Tag Archives: dysfunctional family

Echo – The Opposite of Narcissism

I’ve recently read a really good book on narcissism, “Rethinking Narcissism” by Craig Malkin. He describes types of narcissism along a continuum with NPD at one extreme and what he calls echoism at the other end. All people fall somewhere along this line of either extreme deprecation and need lack, to extreme self-absorption and need demands. Malkin discusses several really important things in his book (he is a professor at Harvard Medical School, lectures in psychotherapy, is world expert on treating narcissism and had a narcissistic mother himself), this continuum of narcissism which we all lie on, the need for healthy narcissism in everyone, early red flags of narcissistic traits in people we meet and how to manage a narcissistic person who you have to deal with.

Echo was the water nymph who fell in love with Narcissus the utterly vain and self-absorbed youth in the Greek myth. She followed him around providing constant adoration and attentiveness. All that was left of her, having pined away in the face of his complete disregard, was her voice repeating the last few words he said. She lost herself in placing another’s needs ahead of her own, Narcissus lost himself in placing his needs ahead of everyone else. Both had lost any sense of balance.

I think the polar opposite of narcissism, echoism, isn’t talked about enough. I think it is a trait which a lot of people who find themselves inexplicably tangled up with a narcissist have but may not be aware of. I have also noticed how my NPD MIL can make her children act like echoes when she is around but that they can also copy her and demonstrate the same narcissistic traits when she isn’t. They flip from one end to the other.

What does Echoism Look Like?

I’ll quote Malkin here as he summarises it in his own words…

“The other thing that becomes clear as soon as you start viewing this way is the problem when people lack healthy narcissism. That’s a problem. We already know from the research that people who don’t have those rose­ coloured glasses view themselves and the world in a slightly dimmer light. Sometimes they’re more anxious, sometimes they’re more depressed. In my research with my colleagues, I dubbed this problem echoism. Echo was the nymph who was cursed to repeat back only the last few words she heard. Where Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Like Echo, people who struggle with echoism struggle to have a voice of their own. They’re afraid of seeming narcissistic in any way. They’re afraid of being a burden. They berate themselves for being too needy. They blame themselves for problems that go wrong in relationships. In the mild range of echoism what we found is these are people who can be deeply empathic. They prefer to focus on others as opposed to themselves. The danger here is in lacking those rose­ coloured glasses, in shifting away from themselves to other people rather reflexively, echoists also tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends.”

“I’m a recovered echoist. Most people who have been raised by extremely narcissistic parents are vulnerable to this. I learned to echo my mother’s narcissism. The other thing I wanted to do was empower people who struggle in this way. There were no words for this. “

Struggle to have a voice of their own, don’t want to be a burden, reject their own needs, blame themselves for relationship problems. I can recognise myself as an adolescent and young adult in this description. Unlike Malkin, I wasn’t raised by an extreme narcissist, but I was raised in an abusive, domestically violent situation and was expected to be no bother to anyone, perfectly behaved and without needs as it was all my mother could do to contain my father’s unpredictable and violent outbursts and drink problem. I was very good at being seen and not heard or actually not seen and not heard. It was safer to take myself off to my room, deal with problems by myself, ask for nothing. When I was very young I would hide in a cupboard to be out of the way and to minimise the unbearable onslaught of scary behaviour around me. Echo hid behind trees to catch a glimpse of Narcissus but would never step forwards and present herself.

Malkin expended on his description of echoism in a discussion on Quora, the question and answer site,

“they’re afraid of becoming a burden, uncomfortable with attention (even if positive), and —it’s not a stretch to say —they hate having needs. They prefer to live life by the rule, “the less room I take up the better” and agree with statements like “I don’t know what I want or need from my relationships.”

“It’s best to think of it kind of like an unconscious contract—if I bury my needs, preferences, and feelings, maybe people will accept me.”

“[Echoism is] a complete absence of normal self-enhancement that causes a number of problems, not the least of which is that, like Echo—the nymph cursed to echo peoples’ words who pined to death for Narcissus — echoists tend to struggle with a voice of their own and fall in love with and befriend extremely narcissistic people. Why? Because narcissists are more than happy to take up all the room echoists are afraid to occupy.”

There is an upside to this also, echoist are not complete doormats with no self of their own. The orientation of an echoists attention onto other people’s needs and feelings makes them exceptional at caring professions and genuinely helpful, empathic friends and partners. As Malkin says,

“of all the people we studied, echoists were the most “warm hearted.” (yup, there’s a measure for that too).

So while they might be socially isolated, not all are, and many milder echoists can be wonderful care-takers (not martyrs).”

I think there is also a cultural facet to echoism. Malkin is American, a culture notorious for it’s brash extraversion and reinforcement of attention grabbing superstar behaviour. My Irish family would be horrified by the loudness and attention seeking of the average American person. In the small country town they came from someone walking down the high street in a new coat would have elicited comments like “Oooh, look at her thinking she’s so special in her posh coat…”. My mother would chastise me for ever drawing attention to myself by doing childlike things such as cartwheels (you’re showing your pants!), skipping down the street (that’s no way to walk to church), practising my ballet steps by looking at my reflection in the TV (stop admiring at yourself), you get the general idea. In many cultures all people or people of one gender or social class have prohibitions against self-enhancement.

Throwing someone who for whatever reason demonstrates echoism into a mix with people at the other extreme is a situation ripe for exploitation of the echoist by the narcissist.

Echoism and The Child of Narcissistic In-Laws

This part of Prof. Malkin’s description above really hits me in the gut, “echoists also tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends”. I hate, just hate to think that my childhood which was so incredibly difficult has set me up to choose a family of in-laws with the cancer of narcissism. Good God like I haven’t endured enough already! It makes me so angry. But it is correct.

