow the family situation open which is the role of the rebel.

I can see the roles in my husband’s family also although there are only two children there. He and his sister are very high achieving, the hero role; to this day his mother takes great personal pleasure in having them look good to the outside world. But in the home he was the caretaker-placater and his sister the lost child. These are roles both of them still act out in their adult lives, not just with their mother either.

I could see these behaviours in my husband’s family and I knew where they came from having read all about the problems faced by children raised in homes with alcohol problems (thanks Dad). For years I kept my thoughts on MIL’s behaviour and my husband’s relationship to her to myself as I thought it was unacceptable to out and out criticise my husband’s mother to him, even though she was so vile to me it made me feel sick and stressed every single time I had to see her. I dislike confrontation myself and I thought maybe she would come round after a while and mellow. Ha, wrong. These things do not change by hoping they will go away. Only bravely facing up to the realisation that your spouse has some pretty dysfunctional behaviours (thanks MIL) will you be able to do anything to change it.

It is my husband’s relationship with his mother that is the key problem, not her or her behaviour but his mechanism for coping with it. The adaptations he made to be able to live with her are not so useful in relating to other non-disordered people and do not get him what he wants or needs out of life. He has had to slowly work out there was something wrong with his behaviour around her, what exactly it was that was wrong, what he wanted instead and how to get it. He still hasn’t got it completely. If he had a better mechanism for coping with her, one which allowed him to see her clearly and detach from her influence, he and our family wouldn’t have quite so hard a time dealing with her.

It is worth considering if your spouse has adopted one of these classic roles as a result of growing up with a very difficult mother. How does this impact upon your relationship with them? The roles get carried over into marriages, friendships and careers. In the next post I’ll consider the ways these roles could crop up in a relationship and what to do about it to stop them from causing long term problems.

24 Comments

Filed under Effects of NPD on others, emotions, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and 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.

16 Comments

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

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.

20 Comments

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

Mother Knows Best

I hate the whole Disney Princess thing. I hate pink, fairy princess marketing full stop. My daughters haven’t been indoctrinated into the mystique of being a girly princess and the eldest has only seen three Disney cartoons in her life. One is Tangled which we downloaded out of desperation a couple of years ago when we were marooned at my parents house and the kids had a sickness bug. Today we watched Tangled for the second only time.

The first time I was struck by the creepy Gothel character, the old woman who stole baby Rapunzel. She is absolutely a dysfunctional and abusive mother-figure and not just for the obvious child abduction reasons. She manipulates Rapunzel in a way which made me cringe the first time I saw it and again today.

Here is the opening dialogue between Rapunzel and Gothel

GOTHEL -RAPUNZEL! Let down your hair.

RAPUNZEL (to pet) – It’s time. I know, I know. Come on, don’t let her see you.

GOTHEL – Rapunzel, I’m not getting any younger down here.

RAPUNZEL – Coming, mother. Hi, welcome home, mother.

GOTHEL – Oh, Rapunzel. How you manage to do that every single day, without fail, it looks absolutely exhausting, darling.

RAPUNZEL – Oh, it’s nothing.

GOTHEL – Then I don’t know why it takes so long. (Laughs) Oh, darling. I’m just teasing.

Ouch! I really wish I knew if Dan Fogelman who wrote the script had a narcissistic mother. This is my mother-in-law but without all the false charm projected by Gothel. For fun I’m going to show how she is narcissistic and how her interactions with Rapunzel are emotionally abusive.

Scene 1:

RAPUNZEL! Let down your hair. There is no “please” you’ll notice, she orders and expects to be unquestioningly obeyed.

Rapunzel, I’m not getting any younger down here. Impatient and self-absorbed, it doesn’t occur to her that Rapunzel may be in the middle of something.

RAPUNZEL – Coming, mother. Hi, welcome home, mother.

GOTHEL – Oh, Rapunzel. How you manage to do that every single day, without fail, it looks absolutely exhausting, darling. Notice she doesn’t greet her “daughter”, the mock concern and patronising use of the word darling. If she were really concerned she’d get a bloody rope and climb up herself.

RAPUNZEL – Oh, it’s nothing. Yep, well learned Rapunzel. No child of a narcissist ever complains about their treatment, mummy comes first.

