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Low Contact or No Contact?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing a Narcissistic Grandmother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denial and your Spouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How NOT to manage an Narcissistic MIL

There are some things which on reflection did sod all to improve the situation with my MIL and even made it worse temporarily. I’m relieved to report that I have yet to find anything that has made her behaviour worse on a permanent basis, with the possible exception of marrying her darling son.

Don’t get angry in her presence.

Getting angry with MIL doesn’t work. Raising your voice with her leads to two things, she gets angry back and ups the ante or she goes all weepy and “oh poor me”, if you’re really unlucky she does both. When my husband went to speak to her about her behaviour for the first time about 2 years ago, his voice became angry and he (shock horror) displayed his displeasure while asking her not to be rude to me. She immediately got very aggressive, snapping with her voice, all glowering rage filled face and bully-boy body language, stormed out the room and came back brandishing a letter she had written her own mother years ago (and bizarrely kept) shouting how she could get angry too. Apparently she had written down how her own screwed-up mother had really hurt her, but then never done anything with the letter. A sad vignette which shows how emotional dysfunction really does echo down the generations.

After this we had weeks of emails and angst, I even emailed her to express my feelings about how behaviour was affecting is us. I did it politely. She replied immediately saying she was “shaking with rage” about how I had “approached her”. Leaving aside how revealing is her choice of phrase (should I have curtseyed first perhaps, or in some other way have begged her leave?) her reaction highlights a truth about people with NPD, they don’t just get angry, they loose control and go into a red-faced, shaking rages. I have never witnessed it but I can well believe it when others report how NPD people assault and attack them. After her rage was spent, much like a small child having a screaming tantrum, she will go back to acting just as she did before as if nothing had happened.

So a shouting match with NPD MIL could end with her going berserk and possibly hitting someone or smashing things. Then there would be weeks of fall out. Best to to go there, unless you want an excuse to never see them again in which case provoke all you like.

If you don’t hit one of her immediate red-hot buttons what you may get instead is a wide-eyed, weepy victim act where you are characterised as the nasty aggressor and she is misunderstood (a word frequently used by people with NPD) and cruelly abused by you. There is no way out of that trap. Get more angry and she’ll wail all the louder. Calm down and she’s got what she wanted, control of you.

The only way getting angry with MIL will ever help is to give a voice to your pain and outrage. That is not an insignificant thing, you are entitled to say how you feel and to show it too. Families with NPD mothers can be extremely controlled in their displays of emotions because so much of the home life is centred on keeping the NPD mother happy. You may find your other half is very uncomfortable with your anger as they were terrified of their mother’s rages as small children. If you can’t express yourself freely your anger will build and boil over. Blowing your top can also show a partner exactly how upset you have been by MIL’s behaviour. Just don’t go all nuclear in front of the kids or you’ll scare them too.

Being passive will be taken as a display of contemptible weakness.

You may think never expressing displeasure or annoyance, never disagreeing with her and generally being placating and passive would somehow lead to the opposite of raging behaviour, maybe she would be nice then? No, don’t be silly. Then she sees you as weak and pathetic and easy to belittle, condescend and generally control all she likes and she will act accordingly. Understanding this is a crucial.

People with NPD have a deep stated feeling of extreme shame in themselves and everything they are. They cannot bear the pain this brings so they shove this aspect of their feelings deep down into their unconscious mind and only in therapy are they able to reveal this. Enough people with NPD have been in therapy for psychiatrists to report this, that deep down people with NPD are utterly ashamed of themselves. Associated with this level of self disgust are many feelings and behaviours; feeling ignorant and weak, fear, simpering, pleading, wheedling, begging, sycophantic placating all of which are what they themselves felt around their own parents. They can’t face up to this aspect of themselves.

What someone with NPD presents to the world is the exact opposite of this. They act supremely knowledgeable, in control, haughty or morally superior, demanding, grandiose, the sole competent amongst idiots, arrogant and selfish. But the rejected parts of their psyche don’t dissolve away to nothing. They sit there in the unconscious rather like an undigested bit of food can sit in your gut. Every so often the pain of an undigested emotion burps its way up to the surface. The NPD MIL doesn’t see these ghastly rejected qualities in herself. The whole process  of developing a personality disorder requires severing these feelings from their conscious mind, a process so absolute they can usually never be reattached. No, when the psychological burp emerges the NPD person sees the rejected feelings and behaviours in other people. Psychotherapists call this projection. It is profound stuff projection.