If there is one thing I wish anyone reading this blog could take away and really, deeply understand it is that you have not found yourself in a relationship with the child of an extreme narcissist by accident.

We fall into relationships with the children of narcissists because we have what they want and they have a role for us which feels familiar. What do they want? The child of a narcissist has lacked many things in their upbringing as a result of their disordered mothers behaviour and it is inevitable that they will bring these unmet needs into your relationship. Something about you made them feel like you could satisfy these unmet needs. They can be very needy or as Malkin says they can be echo themselves and be very reluctant to even think about their own needs and still play a very subservient, servant relationship with their mother.

Unconsciously the child of a narcissist has expectations, as we all do, about how relationships with people work and they can act them out without ever having declared their expectations openly. Often these expectations are a set of unspoken rules about how power and control work in relationships and how one goes about getting needs met. For the abusiveness of the MIL to spill into our relationships we must cooperate in some way with this role.

Healthy narcissism lends itself towards open negotiation of needs and the rules around them as both people accept their own and others needs. Unhealthy narcissism or the lack of narcissism (echoism) tends towards an unbalanced and exploitive relationship where one set of needs gets unfair prominence and the other is left utterly unacknowledged. If you are an echo yourself you can fall into a preprepared role with its unspoken set of rules with the child of a narcissist. So where if at all is the echo in your situation? Who is being echo if MIL is being Narcissus?

There are 4 possible combinations of echo-narcissus that may describe your relationship, your spouse and their mother’s relationship or your in-laws’ relationship.

Echo with Echo

Your partner could expect you to go along with their echoist behaviour and become their co-echo around their mother. If you have echo tendencies yourself you can both become stuck in a pattern of always letting NPD MIL run the show and be unable to assert your needs to each other never mind to her. You would be left with a deep feeling of unfulfilled potential in your marriage and intrusion from the outside.

The rest of the NPD MIL’s family may also play echo roles, a weak FIL and echo children who all play court to her Royal Highness narcissistic MIL is a common set up. Are you filling the role of another echo servant in the life of the Duchess of Up Her Own Arse?

Relationships like this result in both partners being treated badly by the NPD MIL, boundaries being violated left right and centre, the NPD MIL walking into the house whenever she likes and serious concerns about her influence on grandchildren arise. Eventually one partner breaks the pattern and starts pushing back. This can be quite terrifying to the child of the NPD mother. If both echoes can stand together though they make a solid team against the NPD mother and her shenanigans.

Echo with Narcissus

Alternatively your partner could echo in your own relationship and put you on a pedestal whether you want it or not. Indeed some children of narcissists marry narcissists although such narc partners generally wouldn’t be searching the internet for help with their NPD MILs and reading blogs like this. They end up being the subject of blogs called “So I Married a Narcissist…”.

Such an echo partner is unable to stand up for you in the face of NPD MIL’s attacks and manipulations. They may also have similarly exploitive friends or work associates and a history of finding themselves in close company with other narcissistic people. They may be the one sibling who is not like mum whereas others are mini-me narcissists. Extreme echoes would be attracted to confidence and self assurance which granted narcissists have on the surface but they can also be attracted to genuinely confident people, finding yourself partnered with an echo doesn’t automatically mean you are an unhealthy narcissist!

Aside from the obviously narcissistic partners, having a spouse who puts themselves last all the time is not a good relationship to be in. They treat you as a copy of their mother even if you are not NPD yourself, they know no other way, to them acting like echo is how you demonstrate love. They map that behaviour straight onto you, even reacting fearfully as if you were going to be as abusive as their mothers. They can harbour long term resentment and act in passive-aggressive ways or become silent and withdrawn, unable to ask for help and support that they may need. They may find relationships smothering and be quite avoidant in their behaviour. It can be frustrating and lonely to be in relationship with someone who is unable to share their inner world with you because they have never paid attention to it and would rather run screaming from the room than let you in.

Remember the definition of echo is someone who denies, even fees from their own needs and is very uncomfortable with any attention. The old TV series “Absolutely Fabulous” with Jennifer Saunders as the flamboyant, grotesquely self-absorbed designer and her mousy, shy daughter is a narcissus-echo pair.

Narcissus with Echo

The third possibility is that you are the echo to your spouse’s narcissism. Children of NPD mothers can learn narcissistic behaviour and copy their mother’s way of relating to people without even realising it. They can develop their own narcissistic traits as a way of compensating for the deep emotional neglect their mother caused in their own childhoods. Partnering with someone who has strong echo traits means they get all their needs met just as they had to meet their mothers and this is fair to them.

They can act as an echo to their mother, being very attentive, looking for her praise and approval, not wishing to upset her and then once she has gone they can act in exactly the same ways she did but with you. I know of people who describe how the narcissistic MIL teams up with the narcissistic spouse against the echo spouse, both acting very haughty and superior and mocking the echo-spouse. The narcissist spouse is very unlikely to be aware of any family dysfunction, you will in all likelihood be the one to uncover it. That can really devastate the family image and your spouse will make you pay for it.

This is one way you can separate out real echoes from pseudo-echo communal/covert narcissists. The real echoes will a) already know their mothers dominate everything and b) be deeply upset for YOU when you reveal how hurt you have been by MIL’s behaviour. The pseudo-echo communal narcissist will a) not be willing to face that there is anything wrong with their family and b) feel very sorry for themselves while refuting, dismissing, denying and minimising anything you say on the matter.