GOTHEL – Then I don’t know why it takes so long. (Laughs) Oh, darling. I’m just teasing. Oh wow, every time I read that it packs the same punch. Rapunzel walked straight into the trap. And then the bit that makes me shudder because my MIL does it, the light laugh and “oh darling” (again belittling) “I’m just teasing” er no, she bloody is not!

It is a classic trap used by emotional abusers, it should have its own name. First deflect and disarm by leading the other person to believe you are concerned for them, with a great dollop of belittlement and condescension thrown in, then when the victim of your trap attempts to brush off your concern slam them with the real criticism you were intending all along. And throw in the revolting sting in the tail by then laughing in the face of their obvious distress at the stinging remark and implying that their lack of perspective or sense of humour is what has made the remark hurt in the first place. This last comment is also defensive as it acts to protect against any comeback, it was a joke, I was teasing. Vomit inducing.

If Rapunzel had replied “Yes it really is exhausting” she would have got the other side of the trap, “Oh! I had no idea that safely bringing you mother to greet you every day was such a burden” cue massive self pitying sulk.

The scene plays on and poor Rapunzel gets more of the same.

All right…so, mother. As you know tomorrow is a very big day. Ha! Good luck with that, nobody else has a big day in a narcissists mind, she’ll hijack it somehow.

Rapunzel look at that mirror. You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady. Oh look, you’re here too. I’m just teasing, stop taking everything so seriously. This is an overtly narcissistic comment, vain and self absorbed, though not all narcissists revel in their physical beauty. This interaction also shows how the mother always notices herself ahead of others.

Okay, so mother. I was thinking tomorrow… 

Flower, mother’s feeling a little run down. Would you sing for me, dear? Then we’ll talk. Repeatedly she ignores her “daughter”‘s need to talk putting her own needs first, the hallmark of a narcissistic parent.

-OH! Of course, mother. Again the child has been trained so well she responds without arguing (cue a bit of singing in the cartoon).

So, mother, Earlier I asked if tomorrow was a pretty big day, and you didn’t really respond, So I’m just going to tell you. It’s my birthday! TADA! In the world of the narcissistic parent you have to remind them when it’s your birthday, and having them not respond to you is completely normal.

No, no, no can’t be. I distinctly remember. Your birthday was last year. Crazy-making at its height, denying a fact everyone knows to be true. Minimising the other person’s claim for attention.

That’s the funny thing about birthdays. They’re kind of an annual thing. Mother, I’m turning eighteen. And I wanted to ask, what I really want for this birthday. Actually what I want for every birthday…

Rapunzel please, stop with the mumbling. You know how I feel about the mumbling. Blah, blah, blah,…blah. It’s very annoying. I’m just teasing, you’re adorable I love you so much, darling. Totally ignores what the girl is building up to, no empathy here at all just jumps in with her criticism. Rapunzel should stop mumbling because Gothel hates it, her wishes come first.

Oh, I want to see the floating lights.

-What? Snapped out, not a question more of a challenge. NPD MIL frequently snaps out things when loosing control of the conversation in some way.

-Oh,…Well I was hoping you would take me to see the floating lights.

Oh, you mean the stars. Again deliberately misunderstanding the other person’s needs.

That’s the thing I’ve charted stars and they’re always constant. But these, they appear every year on my birthday, Mother. Only on my birthday. And I can’t help but feel that they’re, they’re meant for me. I need to see them, Mother. And not just from my window. In person. I have to know what they are. Rapunzel clearly articulates a deep, yearning need.

You want to go outside? Oh, why Rapunzel. Look at you, as fragile as a flower. Still a little sapling, just a sprout. You know why we stay up in this tower. Questions her daughter’s need, undermines her with infantilising comments and attacks her independence and self esteem to make her more emotionally reliant on the abusive parent.

-I know, but…

Thats right, to keep you safe, and sound, dear. Guess I always knew this day was coming. Know that soon you’d want to leave the nest. Soon, but not yet. Shhh.. The core of all abusive behaviour is to put one person’s needs ahead of the others, in this case the mother’s need for her daughter to keep her young and beautiful ahead of the child’s need to grow and become independent. Keep them dangling and hoping for a change but don’t deliver it.