If you act in a way that reminds NPD MIL of her rejected feelings she will go ahead and belch out an entire gut full of her unconscious mind all over you and then self righteously pity and hate you for reeking of what she despises.

Best not go there either.

Meeting like with like just leads to more like

There is a third option which is to be as passive-aggressive and manipulative as MIL is. The problem there is that she has had years and years to perfect her techniques in this area. Eventually, if you are normal, this approach will make you feel sick to your stomach. It consumes large amounts of your time and emotional energy to be pulling everyones strings and orchestrating epic sulks and paybacks. MIL doesn’t mind doing this, she loves it. This is her raison d’être, she is a native speaker of this language.

If you take this line you will find it spreads like wild fire as MIL recruits wider family members, friends, neighbours, countrymen to her cause. It will make you a worse person and sets an awful example to your children and frankly makes your partner think they have mother mark II living at home with them. Not good.

But…

Just as with a selective display of real anger, a selective use of her own weapons against her can be very cathartic and bluntly, amusing. Sometimes it is good to know you can get one over the old cow. A pithy comment disguised as all innocence, a deliberately misunderstood remark, taking her “oh poor me” act at face value and treating her as a slightly senile old dear is funny and the immediate way she will drop the act is revealing.

MIL has for some time now made a big deal about how hard it is to find our kids presents for Christmas and birthdays. Apparently there is nowhere in her town of more than 30,000 people to buy toys, nowhere. So she presented our eldest with some play dough and moaned about how hard it was to find. A few weeks later she emailed my husband to say she’d got a load of play dough in lots of colours. I pointed out this inconsistency to my husband, he emailed her and said innocently “I thought you said you had problems getting hold of play dough?”. Absolute silence followed for two weeks then she replied saying this was old play dough she had already bought and stored in the loft.

We know we caught her out, she believes her lie was convincing, that doesn’t matter as I still smile every time I think of it.

Don’t JADE

Supposing you are not being angry, or passive but are trying to use cool logic to tackle your MIL’s behaviour? In a rational and dispassionate way you challenge a behaviour or viewpoint in conversation, surely logic will win the day? Nope you can’t win there either.

One way my MIL likes to behave is what a teacher friend of mine calls getting all legal. She starts to dissect each argument into tiny little elements and then tries to pick holes in each tiny part.  Attempts to logically confront her behaviour lead to an ever expanding mess of minutiae taken to absurd extremes. My teacher friend uses the phrase because teenagers are apt to do this when caught out misbehaving in school. Imagine the head of year gets called to a classroom incident and Little Johnny disputes the minutiae of the teacher’s version of events, no he didn’t take the blow up globe and kick it round the classroom, it was already on the floor and the teacher hadn’t told him not to touch it so how was he supposed to know, and she hadn’t told him to sit down but had told a couple of other boys so that’s why he was still out of his place and so she was lying and picking on him blah, blah, blah. Sadly this sort of BS is what teachers hear everyday. Oh and we hear it from MIL also.

She is the absolute master of refusing to see the wood for the tiny little twigs on the branches on the trees. If you aren’t very careful, attempting to argue back at her ends up with the whole point of the discussion being lost and most likely diverted onto some mistreatment she wants to highlight. This legalistic dissection of other people’s statements appeals to her sense of greater intellect. That is the tactic, she can feel smug about how clever she is while evading having to address the issue you raised. Even though she can contradict herself in the course of such a “rational” discussion she will never admit it and we have had emails pages long where she has gone on to argue every tiny point in a short remark.

You don’t actually have to give any reason for making a statement about what you want to MIL. Don’t JADE, that is don’t Justify, Argue, Defend or Explain. You are an adult and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. The statement “I don’t want that” is sufficient. If you feel you need to explain or defend something to a person with NPD then that is because you anticipate their disapproval  which in turn means you are fearful of that disapproval and have somehow got yourself into a situation where their approval matters. You will never have their approval so stop tying yourself up in knots trying to get it.