I hear of overt grandiose narcissistic mothers who rear communal/covert narcissistic children and vice versa so the narcissism is there in the spouse too but revealed in different behaviours. I was fooled for a long time into thinking only very cocky arrogant behaviour or snobby superiority was narcissism. People who fall over themselves to demonstrate how “nice/Christian/helpful” they are are just as obsessed with their self-image it merely manifests in a different way.

It can be particularly hard to see if you are supporting your spouse with their very challenging mother (acting like a good echo) and putting your spouse’s feelings and problems foremost. It is  hard to spot that sometimes having their problems and feelings at the centre all the time and needing reassurance by talking about how horrible mummy is etc is actually a way of self-enhancing at your expense. If you stand up for your own needs they can easily switch into oh-poor-me martyrdom. Not all narcissism is about showing off accomplishments sometimes narcissists feel special and enhance their self-image by being long-suffering victims.

Narcissus with Narcissus

Finally of course both the child of the NPD mother and the spouse can exhibit extreme narcissistic traits. I have heard of situations where both MIL and FIL appear extremely narcissistic and back each other to the hilt. I have never met anyone like this but presumably this works a bit like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, both people love attention and adulation and both feel important and enhanced by association with the other. Their mate has something they value highly like good looks, fame, wealth or whatever and they have other people to supply to their needs. The idea of multiple narcissists in one family makes my head spin.

There are of course other combinations, you or your spouse may be in a place of healthy narcissism due to good parenting, good fortune, good therapy, a clear view of their mother and her behaviour etc. Healthy and echo will work if healthy encourages echo to speak up more, positively enhancing them both, also healthy and slightly narcissistic can work if the healthy uses what Malkin calls empathy prompts to push the slightly narcissistic partner to notice the other’s needs.

Partners with healthy narcissism are far less likely to put up with nonsense from an NPD MIL. They can support the child of the narcissist to break out of old behaviours and become more healthy themselves provided their isn’t a huge level of denial around the MIL’s behaviour or abusive behaviour within the relationship.

Beyond Echoism

Sadly I can see how my echoist behaviour was attractive to my husband. As I have worked hard on myself with my therapist and by reading and reflecting on all of this I have moved my position along the echo—-narcissus continuum. This is the single most encouraging thing about this whole horrible situation for me. Despite my crappy childhood and poor marriage choice I have become a person far more capable of recognising and valuing my own needs, better at standing my ground, I found my own voice (writing this blog was part of that) and stating my preferences. And you know what, I am more accepted now as a result than I was while being more of an echo. I am noticed and accepted by different people and am far less appealing to the narcissists. I don’t notice needy people hoovering up my attention, if I find someone like that has snuck their way into my social sphere I can keep a healthy distance and my neediness doesn’t turn normal people away, it gives them an opportunity to be helpful and what do you know, people actually like doing things for others!

It’s OK to feel special about yourself in fact Malkin would say it is necessary to believe you are a bit above average (apparently most people think this even though it is statistically impossible). You are allowed to feel good and to see your Narcissus MIL as the fool she really is shake your head and say “girl what were you thinking?!” and walk away. Walk away from your relationship too if they are as narcissistic. Let them starve to death staring at their own bloody reflection, I’m not sticking around to watch.

 

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Filed under Denial, Describing narcissism, Echoism, Effects of NPD on others, family roles, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother

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

Grandparent Grooming 1 – What it looks like

(Part 1 of a two part post on the psychological grooming of children by a narcissistic grandmother.)

There have been several comments about dealing with a narcissistic grandmother which concern the emotional hold the grandmother has got over one or more children and how to manage this. It has cropped up often enough for me to devote this post to the topic of emotional grooming of a grandchild by the disordered grandparent. I read what you have experienced in your families and it makes me feel sick. I can so easily see how it happens and how powerless you feel as a result. I am so grateful to those of you who have found ways to deal with this problem and for the experience and wisdom you have shared in responding to these comments.

This is one of those topics which are hard to tackle because we are culturally programmed to believe children SHOULD have relationships with their grandparents and that we are doing something very cruel by putting boundaries around this natural relationship. Standing against this cultural expectation is the power of a parent’s protective love for their child. We can overlook some behaviour when we are on the receiving end, but if our kids get involved then our primal defences rise up. Trust that prickly down the neck, hyper alert feeling you have. Your gut instinct has spotted there is something wrong about grandma’s behaviour. Do you feel queasy? Do your shoulders grip, jaw clench, eyes narrow, do you strain to hear what she is whispering in your kids ears? Your badass parenting instincts need some respect, you are not imagining things, something dodgy is going on.

Maybe you have let this instinct slip by and not paid attention to it and now things feel like they are pulling away from you and your NPD MIL has somehow got inside your child’s head. Bear in mind there has also a great deal of grooming of YOU going on in your partner’s family. You have not been allowed to see what is going on, you have been conditioned by your partner and their family to minimise the disordered grandmother’s behaviour. That makes it hard to even think of it as abusive. It makes it hard to trust your instincts when you nearest and dearest are brushing it off or ridiculing you. Grooming and abuse are a dirty words reserved for other, really damaged people, not anyone in your family right? Wrong. Take my word for it, even people in families with rampant sexual and physical abuse grow up thinking it was normal and not that bad. They really do. Remember you are entitled to your own interpretations of what is going on, you don’t have to follow your partner’s take on it. If you feel something is wrong about your MILs relationship with your child then it is.

So what is grooming by a grandparent?

The main take away point in this article is the following statement: any behaviour by an adult which makes a child loose the trust and loyalty they have for their parents is abusive.

Turning that on its head means healthy relationships with a child always respect the primary relationship they have with their parents and never get in the middle of that.