-But

Trust me pet, Mother, knows best. Finishes with the ultimate put down to any child, the parent’s views and in this case needs automatically trumps the child’s simply by virtue of the relationship between them, no one can argue with “because I’m your mother and I know best”.

The reason this entire scene horrifies me is because it as an almost exact replication of interactions I have seen between my husband and SIL and their mother. And Gothel in the story is an evil, child stealing witch for goodness sake, the worst sort of fairy tale villain. The most vile way of protraying an abusive parent that the scriptwriter could come up with is an almost exact description of my MIL!

6 Comments

Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, narcissistic mother

How to Manage a Narcissistic MIL Part 2

In the last post I discussed things that have worked for my husband and I when  managing MIL’s behaviour around us. We keep our distance from her physically and have limited contact by phone, email or whatever. We carefully manage the visit when she does come, planning an itinerary for the day and sticking to safe topics of conversation. Finally we have discussed and established the beginnings of boundaries around her behaviour.

There are three more  tips for managing the NPD MIL which I will outline below. They are setting boundaries with your spouse, talking openly about the problem and getting psychological support.

Set your own boundaries with your spouse

Hang on a minute, you may be thinking as you read this, my partner is not the problem, their mother is the problem! Nope. I am going to write a whole post on this topic but fundamentally your partner is the problem. If they had an adult, healthy relationship with their mother you would not be on the receiving end of her bad behaviour. Sure she’d still be a bitch. But there would be very clear practical and psychological limits in place around what she could do to infiltrate your family life.

But those limits aren’t there are they? No, which is why you are having troubles with your messed up MIL and why you are here reading this article at all. Of course your partner is not solely the problem, you are the problem too. Yep, I definitely need a whole post on this topic but I will summarise what I did here.

I had set boundaries with my husband because he was still in utter denial as to the extent of his mother’s manipulations. I said I would not go and stay with her one holiday. I point blank refused and that stance is what triggered the whole cascade of events which led to his complete realignment of his relationship with his mother. I did it to protect myself. I had severe post-natal depression and couldn’t imagine spending any time in close contact with her. There was no way, no earthly way I would have spent 3 nights under the same roof as her cooped up in a holiday cottage marooned miles from nowhere. The instinct for self-preservation is a wonderful thing. My boundary unshakeable and was this: I don’t like your mother, I am not going to see her, you go if you wish.

Why I didn’t like her didn’t need to be explained at that point, no justification required. My actions were clear, I am not going. I only have control over myself so I made no attempt to control my husband, you can go if you wish. I don’t know what made this simple statement so powerful. Maybe I was exposing a core of steel which my husband saw straight into. He didn’t argue with me, no “but why?” or “do it for me” what he said was “how will I explain that you aren’t there?”. His concern was not to ruffle his mother up the wrong way and to avoid a confrontation with her. He had accepted my boundary.

The other interesting thing that this boundary exposed was my husband’s vulnerability around his mother. He was anxious about seeing her on his own. I realised that I had been a human shield in some ways, having me there made him feel safer. Even though this meant she would make all manner of digs, snide remarks and slights at me throughout it was better for him to have me there than to see her by himself. I refused to be his human shield anymore and that left him facing a choice, to go alone or cancel the holiday. He cancelled.

That choice was not just turning down a free holiday, it was him aligning himself with me and our children rather than with his mother. At that point my boundary had actually triggered one in him, one that he had been unconscious of. When push came to shove he chose us over her.

I also have had boundaries with my husband around how he speaks about my relationship with his mother. I won’t accept being blamed, being guilt tripped, being told how I think or feel about things or being made to share his feelings of indebtedness and fear about his mother. I do not have to share his world view and that has really shaken him up. Before he expected me to fall into line and act and feel like he did, because he couldn’t imagine any other way to relate to MIL.  I changed things and the world didn’t end. One of the things I had to change was how I let my husband call the shots with his mother. I effectively took back my control of the situation having abdicated it to him on the grounds that it was his family so he must know what he was doing. He didn’t.