Don’t EVER break down and cry in front of her

Oh God, you may as well expose your jugular and hand her a sharp knife. Once she knows what will make you cry she’ll do it over and over again in different ways and smirk while she does it, then pretend she had no idea it would upset you. She will question your emotional stability to all and sundry behind your back. She will only ever offer the most false of apologies, “I’m sorry you felt bad” which implies the problem is your reaction not her action, not a sincere apology, “I’m sorry for what I did” which takes personal responsibility for the action.

Walk out of the room, go to the loo whatever you need to do and regain your composure. Crying is most effectively done in front of your partner so they can see how their mother’s behaviour affects you. Ideally it will never get to the point where she makes you cry as this is what boundaries are supposed to do. Once she starts being so catty and nasty that you feel stung and tearful you need to say something like “that comment is unacceptable to me, I don’t want to hear that again” and then remove yourself or tell her to leave if she doesn’t get the message.

What if your children are upset by her treatment of them and she makes one of them cry? I’d instinctively be angry and jump to their defence. It is very hard for NPD MIL to defend making a child cry without criticising the child, which they will do. This leaves them on dodgy ground though as reducing or cutting contact altogether on the grounds that they are cruel to your child would be a good reason to most people. MIL once made one of our kids cry after she had left. The whole visit had been short and nasty and our eldest burst into tears as we drove away from the restaurant where we had said goodbye. There was no opportunity for addressing her behaviour, it just left me simmering with anger and resentment. If your MIL makes your children cry, blames them for it and you do nothing about this you are being abusive to your own kids and really need to sort yourself out.

Ranting at your partner will alienate not motivate them

A lot of my intense anger at my MIL was actually anger at my husband that I had redirected towards her. Feelings such as “how can she treat me like this?” were at their heart more like “how can he watch me be treated like this?” but it was safer for our marriage for me to direct that anger at her not at him.

Being very angry with your partner is scary. I had thoughts of leaving him, of issuing blunt ultimatums; her or me, of throwing him out with a “go live with her then” followed by a flying suitcase and a slammed door. This is where having outside support really helps. I ranted at the therapist instead and tried to understand my husband and work with where he was in his relationship with his mother rather than demand that he immediately see it from my perspective. Good God this was hard. If he ever doubts I am committed to our marriage I will cite this as evidence. I bit my tongue and held off spelling out the (to me) bleedin’ obvious more times than I care to remember.

Pure anger at her behaviour made him defensive. He would immediately present her side of things and was really just parroting what she would have said for herself, he was being her proxy in the argument. Rows have this tendency, they polarise people and in the opposite corner to me was his mum so he took that corner. By venting my spleen to the therapist I could be calmer and more moderate in my conversation with him which meant we met in the middle ground and he began to see my side too.

The therapist also pointed out something psychoanalysts are very familiar with but I wasn’t. A marriage binds two people on an unconscious level especially if one or the other of you are very empathic people. Feelings can then be shared between the pair of you, some of my feelings get transferred and felt by my husband and vice versa. This is commonly experienced as getting angry for someone or feeling their embarrassment. I was getting angry for my husband and worse my husband has a real problem with displaying anger as it was strictly clamped down on in his childhood. So I ended up displaying all the anger we both felt. As soon as I stopped ranting openly my husband visibly got more irritated with his mother and started reporting dreams where he was shouting at her. All the raging conversations with her that I was having in my head started to dissipate and I no longer feel like a bomb about to go off.

Don’t take on all the anger and don’t hurl it at your partner. They have been damaged by having an NPD mother more than they consciously realise. Nothing subverts your NPD MIL’s intentions more than having a strong, supportive marriage. And nothing would make her happier than seeing the two of you fight.

In summary

Your options for dealing with MIL are really restricted to a calm, consistent, clearly defined and assertively imposed set of expectations with immediate withdrawal from her company or expulsion from your house as the consequence of transgression.  Being aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive or defensive will lead to a worsening of her behaviour and can harm your relationship with your partner.

This does mean that you will never have an easy, relaxed and natural conversation with your MIL about anything. So be it.

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

How to Manage a Narcissistic MIL Part 2

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

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

Set your own boundaries with your spouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be completely honest with people about how MIL behaves

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

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

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

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

Get psychological support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Your Distance Physically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plan each meeting like a military campaign

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

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

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

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

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

Set your own boundaries with MIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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