I hope this is common sense, blindingly obvious and goes without saying. Except that somehow NPD MIL is getting between you and your child. They have managed to wheedle themselves into the position where your child takes their side against you. Maybe they plead granny’s case, maybe they blame you for tension or arguments, they turn to grandma to get things you can’t or won’t give them. They cry because they can’t see grandma and it’s all your fault. You look on in horror as your dear child acts like granny’s flying monkey. How on Earth did this happen right under your nose? They have been groomed.

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in the UK has this definition: grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purpose of abuse or exploitation. A lot of the time grooming of the extended family occurs also so defences are lowered and the abusive adult is trusted by the other adults in the child’s life. One step further is what is termed institutional grooming where the abusive person presents such a convincing face to institutions such as schools, doctors, social workers etc that these professional services believe their act and do not see the abuse.

The most pernicious and obvious grooming occurs with the intention of sexually abusing a child. A great deal of information on the internet about grooming pertains to this particular situation, including warnings about online grooming. This is not what we are dealing with in most cases of a narcissistic grandparent. Instead the grooming is for the purpose of using the child as a weapon against the parents, as a substitute of healthy adult relationships, as a prop for the narcissist’s egotistical needs. The abuse is emotional and psychological. This sort of grooming is also found in families where there is physical abuse or dependencies problems. It is the behaviour of a drug pusher trying to ensnare a new customer, of an abusive man or woman dazzling a potential new lover with attention, the religious fundamentalist recruiting youngsters to their cause, the con artist stealing money from an elderly person. It is the behaviour of a date rapist (see Anton de Beckers book “The Gift of Fear” for many examples of red-flag behaviours that abusers use early on, precursor signs). Grooming is not unique to the sexual abuse of children. Once we are comfortable with that idea it becomes easier to assess if our disordered MILs are acting in this way and what to do about it.

Grooming follows a set series of steps which enable the abuser to worm their way into someone’s trust and affections and then control them once there. Here’s a brief outline of the typical behaviours.

Stage 1: Target a child – size up the child’s vulnerabilities. That could be emotional neediness, lack of self-confidence, social isolation, distracted parents, financial strain in the family etc.

Stage 2: Gain their trust – Trust gaining behaviour on the surface appears nice, that is the point of it. It can involve offering advice or understanding, buying gifts, giving the child attention, using their professional position or reputation, taking them on trips, outings or holidays.

But hang on this is normal grandparent behaviour right? The damaging aspect of grooming is not building trust but the intention behind all that attention and what comes next. Next is divide and conquer in secrecy. Once a groomer has the child’s trust, once the child sees them as a friendly person who does nice things for them the next stage kicks in. The grooming person has to exert control over the child and to do this they use isolation, secrets, dependency, guilt and fear.

Stage 3: Fill a need – emotional abusers are very good at spotting the achilles heel of a target. This stage is where their influence starts to be applied behind the backs of the parents. Got a new baby sibling, never mind grandma is here. Mum and Dad didn’t get you that cool Christmas present, here’s one I bought earlier. No one to talk to? no one understands you like I do. The subtle message here is “I can provide for you in a way your parents can’t, lean on me”. She may be spoiling one child over and above their siblings and cousins and telling them how special they are to grandma. Along with this special level of attention is the equally subtle imposition of indebtedness to the grandmother.

Stage 4: Isolate the child – The grandmother wants babysitting, visiting, holidays, day trips, phone calls and other access to the child apart from the rest of the family. Parents can unwittingly enable this if for example the grandmother is teaching the kid to play the piano, takes them to a ball game, pays for their dance class and so gets to take the child to class. Parents are grateful for the opportunity for the child to do something they like. A family with a new baby, several children or a child with special needs will also really appreciate grandma taking one or more of the kids off their hands for a while which overrides any feelings that the attention may be getting a bit much.

Stage 5: The abuse – This is the emotional incest I’ve discussed before where the child is used as a substitute adult by the grandmother. The child listens to the grandmother’s problems, her bitching, her opinions on everyone and everything so they are groomed to be her obedient audience. It may be that the stealing of the child’s affections from the parents and the opportunity to berate the parents to the child is the goal, as punishment to the parents. It may be that the birth of a baby to the adult child of a narcissist causes a conflict in the narcissist’s perception of their status so they insist upon becoming the parent to the new baby even though it is not theirs. This is about control and maintenance of their position as absolute head of the family. There are a myriad of ways a narcissist can use a weaker and more easily manipulated person to their advantage, it all boils down to satisfying a need the grandmother has. It has bugger all to do with what is right for the child.

Stage 6: Maintaining control of the child – When the grandmother starts to tell the child how bad/cruel/hurtful/unreasonable the parents are and if only the child could speak up for them and then they do you know the child is being controlled. The child is being pressured to buy into the disordered grandparents world view. If the child has disclosed secrets to the grandmother then these can be used against them. The grandmother may lie and imply the child is not really loved by the parents. She may feed them a sob story about how she has no one else and if the child doesn’t pay them this attention they will leave granny bereft. They can imply the child is ungrateful for all the special attention they never asked for in the first place. The narcissistic grandmother will use the exact same manipulation she uses to control your partner and turn them on your child.

Now we know what it all looks like let’s consider the effect this has on the child and how you can fight back. Please don’t feel powerless, that is part of her game. Abusive manipulative people work in ways which always leave victims feeling they are stuck. You are not stuck. You are the parent and you have enormous untapped power there. She really is nothing, has nothing to offer your child that you can’t give in droves. Narcissists are emotionally bankrupt, their pot of giving is empty expect for false promises and material treats. The goal is to untangle your child before they realise this several years down the road and are hurt by it. The most damaging thing you can do in this situation is nothing, then you are betraying your child. You must protect your child from the harm being caused by an emotionally and psychologically damaging narcissist even if the child screams, cries, pleads, begs, blames and hates you in the short term. They have been brainwashed and you need to help them see what has really been going on. That’s what the next post is about.