I sound very sure of myself as I read over this section of the post but up until that point I wasn’t Wonder Woman. I had gone along with all the crap for years. Gradually I began to express more and more disquiet at what was happening, how MIL treated us and first one child then the next. Finally I told him I hated her. Why did it take so long? that takes some explaining about my background. Suffice to say all this standing my ground did not happen overnight.

Be completely honest with people about how MIL behaves

Narcissists flourish in darkness, deceit and diversion. I openly and honestly talk about MIL with friends and family and now my husband. I feel so stupid that for years I didn’t openly tell him how much I hated her and was hurt by her behaviour. I have told health visitors, doctors, colleagues, random mums in toddler play groups, all sorts of people when families come up as a topic of conversation that my MIL is a controlling, evil nutcase. They are often gobsmacked by the examples I describe. Sometimes I meet other people who have relatives like this too. That makes for a very interesting conversation.

Another way I talk about what goes on is by writing this blog. It is anonymous in that my real name and location don’t appear anywhere and no names are used but I know other people read it. I also joined an on line community of people with a forum where the trials of knowing someone with a personality disorder are discussed. At first this felt wrong, my heart would quickly beat, my stomach turn and a slight sweat would appear on my hands as I typed. It felt as if somehow she would know. Isn’t that so indicative of the fear I had absorbed, my husband’s fear. Why should I be scared of accurately describing what has happened and how she acts? The fear is of the nameless, formless yet dreadful payback that will follow. This fear is what silenced my husband for years. It, that is her obvious mental disorder, is not spoken of in the family.

I use the words personality disorder and narcissism comfortably in conversation although my husband cringes away from that description. A spade is a spade so call it so. It is powerful and liberating to give words and a voice to that which has bound and harmed you. Name something and you contain it somehow. It is observable, quantifiable and can be examined. Keep it nameless and it resides not in the conscious mind but the subconscious where it can control you. Harry Potter said “Voldemort” outright, none of this “he who must not be named” crap and he defeated Voldemort.

NPD relatives should not be some horrible secret you must keep hidden away. There are parallels between the conditioning that emotionally abused people absorb and the conditioning that sexually abused children receive to keep them silent about what occurs in their families. Don’t tell or… … NO! Tell, shout it out loud, point and tell it like it is. And it shrinks away to skulk in the shadows and your fear of them goes scuttling along with it.

Get psychological support

Narcissists mess with your mind. The technical term for this is crazy-making or gas lighting. It is a trait common to many manipulative people but is particularly true for those with NPD. The process of crazy-making is to discount, indeed even deny the other person’s mental processes and replace them with your preferred version, for example “I never said that you are wrong” when you did actually say it. It makes people pause and momentarily doubt themselves, over a long period of time the doubt becomes almost constant. Narcissists do this because their world view really is the only one they can comprehend having little empathy for other people. So if they don’t want to think of themselves as having said or done something they will deny it straight to your face and they sound so sure of themselves.

You need some external reality check. A person or persons who are not internally screwed up. Go and find a good therapist and someone in the real world or online with similar problems. There are good online forums. I used outofthefog.com. Good therapy is priceless. I have spent a lot of my savings on it but it has helped enormously. My anger was vented safely away from my husband and MIL and I was able to see why I had participated in the sick behavioural mesh which had us all caught up. I also was able to see how I had “given away my power” which is a bit of a poncey way of saying I wasn’t speaking up and taking a stand.

The forum helped me see other people in the same situation and those further along the road who were managing it all better than I was. My MIL really preoccupied me for a while. I had rants at my MIL going round my head and could feel my blood pressure rocket when she came up in the conversation. Now not so much. Reality checkers help you see the longer term, bigger picture and also help you pull back and put yourself first.

And so there it is, the ways I’ve learnt to manage my MIL;

  • keep her at a distance and limit all forms of contact to whatever you feel comfortable with,
  • determine the lines in the sand in your own mind where if they are crossed how you will act,
  • discuss and plan how to orchestrate any visits by MIL and make the plan comprehensive and watertight,
  • do not take on your partner’s emotions and world view – you have the absolute right to your own, starkly different take on things,
  • talk openly about the problem to everyone,
  • get psychological support.