Some further links on grooming:

A woman’s experience of her narcisistic mother and the effect on her child:  http://narcissists-suck.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/narcissist-grandparents.html

A summary of the steps which groomers take to ensnare a child: http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Child-Sexual-Abuse-6-Stages-of-Grooming

The NSPCC’s information about child grooming: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/grooming/

Understanding grooming of adults, often by narcissists looking for a romantic relationship. This is similar to the honeymoon stage some people describe as having with their NPD MIL before she turns nasty: https://drkathleenyoung.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/how-to-avoid-an-abuser-understanding-grooming/

Hoe grooming extends to families and institutions: http://safe-at-last.hubpages.com/hub/The-Fine-Art-of-Grooming

A research publication on the familial and institutional grooming by abusers: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/249692446_’Setting_’Em_Up’_Personal_Familial_and_Institutional_Grooming_in_the_Sexual_Abuse_of_Children

A brief overview of grooming by personality disordered people : https://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/Grooming.html

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren

Denial and the Cassandra Complex

It has taken me quite a while to get this post up on here. I started writing it two weeks ago and then sat on it. I could tell you this was because my sister got married and we were busy with the house sale and people came to visit and we visited people all of which would be true, but these are not the reasons I didn’t post it. I have struggled with this post because I am struggling with this issue. It was all a bit too close to home and I had to wait until the emotions it woke within me were more manageable before I could write this down. So here it is, and I’ll start with a declaration. I am Cassandra.

Mythology and Archetypes

Cassandra had a hard life. She was a princess in Greek mythology, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, the same Troy that was attacked and destroyed by the Greeks to avenge the abduction of the beautiful Helen by Cassandra’s brother Paris. Cassandra was a priestess in the temple of Apollo, she devoted her life to the proper worship and respect of the Gods. Apollo saw her in his temple and was overcome by her beauty. He gave her the gift of prophecy which would have been highly desirable in a priestess as Greeks consulted oracles to help guide their decisions, but then he wanted to have sex with her. She refused as all priestesses are obliged to remain virgins, and he cursed her gift so no one would believe the prophecies she made.

Cassandra proclaimed her visions, but her family and the people of Troy thought she was mad and a liar. She saw in her prophetic visions everything that came to pass regarding the destruction of Troy, when Helen came to Troy Cassandra tore at her golden veil and her hair in fury at what Helen would do to her home city. Repeatedly misunderstood, ridiculed and insulted her tale did not end well, she was brutally raped by Ajax, one of the Greek warriors who sacked Troy, in a temple to the Goddess Athena who viciously punished the Greeks by sinking many of their boats as they returned from the war. Eventually she was taken as a concubine by King Agamemnon, before being murdered with him by the king’s adulterous wife and her lover.

So what exactly does this have to do with you and your dysfunctional mother-in-law? Cassandra is an archetype, a mythological character whose story reveals truths we can relate to. Her experience of telling the truth and being disbelieved is common to anyone who lives with a spouse in denial and a disordered mother-in-law.

The branch of psychoanalysis developed by C.G. Jung emphasises the repeating patterns found in stories from all around the world. There are many commonalities between the main characters in legends from many differing cultures. Jung made the obvious point that there seems to be a common mythology which everyone on the planet shares. Then he went a step further a postulated that this is because we all have a shared unconscious set of symbols, characters and tales which we can all relate too. These symbols and archetypal characters appear in dreams as well as myths and legends and are a way our minds have developed to try and articulate what is going on in the subconscious and unconscious of our individual minds. Spookily it also describes the subconscious and unconscious of our collective human mind, the collective unconscious.

The stories told around firesides for millennia tell us fundamental truths about our psyches. The characters we encounter in myths and legends are exaggerated versions of ourselves and the people we meet. Their trials are our trials. By seeing with whom we identify in mythology we can glimpse a part of our unconscious motivations and find ways to express our repressed emotions. I identify with Cassandra.

The Cassandra Complex

The term Cassandra Complex is used to describe a situation where valid warnings are dismissed or disbelieved. Within psychology the term is applied to individuals who are experiencing a real (not imagined) situation which is causing them great distress and emotional pain but who are disbelieved when they try to explain what is the source of their distress. These poor people end up feeling their concerns and pain are being ignored. Sound familiar?

Over and over I hinted, suggested and implied that maybe there was something not quite right about how my husband’s mother behaves. I was dismissed. My suggestions were batted away as misunderstandings and mistakes. Then I became bolder, I spelled out how she had been hurtful, how I was excluded, how I disliked being in her company and the stress it caused. This was met with surprise, astonishment even. What I described wasn’t what he had seen. He hadn’t noticed the snidey remarks, the deliberate exclusions, the dismissive and derogatory comments. I grew bolder still, like Cassandra wrenching at Helen’s clothes I called it out, your mother is ill, she shows every sign of having a serious behavioural disorder, she is not normal. Again I was not believed, my warnings were dismissed. I am living the Cassandra Complex.

Valid warnings are ignored when the person giving the warnings is surrounded by others who cannot or do not want to see their truth. People who have been brainwashed or indoctrinated into accepting something as normal when in fact it is no such thing cannot see what is evident to you/Cassandra. People in denial do not want to see what is clear as the nose on your face. Your spouse most likely has both brainwashing and denial operating to render them blind to what you see so clearly. So this is the Big One – you see a very disordered woman with a very dysfunctional family set up and tell it like you see it and no one believes you. If you say what you see, “Your mother is weird/crazy/horrible/evil!”, your spouse’s reply is “No she’s not you are mad/a liar”.

There are other smaller ways in which I am Cassandra as my husband denies things I can plainly see. These play out like minor battles in the siege of Troy that is our family life with the Trojan Horse MIL in our midst. He is very unconscious of his own feelings and can act in a way that quite obviously shows me he is angry with me but he will out right deny this when asked. Days later however, he may be able to say that he had been angry at that time. It does take days, even weeks sometimes. It took him two years to admit he felt anger towards me for having post natal depression after our second child was born. Two years of constant denial whenever I suggested that maybe he felt angry with me and blamed me for not being there for him. Now, finally he tentatively speaks of this. What is the effect of having your observations and reality constantly denied by the people around you?

Living with the Cassandra Complex

Let’s explore the effect of having your perceptions and insights dismissed over and over again by the one person you are most emotionally intimate with. What is it like to be Cassandra? In the myths she went insane. Nice. Fortunately myths and legends can be taken metaphorically not literally. At the very least this suggests that repeated denial of your reality leads to a lot of emotional turmoil and a reduction in your sense of who you are. Going insane would be total collapse of who you were.

One seemingly unrelated area of psychology – the field of autism – has thrown up an interesting and very useful concept. They even use the phrase Cassandra Syndrome to describe it. This is when a person marries someone with an undiagnosed autistic spectrum disorder. The spouse may well be holding down a good job and having a social life but there is something about their behaviour which is just, well, not normal. Tentatively the neuro-typical partner starts to point this out to people and ask questions in the family and amongst friends and, you guessed it, is disbelieved. This leads to a whole host of problems including depression, sleep problems, lethargy, social withdrawl, anxiety, loss of libido and mood changes. Some researchers have gone as far as to call it affective deprivation disorder, meaning a disorder experienced as the result of having a lack of emotional mirroring and closeness with your life partner. Wow, this is exactly what living with constant denial is like.

What happens is that doubt starts to creep in. Doubt about your conclusions regarding the witchy-woo mother-in-law and doubt about your perceptions. You would begin to question if you really had seen or heard what you thought you had. You would begin to doubt the conclusions and assumptions you had made about other relationships with other people for surely if you are so wrong in this case you may be wrong in others. You would begin to doubt yourself. Maybe you are the one with the problem. If your spouse says there is no problem with his mother, your sister or brother in law says no, the father in law says no and they have lived with her for years then surely you must be the one in the wrong.

To doubt yourself, the truth of your senses, your deductions, your very capacity to deduce correctly, this is what happens when faced with such outright denial of your observations. You are robbed of your very essence, your security in your own perception of the world. This is ghastly and damaging.

Alice Miller is a psychotherapist who works intensely in the area of allowing people to uncover the cruelties and pain of their childhoods. She says the central need of every human being is to express themselves and show themselves to the world as they truly are. Then comes the related and just as important need to have someone treat that true and honest expression with respect, to take it seriously and try to understand you with empathy. This is not happening when your spouse denies your perception of your MIL’s behaviour.

So how can you cope with this situation? One route to coping with this is to give in and stop saying anything about the MIL, effectively to collude in the spouse’s denial. If this was the route you had adopted you would not be reading this blog because you would choose to adopt the viewpoint of your spouse in denial and regard your MIL as normal but a bit difficult maybe (but you’d only say that in a really quiet voice). Cassandra did not do this, even when incarcerated in a jail she continued saying what she saw and never once took on the views of the townspeople that she was wrong. That should be a lesson to us.

Your spouse doesn’t have to agree with your reality, but to repeatedly deny your reality as you see it is abusive. Hold fast Cassandras. Your version of reality is completely valid and you can, you must express it. Do not loose yourself amidst all the crazy-making behaviour of your spouse’s family. To give in or start to doubt yourself will lead down the line to some pretty serious self-disgust.

When finally you realise that you were right all this time and that you have been blindsided by your spouse’s denial of the truth, you will feel anger. It will rise up from the root of your being as it is that very root that has been attacked. You will be furious and indignant. I-told-you-so doesn’t come close to the geyser of outrage that will boil up. The more dismissive your partner the more angry you will feel. Anger is a life-saving emotion. It spills out not only when you are in physical danger but to protect and defend your psychological integrity from attack. Get angry. You self is worth defending.

But under this rage at the doubters and deniers will be anger at yourself, for having doubted yourself. How, your true self will howl, could you have believed even for a second that you were wrong? Hot angry tears at having rejected your own gut feelings, your instincts and your conclusions will spring in your eyes. You may well feel very ashamed of yourself. It is one thing to have others doubt you but something else entirely to doubt yourself. We do not have to go down this route.

Dealing effectively with the Cassandra Complex involves setting boundaries and respecting differences. You do not have to share a world view with your spouse. He likes coffee, you drink tea, so be it. In a disordered family everyone is expected to agree with the disordered person’s world view, there are no boundaries or respect for differences. Your spouse is going to bring that level of enmeshment into your relationship and will naturally expect you to mesh into his or her family way. Resist. Your boundary is around your  mind. You can think whatever you want and  you can come to whatever conclusion you want even if that conclusion is starkly at odds with your spouse, their father, sister, brother, second cousin twice removed or whoever.

Verbally express your view “I found your mother’s behaviour really abnormal and rude today” and hold the boundary when they reply “No it wasn’t, you are so unfair on her!” get’s met with “I am entitled to any opinion I want, and to express it. If you continue to deny that right this conversation will end”. Alternatives are along this lines of “what I see and hear does not have to match what you see and hear, we are different people” and “what I think and feel does not have to match what you think and feel…”. You will also have to reassure them as this emphasis on difference and the implicit threat of conflict with someone who is holding a different view can be very threatening to a child of an NPD mother. So say something like “our different viewpoints together give us a better overall picture of what is going on” or “it’s healthy and normal to have different perceptions and opinions”. They do actually need to be reminded that you are you and have a whole world in your head which is not the same as theirs because their mother has spent years trying to force her world into their heads in total disregard for their own thoughts and feelings. They will do the same just because they don’t know any better. They need to know that differences in relationships are desirable, not to be erased.