6 Comments

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

How to manage a narcissistic mother-in-law part 1

Here is the first in a multi-part post which outlines ways to manage a narcissistic, difficult, controlling, emotionally abusive MIL. The first posts are positive, a summary of effective methods. I thought I’d start with this as so much material about NPD is very negative. It is reassuring to read something can be done to fight back. The concluding post is a summary of what doesn’t work or worse, what can escalate her difficult behaviour.

It has taken me a long time to work out how best to cope with and manage NPD MIL’s machinations. I met my husband more then 10 years ago, and I first met her a year later. On reflection  it should have rung an alarm bell that it took my husband an entire year before he made any attempt to introduce us. I had already met his sister, father and all his friends by that time. Back then I had no idea what NPD was nor did I have any expectation that my future MIL would be anything other than normal and pleasant. Well that assumption was slapped back in my face the very first time I met her.

It’s been a slow, painful slog through disbelief, confusion, hurt, bafflement, mounting anger, cold hatred until the red line was crossed and I put my foot down. I am a quiet person when you meet me, not brash or extraverted. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INFP. One writer commenting on personality types made the statement:

“INFPs are flexible and laid-back, until one of their values is violated. In the face of their value system being threatened, INFPs can become aggressive defenders, fighting passionately for their cause.”  http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP.html

You said it. She crossed the line and I finally said enough. This is what worked.

Keep Your Distance Physically.

I originally trained as a scientist. To me the word physically doesn’t just mean anything to do with my body it also means things relating to physics, like telecommunications. So lets consider how to keep a physical distance in both senses of the word.

MIL is kept at a physical distance in that I do not sit near here if I have to be in her company. I get up and move away from her frequently to have a break from her stultifying presence by leaving the room and fortunately (oh so fortunately) she lives 3 hours drive away. I am adamant that she does not live near us and would move house to keep away from her. My husband made the decision not to apply for a rare job advertised in his field because it was located near her home town.

If we go out for lunch, which we almost always do when she visits as the range of foods she will eat is small and she is unutterably snobby about anything served to her that we cook, I make damn sure I am not sat next to her. Diagonally across the table is best with my husband closest to her and I busy myself with the children. A persistent NPD MIL may try to place themselves near you or call you over to sit next to them, deciding who should sit where. Hold your ground with a firm “I would like to sit here” and put your bum on the chair with no further comment.

I feel deeply for people suffering from living close to their MIL, even in the same house as her. I cannot imagine how you cope with that. It is trite to say move away as you may have roots deep in your community or strong cultural pressures to stay with your husband’s family. If she lives in your town do not give her a spare key and always lock or chain the doors so she can’t just walk in. Put opaque blinds or curtains up in the front room so she can’t see if you are in and just don’t answer the door. If you live with your MIL get a lock and put it on your bedroom door. Make a big, outraged fuss about your privacy and if necessary imply your MIL has an unhealthy interest in your husband’s and your sex life if she intrudes.

What about electronic contact? I have no phone, email or written contact with my MIL. I have never given her my email address or phone number but she has got my mobile phone number somehow. She has sent me texts in the past and I never respond. Now she has given up. Only on one occasion when my husband and I first laid down the law to her, nearly 2 years ago, did I email her to communicate my feelings about the situation. I created an email account solely for the purpose of sending that one message and shut it down afterwards. In that one email I told her I did not want any written or emailed communication from her.

If she rings the house we have caller ID on the phone and I let it ring until the answer-phone kicks in. I do not ever pick up the phone.

I do not use Facebook or similar social media sites. If your toxic MIL has hijacked your Facebook page, quit it and after a suitable pause restart and only share your new page with select friends. Do not accept “friend” requests from her, her family members or acquaintances.

This is how far we keep our distance; my daughter’s primary school has permission forms which parents have to sign to allow the school to use photos of the kids on their website or in local newspapers. We don’t sign. That way she can’t follow what our daughter is doing via the web.

My husband now refuses to arrange separate visitations at birthdays and holidays for her to attend without the possible presence of her ex, my FIL. She won’t be in the same room as him so she doesn’t turn up to these events as often as she used to when my then deluded husband would go to the trouble of organising double birthdays etc. I don’t go and visit her in her own home, my husband takes the kids maybe twice a year. They stay for one night at most. I feel uncomfortable with this as frankly if she is too nasty for me to be around then I don’t think the kids should be there either but my husband is in the early stages of getting to grips with her behaviour so I don’t push it. If she is unpleasant to one of the girls, ever, these visits will stop.