Remember denial is all about not facing an unpleasant truth. It is our unpleasant truth to realise that sometimes our partners find it easier to inflict damage upon us through their constant denial than to face up the the mummy-monster and their own fears. We do not have to go insane. Cassandra in another version of the story remained completely sane and held fast in her prophecies in the face of all the doubters and disbelievers. You can do that too.

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

Parentification and your Spouse

A couple of readers have specifically requested some information about the overlapping phenomena of parentification and for want of a better phrase, spousification.

A disordered mother can flip between two unhelpful states when relating to her offspring; one treats them as helpless and dependent (infantilisation), the other puts them in the position of parent or in the case of a mother and her golden son, surrogate spouse. Both of these ways of relating to your adult child are dysfunctional. A healthy way of relating would be to recognise the adult child as autonomous and capable while at the same time respecting the mother-child dynamic and not subverting it. A child can never parent their own parent. That state of unconditional love and nurturance should not be passed up the generations and children cannot compensate for the NPD mother’s lack of adequate parenting, but she will try.

Parentifying

There are two ways of parentifying a child. The first is in practical terms, the child or adult child takes on responsibility for task, chores and actions that the adult parent should be managing. This may occur in a family where the parent is too drunk or unavailable to perform the tasks associated with running a home. So one elder child becomes the adult instead and takes their siblings to school, runs the bath, put them to bed, pays the bills. This tends not to happen so much with a narcissistic mother who probably closely controls everything about running the household.

The second way is for the child to become an emotional support for the adult. An NPD mother will use their children in this way as they see their kids as being there for them in whatever capacity they need at the time. They do not see how fulfilling their needs can possibly be to the detriment of the child. Using the child for emotional support or emotional intimacy is just another way of them showing how much they love mummy. This should never happen. Adults should be emotional supports for children and should use other adults for friendship or reassurance, as confidants or mediators in family situations. When the mother starts to use her children to talk about her problems with her partner, about adult topics they cannot possibly comprehend, to intervene in matters such as finances or sex, as a go between or message carrier in a row then she is parentifying the child.

Over the long term emotional parentifying produces very distorted boundaries in the child. They either have none and have a hard time knowing what they want in life rather than what the parent wants and look to other people to see how they should feel or think. Or the other extreme is achieved and the child is so used to carrying the burden of their parent’s emotions they have rigid boundaries and keep people at arms length, afraid of emotional intimacy and unable to ask for help or express their own needs. I see both of these patterns in my husband’s family, he adopted the first and his sister has the second.

My MIL was quite used to using my adult husband as her emotional confidant. She would ring up and offload all her problems onto him making him feel crap and never doing the same in return. Often her gripes would involve derogatory references to his father whom she left and divorced. In the end my husband did what all people who find themselves in this situation should do and set firm boundaries. He told her to stop talking to him about his dad or he’d hang up the phone and pointed out how much of her conversation with him was about her problems and feelings of upset and indignation. I went further, I told her to stop using my husband as her therapist.

I think if you are married to the daughter of a narcissistic mother you may well find the emotional parentifying is strongest. I know of one couple where the mother not only was at breakfast with the newly married couple the day after they married but expected to be phoned by her daughter daily throughout the honeymoon because she needed the emotional contact. If your wife says things like “my mother is my best friend” you should be concerned. Of course a woman can be close to her mother, but best friend? That is a relationship between equals and a daughter is never going to have equal status to the woman who gave birth to her.

NPD sufferers do not have successful relationships, either being divorced or remaining in a very dysfunctional marriage. The daughter becomes her mother’s outlet for her isolation and misery and all that is wrong in her life and is expected to be available at any time to listen to mummy unburden herself. The bizarre thing is how willing some daughters are to go along with this, seeing their mothers as the victims that the NPD MIL works so hard to portray themselves as. They believe they have a special relationship with their mother, that only they are the one she can talk to and that they are obligated to listen “because she is my mother”. A daughter may well develop a sort of functioning relationship with her NPD mother where in return for acting in the bestest-friend-forever role she gets a few crumbs of attention thrown her way and so keeps it up as the alternative to being on the end of mummy’s wrath. There are some websites and books on the topic of daughters of narcissistic mothers and a large portion of this material is devoted to the emotional stranglehold such mothers have on their female offspring. It is worth taking a look at some of these resources if your wife is the daughter of an NPD mother.

One thing female children of narcissist don’t have to contend with is the altogether creepy inversion of the adult child relationship sometimes called emotional or covert incest. On the comments to some of my blog posts I received a post from a fellow sufferer who specifically spoke of the ways in which her husband was not so much parentified as made a surrogate spouse by his mother. How does that happen? Read on.

The Surrogate Spouse Syndrome

My MIL seems to have a love-hate relationship with men, mostly hate to be honest. She wouldn’t describe herself as a feminist or anything of that sort, she has a deep anger and feeling of superiority towards men. Her relationship with her own father was very difficult. She reports blazing rows between her parents in the family home (although she is so emotionally repressed what you or I may regard as a normal row would seem over the top to her). Her parents eventually divorced when she was in her teens and she had next to no contact with him for years. My husband saw his grandfather only once or twice, at a motorway service station because she wouldn’t go to his home or have him come to hers.

She also took out her anger and spite on her ex-husband, my FIL. His did not stand up to her, instead he was very passive and gave little or no response. “She’ll calm down” he would tell my husband. She ruled the roost completely, emasculating my FIL to the point of getting him to work at weekends, moaning constantly about his low earnings and her low standard of living (they had two foreign holidays a year, one skiing, and both kids went to private schools) and then had complete control of the household budget handing him out small bits of cash for anything she agreed he could have, oh you know like a magazine or new pair of socks. Eventually they lived almost separate lives under one roof, he slept in another room entirely and became very withdrawn and depressed.

It is easy for the narcissist to project all that is negative, despised and weak about men onto a passive husband and makes him the scapegoat that she has to endure, and a target for her criticisms and belittling. Having successfully demolished the standing of the adult man in her life she will transfer all that is good and wonderful about manhood onto her son. He becomes the alpha male of the family in the eyes of the mother. Problems between the mother and father in a family can lead to a situation where one parent turns to a child of the opposite sex and starts responding to the child’s love in a way that mimics that of an adult romantic partner.

What separates parentification from covert incest/the surrogate spouse is the nature of the interaction between the adult parent and the child. Leaning on the child for comfort or affirmation, misbehaving and allowing the child to discipline or clear up the mess is parentification. Leaning on the child for emotional intimacy, physical comfort (hugs) and a shared experience of life is creating a substitute spouse.

Emotional or covert incest is really abuse. The adult child of someone doing this will have grown up being groomed to accept it in a way that is similar to the grooming that young sexual abuse victims receive in order to accept their abuse. The mother in this scenario is not conscious of her behaviour, she knows she needs her son to be there for her but hasn’t actually acknowledged the extent of her own unconscious sexual motivation behind the interactions. If she has projected her ideal male fantasy figure onto her son there will be unconscious sexual motives in her actions.

In order to continue with the relationship she has established with her surrogate spouse she will inevitably control personal aspects of his life, as a controlling wife would with her husband. Her control of the son extends to choosing his clothes, his cologne, advising on his household purchases, washing, ironing, shopping etc well into adulthood. A narcissist will attempt to control everything about her child including his sexuality. They control by invading their teenage children’s privacy or set stringent conditions around visits and visiting by girlfriends or boyfriends, openly expressing their disapproval of whomever has been brought home. Alternatively they can be quite inappropriately revealing about their own sexual behavior and almost egg their children on, behaving flirtatiously with their son’s friends or daughter’s boyfriends. They do think they are attractive no matter what their actual physical appearance is like.

Hostility towards the son’s girlfriends and eventually his wife if he marries is inevitable in this context as the NPD MIL sees her son’s partner as a rival for his attention and affection, and to her control of his domestic arrangements. The spouse becomes the other woman.

I have read of and been told about numerous actions by various NPD MILs who have actively set out to damage their son’s marriages by spreading lies about his wife, by dividing the wider family against them, by using her communications and influence on her son to constantly portray the wife’s actions in a negative way and turn him against her. Some outright tell their sons they would be better off without the wife, that a previous girlfriend or woman they know would have been so much more suitable. The MIL seems to have a personal interest in her son choosing what she sees as the most impressive mate possible, so that her son and by extension herself are admired for their ability to snare the best sort of woman. What is this ideal wife like? Someone who will allow the spousification to continue, a sort of wife-in-name-only. I really wonder if mothers in this situation, unable to have a sexual relationship with their spouse/son view the actual wife of their child as a sort of dirty whore who caters to the son’s sexual needs and is tolerated with utter distaste while the “proper” relationship remains between him and mummy.

A trickier dynamic arises if the golden son plays along with his mother’s attempts to turn him into her surrogate spouse. Spouses who accept their mothers kissing them on the lips, sitting coiled up next to them like a lover or other inappropriate physical contact have been groomed just like a child abuse victim to accept as normal  what the rest of us see as bordering on incestuous. It is incestuous, albeit unconscious on the part of the mother. This level of psychological conditioning is very hard to shake.

If it is normal in your house for mum to kiss her son on the mouth, buy his underwear and sit with her hand on his leg close up to him on the sofa it will take a big cold splash of horrified reaction from several people outside the family before he smells the coffee. This would usually occur in adolescence when friends mercilessly tease boys with over attentive mothers and they tend to get the message. If your husband is still like this then either his family never had friends round (ask him and see) or his mother has been very careful to keep it below the radar. You see it because she wants to visibly assert her claim on your husband, you are the threat.

There is no quick fix to parentifying or surrogate spouse syndrome. In each and every situation the remedy is the same. The adult child must realize what is happening, that this behavior is not normal and what a healthy interaction should look like. Then they can set some boundaries and choose how much involvement they have with their mother’s practical and emotional issues. The boundaries need to include what sort of physical contact they are comfortable with or consider appropriate for a mother to an adult son. Bear in mind that some people are more openly physically affectionate than others and that in itself is not a problem. It’s a problem when your gut instinct says “woah, eww that is making me uncomfortable”. Just come out and say it. Your spouse needs to hear a reality check from someone outside of the NPD bubble and you may well be the first person who has ever poi ted out to him or her what normal family physical contact looks like.

The partner of a spoused/parentified son needs to recognize that her MIL sees her as a rival and will act like a jealous wife. Do not respond like a mistress! You are his wife not her, his first loyalty is to you so make damn sure he and she knows that. Do not let her encroach upon your domestic arrangements, buy his clothes or “advise” you on how he likes his food cooked or anything else. A simple reply “we don’t do things that way” is enough. Notice the use of “we” which makes it clear you two are a unit and how you need not give any explanation or justification for what you have stated. None is necessary.

 

 

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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, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother

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.

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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