I cannot emphasise enough the need to keep her proximity to your physical self and access to you as limited as possible.

Plan each meeting like a military campaign

This sounds a bit over the top, but it isn’t. I am at war with this woman, I am like the Resistance in the Second World War. I am a guerrilla, a ninja. Like chess, you need to thinking several steps ahead with NPDs. This works. NPDs consider themselves more intelligent than all those around them and therefore frequently underestimate their opponents. Use this to your advantage.

Before she arrives we have an itinerary planned. We organise the visit so there is no down time when conversation may sag and give her the chance to be bitchy and manipulative. We greet her together at the door, we get tea and biscuits, we discuss the kids and general family news, then we go somewhere. This usually involves a trip to the playground or similar and then lunch out. We return home for more managed small talk. We plan a list of topics which are not to be discussed and have set phrases to shut down any attempt by her to open them up. It is easy enough to divert her into playing with the kids while we prepare some snack or drinks. Neither of us spends time with her alone without either the other spouse or the children. She is her most manipulative and downright unpleasant when she has no other witnesses.

The visit is wound up as we make it clear the children need a quiet time at the end of the day around teatime and then they go straight to bath and bed. So she knows in advance when we are expecting her to leave then. We verbally give prompts for this saying things like “darling daughter looks tired”, “are you ready for some tea daughter?” and then wave her off. In no way does she suspect that we have managed her so completely.

We arrange the seating so my husband and I are sat together on the sofa and she is apart on another chair. We sit next to each other and make sure we interact comfortably and naturally with each other including jokes, teasing, hugs and other small gestures and physical contacts.  This new arrangement of the players on the set reflects what I have insisted upon, that our marriage and family are the predominant relationships. Before my husband would hover around her like she was some duchess and he the attendant. We all felt tense and I was often sat on the floor or off to the side in my own front room.

The shift has been in power, we now call the shots. Before my husband was on side I would follow his lead, resentfully, as he nervously focussed on her and whatever she wanted. She set up the conversations, sat in the dominant position in the room and basically held court in my lounge. Ha! Not anymore she doesn’t.

Set your own boundaries with MIL

A lot of support sites for managing difficult people talk about setting boundaries. This is hard to understand at first. We both struggled with what on earth it meant. It is not rules that you impose on the offending person, it’s not at all like the boundaries around behaviour we are familiar with from rules in schools or sports. In a school a rule is a direction “do not run in the corridor” or a positive affirmation if you prefer “we walk in corridors” which have a punitive consequence attached. Boundaries are not like this.

A boundary is more like a psychological Rubicon. You don’t have to tell the other person what your boundary is. You just need to know in your own mind, clearly and resolutely what you will not accept. Then you decide what you will do to keep yourself, your loved ones and your property physically and emotionally safe if the situation arises where one of your boundaries is crossed.

My husband went to visit his mother with a list of 4 things he wanted to discuss and to ask her to stop doing them. It was a mixture of don’t do this and do this instead with the punitive consequence not spelled out. This was not effective boundary setting.

One of the 4 terms he laid out was for her to stop slagging off his father and trying to turn him against his dad. This is not a boundary. The boundary is for him to realise he hated this, to affirm this in his own mind and to just stop the conversation and tell her he would not listen to anymore, then get up and leave if she didn’t. THAT is a boundary, this far, no further. No explanation needed for your actions, you have had enough, you say stop, you remove yourself if it continues. If it happens in your house you ask them to leave.

Of course you can also have the boundary AND tell the person you have a problem with certain behaviour and you want it to change. But understand this, you cannot make them change their behaviour. You can remove yourself from situations you do not like. That is the essence of self respect.

So here we have the first few ways to effectively manage the difficult MIL. A mixture of practical things that shape the external factors of your encounters with her and psychological protection to build your resilience from the inside. In the next post I’ll discuss setting boundaries with your spouse, speaking freely about what is going on, getting psychological support and keeping your emotional distance from a toxic MIL.

26 Comments

Filed under Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL, Uncategorized